Saturday, October 21, 2006

Cloud Patterns

The past week, I’ve tried to catch up on a little reading after getting home from work. I’ve been going through different translations of Aeschylus’ “The Persians” which piqued the interest of my cats until they found out it is, at almost 2500 years, the oldest surviving drama in Western literature and has nothing at all to do with long-haired cats. I was having trouble finding enough lines from the Queen’s various laments to come up with a potential concert aria, thinking of writing something for the voice again after all these years. But then I really don’t need to heat up the back burner with anything just yet. To counteract this “creative reading,” I polished off the first volume of “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” in a few nights, and not even the idea of writing a duet for Zaphod Beeblebrox could entice me into anything even remotely operatic.

One of the books I’d cracked briefly during the summer, given the fact I may only read for an hour or so at night, kept shuffling itself to the top of this growing pile of new and as yet largely unread books: again, several people had recommended it to me and I had rummaged across the first few pages one night at the bookstore – a frequent weekend haunt – feeling perhaps I needed more time to dedicate to concentrated reading for David Mitchell’s “Cloud Atlas.” It’s earned high praise from many including those who like complex and often obtuse books. The main reason it was recommended to me concerns one aspect of the novel: it’s about a composer.

Well, 1/6th of it is about a composer. The author described it as a kind of “Russian nesting doll,” the famous Matryoshka dolls: you open it to find a smaller doll inside it that has another, even smaller one inside that one and so on until you’re down to some very tiny dolls that can be lined up in a tall-to-short sequence. Mitchell’s novel consists of six stories each set in a different time and written in a different style. To call these six stories interlocking may be a stretch – so far, the only connection I've seen is the reference to the previous one in an almost tangential way, clever but hardly a major plot element. It begins with a Robinson Crusoe-esque moment from the midst of a journal kept during a Pacific Ocean voyage during the 1850s, written in a style straight out of Melville’s “Moby Dick” (which, ironically, I had begun reading again over the summer). The second story is a series of letters written by a young composer in Belgium between the Wars, working for an old, syphilitic composer: while fleecing the old man of some rare books found in his library, he happens upon part of a journal written during a Pacific Ocean voyage in the 1850s, which appears to have been split in two and would explain the rather abrupt ending to the first story which cuts off mid-sentence. The third story (which I have now just begun) starts with the appearance 40 years later of the man the letters of the 2nd story were written to, setting off a noir-style mystery set in California in the 1970s. From there, it progresses to someone trying to sell this mystery to an ill-fated book dealer in #4 and so on, each one left incomplete until the 6th story, the futuristic ramblings of a post-apocalyptic Hawaiian. At that point, then, the remainder of each of these stories is told but in reverse order so it concludes – if that’s the proper use of the word – with the next segment of the ship’s journal from 1850.

As a composer always thinking how a piece of music is written, I’m also interested in how a novel is put together, too: are there parallel structures to music? Most often, a novel tells a story in the same “way” stories have been told for centuries: you begin at or near the beginning and end at or near the conclusion, and you don’t really veer from the chronological path except by way of devices like “flash-backs” or subsidiary plots to illuminate the main story.
Novels that do fall into that category, however, risk becoming “predictable” and yet if they become too unpredictable risk disappoint readers who are expecting certain things to happen in certain ways, depending on the genre or style.

Novels that don’t fall into that category may be highly regarded but less often read – like James Joyce’s “Finnegans Wake” which I managed to get 200 pages into before finally thinking, as beautiful and lyrical as it can be, “shouldn’t I be reading something that makes sense?”

So when Mitchell’s ship’s narrative cuts off abruptly mid-sentence, the first thing I did was flip through the rest of the book till I found the starting place of the last chapter – the continuation of the journal’s story – and discovered the rest of that sentence and how it continues in the sequence of journal entries. Now, if I were one to prefer linear stories told strictly chronologically (minus those deviations for cliches like flash-backs and side-plots), I would have just continued reading here, but that apparently is not the way the author wanted me to read it: there must be some reason to interrupt it with these other stories, so I dutifully went back to start Chapter 2 because, from a composerly standpoint, how a writer structures a novel is as interesting to me as its content. A book, as far as I’m concerned, can succeed or fail on any number of levels, and whether I liked Mitchell’s stories or his style – or in this case, his styles and his chameleon-like ability to imitate or absorb them – could be something completely different from the way he handles his material.

Two things occurred to me as soon as I realized the opening story continues several hundred pages later to conclude the book. The most obvious one was the kind of palindrome structure:

#1 - #2 - #3 - #4 - #5 - #6 - #5 - #4 - #3 - #2 - #1

As a musician, I was thinking “Bartok.” This is the standard arch structure he used in most of his mature works, usually five movements surrounding a long central slow movement:

Opening – Scherzo 1 – Slow Movement – Scherzo 2 – Finale

Another structural element that I’ve borrowed from Bartok is his use of the “Golden Section,” where structural subdivisions of the music are based on the proportions of the Fibonacci Series. This is a natural proportion that one can find almost anywhere in nature and it may very well show up, consciously or subconsciously, in a lot of art and music. It’s often described as the “ideal (or divine) proportion.”

Curiously, I figured out the number of pages in the first segment of Mitchell’s Pacific journal and the number of pages in its final segment appeared to be in a direct Fibonacci relationship. Noting there are 508 pages in the book (not counting a few lines on p.509), the Golden Section of the book would occur at p.314. Not that one can use page numbers as a reasonable structural guide in a book – different editions, different sized fonts and any number of other arbitrary factors might ruin the idea – but just as music can be subdivided into the number of measures of a piece or in the number of minutes in which it’s heard, can one use the number of pages (or words) in determining where the climax of a story could occur? So what happens at (or around) p.314 in “Cloud Atlas”?

The last page of Story #6 is p.309. The first page of the resumption of Story #5 – the point where the novel now goes into its mirror arch-like path – is p.314.


I made a graph and determined the “nodes” for the different Golden Sub-Sections along a time-line (or in this case, a page-line) which I’ll arbitrarily label as starting at A and ending at O (for Alpha and Omega: since I use Greek letters in my own graphing, I’ll use English equivalents). Calling the climactic point PHI, the antecedent portion A-to-PHI (one can’t really call it “half”) divides at p.194... call that “B”. The line then further subdivides – In that way, I come up with something like this:
So what else happens along these “nodes”? At “B” (p.194)... eh, well, Story #5 begins at p.185, so that’s off by about 9 pages... Okay, but at G2 (p.268)? Uhm, well... Story #6 begins at p.239, so that's way off... Oh wait: D3 is p.240 – well, that’s VERY close! (I’m figuring if I’d be within, oh, say 5-6 pages – considering also, in this edition, there are 3-4 blank pages between each chapter, including a title page for each one – would be pretty close.) It would be “neater” if Story #6 began at G2, though...

Continuing in similar fashion, Story #4 begins on p.145 – and p.148 would be point E3. Story #3 (the mystery) begins at p.89 but the closest main point would be D1 which is p.74, hmmm... Okay, but Story #2, the letters about the composer, begins on p.43 – and point E1 is p.45. Again, pretty close.

For the second “half” – okay, portion – of the page-line, remember Story #5-b begins at p.314, the main PHI of the entire book. Story #4-b begins at p.353 and ends at p.387. Story #3-b, as the mirror continues, begins at p.391 and ends at p.436. Story #2-b resumes at p.439 and ends at p.471 and the Pacific Journal picks up in mid-sentence from p.39 at p.475. Without even thinking, I assumed the “mirror” of the chapters would include a “mirror” of the structural points where the proportions are reversed: in other words
But then look how these pages stack up: Chapter #5-b ends on p.349 – point G3 is p.342. Close. Chapter #4-b ends on p.387 – point B2 is p.388. Very close! Chapter #3-b ends on p.435 – and point G4 is p.433. Yeah, close. Chapter #2-b ends on p.471 – but point D8 is p.461 – not that close. As Chapter #1 ended close to E1, it resumes at p.475 and the mirror to E1 is E8, p.479, and that’s pretty close.
Then I had to laugh because I went back to check something and realized I made a mistake with the number of pages in the second segment of Story #1: they are in fact NOT in a Golden Section proportion! I was off by 10 – d’oh! Curiously, while the chapters themselves do not add up to the right number of pages, their placement on the “page-line” still rather amazingly corresponds to the Golden Sections. If I’d realized “ugh, no proportional relationship here,” I would not have gone to the trouble of checking out the overall structural subdivisions of the stories within the whole novel and missed that aspect of the book's structure. It's not strict enough to be an issue and it may be no more than me looking for something I can relate to - one critic found the use of the Letter B to be a major structural facet! - just another example of somebody reading whatever they want into it.

Now, does that mean David Mitchell planned it that way? No, not really – but there was a certain amount of planning going into the styles and inter-relations of the different stories, even before he started writing the first story, so you could assume perhaps there were other plans in the making, too. Certainly, the arch idea was a cognitive decision, but probably not the proportional one.

If he had never even thought of this idea as a structural tool, filling in the outline of his projected novel, he would not be the first artist to be amused (or annoyed) at what someone else found that he never knew existed in something he himself had created!

One special irony is the timing, here: these time-lines are exactly the process I’m using for the formal structure of the violin pieces I’m composing right now! As a composer, I know there are lots of things like this that go into my own music: it just intrigues me, sometimes, to wonder if it’s going on in somebody else’s mind, as well.

Will knowing this help you understand the book more? Probably not. But it might explain why certain aspects of it might work better for you – well-balanced, well-paced: those kind of elements could be the perceived result of employing (consciously or subconsciously) the “ideal proportion.” Of course, it still won’t matter if the book (or the music) itself isn’t very interesting.

I was amused to read comments on-line about “Cloud Atlas” from readers who found the lack of continuity getting in the way of enjoying the stories, especially the fact there is no “neat wrapping up” at the end to explain everything. Some people expect the author to do everything for them: a generation brought up on Clift Notes, I guess. Mitchell’s book isn’t designed to do that: each story is independent and could stand alone – more like short stories in a collection – but what you get out of their context is, aside from what you put into it, the result of intuitive responses to that context. I just appreciate the fact there are other things, sometimes, than just “plot summaries” one can notice in a good book. Gives you something to keep coming back to.

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