Most novelists are journeymen. The majority of even our most acclaimed authors are highly skilled but hardly talented. They lack the ambition and the imagination required to make books that matter. They can spin absorbing tales — usually ones we’ve heard all too often. If they put down their pens, who would notice but their mothers and their bankers?
David Mitchell is a rarity. The 47-year-old Brit is staggeringly imaginative, brazenly ambitious. His first two novels, “Ghostwritten” and “Number9Dream,” showcased a writer pushing his talent to far reaches. IIn 2004, he produced his breakout book, “Cloud Atlas.” It is superb, though far from perfect. Indeed, its flaws are as apparent as its strengths. Yet overwhelming all considerations is the feeling the book imparts — of being in the company of a dynamic mind trying to rise above its considerable self.
Mitchell’s first bold choice is his novel’s structure. It is composed of six linked novellas, each about 80 pages long. Mitchell chops all but the final novella in half and presents them in a circular chronology; number the stories and the pattern reads 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1, and we end with the storyline we started with.
Each novella involves separate characters and circumstances, and each section riffs off the styles of Mitchell’s great predecessors. There are echoes of Herman Melville and Anthony Burgess, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Pynchon and Aldous Huxley, to name a few. Mitchell creates intricate and unique voices for each of his six first-person narrators. And he has them speak through different formats — we meet one narrator through his journal entries, another through his letters, yet another through her interrogation by government authorities.
The stories themselves span about 500 years. Story 1 is set in the South Sea islands in 1850; story 2 in Belgium in 1931. Story 3 takes places in California in 1975, story 4 in contemporary England, story 5 in Korea some years hence and the final story in Hawaii even farther in the future.
The individual stories hold our interest not only because of Mitchell’s verbal pyrotechnics — his slangy language explodes off the page — but also because each revolves around a fast-paced mystery. “Cloud Atlas” is riveting. In the first story we wonder if our narrator’s doctor is really a poisoner. In story 3 we hope that the reporter we follow will bring her expose of a crooked nuclear power company to light. In story 5 we are not sure whether the genetically modified humanoid being interviewed will lead a revolution against the oppressive state.
Despite the fact that so much is going on, “Cloud Atlas” is not difficult to puzzle out. The novellas cohere into a novel because they all revolve around a single theme: how powerful entities, especially corporations, rob individuals of freedom. Each section shows individuals fighting the forces trying to subsume their liberty. As time goes on, the advantage swings ineluctably to the privileged few — conniving wretches without a hint of conscience. One malefactor says: “Power. What do we mean? ‘The ability to determine another man’s luck.’ … The will to power. This is the enigma at the core of the various destinies of men.”
By Story 6, these Nietzchean supermen have left the world a shattered and primitive mess.
This is chilling, apocalyptic material. Unfortunately, Mitchell is too much of a postmodernist to deliver it with full force. When Pynchon suggested in “Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973) that history was a hall of mirrors, a farce, his perspective seemed liberating because it was fresh. Three decades later, this perspective seems moldy. We know that history is deadly serious and Mitchell’s game-playing undercuts his book’s moral argument.
For instance, Mitchell tirelessly casts doubt on his material. We’re told that there is “something shifty” about “The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing,” which story 1 comprises. It seems “too structured for a genuine diary.” The material about the crusading journalist of story 3 comes from a mystery novel while another narrator’s story is actually a film. At the end of the long first-person narration of story 6 we’re informed, by the by, that someone else has been narrating the tale. What to believe?
Nabokov engaged in such game-playing, but always as a way of drawing us into his story. Mitchell lacks the Russian’s supreme sophistication and purpose; too often he is clever for clever’s sake.
“Cloud Atlas” also suffers from Mitchell’s inability to imagine the workings of different minds. He displays a verbal genius in the voices he creates for his narrators, yet they think alike. All tell their stories in the same linear fashion with the same eye for details that move the story along. Ultimately, the voice we hear is Mitchell’s, translated into various dialects.
This same problem infects the literary genres Mitchell employs. The journal entries and private letters are not true to form. They always do what the novel needs them to, always on point, conveying information to advance the plot, shorn of the quirky observations inherent in such writing.
Nevertheless, “Cloud Atlas” is one of the best books of the year. David Mitchell is an immensely talented writer who knows how to spin absorbing tales. Where most writers attempt too little, his greatest weakness is that he risks all; when you take every hairpin curve at full speed, you’re bound to crash.
But oh, the rush. He is a writer to watch, in awe.