David Mitchell is already being treated as a major figure of British fiction. But it is too early to tellby Julian Evans / April 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Book: Cloud Atlas Author: David Mitchell Price: (Sceptre, ?16.99)
Imagine, for a moment, that the writing of novels is a disease contracted by certain fragile and ambitious men and women from their twenties onwards, many with an obvious predisposition (emotional or physical deficit) in their childhood. Treatment of the affliction consists in managing the narrative effusions that appear at intervals, with the intention that, over time, the novelist can feel confident that his or her view of the world, as expressed in fiction, is accepted by enough readers to supply the necessary reinforcement. Essential to the treatment is a cocktail of elements: editing, publishing, marketing, inclusion on a Granta list of best young British novelists, shortlisting for prizes, sympathetic profiling and reviewing. Too much of some, too little of others, may be fatal to the long-term prognosis. Remember David Leavitt, Tama Janowitz, Jay McInerney, AL Kennedy, Candia McWilliam, Gordon Burn?
David Mitchell has reached a sensitive point in his treatment. Mitchell is a 35-year-old English novelist living in Ireland whose third novel has just been published. Cloud Atlas is an intense, arcing colossus of a book whose narrative links, supplied by the voices of six main characters, are spun out into a unified theory of everything: history, human evolution, science, the will to power. The voices span epochs, continents, and genres. They begin with that of Adam Ewing, an American lawyer of the 1850s stuck on a schooner in the Pacific, whose narrative breaks off mid-sentence, and is replaced by a cache of letters written from Belgium in 1931 by Robert Frobisher, a nascent but caddish musical genius who has talked his way into a job with an uncharming, dying composer named Vyvyan Ayrs. Frobisher discovers Ewing’s Pacific journal in the composer’s library before his letters are in turn interrupted. Similar artifices link the other stories: a 1970s thriller featuring a young American journalist, Luisa Rey, investigating the death of Rufus Sixsmith, a nuclear researcher (and once Frobisher’s lover); a seedy vanity publisher named Timothy Cavendish, on whose desk “the first Luisa Rey mystery” lands; and a genetically altered slave-worker, Sonmi, who briefly breaks out of her servitude.
The keystone to these half-lives, or half-fictions, is the Faulkneresque storyteller Zachry, speaking far in the future, after civilisation’s final fall. He is the apex of the novel’s highly engineered arc, or perhaps the farthest point of its boomerang flight, since…