Cloud Atlas

by David Mitchell

Published by Sceptre

360 pages, paperback 2004




Splendid Artifice

Reviewed by Tristan Mulholland


Highly complex and brilliantly inventive, Cloud Atlas is a gripping, post-modern novel that creates new worlds and even languages within them. Mitchell provides us with a little guidance in the form of Frobisher; hard at work on his latest composition, Cloud Atlas Sextet, described as "a sextet for overlapping soloists': piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe and violin, each in its own language of key, scale and color" -- in the same way, Mitchell's composition also consists of six interrelated narratives, each "solo" or story being "interrupted by its successor" and converging into an impressive whole.

Adventure and misadventure are the primary themes of this carefully balanced, well-structured book. Six separate stories progress chronologically through time from the 19th century into the not-too-distant future. It then moves backward in time to conclude with the first story we encountered. Mitchell displays a dazzling range of writing styles and hugely differing characters that take the reader by storm.

The first story opens with the journal of an American notary, Adam Ewing, as he travels through the South Pacific in 1850, meeting tribesman, missionaries and various unsavory characters along the way. It then cuts off mid-sentence and the next story begins with Robert Frobisher. Set in Bruges in 1931, Frobisher is an amoral chancer of a composer down on his luck and seeking a way out by becoming the amanuensis of a great composer. We learn about his daily encounters through the letters he writes to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith. What had started out as an historical epistolary novel then shifts into a crime thriller in the tale of "The First Louisa Rey Mystery."

Louisa Rey is a sharp Californian journalist who happens to stumble on a nuclear report -- courtesy of Rupert Sixsmith -- concerning a defective nuclear plant threatening meltdown. Various goons attempt to kill her and bury the damning report.

The fourth narrative is the "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," a Tourette's afflicted publisher come good only to fall on hard times. Thriller then jumps to science fiction with the testimony of Somni-451, a dystopic vision of the future in which a "genomed" slave cloned to serve fast-food and sedated on "soap" breaks free of her servitude and arrives at free thought and liberty only to be crushed by the "corpocracy" system.

Finally, at the center of Cloud Atlas, we meet Zachry, a goatherd living in a primitive society who recounts his yarn around a campfire, whilst drawing heavily on the "damnit weed" speaking of the time before "the Fall," alluding to Somni's 21st-century world that fell to ruin. What had hitherto been half-finished fragmentary narratives, are then concluded in the reverse order to which they were recounted, finishing with the ordeals of Adam Ewing, the first tale that we encountered.

Mitchell employs a simple but effective artifice by which the episodes end with a cliffhanger leaving the reader eagerly awaiting the fate of the main protagonists. Consequently, as their various fates are made clear to us in the second half of Cloud Atlas, we can't help but try to assemble the whole. Through an intricate set of parallels, mirrors, coincidences and serendipities, Cloud Atlas does indeed morph into a set of "overlapping" narratives, each with its own language of key, scale and color."

My personal favorite is "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish," which had me laughing out loud on my usually stony silent commute out to West London on the Tube. To cut a long story short, a disgruntled novelist reacts particularly badly to a review of his book. At one of the schmoozing parties so beloved of agents and publishers alike, sees fit to launch the offending critic over a nearby balcony. Cavendish looks on with barely contained glee as he pictures and later realizes sales of his book go through the roof. With his infamous writer behind bars, his burly brothers want a piece of the action and this is where Cavendish goes to ground and becomes an unwilling prisoner in a nursing home. His indignation only serves to testify to his insanity and during one brazen escape attempt, a "strategic mistake" earns him far more than he bargained for: "In one powerful yank my trousers were pulled from my waist - was he going to bugger me? ... He laid me on the body of his mowing machine, pinned me down with one hand, and caned me with a bamboo cane in the other .... Christ, such pain!" And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Mitchell has a penchant for playing with from and genre and both his previous novels, Ghostwritten in 1999 and Number9dream from 2001, feature fragmented, episodic narratives where a series of stories are juxtaposed with each other. With Ghostwritten, for example, critics were undecided whether it was a novel or a collection of short stories which could also be said of Cloud Atlas. There is the danger -- with such a disparate, composite of highly differing narratives -- that Mitchell's voice can be lost or lack consistency. How do you experiment with different styles without it becoming simply a series of pastiches? Indeed, in her review for Salon magazine, Laura Miller commented that "some of the chapters in Ghostwritten do work on their own .... Too often though, even the enjoyable segments of Ghostwritten bring to mind other writers who tend to be more accomplished with the sort of writing at hand .... The result is often readable, but never inspired, a peculiar effect considering the project is the kind of thing usually only attempted by eccentric geniuses pursuing fiercely individual visions." Yet, with Cloud Atlas, it does all hang together and Mitchell has found new ground as a novelist and the quality of the prose often dazzles.

Mitchell offers the reader an amazing range of completely differing yarns, brought together by the power and magnetism of his characters. As I read, I couldn't help but be awed by the sheer range of Mitchell's prose as he moves fluidly between style and genre. His writing has found comparisons with Don DeLillo and Haruki Murakami in the past but in future, it's more likely to be a case of budding writers seeking to imitate David Mitchell. Hilariously funny, gloriously inventive and refreshingly original. | February 2005


Tristan Mulholland lives in London and works in publishing.