Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

21/02/04, The Times

At one point in David Mitchell’s third novel, Cloud Atlas, Timothy Cavendish, the protagonist of one of the six separate narratives that comprise the book, exclaims contemptuously, ‘As if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void-Webber! As if Art is the What, not the How!’ Cloud Atlas scores on both the what and the how fronts. The novel’s scale, ambition and execution make almost everything in contemporary fiction look like a squalid straggle of Nissen huts compared with its vertiginous edifice.

Mitchell repeats the narrative trick of his debut, Ghostwritten, here. Once again we have multiple stories, widely separated in time, space and style, which are interlinked in delicately shadowy ways, but Cloud Atlas has been invested with a more substantial, more moral core. The narrative trajectories, too, have been stylised, the linear grouping of his first novel’s episodes giving way here to a circular structure, reflecting Mitchell’s preoccupation  with the fracturing of linear time in its pat progression from past through present to future. The circularity of time finds an analogue in the very structure of the book: we move from the 1850s through 1931 and the sixties to the present, to an unspecified future and finally, to a further, post-apocalyptic future. Then there is a mirror inversion of that, in exact order, till we end with the 1850s.

The stories here are a giddy whirlpool of genres and styles. There is the South Sea Pacific journal of an Adam Ewing, a Californian aboard the Prophetess, who witnesses the white Christian missionaries’ work on the islands. This is followed by the letters of Adam Frobisher, musical genius, misfit, rogue, bisexual omnivore, to his lover and best friend, Rufus Sixsmith in Cambridge, detailing his life in the town of Zedelghem in Belgium as he deceives his way to become amanuensis to the reclusive and cantankerous English musical legend Vyvyan Ayres. After this comes a snappy, stylish thriller centering on journalist Luisa Rey trying to expose monumental corporate corruption and cover up around the building of a precarious nuclear reactor in California. Cut to frenetic English comedy about ageing literary agent, Timothy Cavendish, incarcerated by his own brother in an old people’s home straight out of Ken Kesey. Rapid scene change to an interview-style section, set in a dystopian future, in which a dissident ‘psychogenomic fabricant’ who has aspired to break out of her slave status in a ruthlessly consumerist ‘corpocracy’ is interviewed by an archivist for future historians. The final installment is an astonishing imagining of a future after a major cataclysm has wiped off almost all of human civilisation leaving only a society more primitive, more innocent than its forbears, as if the Mobius strip of civilisation had curled in on itself. And then, aligned after this mirror, as it were, reflections of the previous narratives follow, in reverse order.

It’s an impeccable dance of genres – fantasy, thriller, the epistolary novel, burlesque, journal – played out to a suite on the great themes of colonialism, power, greed, corporate culture, and the way human civilizations evolve, morph, die and survive. It is impossible to mention the ways the stories link; that is a delicious privilege intelligent readers should be left to discover and savour but suffice it to say it is nothing short of a miracle of correspondences, of thematic and stylistic assonances, echoes and reverberations, every bit as intricate and rewarding as a complex fugue.

Mitchell is a possessed ventriloquist, a conjurer of styles: from the witty and baroque delicacies of the Zedelghem section to the purple circumlocutions of Timothy Cavendish, from the burnished, hypnotic homage to Hoban, Burgess, Joyce in the central episode to the mannered neologisms and orthography of the science fiction, Cloud Atlas is a cornucopia, an elegiac, soaring, radiant festival of prescience, meditation and entertainment. Open up Mitchell’s head and a whole magical, ecstatic symphony of inventiveness and ideas will fly out as if from a benign and felicitous Pandora’s box. Read him.