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Atlas shrugs
David Mitchell gets off on his Cloud

With his third novel, David Mitchell moves up a notch in the British literary hierarchy of the hottest: past Louis de Bernières and Lawrence Norfolk, encroaching on Will Self and Martin Amis. Comparisons with American icons are inevitable: an easy-listening Pynchon, a decaffeinated DeLillo, Paul Auster (a band in Mitchell’s first novel Ghostwritten are called "The Music of Chance") with more luster.

In his previous two novels (the second, number9dream, is overstuffed but does contribute this novel’s title), Mitchell conjured up cuckoo clocks that didn’t quite chime. Now, he has fashioned an artifice, a "seesawing, cycling, crystalline thing," as one character describes a piece of music. And at times it is, as another character describes another composition (the Cloud Atlas Sextet, no less), "pristine, river-like, spectral, hypnotic . . . intimately familiar."

Yes, it’s that kind of novel, not only self-reflexive but self-reviewing. Some have seized on the book’s "Russian doll" self-description to categorize its structure of interlinked narratives spawning one another. I never had much use for those kitschy items, and the spectacle of regression ad infinitum or ad nihilem, like that of parallel mirrors, is important only to cats and philosophy students. Genetic replication might be a more apt analogy, and indeed the fifth narrative in Cloud Atlas, An Orison of Sonmi~451, concerns a nightmare future of cloning, consumerism, and "corpocracy."

But I’ll stick with music, as does Mitchell. His most delightful protagonist is the bi-sexual scapegrace and self-styled genius Robert Frobisher, author of Letters from Zedelghem, the second of the book’s six mini-novels. In Belgium in 1931, Frobisher works as the amanuensis for Vyvyan Ayrs, the aging British expatriate composer of the Matryoshka Doll Variations, helping him with his latest symphonic work, Eternal Recurrence. Frobisher also labors on his own composition, the above-mentioned sextet, which he’s written for overlapping soloists, "each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order."

The technique sounds as if it might be annoying in a concert hall, but between two covers, it’s a page turner, using the oldest trick in the books, the cliffhanger, or "narratus interruptus," as a way of intensifying suspense and concealing limitations. Moreover, Mitchell masters the "key, scale, and color" of each of his soloists’ language, making them sing with an effortless, Mozartian grace.

First up is the title author of The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, a stolid San Francisco notary on a voyage to Australia circa 1849 aboard the hellish vessel the Prophetess. Mitchell evokes Melville, Conrad, and T.C. Boyle in forging this account of a decent man’s passage from pollyanna innocence to recognition of the predatory, devouring nature of the world.

"But who would bother forging such a journal, and why?" asks Frobisher, the second soloist, in his Letters. Who indeed? And why does Ewing’s journal ends in mid sentence? Frobisher’s tale is cut short as well, mortifying Luisa Rey (the reference to Thornton Wilder is intentional), the third of Mitchell’s instruments. She’s been reading Frobisher’s letters as part of her investigation into a nuclear-power plant that threatens the fictitious metropolis of Buenas Yerbas in California in 1975.

Fictitious? Here might jut the thread, deliberately planted, that unravels the intertextual fabric of Cloud Atlas. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery is the manuscript of a detective novel submitted to the title narrator of The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, a crapulous literary agent in present-day London, and Mitchell’s fourth narrator. Since he finds himself incarcerated against his will in a nursing home, Cavendish doesn’t find the time to read all the way through. So we’re left hanging midway.

But what’s more significant is that this narrative (told in an omniscient third person, no less) is an acknowledged fiction. All the others maintain the pretense of being first-person accounts of actual events. (In the sixth, and weakest, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rything’ After, a tribesman in a post-apocalyptic, A Canticle for Leibowitz–like wasteland tells his tale by a campfire.) And yet, the "factual" sections intertwine, Borges-like, with inventions of the "fiction." The fictitious Half-Lives is an illusion that gives the other illusions reality.

That should keep English departments busy for a while. Others may wonder, what’s the point? As Frobisher quibbles about his own Cloud Atlas, is it "revolutionary or gimmicky?" Anything this entertaining has to be a little of both.

Issue Date: August 27 - September 2, 2004
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