Review: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

David Mitchell's new novel of interlinked narratives, Cloud Atlas, takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride, says AS Byatt. And you won't want to get off

Cloud Atlas
by David Mitchell
544pp, Sceptre, £16.99

David Mitchell entices his readers on to a rollercoaster, and at first they wonder if they want to get off. Then - at least in my case - they can't bear the journey to end. Like Scheherazade, and like serialised Victorian novels and modern soaps, he ends his episodes on cliffhangers and missed heartbeats. But unlike these, he starts his next tale in another place, in another time, in another vocabulary, and expects us to go through it all again. Trust the tale. He reaches a cumulative ending of all of them, and then finishes them all individually, giving a complete narrative pleasure that is rare.

The first tale is about a 19th-century American lawyer, Adam Ewing, crossing the Pacific in 1850, meeting Maoris and missionaries, a seedy English physician and some nasty sailors. The second is about a young British composer in 1931, who cons a dying genius into taking him on as an amanuensis, and then makes love to his wife and daughter. This narrator, Robert Frobisher, composes the Cloud Atlas Sextet "for overlapping soloists" on piano, clarinet, cello, flute, oboe and violin, "each in its own language of key, scale and colour". Frobisher's tale is told in a series of letters to his lover, Rufus Sixsmith, who later appears as a nuclear scientist in Reagan's California in the 1970s. This Californian thriller is the tale of Luisa Rey, a journalist who uncovers a corporate nuclear scandal and is at constant risk of assassination. The fourth voice is Timothy Cavendish, a 1980s London vanity publisher, trapped in an old people's home near Hull. The fifth is the pre-execution testimony of Sonmi-451, a cloned slave in some future state, who has acquired intelligence and vision. The sixth, and central one, is the storytelling voice of Zachry, a tribesman after the fall of the civilised world, who is back in the Pacific islands where the linear narrative began. The novel opens with one ship - the Prophetess - and ends with another ship that contains the survivors of Civ'lise, the Prescients.

The stories are all very intensely first person - apart from "Half-Lives - the First Luisa Rey Mystery". Each has a charac ter with a birthmark like a comet, as though they might be different incarnations of the same soul or different forms of the same cloud of molecules, as we all are. They are linked by other artifices - Frobisher finds both parts of Adam Ewing's Pacific diary; Luisa Rey acquires both Frobisher's letters and a rare gramophone record of the Sextet ; Cavendish is sent "The First Luisa Rey Mystery" by its author; Sonmi's dying request is to watch an old half-viewed film of "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish", to see what happened. Sonmi herself has become the goddess of the Valley Tribes of Zachry, although the Prescients - who have preserved a hologram of her "orison", or recorded testimony - say she was a "freakbirthed human who died hun'erds o years ago".

Cloud Atlas is powerful and elegant because of Mitchell's understanding of the way we respond to those fundamental and primitive stories we tell about good and evil, love and destruction, beginnings and ends. He isn't afraid to jerk tears or ratchet up suspense - he understands that's what we make stories for. Cavendish, considering "The First Luisa Rey Mystery", imagines a critic saying: "But it's been done a thousand times before", and snarls to himself, "as if there could be anything not done a hundred thousand times between Aristophanes and Andrew Void-Webber! As if Art is the What, not the How!" This is a half-truth - Cavendish has the limitations of his place in culture, history and this novel - but it does associate works of art, and novels, with the eternal recurrences of culture and human nature.

Mitchell is indeed both doing what has been done a hundred thousand times before and doing it differently. He plays delicious games with other people's voices, ideas and characters. Adam Ewing has his secret sharer and his Billy Budd. Frobisher is an amoral aesthete out of Waugh and Powell, and Vyvyan Ayres, his elderly host and slave-driver, quotes Nietzsche with nasty, decadent charm. Cavendish is nasty (and insinuatingly sympathetic) in the way of the Amises and Burgess's Enderby, snarling with wit about disasters of transport and bodily malfunction. "Luisa Rey" is interesting because it uses the clichés of the Chandler world of good cop against bad power, exacts the simple response with which we would read such a tale - narrative greed, simplified fear and sympathy - and at the same time (because of the context it is in) is more moving than it would be on its own. Luisa describes an interview she did with Hitchcock (who, she says, described his own works as rollercoasters), in which she "put it to the great man, the key to fictitious terror is partition or containment: so long as the Bates Motel is sealed off from our world, we want to peer in, like at a scorpion enclosure. But a film that shows the world is a Bates Motel, well, that's ... the stuff of Buchloe, dystopia, depression."

This observation is something that Mitchell understands and exploits - using the word partition in both its musical and fencing sense, to make a distance between us and the tense dramas and horrors he describes, to make us see everything. Sunt lacrimae rerum, as Frobisher says at the end of his tale.

Another paradigm we are offered is the idea of another character, a scientist - shortly before he is blown to bits - that we exist for a brief moment inside a shell (like Russian dolls) of virtual pasts, one of which is also the real past, and another of virtual futures, one of which is the real future. "Half-Lives" is a knowing title, radiation and fiction combined. Fictive people are ghosts. The ghosts of the virtual future, paradoxically, have to be more concrete than those of the pasts, written and real, that we already know. Sonmi's Nea So Copros and Zachry's Sloosha's Crossin' are both recognisable dystopias, one technological and political (in the tradition of Orwell, Huxley, Alasdair Gray), the other post-technological primitivism (as in Riddley Walker, Golding, Ursula le Guin); and both work because of the joyful amplitude of Mitchell's inventiveness. He is good at imagining the details of these hypothetical lives - not only the food and the rituals, but the moral atmospheres and the automatic assumptions. But his great feat is the variation in rhythms, which sweeps away any readerly objection to yet another brave new world. Sonmi, the fabricant who learns nakedly and from scratch to think and feel, is oddly the most intelligent of all the characters. Zachry's rhythm of tribal anecdote is the most compelling. These two use old words and invented new ones which are a delight.

Cloud Atlas asks the simple questions of our own time, which has a Darwinian vision. A missionary explains to Adam Ewing, son of the American revolution, his idea of a "ladder of civilisation" that will extinguish those races unable to join progress. Zachry's tribesmen believe Sonmi was "birthed by a god o' Smart named Darwin". Humans, someone says, have the intelligence of gods and the souls of jackals. Greed will destroy the world. Ewing, at the end of the book which is close to its beginning, as it has come full circle, sees the "natural" ideas of dominance and fitness as "the entropy written within our nature". He has saved the life of the last Moriori tribesman, whose peaceable family were destroyed by Maori warriors. The Moriori saves him, and individual acts of heroism and rescue stand against tooth and claw across the narrative web. Ewing goes back to become an abolitionist. Sonmi is a (briefly) freed slave whose presence has its half-life after defeat. Zachry becomes again the last of his peaceful tribe, and its storytelling memory. Ewing also says that "Belief is both prize and battlefield", and what Mitchell does is embody simple beliefs and make them vital and important.

Luisa is named after Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, another tale of lives brought together in time and significance by convergent fates. It is a tougher, sparser book than I had remembered, and I had forgotten the character of the priest, who tries to find God's providence in the accidental deaths and is burned for blasphemy. There are recurrent abbesses in Cloud Atlas who resemble the abbess in Wilder's book, who watches over the harmed and the hurt. Both books can be read both ways - there is a hidden order, mimicked by, or revealed by, art, which makes sense of our brief lives. Or perhaps there is not any order, except at the molecular level. Perhaps there is only kindness and tears.

· AS Byatt's Little Black Book of Stories was published by Chatto last year.


AS Byatt

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