starlady: (sora)
Originally published February 25, 2005.

In a meteoric career, David Mitchell has established himself as one of the most ingenious fiction writers of recent times. His third novel, the Booker Prize-shortlisted Cloud Atlas, effortlessly meets the expectations engendered by its predecessors Ghostwritten and number9dream. Mitchell is no stranger to such literary heights: number9dream was also shortlisted for the Booker in 2001.

As I'’ve toted Cloud Atlas around campus, people have asked, “What’'s it about?” Simple question. Tough answer. Cloud Atlas tells six apparently unrelated stories: that of Adam Ewing, a scrivener voyaging home to San Francisco from the South Pacific in 1850; of Robert Frobisher, a bisexual, indigent composer working as an amanuensis in Belgium between the wars; reporter Luisa Rey, who uncovers a conspiracy in 1970s California; of Timothy Cavendish, a near-future London publisher conned by his brother; of Sonmi-451, a “fabricant” in a hypercapitalist 22nd century Korea dreaming of equal rights; and of Zachry, a tribesman in post-apocalyptic Hawaii whose life is changed by a woman from another society.

Sound complicated? For any other novelist, this would be enough material for six novels, but Mitchell’s narrative fireworks aren'’t finished. Each story breaks off at a crucial point and jumps to the next character’s tale until the final story, at which point the characters’ lives begin to cascade into each other and the novel boomerangs back to where and when it began. “"Revolutionary or gimmicky?”" Frobisher wonders about his latest opus, in a phrase which applies equally well to Mitchell'’s novel. "“Shan'’t know until it’'s finished, and by then it’'ll be too late.”"

Cloud Atlas is a definite improvement over Ghostwritten, which employed a similar leap-frogging structure, in that Mitchell has honed his laser-sharp characterizations even further and now uses both first and third person narratives. Whereas Ghostwritten'’s protagonists sounded much the same, the novel’s new narrators each have their own distinctive voices. Adam Ewing writes his journal in pitch-perfect Victorian English, while Sonmi-451'’s corpocratic’ dialect sounds like nothing you'’ve ever read before, –not even Zachry'’s post-apocalyptic patois.

The daisy-chain structure in Cloud Atlas is indeed “dazzling,” as its back-cover blurbs enthuse, and Mitchell juggles his stories brilliantly. Through the course of the novel, it becomes clear that these narratives, seemingly so disparate, are deeply connected, and these connections seem like the most natural things in the world; Mitchell easily avoids the postmodernist pitfall wherein artifice for its own sake trumps art.

Indeed, Mitchell may be a genius. Though he shares postmodernism’'s concern with form for form’'s sake ("“As if Art were the What, not the How!"” Frobisher remarks dismissively), he isn'’t above poking a little metafictional fun at his own endeavor.

A Brit by birth, Mitchell lived for eight years in Japan, and all his novels take place at least in part on the Pacific Rim or in London. Aspects of Buddhism (particularly reincarnation and non-violence) are central to his philosophy, and as each character confronts issues of power, justice, tyranny and human nature, Mitchell'’s belief in humanity'’s positive and negative potential is made searingly manifest.

Cloud Atlas unflinchingly exposes the darkest side of human nature and its ruinous consequences; after the Fall, most of the Earth is “dead-zoned” and all cities are in ruins, leaving troglodytes and neo-barbarians to struggle against each other among the paltry remains of the “Civ’lize.” I suspect that Mitchell employed the interlocking narrative structure to avoid ending the novel on the dark notes of many character's’ tales; Ewing'’s concludes with an espousal of cautious optimism. "“One fine day,”" he muses, "“a purely predatory world shall consume itself. ... In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.”" I don'’t think Mitchell'’s writing has ever been more passionate, although he never resorts to melodrama (Frobisher’'s story is particularly wrenching), and by the end of Cloud Atlas, the reader agrees with Ewing wholeheartedly.

Still, some doubts linger. In Cloud Atlas, Mitchell brings the apocalyptic undercurrents of his previous novels to the forefront, and the novel remains darkly equivocal about humanity’s ability and willingness to better itself. Given that Ghostwritten features a narrowly averted apocalypse caused by good intentions, and that the denouement in number9dream involves a catastrophic earthquake, one has to wonder whether Mitchell believes in the possibilities he preaches, or whether he'’s trying to convince himself as well as his audience.