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Meet the New World, Same as the Old World

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David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is this year’s literary jazz solo: an ambitious roller-coaster ride through cycles of imagined history that jets up one side of six stories and then down the other, with tongue in cheek and heart on the sleeve.

Think of boxes within boxes within boxes — six related stories, ranging from the far past to the further future, each evolving from the other. Or, more to the point, think of a pyramid, because it has the symmetry of one: five half-stories on one side mirrored by their endings on the other, with one “whole” story at the apex: one, two, three, four, five, six, five, four, three, two, one, so to speak. Like any good game, you understand this more as you play it.

It begins with a diary, set in 1850. Adam Ewing, a notary traveling by ship from Sydney to his home in California, is temporarily stranded in the Chatham Isles near New Zealand. Like the typical naif in Melville’s early novels, Adam is an innocent whose Pacific journey opens his eyes to the horrors committed in the name of civilization, namely the way the white settlers have used the Maoris to enslave the peace-loving Moriori people. Adam takes mysteriously ill and, while attempting to recover, saves a Moriori stowaway from death; suddenly — boom — his journal stops mid-sentence.

We move ahead to another place altogether: Germany, 1931, where a carefree, bisexual English composer named Robert Frobisher is writing letters home to his friend Sixsmith. Heavily in debt, Frobisher takes a job helping a selfish old composer complete his unfinished symphony, Eternal Recurrence, which basically means writing it for him. In his off-hours, Frobisher discovers a bound version of The Pacific Journals of Adam Ewing. Unfortunately, the book has been torn in two and he can’t find the other half; “the pages cease, mid-sentence.”

Frobisher’s letters likewise stop suddenly, but the game of eternal recurrence continues apace. We bolt ahead to California in 1975, where Sixsmith is now an atomic engineer and would-be whistleblower at the nuclear facility of Seaboard Corporation, trying desperately to get someone’s attention about the dangers of the company’s latest reactor. Sixsmith tries to pass along his own suppressed report on the reactor to an investigative journalist named Luisa Rey, who becomes drawn into Sixsmith’s past, intrigued both by the letters from Frobisher 40 years before and that late composer’s little-known “Cloud Atlas” symphony.

The story of Sixsmith and Luisa reads just like a popular thriller. And, as we learn in the story that follows it, that’s exactly what it is — an unpublished manuscript that has fallen into the hands of Timothy Cavendish, a wily, frustrated, conniving and charming old man, living in the present day, who runs a vanity press and whose own life becomes a bizarre comedy of errors that will result in his imprisonment in a hellish nursing home. Cavendish, too, proves to be “fictional”; in the story following his, set far in the future, his life is recalled as the plot of a film from way back in the 21st Century — well before the emergence of “corpocracy,” the new corporate state where, among other things, movies (especially ones about people aging naturally rather than being euthanized) have been deemed counterrevolutionary.

It’s in this world — the fifth, if you’re counting — that we meet Sonmi-451, a clone or “fabricant” who has spent her life working in mindless domesticity in a restaurant and, thanks to a secret scientific development, has assumed human emotions and thought processes, threatening the structure of an established slave order.

When Sonmi’s story cuts off, we soar even further ahead in the future to a post-apocalyptic world, where a farmer named Zachary tells of society divided between the Prescient, or Smart, tribe, which is black, and the peaceful but largely ignorant white people of the Valley, who worship a god of old, a Christ-figure who died for the sins of the world named … Sonmi-451.

From here, midway through the book, we go back the same way we came; we find out not only how all those stories ended, but all they have to do with each other. Besides the obvious connections, there are other echoes: story for story, main characters share a comet- shaped birthmark between the shoulder blades, and indeed they are all vanishing comets or clouds going through history — effectively, the same cloud, the same soul, changing shape as it drifts through the sky of history. Each main character is a victim of some oppressive force, waging a lonely fight either for their independence or others. A Biblical cycle keeps replaying itself: Eden, the fall, a long or short-term salvation. The destruction of the Moriori people in the middle of the 19th century is essentially the same story of the destruction of the fabricants and the war upon the Valley.

The more the story works its way back into the past, the more it comments on the future. By the time we get back to where we began, with Adam in the Chatham Islands, corporate greed and slavery — as well as religion, which in Mitchell’s view only legitimizes and sustains the other two — are staring both him and us right in the face: aspects not of a distant past but of life itself. Like Henry Adams at the dawn of the 20th century, Mitchell sees annihilation as the ultimate endgame, as humans are never more collectively creative than when they are waging war, enslaving others or blowing themselves up. The book doesn’t end on a note of despair though; rather, there’s a ringing hopefulness to it that individuals still matter. However tragically they end up, the six main characters of the book are all heroes; counterforces, to use Thoreau’s phrase, against the machine.

Mitchell brings to mind all the usual suspects who stalk the great multi-narrative, from Joyce to Woolf to Nabokov to Barth to Pynchon to Rushdie, and places itself very much in their tradition; some might say a dying tradition. Swooping all over time and space isn’t as impressive as it was in 1966, and Mitchell all but acknowledges that he’s treading a worn path. As Timothy Cavendish huffs, “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowing, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with MAs in postmodernism and chaos theory.”

Mitchell pays him no heed. Instead, he takes the droopy, shriveled-up old hag known as postmodernism and shows there’s life in the old girl yet. Cloud Atlas is a passionately experimental, exhilarating and exhausting novel; the Somni and Zachary stories, one hyper-scientific and one written in post-nuke Huck Finn dialect, frankly wore my patience down, and I was glad to see both end. But forget I said that, or remember it and put it on the shelf. Let nothing dissuade you from reading this book, which is one of the year’s best. When you finish it, you’ll know you’ve really been somewhere — hell, you’ll know you’ve been everywhere.

More to read at Rodney Welch: The Blog

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  • Eric Olsen

    Rodney, excellent: thorough, articulate, inspiring, as are all the posts you just put up – a real eye-opener. Thanks!

  • Dana Huff

    That looks like a very interesting read. I’ll have to check it out. Very well-written and thoughtful review, too.