Philip Hensher

Roller-coaster of a ride

Text settings

Cloud Atlas

David Mitchell

Sceptre, pp. 529, £

David Mitchell has fast established himself as a novelist of considerable authority and power. His first novel, Ghostwritten, was published as recently as 1999, and Cloud Atlas is only his third. Anyone who read his remarkable debut, or its successor, number9dream, will instantly recognise the characteristic moves and bold gestures of this amazing extravaganza. His novels have a gleefully kleptomaniac air, moving from the most tawdry thrills to thunderous, visionary spectacle; they are unlike anything else, and you emerge from them dazed, amazed, unsure of the exact nature of the overwhelming experience. Cloud Atlas is a tremendous novel, but I’m not entirely sure why.

Ghostwritten had a very original structure, one evidently congenial to Mitchell. Each chapter was set in a different part of the world, and was connected to the others only tangentially; perhaps the hero of the previous story walked through a sentence in a subsequent episode. Slowly, these frail connections built up, until it started to seem as if one were witnessing the unfolding of a vast millenial conspiracy, and perhaps the end of the world. It was an extraordinarily impressive reading experience, but one put it down and it seemed to drift away like a marvellous, half-remembered dream.

That is not really denigration but simply a description of the strange atmosphere of Mitchell’s books. The reader’s feeling of ‘What the hell was all that about?’ on putting down number9dream is very much the same as his feeling on finishing one of Mitchell’s favourite (I guess) novelists, Haruki Murakami. The state of absolute dreaming conviction seems to exclude any kind of rational thought; more, the astonishing flood of narrative, sweeping away the reader in a torrent of frenzied events, traps the mind almost against its will. Cloud Atlas is one of the most shamelessly exciting books imaginable, exciting as much in its intellectual novelty as in its frequent resort to the tone of a sensational pot- boiler. Mitchell is a novelist who knows exactly what he is doing, and one who is always one or two steps ahead of the reader; and at the end it seems to evaporate like the best dream you ever had.

Perhaps a plain description is best. It is in an unusual form; in the first half, a series of stories is begun, arranged chronologically. Each breaks off at its midpoint. The first is the journal of a 19th-century American voyager to New Zealand, where he discovers the last of a dying people, the Moriori. The second is a series of letters from a fey and opportunistic young aesthete in the early 1930s, travelling round Europe, who forces himself on an aged English composer and acts as his amanuensis, exploiting the situation ruthlessly. The third is in the style of a frightful American thriller about industrial espionage, telling the story of a high-minded journalist in 1970s California. The fourth is a grotesque tale of a vanity publisher, pursued by gangsters, who through a series of mishaps finds himself trapped in a very sinister prison for old people. The fifth is set in some future Korea, in which a sub-species of human has been created to man fast-food outlets, and tells of the escape of one such and her education. In the centre is the last story, in the remote future, on the same Pacific island setting as the first; a catastrophe has engulfed mankind stemming from the Korean experiment, and the human race is divided into warring factions. In the second half of the book, the stories are completed in reverse order, and we slowly return to the beginning of the extraordinary narrative.

Like Ghostwritten, the book initially presents its connections as fortuitous, and only slowly do they gather weight. Here, each story is connected in a curious way to its predecessor; the chief figure in each story reads the previous one, and comments, often disparagingly, on it. The aesthete thinks the Pacific journal implausible; the American journalist is alarmed by the aesthete’s letters; the vanity publisher thinks the previous story embarrassingly lurid; the Korean server watches the publisher’s story wide-eyed; and her story, to the last narrator, is the testament of a god. There are other connections, and odder, inexplicable undercurrents; characters recur, everyone has a comet-shaped birthmark. Allusions are insistent but baffling; Philip Larkin is everywhere in the publisher’s story, and Huxley and Orwell’s dystopias comprehensively filleted for the Korean episode, the splendid climax at the midpoint a magnificent rewriting of O’Brien’s unmasking in Nineteen Eighty-Four. All the stories have doubt cast upon them; they might be no more than that, stories, and the unnerving way the Belgian episode is made up of real anecdotes about real composers, such as a celebrated passage in Ken Russell’s film about Delius and Eric Fenby, is deliberate.

The effect is extraordinary, and mesmerising. The first half of the novel loads its own material with successive interpretations; the second half, regressing, searches for causes. In a sense, the novel, though boldly melodramatic and lurid in its materials, is underpinned by a profound structural principle which derives from chaos theory. Chaos theory holds that tiny events may have huge ultimate consequences; it further maintains that the observer of an event alters the nature of that event by observing it. The novel’s extravagant chain of consequences and its obsessive interpretations and misinterpretations of preceding material turn these ideas into an aesthetic shape. Moreover, all the narrators know very clearly, apart from the last one, that their narratives are going to be read and considered; that belief alters their narratives, alters what they do and tell, in exactly the way that chaos theory maintains.

It is a remarkable structure, carried through with great elan and confidence. I finished the novel before it occurred to me that I ought to have been marking interesting passages. Mitchell’s ground plan, of succeeding stories building up into an unpredictable whole, is one which many young novelists now find attractive; Ali Smith’s Hotel World and Rachel Cusk’s The Lucky Ones, both splendid and influential novels, resort to a pattern which looks superficially like a series of short stories. Mitchell’s novel, however, is structured in this way not because of a particular aesthetic flavour, but because the material of the novel and its subject actively demand it. Unusual as the form is, it is one perfectly suited to the work, and you are persuaded that it couldn’t have been done in any other way.

It’s not quite a perfect novel; sometimes the speed of events gets out of hand, and the narrative becomes confusing. The story about the publisher is given in a deliberately tiresome and rather unfunny voice, and Mitchell seems to be enjoying himself a little too much for the reader’s endurance. The long middle story is powerful and beautifully written, extracting jewels of phrasing from the debased and chaotic dialect of the remote future; but for once one was reminded of other books which have done something very similar with more power, notably that great book, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. I didn’t feel that Mitchell had really concentratedly constructed his dialect, and once or twice it lost conviction. More seriously, perhaps, nothing in the book does anything to dispel a tiny, nagging worry I had about Ghostwritten; that, marvellous and dizzying as the multitude of voices were, I had very little idea by the end of a characteristic Mitchell turn of phrase. Having read three of his books, and having admired all of them greatly, I still couldn’t say that I could identify a page of prose as Mitchell’s; I can’t quite imagine what it would look like.

That, I think, hardly matters; this book is so rich in its passionate inauthenticity, you would be a fool to ask Mitchell to become a more ordinary novelist. It is very rare to come across a novel so ruthlessly planned, and yet so unconfined by its formal decisions, so unpredictable in its direction, so convincing even at its strangest, so capable of doing anything to serve its extraordinary ends.