- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

A work of daring ambition and dizzying virtuosity, “Cloud Atlas” announces third-time novelist David Mitchell as one of the major talents of contemporary fiction. His acclaimed second novel, the cyber-fantasia “Number9Dream,” was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 2002 — which means that, in the space of only two years, Mr. Mitchell has produced the kind of book that other gifted writers would gestate for a decade.

The superabundance of Mr. Mitchell’s imagination; his exuberant, Nabokovian delight in word play; his provocative grapplings with the great unknowables; and most of all his masterful storytelling: All coalesce to make “Cloud Atlas” an exciting, almost overwhelming masterpiece.

The novel is structured like a bull’s-eye target (or Chinese boxes, or Russian dolls) — that is, it has a “core” story enveloped in five “outer” stories. Each of these has been divided into halves, which flank the core in ordered pairs: ABCDEFEDCBA.

The most obvious problem this format presents is one of pacing: Transitions from one half-tale to the next are abrupt. But Mr. Mitchell holds our attention by becoming progressively bolder in vision and technique as he approaches the book’s core, and beyond it, sustaining the momentum with heightened suspense and pathos. This is a writer who likes to take risks, and time and again, they pay off.

Like all of the other framing narratives (but unlike the novel’s centerpiece), the first — or outermost — story is a “found document,” a text ostensibly written by a fictional author. In “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” a priggish, hapless, yet likeable American notary of the mid-1800s records the particulars of his voyage from Sydney to Honolulu.

When the journal begins, Ewing is biding his time on a stopover in the Chatham Islands, near New Zealand, as his ship is repaired. Offended by the coarseness of the ship’s “Tars,” he befriends instead an eccentric English doctor named Goose, “the only other gentleman on this latitude east of Sydney & west of Valparaiso.”

Mr. Mitchell has a wonderful (if sometimes over-the-top) way with historical pastiche. Take Ewing’s response — equal parts outrage and gusto — when he discovers that the ship’s captain, Mr. Boerhaave, has appropriated his lodging-room for distinctly ungodly purposes:

“[T]o wit, Mr. Boerhaave’s ursine buttocks astraddle his Blackamoor Goldilocks in my bed in flagrante delicto! Did that devil Dutchman apologize? Far from it! He judged himself the injured party & roared, ‘Get ye hence, Mr. Quillcock! or by God’s B–-d, I shall snap your tricksy Yankee nib in two!’”

In the novel’s second narrative, Robert Frobisher stumbles on Ewing’s journal in a chateau in 1930s Belgium. “Something shifty about the authenticity,” he remarks when describing it in a letter to his friend Sixsmith, “— seems too structured for a genuine diary, and its language doesn’t ring quite true.”

Clever, charming, casually snobbish and utterly unscrupulous, Frobisher seems modeled on the young men who idle their way through the early novels of Aldous Huxley and Evelyn Waugh, cynics adrift in the uncertain morals of the inter-war period. Mr. Mitchell gets Frobisher’s speech just right — a mix of arch, aesthetical bon mots and boarding-school joviality (there’s a lot of Pater-and-Mater-ing), delivered in clipped cadences.

Disinherited by his family, expelled from his Cambridge college and trailing massive debts accrued at the baccarat table, Frobisher flees a London hotel when the collectors come knocking.

“Hadn’t even waited until I’d shaved — breathtaking vulgarity of these ruffians,” he writes Sixsmith. ” … Escape was not hitchless, sorry to report. Drainpipe ripped free of its mounting with the noise of a brutalized violin, and down, down, down tumbled your old chum.” He sets off across the Channel with a half-baked plan: to locate the country chateau of a reclusive British composer, Vyvyan Ayrs, and offer the great man his services as amanuensis.

Frobisher is, by his own admission, “a louche English freeloader down on his luck,” yet there is another side to him — he too is a composer, devoted to music with a passion that he withholds from human beings. Thanks to his charm and talent, the amanuensis scheme actually works, though it nearly unravels at a couple of precarious, and extremely funny, moments.

As the fate of Ewing’s journal leads us to expect, Frobisher’s letters form a link to the story “inside” (or after) it, and that story links to the one inside it … and so on. These links are quick flashes of intriguing serendipity, not attempts to force such wildly different tales into a contrived pattern.

In the book’s middle layer, “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is a genre-perfect crime novella about a young reporter investigating a corrupt nuclear-power corporation in 1970s California. “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is a sublime caper with a very unlikely hero — a cranky, elderly publisher of vanity books in contemporary London.

Cavendish is an example of a very British type, the Miserable Old Bugger. He is, to put it mildly, politically incorrect: “‘Look, I’m sure you’re a reasonable woman,’” he tells a female acquaintance. “The oxymoron passed without comment.” He is given to bemoaning the demise of Little England of yore, much like that patron saint of all M.O.B.s, the late poet Philip Larkin (to whom Mr. Mitchell slyly alludes in this narrative). Yet he becomes perhaps the book’s most lovable character, and — without revealing too much — his eventual triumph is a delight.

The two innermost stories in “Cloud Atlas” share a deeper and more direct relation, however, that of civilizational cause and effect.

“The Orison of Sonmi-451” depicts in frightening detail a totalitarian society of the future, based on the twin principles of unbridled corporate greed and unchecked autocratic rule. From the names of some characters (Mrs. Rhee, Boom-Sook Kim) and from invocations of “the Beloved Leader,” we glean that this dystopia is set in Korea — after the current North Korean regime has conquered the whole peninsula, perhaps?

In the tradition of Anthony Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange,” Mr. Mitchell invents an original dialect eerily appropriate to this “corpocratic” state. At the top of the social order are genetically-enhanced purebloods, whose chief civic duty is to spend money: on fords (cars), sonys (computers), nikons (cameras), nikes (shoes) and facescaping (cosmetic surgery). This orgy of consumption has depleted resources to the extent that most regions of the world are now uninhabited deadlands.

Manning the state of Nea so Copros is an underclass of fabricants, clones engineered to work unceasingly and without question. (The author is clearly indebted to Huxley’s “Brave New World,” in which “Alphas” and “Betas” enjoy privileges while “Epsilon Semi-Morons” are bred for menial drudgery.) The tale’s narrator, Sonmi-451, is a fluke, a fabricant who has ascended (developed full consciousness) to become an outspoken, doomed opponent of corpocracy.

Sonmi’s martyrdom reverberates through time and across the ocean. In Hawaii, after “the Fall,” she is worshipped by the Valleysmen — a tribe who eke out an Iron-Age subsistence and speak reverently of the “Smart” that has been lost since “the Civ’lize Days.”

Though their way of life is primitive, the Valleysmen abhor the violence of Hawaii’s other tribes, and are committed to pacifism. “[I]f you b’haved savage-like an selfy an’ spurned the civ’lize … then your soul got heavy’n’jagged an’ weighed with stones,” explains Zachry in the core story, “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After.” (His drawling, archaic-futuristic dialect takes some getting used to, but it’s fully believable.) ” … Such crookit selfy people was called ‘stoned’ an’ no fate was more dreadsome.”

Similarly, Adam Ewing had praised the “pacific creed” of the Chatham Islands’ soon-to-be-extinct Moriori tribe: “[W]hosoever spilt a man’s blood killed his own mana — his honor, his worth, his standing & his soul.”

Here the novel circles back on itself, distant future shading into forgotten past. Ultimately, “Cloud Atlas” demonstrates the inescapability of our human impulses, good and bad. Cruelty will never wither (“the weak are meat, the strong do eat” is a proverb that recurs through the book).

But neither will courage or sympathy. And one life, one action — a mere drop in time’s ocean — can change the world. For “what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

CLOUD ATLAS

By David Mitchell

Random House, $14.95, 509 pages


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