“As an experienced editor,” proclaims down-at-heel London literary agent Timothy Cavendish, “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with M.A.s in postmodernism and chaos theory.” Woe betide Mr. Cavendish, then, were he to discover that he’s a character in Cloud Atlas, a veritable gadgetorium of narrative contraptions. David Mitchell’s third novel is so tricked out, in fact, that advance proofs came with a disclaimer from the publishing director of Random House, who confesses that he thought pages had gone missing from his manuscript when it vaulted mid-sentence—mid-word, actually—from the South Seas diary of a 19th-century notary to the epistolary plaints of a penniless composer in 1931 Belgium. The epic unfurls as no less than a journal within a series of letters within a mystery novel within a movie (or, perhaps, a lovingly detailed description of said movie) within a convict’s last interview within an old man’s reminiscence. Each new narrative irruption opens a fissure in the preceding groundwork (usually leaving behind a cliff with a protagonist dangling off it) until Mitchell hits his novel’s deep-earth kernel—a futurist folktale of sorts, spun ’round the campfire in a Twainian vernacular—and then tunnels back out again.
As did the pan-global daisy chain of Mitchell’s 1999 debut, Ghostwritten, the new book barrels along on the author’s virtuoso powers of ventriloquism. Cloud Atlas is a polyphonic spree whose voices (echoing forebears as diverse as Sterne, Typee-era Melville, Huxley, Waugh, Bradbury, and Amis fils) bounce off the sloping walls of the novel’s Chinese-box architecture (evoking at turns Italo Calvino, Flann O’Brien, and Jonathan Safran Foer). The big theme is Only Connect, but Mitchell also lingers time and again on repressive imbalances of power: Victorian-era colonizers exploit and exterminate natives of South Pacific islands; a young tabloid reporter named Luisa Rey (her name nodding to a multi-strand ancestor of Cloud Atlas, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey) gets in the crosshairs of a rapacious nuclear energy company in 1970s California; a genetically engineered serf in a future “corpocracy” slowly gains awareness of her sorry, shocking plight.
The latter’s long night’s journey into day affords Mitchell the opportunity to riff on a Brave New World updated for globalization and its discontents: an apartheid state called Nea So Copros, divided between “fabricant” slaves and “pureblood” consumers who are required under law “to spend a fixed quota of dollars each month, depending on their strata. Hoarding is an anti-corpocratic crime.” (In the distant past, of course, undershopping was merely un-American.) Sonmi-451, the destined Jeanne d’Arc of the fabricant masses, toils 19 hours a day in a McDonald’s-like cafeteria called Papa Song’s, where she and her brainwashed sisterhood are taught to devote their labor and prayers to their corporate-mascot father: “Papa Song told us a gas called evil xists in the world; purebloods called terrorists breathe in this evil, and this gas makes them hate all that is free, orderly, good, and corpocratic.” The Manichaean singsong of Papa’s homilies rings all the more familiar when old Zachry, the novel’s post-apocalyptic Homer, gravely invokes the bogeyman-devil “Old Georgie,” stealer of weak men’s souls.
Sonmi-451 has a comet-shaped birthmark in common with several characters in Cloud Atlas, but it’s anyone’s guess whether this wayfaring mole signifies the omnipotence of blind chance or intelligent design; Timothy Cavendish, perusing the MS of Half Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, disdains the motif as “far too hippie-druggie-new age.” Both Cavendish and Rey contributed cameos to Ghostwritten, while Zizzi Hikaru, a virtual vixen used as a masturbatory aid by the protagonist of Mitchell’s 2001 sophomore effort, Number9Dream (a witty, wistful Tokyo story that nonetheless owed a crippling tithe to the Church of Murakami), reappears here to meet a fate emblematic of the institutionalized callousness of corpocracy.
Perhaps a little too emblematic, according to Sonmi-451, who suddenly takes on the Cavendish role of skeptical editor when she asks, at the coda of her testimony, “Did you not detect the hairline cracks in the plot?” Likewise, the discoverer of Adam Ewing’s Pacific journal wonders aloud if the battered artifact is a forgery and, just like a crusty critic, gives away a major plot twist before some of us might have spotted it. Cloud Atlas fumbles these pomo glissandos, which smack of an oddly smug defensiveness (is the intention to flatter the reader or rebuke her?), while Sonmi’s saga attempts a final metafictional somersault that breaks the back of her entire tale.
Indeed, once Cloud Atlas reaches its halfway point, it begins falling into sixfold lockstep with the generic demands of third-act resolution—each strand eventually ties itself into a neat bow of explain-it-all confrontation and/or death-defying great escape. (Two denouements in particular could have been processed at the Robert McKee factory.) But so long as the heads are still popping off Mitchell’s Russian doll like champagne corks, his novel glows with a fizzy, dizzy energy, pregnant with possibility and whispering in your ear: Listen closely to a story, any story, and you’ll hear another story kicking inside it, eager to meet the world.