By David Mitchell. Random House. 509 pp. Paperback, $14.95
Marx warned us that history repeats itself: first as tragedy, then as farce. British novelist David Mitchell suggests a few more iterations: grade-B pulp thriller, creepy dystopian scifi, Hobbesian nightmare. Mitchell has already earned high praise for his previous novels, Ghostwritten (1999) and Number9Dream (2001), the latter of which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. His latest effort, Cloud Atlas, revises Marx's quip to meet the demands of contemporary fiction. Hopscotching over centuries, Cloud Atlas likewise jumps in and out of half a dozen different styles, all of which display the author's astonishing talent for ventriloquism, and end up fitting together to make this a highly satisfying, and unusually thoughtful, addition to the expanding "puzzle book" genre.
Novels whose plots hinge on intricate puzzles -- e.g., The Da Vinci Code and The Rule of Four -- are all the rage these days, but the puzzle of Cloud Atlas isn't in the book, it is the book. What appears at first glance to be a novel is in fact six novellas whose interrelatedness is only hinted at during the book's first half, then revealed fully and splendidly after the book's middle, which is really the book's end. Confused? You're supposed to be, at least for a little while: It's from this starting point of dislocation that Mitchell begins a virtuosic round trip through the strata of history and causality, exploring the permanence of man's inhumanity to man and the impermanence of what we have come to call civilization.
Mitchell begins his chronology of our fall from grace with a character named Adam, naturally. "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" presents us with the diary of a seafaring 1850s American notary, killing time on the Chatham Islands off New Zealand as he waits for his homeward ship to set sail. Engaging in the amateur anthropology of the visitor, the morally upright Ewing struggles to square his belief in the civilizing, beneficent aspects of colonialism with what he sees before him, "that casual brutality lighter races show the darker." He also befriends an English doctor who diagnoses Ewing with a rare, brain-destroying disease, and who begins treating the American immediately with a cocktail of powerful drugs.
Then, in mid-sentence, Mitchell whisks us away from the scene, and suddenly we are reading the letters of one Robert Frobisher, a charmingly louche, happily bisexual British composer of the 1930s whose tendency to skip out on hotel bills has finally caught up with him. As he recounts his ambitious plan to evade creditors and gain hitherto elusive fame by exploiting an elderly maestro, we merrily follow his rake's progress and almost forget the plight of poor Adam Ewing -- until, that is, Frobisher mentions in passing that he has serendipitously found and read one-half of a bound copy of Ewing's journal. (The second half is damnably missing.) Shortly thereafter, we take our leave of Frobisher just as abruptly as we were introduced to him, and Mitchell drops us down in 1970s California, at the opening chapter of a crime-fiction potboiler whose heroine, a plucky magazine journalist named Luisa Rey, is on the verge of uncovering a nefarious conspiracy.
And so it goes, again and again: a cycle of starts and stops that vectors through past, present and future, linked by buried clues and the twin refrains of deceit and exploitation. What all these stories have in common is that each draws its lifeblood from the same heart of darkness. Cloud Atlas is a work of fiction, ultimately, about the myriad misuses of fiction: the seductive lies told by grifters, CEOs, politicians and others in the service of expanding empires and maintaining power. Soon we meet Timothy Cavendish, the curmudgeonly editor of a London vanity press, who is tricked into incarceration by his vengeful brother. We meet a wise, world-weary clone from 22nd-century Korea, where hypercapitalism and biotechnology have fused into absolute tyranny. And finally, in post-apocalypse Hawaii, we meet a storyteller who enthralls his listeners with the tale of a suspicious visitor from a far-off land, echoing the account of Adam Ewing that opens the book.
At this point the novel's action rapidly reverses course, going back through time and picking up the abandoned narrative threads, weaving them together to craft a fascinating meditation on civilization's insatiable appetites. Even Mitchell's characters seem to voice uncertainty about their creator's grand plan. "Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished," admits Frobisher of his own "Cloud Sextet," a musical composition whose ambitious six-part structure mirrors the novel's. And Cavendish, the editor from the old school, has his qualms, too: "I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory," he harrumphs.
But sometimes novels filled with big ideas require equally big mechanisms for relaying them, and it's hard to imagine an idea bigger than the one Mitchell is tackling here: how the will to power that compels the strong to subjugate the weak is replayed perpetually in a cycle of eternal recurrence. Rarely has the all-encompassing prefix of "metafiction" seemed so apposite. Here is not only the academic pessimism of Marx, Hobbes and Nietzsche but also the frightening portents of Aldous Huxley and the linguistic daring of Anthony Burgess. Here, too, are Melville's maritime tableaux, the mordant satire of Kingsley Amis and, in the voice of Robert Frobisher -- Mitchell's most poignant and fully realized character -- the unmistakable ghost of Paul Bowles. Here is a veritable film festival of unembarrassed cinematic references and inspirations, from "Soylent Green" to "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" to "The Graduate" to the postwar comedies of England's Ealing Studios. Here is an obviously sincere affection for the oft-maligned genres of mystery, science fiction and fantasy.
All of these influences, and countless others, gel into a work that nevertheless manages to be completely original. More significantly, the various pieces of David Mitchell's mysterious puzzle combine to form a haunting image that stays with the reader long after the book has been closed. Cloud Atlas ought to make him famous on both sides of the Atlantic as a writer whose fearlessness is matched by his talent.
Jeff Turrentine, who has written for the Los Angeles Times, Architectural Digest and other publications, will join the staff of The Washington Post in September.
Q&A: Book World Talks With David Mitchell
We found the author of "Cloud Atlas" in the Irish fishing village of Clonakilty, where he lives with his wife and daughter. Born in the English town of Seaport 34 years ago, he also has lived in Sicily and Hiroshima, Japan.
BW: What was the inspiration for "Cloud Atlas"?
DM: There wasn't really a single Eureka moment. For me, novels coalesce into being, rather than arrive fully formed. That said, three important sources spring to mind. First, If on a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino -- an experimental novel in which a sequence of narratives is interrupted but never picked up again -- made a big impression on me when I was an undergraduate. I wondered what a novel might look like if a mirror were placed at the end of a book like Calvino's so that the stories would be resolved in reverse.