Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Book of the Month: Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell’s third novel, is an ambitious tale of interlinked narratives.

The novel opens with the pacific journal of a mid-19th century traveller, and leads the reader, via a collection of letters of a 1930s’ wisenheimer from Belgium, a conspiracy-thriller set in 1970s’ American fictional city of Buenas Yerbas, a contemporary memoir set in modern-day UK, an archival interview of a 'fabricant' in the nightmarish future of cloning, rampant consumerism and 'corpocracy', to the oral testimony of a tribesman belonging to the post-apocalyptic future where the earth has become barren. All the sections, except the Half-Lives: The First Lucia Ray Mystery—an ‘acknowledged’ fiction—are intense first-person narratives.

The narratives, each an independent, well plotted and utterly riveting novella by itself, are connected with others by motifs, some of which obvious, some more subtle. Thus, the first section of the novel, the pacific journal of the stolid and relentlessly conscientious San Francisco notary Adam Ewing, which intriguingly ends in mid-sentence—a trick Mitchell pulls of fairly consistently throughout the novel: each section ends on a cliff-hanger—finds its way, eighty years later, inside Chateau Zedelghem, in Belgium, where it is discovered by the cad and self-styled genius Robert Frobisher, the most endearing protagonist of the novel, who is working as an amanuensis for an expatriate British composer while working simultaneously on his own sextet—the Cloud Atlas. The letters Frobisher writes to his friend, the scientist Sixsmith (his name, one suspects, is a play on the structure of the novel), are found, decades later, by Lucia Ray, a young, intrepid journalist working for a gossip-rag, Spyglass, after Sixsmith, whom she fortuitously meets in a malfunctioning lift, is murdered by the henchmen of the all-powerful corporate company he is working for when he is about to pull the plug on their multi-million dollar project of nuclear power plant because of the serious design-flaws which pose grave environmental threats. This ‘fiction’ is presented to the eponymous narrator of the novel’s next section—The Ghastly ordeal of Timothy Cavendish—a bibulous publisher in the present day England who is on the run from his creditors, and who finds himself tragicomically incarcerated in a home of dementia sufferers after he suffers a mini-stroke, thereby not getting round to read the mystery to its dénouement. Mitchell then propels the reader without much warning into the dystopic world of Sonmi~451, a genetically cloned, inferior, ‘fabricant’ who subsists on soap and serves the ‘purebloods’, the ruling class within the dominant ‘corpocracy’, in a country ‘formerly known as South Korea’. Possessing a ‘soul’ because of an operation, Sonmi~451 is the accidental leader of a rebellion that is quashed most brutally, and she is executed. In this section, which is presented as an archival interview of Sonmi~451 prior to her execution, she describes watching a 'disney' [a movie] from the last century titled 'The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish'; her dying wish is to see the end of this movie, the only time she has experienced unadulterated joy. The sixth section of the novel, its most direful, takes place on the Big Island of Hawaii after 'the fall' [of civilization]. The earth has become a wasteland and is peopled by primitive tribesmen fighting internecine warfare. Amidst this desolation survive remnants of civilization that have some idea about the humanity’s past achievements and apogee. Somni~451 has become the Goddess of the tribesman, Zachry, who narrates the story in a thick dialect—making this section, at times, difficult to read—the origin of which is anybody’s guess.

In this pan-global—each narrative takes place in a different corner of the earth—, time transcending—the novels opens circa 1849 and within 300 pages the reader has ‘travelled’ centuries—daisy chain, with its—to quote a term adored by the academia—polyphonic spree, Mitchell gives a virtuoso performance. In an interview Mitchell readily admitted that the novel began with what he called the ‘Russian Doll’ structure. Said he: 'The main issue I had to approach was how to make the various novellas fit inside each other and to come up with ways of making the preceding narrative appear as an ‘artefact’ of the succeeding narrative. And the thing was to do that thematically, so the whole thing wasn’t a butcher’s shop exercise with stories meaninglessly presented in a gimmicky way, without adding up to much.'

The recurring motifs of the novel do run the risk of appearing gimmicky, even contrived, at places. The wayfaring of the comet-shaped birth-mark on the back of Somni~451 on more than one character is dismissed by Timothy Cavendish, who is perusing the manuscript of Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, as 'far too hippie-druggie-new age.'

Those obsessed with style haul Mitchell over the coals for not having found his own voice—his excellent debut novel, Ghostwritten had attracted similar criticism—but that is in fact the brilliance of this novel: each narrative, set apart in time, space and culture, has its own language which is vividly emblematical of the epoch it is describing. Mitchell is unapologetic about ventriloquising different voices. He declared in an interview: 'It’s a built-in advantage of the first-person narrative—you can use cranky language or even over-literary language. So you can commit all these ‘sins’ and not only are they not sins, but they add to character.' Cloud Atlas is an example of that, times six.

Those amongst us who believed Ghostwritten heralded the arrival of a major literary talent, will find the belief reinforced by Cloud Atlas. This is story telling of the highest order. Read it, and be captivated.