Killing Memory: A Review of Cloud Diary by Steve Mitchell
In a memorable passage in the Phaedo, Plato (via Socrates) expressed his belief that philosophers are those unique members of society who most truly confront and “practice” death; they are not only unafraid of death but are even said to desire it. This was Plato’s way of asserting, as he famously also would in the Allegory of the Cave, that by vocation philosophers were experts in uncovering the true meaning of life through the fullest discovery of the soul. Death for Plato wasn’t really real. Take that, morticians, medicos, and materialists! And murderers too, I suppose. None of you know what’s going on behind the curtain. Similarly, it is arguably writers—and not historians or neuropsychologists—who truly confront and practice memory in its most human form. Writing is personal and cultural memory. Certain writers seem to wallow in the personal kind, caught up as they are in their own heads, parasites of their own pasts and, worse yet, of all the various regrets and whatifs, now rehashed on the page. Because memory can never be objective, it can be forever mined, reinterpreted, and seen through a different lens, always a glass darkly.
The lead characters in Steve Mitchell’s 2018 novel Cloud Diary demonstrate this well. The opening pages gently illustrate their differing recollections of the first time they met, or at least differing points of emphasis. This is followed by more intense examples throughout the book of the various “versions” of their love story. It is as a study of the subjectivity and “chaos” of memory—as well as a meditation on the impact of an untimely but overdue death—that the novel best succeeds, when it captures the idea of “[m]oments, rising and falling, crashing awkwardly together, drifting apart.” The overall nonlinear structure, despite some very conventional and formulaic stretches within that framework, is a real virtue and well suited to its main themes. I would have liked even more adventurousness in that area, however. When viewed as a kind of retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, Cloud Diary is compelling; in this case, looking back in memory only hastens the disappearance of the beloved as a real person into the stygian mists of time. Shadows cannot be held.
The narrator of Cloud Diary, Doug, is a writer. Like most writers, Doug needs to socialize more, connect with real life, both body and soul. Then romance happens: The introvert is lured out of his shell by passionate extrovert Sophie, Dionysian artist (a painter) to his Apollonian over-analyzer. She “sweeps into the room”—and Doug’s life—“like new weather, changing its shape and horizon line,” and thereby “seduced him into humanity.” He overthinks the first kiss and hesitates for weeks before she finally presses him for a smooch. Before long it is public, part of the art scene, and they are kissing on stage at a club in front of cheering hipsters. Sophie’s the livewire that can supercharge Doug, get him to laugh and overcome his insecurities and fears, and even draw him out of his rut and onto the dance floor shaking some booty. He is swept up in discomfiting joy. After meeting Sophie, his existence is much more open and infused with energy and light. Which is the real Doug? As the author astutely notes, “there are people with whom we are more ourselves than we can ever manage to be alone.” The Us brings out more me. But, tragically, when a moment comes when Doug most needs to be someone else, he is unable.
If the idea of an intellectual-analytical-quiet writer-type hooking up with an exuberant, sassy, but secretly tender-hearted vixen with paint-spattered jeans sounds familiar, it’s because obviously we’ve seen this many times in books and films. It’s a trope. But we also see it in life. As a person who has been in more than a few beautifully stormy but ultimately untenable relationships with artists, I can relate to Mitchell’s observations. I respected his insights and sensed a kindred spirit, as other readers also will. Slightly less familiar and thus more effective in Cloud Diary is how the boy loses the girl (I’ll avoid spoiling it), and then how years later Sophie, now dying of leukemia, proposes that Doug assist her in ending her life. While I didn’t necessarily see any of it as authentic or original, these parts were more engrossing. In a novel that is so much about the amorphous qualities of time, certain decisions of the past cannot be undone (again, no spoilers). Meanwhile, Sophie’s time is running out with urgent finality. Pain can swallow everything—past, present, and future.
Mitchell has talent and strong moments but as a writer needs to get out of his own way. Having Sophie’s story filtered through Doug’s narration makes it somehow all about him and his reactions and thoughts, a long ego trip with only occasional flashes of empathy; she even says, “This is about me. Not you.” Mitchell tries, but Sophie remains a flat character, despite her extremely dramatic arc. The novel doesn’t seem like a tribute to an actual real person. But Doug does acknowledge that his stories of Sophie are never her but instead his memory of her. That filter is unavoidable. Again, thematically Cloud Diary is interesting. As readers, though, we want Doug/Mitchell to stop suffocating us with unnecessary detail (such as the arm positions of the characters, described seemingly countless times) and let the scenes breathe.
It’s especially hard for writers to accept the need to let go of memories, of failed loves, lost beauty, and to stop swimming in the stuff—and understandably so, since for many it is their career. Doug as a character seems to accomplish this at the end of Cloud Diary, but the novel itself is a testament to how writers simply cannot. It’s as if what Mitchell calls “a conversation with oneself,” this internal shifting and these surges of self-recrimination, are synonyms for creativity. Instead writers will write about forgetting, an act which immortalizes the memory and is, as Mitchell points out, “a new form of remembrance.” This also goes to show what a writer’s true love actually is, even when the subject is romance—namely, the narrative exercise and the writing itself, not the significant other. At its heart it is a longing for control.
Sophie tells Doug, “I don’t want memory. I want you.” Whatever that means. We create fictions of those close to us. There is no such thing as a truly shared past or present, even between two lovers. We never “know” each other and we always will not. But the points of apparent contact are still worth everything. Alongside that, the memories which both inspire and torture us are fluid. Mitchell writes, “Memory is an embrace and a blow. It happens without warning,” as it is free. All unifying narratives that try to link together memories into a solid chain are artificial. Attempts to control memory (such as by throwing out mementos) or push it aside (such as through purely carnal post-grief sex) seem futile. Eventually we all have to kill our exes, figuratively speaking, or at least try. Hopefully that is a death with dignity. Either way, the souls of memory live on.