Brilliant Stutter-Step Novel Cuts Smoothly Through History

Cloud Atlas , by David Mitchell. Random House, 509 pages, $14.95.

Hugely entertaining and vastly ambitious, David Mitchell’s third novel, Cloud Atlas , is tailor-made for a reader with eclectic tastes. “Tailor-made” is meant to evoke the image of a meticulous craftsman hand-fashioning something rare and beautiful out of boldly patterned material-imagine big shears cutting out curious shapes, patient adjustments to get the fit just right, eye-straining needle work. “Eclectic,” in this case, isn’t about subtle variations in style; not satisfied with one fabric, this tailor insists on motley, makes kaleidoscopic clothes, works with silk and sackcloth, Mylar and skins.

Mr. Mitchell tells six wildly different stories in 11 chapters. Each of the first five stories is interrupted in mid-flow-a series of abrupt, disorienting truncations. After the sixth story, which is left intact, the other five stories resume one by one, in reverse order, so that the last chapter picks up the story begun in the first chapter. The intricate symmetry of this narrative pattern is somewhat daunting; it’s bound to put off many readers. One of Mr. Mitchell’s narrators provides a template for swift dismissal: “As an experienced editor,” he sniffs, “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory.”

I hope Cloud Atlas will be spared knee-jerk reaction against “tricksy devices,” and not merely because Mr. Mitchell is a prodigiously talented writer. The book works : The elaborate structure enacts a theory of history that’s part of the novel’s core meaning; the stop-and-go narrative reveals itself as a continuous cycle; the separate stories achieve a weird unity; and what seemed at first mere cleverness begins to look like wisdom.

Mr. Mitchell is always weighing the progress and promise of civilization against its failures. He begins by plunging us into the mid-19th-century Pacific journal of Adam Ewing, an American notary from San Francisco who has traveled to New South Wales on business and who finds himself on the Chatham Islands waiting for the repair of the ship that’s taking him, via Hawaii, back to his hometown-which the gold rush of 1849 is in the process of transforming. Adam is pious and earnest and naïve, full of Yankee hopefulness about the virtues of democracy and the inevitable triumph of Christian values. His adventures, told in antiquated prose modeled on Melville and Richard Henry Dana Jr., bring him into contact with two primitive tribes: the warlike Maori-who are cannibals-and the peaceful, doomed Moriori, who are enslaved by the Maori. We also encounter an English “gentleman,” a surgeon whose motto, Adam learns too late, is “The weak are meat the strong do eat.” Just as we’re getting used to our narrator’s somewhat doltish goodness, just as we’re beginning to notice a spark of intelligence beneath the cloak of righteousness, the story breaks off in mid-sentence.

And suddenly we’re reading the letters of Robert Frobisher, a fabulously cultivated young Englishman, the product of Eton and Cambridge, a composer who’s brilliant, promiscuously bisexual, unstable and utterly unscrupulous. The year is 1931, and Robert-broke, disinherited by his father, pursued by creditors and temperamentally unsuited to any work except making music-gambles on a trip to Belgium. Not far from Bruges, in a turreted château that “stinks of mushroom and mold,” he talks his way into a job as amanuensis to the celebrated Vyvyan Ayrs, a reclusive English composer suffering from tertiary syphilis. It’s a marvelously rich atmosphere. Elgar, visiting Bruges, drops in for tea. Robert’s older brother, who died in the trenches of World War I, is buried somewhere nearby, under a headstone marked “KNOWN UNTO GOD.” Here’s civilization at its best and worst: a cad creating symphonic works with a syphilitic, Nietzsche-spouting composer, living and breathing music in crumbling bourgeois splendor in a country recently devastated by one war and soon to be overrun by another. But again-no sooner have we grown comfortable with this delightfully decadent ambiance than we’re yanked away ….

To Buenas Yerbas, Calif., summer of 1975: A young reporter is investigating a lethally corrupt power company that has built a radically unsafe nuclear reactor. Then on to present-day London, where a vanity-press publisher who likes to quote Gibbon scores an unlikely best-seller and soon thereafter finds himself literally imprisoned in a old-folks’ home in the drear North.

And then boldly into the future, sometime after the “Saudi Arabian Revolution” and “the disastrous Pentecostalist Coup of North America” and “the Skirmishes.” This, the last of the truncated stories, is set on the Korean peninsula in a rigidly hierarchical, ultra-capitalist state, a “corpocracy” managed for the benefit of “purebloods” and sustained by the labor of “fabricants”-genetically engineered or “genomed” slaves. (Echoes here of Philip K. Dick, and also of the 1973 sci-fi classic Soylent Green ).

For the fulcrum story, the pivot at the center of the novel, Mr. Mitchell invents a distant future that mirrors our distant past. Set long after “the Fall,” in Hawaii, where only crumbling traces remain of the “Civ’lize Days” and the “Old Uns” who had the “Smart,” this last story is packed with adventure, an old man’s yarn about the destruction of a primitive but peaceful tribe: When he was still young, his people were slaughtered and enslaved by their warlike neighbors. It’s the Maori and the Moriori all over again-the end of civilization brings us back to its beginnings.

There are many ingenious threads connecting the six stories and explaining the sudden truncations. For example, in an alcove of books in his room in the château in Belgium, Robert Frobisher finds a “dismembered volume”-one half of Adam Ewing’s journal; much later, he discovers the other half wedged under the leg of his bed. And Robert’s lush letters were sent to a character who turns up 44 years later in Buenas Yerbas, on the run from ruthless hired assassins. But the links, though many, are too serendipitous and too tenuous to bind the parts into a whole. Imagine yoking Melville, Evelyn Waugh and John D. MacDonald.

All six stories insist on their integrity. The two futuristic tales are even told in dialect (two different dialects, each one appropriate and convincing), a sci-fi tradition that stretches back to Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange . The chapters set in California and England have a loose, contemporary feel: The former has pulp-fiction reverb (“The butt of the gun arrives in his palm. His finger enters a loop of steel, and a flare of clarity illuminates his purpose”); the latter reads like particularly relaxed Martin Amis satire.

Running through each of the chapters like an animating trickle of electricity is a thought best summed up from the post-apocalyptic perspective: “[H]uman hunger birthed the Civ’lize, but human hunger killed it, too.” Hunger appears in many guises, from cannibalism (a recurring motif) to a storyteller’s barter: “so gimme some mutton an’ I’ll tell you ’bout our first meeting. A fat joocesome slice, nay, none o’ your burnt wafery off’rin’s.” The fact that we’re animals who must feed and digest disgusts a suicidal Robert Frobisher: “People are obscenities. Would rather be music than a mass of tubes squeezing semisolids around itself for a few decades before becoming so dribblesome it’ll no longer function.”

But of course the urge to make music, to become music, is also a hunger. Robert eventually pours his life into the composition of his Cloud Atlas Sextet , which-you guessed it-sounds a lot like Mr. Mitchell’s novel: Each solo has “its own language of key, scale, and color” and there’s a schedule of strategic interruptions. “Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished,” Robert writes, “but it’s the first thing I think of when I wake, and the last thing I think of before I fall asleep.” Despite his obsession, he scoffs at the idea of making art for the greater glory civilization: “How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because, if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.”

A surfeit of narrative ingenuity, and a message to boot! Is Cloud Atlas too cerebral? Is there room in it for the beating heart of every beloved novel: people we recognize? Yes, indeed. I’m amazed by the sheer energy Mr. Mitchell has invested in imagining the interior lives of his half-dozen principal characters. An ailing Adam Ewing on the cusp of disillusion looks out over the Pacific and declares, “The color of monotony is blue.” Centuries later, Sonmi-451, a fabricant coming to grips with her special destiny and mesmerized by her first sight of the ocean, says, “All the woe of the words ‘I am’ seemed dissolved there, painlessly, peacefully.”

I’m sure it’s hard to believe that a pleasing melody could emerge from this cacophony of voices, each in its own language of key, scale and color. But the same remarkable skill that makes the various stories so distinct and engrossing makes their uneasy juxtaposition seem, in the end, harmonious. The authority with which Mr. Mitchell imagines entire, self-sufficient worlds earns him the reader’s trust-and the time to let his theme swell into a unifying idea.

Adam Begley is books editor of The Observer .