There’s a beautiful, wonderful, intricate novel I love called Cloud Atlas. I’d probably be willing to put it in my top ten novels list, if I had a top ten novels list. Do I have a top ten novels list? Maybe I should have a top ten novels list. I’m going to write one more sentence ending in top ten novels list.
It’s structured as six separate stories, nested inside one another like Matryoshka dolls. Each story hops across genres, and moves forward through time. The first is a 19th(?) century journal of a man sailing in the south Pacific, then an epistolary set of letters sent from a bisexual composer exiled in Belgium in the early 20th century to his ex-boyfriend back in England as he becomes embroiled in a complicated love affair and struggle to complete his own masterpiece, then a sort of mystery thriller in the mid 20th century as an investigative journalist unravels a cover-up of flawed safety precautions in a nuclear power plant, then a comedy of errors in present(ish) day as a publisher finds himself mistakenly imprisoned in a nursing home, then a dystopian ultra-corporate future cyberpunk version of Korea where a cloned slave for a fast food chain develops self-awareness and rebels for freedom, and finally a post-apocalyptic (very post, no one even remembers what happened) distant future Hawaii where industrialized civilization has long since collapsed and the few surviving humans are living tribal, pre-agrarian lives.
The stories move forward, getting cut off at crucial points and revealed as a story being followed by a character in the next section, until the middle of the novel, at which point the last story is told completely through, then we start moving backwards into the completions of each story until finally ending on the one we started with: The Pacific Journal Of Adam Ewing.
It’s absolutely, staggeringly, breathtakingly awesome. You should read it. Now. Right away. Before something I’m about to tell you about happens. It’s written by David Mitchell.
No, not this David Mitchell:
Totally different David Mitchell. But that one is awesome too. If you haven’t seen the Homepathic A&E sketch, you haven’t lived.
Right… so the other David Mitchell, the novelist one, he’s one of my favourite living writers. Right up there with Kazuo Ishiguro and Ben Marcus. So I got a little nervous when I heard there was going to be a film adaptation of Cloud Atlas, which has now finished principal photography and is in post-production. It will star Tom Hanks, Halle Barry, Hugo Weaving, Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant and lots and lots of other folks.
What the…? How the hell do you make a film adaptation of an experimental, multi-genre novel with nested plots unified by nothing but thematic elements?
I also found out the director is Lana Wachowski. She’s one of the directing duo formerly known as the Wachowski Brothers. You know… the ones who did The Matrix. And some other stuff too, I guess.
(THERE WERE NO SEQUELS)
Anyway, what interested me is that the press releases regarding Cloud Atlas have all referred to Lana by her new name, and seemed to consistently refer to her by the correct pronouns as well. This shouldn’t seem all that remarkable, but there’s a pretty strange history regarding the manner in which she has been referred, and the peculiar silence surrounding her transition. You see, up until now, there had been absolutely no public acknowledgment of her transition.
Lana Wachowski seemed to choose to take a fairly quiet, low-key approach in how she chose to deal with transitioning as a public figure. I completely understand. It has to make things pretty difficult when you’re a famous Hollywood director, responsible for one of the most successful and iconic films of all time, and you have a massive, dedicated fan-base. Things have never gone well for people who choose to transition in the public eye. Renee Richards is a pretty tragic example. It seems that generally, the only way to really deal with it is to keep it all as quiet as possible, like Wendy Carlos did. And Lana Wachowski seemed to have chosen that path. Makes sense.
But where it gets strange is the degree to which her fandom refused to actually acknowledge that this was really going on. They clung to the concept that it was a rumour for years, long after a significant amount of evidence had surfaced indicated that Lana was indeed transitioning. Photographs existed of her presenting as female, the manner in which she was credited with her brother shifted from “The Wachowski Brothers” to simply “The Wachowskis”, her own scripts and documents and stuff began bearing her new name as a watermark, and everyone who knew her personally was willing to attest, in a quiet and non-scandal-raising way that yes, the stories were true. But still her fans clung to the concept that it was a rumour, sometimes arguing in great anger with people who insisted it was the truth.
What became especially interesting was the wiki edit war that ensued. Editors frequently attempted to update the pronouns and name by which she was referred on her wikipedia page, and include references to her transition, only to have other editors convert the page back again. This occurred over and over and over again for a comically long period of time.
Fans of the Wachowskis seemed dead set on denying, ignoring and suppressing the truth that one of their favourite creators was transsexual.
It reminds me in a way of the manner in which people have reacted to information about the gender identity of PFC Manning, the military whistle-blower who leaked an unprecedented amount of classified documents to wiki-leaks, exposing considerable illegal activity perpetrated by their superiors in Iraq. An abundance of information has emerged indicating that Manning was absolutely intending to transition upon being discharged from the military, but their capture and incarceration prevented that. The media, however, has been extremely silent on the issue of Manning’s transgenderism, even when the issue of gender identity disorder was raised in testimony during the (still ongoing) trial.
Yet the media have been very willing to discuss Manning’s sexual orientation, happily painting the issue as being about “gays in the military” rather than the actuality, and turning Manning into a poster-child for something they never really were. Even Manning’s supporters, those who regard them as a hero, have consistently used masculine pronouns and often coat their praise of Manning’s actions in heavily macho, jingoistic language: “Here’s a real man. If only all men had his courage, and were willing to do so much for their country”. Many of the same supporters exhibit a similar extreme level of denial in the face of the evidence that Manning is transgender as the denialism exhibited in regards to Lana Wachowski.
Even in one of my own posts (the 13 myths one, part one) in which I mentioned the silence around Manning’s gender identity and being painted as “gay”, a commenter felt compelled to assert that it wasn’t true, Manning wasn’t really trans and there was no evidence. I then presented some of the abundance of evidence. The commenter, despite having been proven wrong on a significant point (his claim that the only evidence was the Lamo chat logs, which isn’t true), he pressed on asserting that the significant amount of other evidence was insufficient and couldn’t really be trusted.
Why the hyper-skepticism applied to the possibility that people’s heroes can be trans? Why does it seem so impossible for some of us to accept the reality that someone we admire falls outside our expectations about gender? Are the concepts of “transgender” and “admirable” really so incompatible within our cultural consciousness that we adamantly reject their overlaps against all reasonable evidence?
And there’s something especially saddening about the way that the denials of Wachowski and Manning’s genders reads as though defending against accusations of some scandalous, horrible flaw. As though in saying these two people are trans we must be disparaging and attacking them. That it’s an act of character assassination (discussions of Wachowski and Manning’s gender have both been directly claimed to be that). As though being trans would somehow strip them of their accomplishments and deserved recognition. The fact that being trans is seen as so awful that our knee-jerk response is to see its suggestion as an insult or denigration is heartbreaking.
But where I find hope is the fact that not all of Wachowskis fans can possibly turn their backs on her. You can’t just suddenly pretend The Matrix never happened. I’m not a big fan of her work myself, but I know that it’s a part of our shared cultural memory. And now that her publicity materials for Cloud Atlas are openly referring to her as Lana, the fact of her gender can no longer be dismissed as simply a rumour. The fan-boys are going to have to accept that someone they loved and admired is now transgender. And some of them are going to learn from that, and grow. They’re going to accept that trans people exist, and that we contribute, we participate. We have talents and make art and sometimes accomplish great things, just like anyone. Some of those fans are going to learn to regard us as just a little bit more human.
There will be some backlash, I’m sure. And some awful things will, and have already been, said. But the net gain is in the right direction. A few more people will take the red pill and disconnect from the matrix of cisnormativity.
Ow. That metaphor hurt my writer parts.