I'm reading The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing, a work of fiction based in part upon historic events, which is written in the period style and language of the narrator. I'm usually uncomfortable with this sort of thing. In my experience attempts to reproduce historical styles or dialects are too often a distraction, an affectation which seeks to add 'flavour' to the tale but in reality does little to add true depth or believability to the writing. The characters themselves are often just caricatures, or clumsy and one-dimensional embodiments of historical movements or trends. But this story is very different.
Adam Ewing is a Californian writing around 1850, and Mitchell does a superb job of catching not just the written mannerisms of the time, but also the mindset of the fictional author. Ewing is no mere caricature, and far from being simply a mouthpiece for the prevalent beliefs and assumptions of his time he is informed by his own unique understanding and humanity. There is, in short, a feeling of palpable reality about both him and his journal.
The journal begins on the Chatham Islands. Ewing is a passenger on board The Prophetess, and is ashore while repairs on the ship are undertaken. Here he hears the story of the terrible fate of the Moriori people. Mitchell gives this history as heard by Ewing a vibrant, living pulse. Not all of the accounts that Ewing hears agree on exactly what happened or how it should be interpreted. Ewing himself has his own feelings about the story, and the casual racism of his era and upbringing is offset by his own personal humanity and intellect in a completely believable way.
There is only one jarring note, and that is the inclusion of an asterisked footnote in the journal which begins, "My father never spoke to me of the dendroglyphs..." and which is signed J.E. We have already learned that Ewing has a son named Jackson, so this must be a later interjection by him. Seeing this footnote does rather break the boundaries of the tale, which up to this point has been completely absorbing. However, this should be no surprise to anyone who has read any of Mitchell's earlier works. Nor should the fact that, just a little further into the
Dreamt I stood in a china shop so crowded from floor to far-off ceiling with shelves of porcelain antiquities etc. that moving a muscle would cause several to fall and smash to bits. Exactly what happened, but instead of a crashing noise, an august chord rang out, half-cello, half-celeste, D major (?), held for four beats. My wrist knocked a Ming vase off its pedestal – E-flat, whole string section, glorious, transcendent, angels wept. Deliberately now, smashed a figurine of an ox for the next note, then a milk-maid, then Saturday's Child..."
I'm reading Letters From Zedelghem, apparently. I'm reading Letters From Zedelghem and I'm ready to punch David Mitchell in the teeth.
Mitchell is an absolute master of style and genre. He slips them on and sheds them with the seeming comfort and familiarity of pairs of old worn-in jeans. It's a cliché of effortlessness taken to extremes: yes, the work of a true master is often seemingly effortless, but with Mitchell there's the nagging suspicion that perhaps this is genuinely effortless, that it causes him no more problems than breathing out.
He's also an astonishingly gifted and eager story-teller. Every tale he tells is touched by other tales, incorporates other tales, leads to other tales. It would be exhausting were it not so exhilarating, because at every turn Mitchell's enthusiasm to tell his stories is precisely held in balance by his skill. He appears poised at the exact edge of fiction's creation, a place where even an often-told story suddenly becomes present and alive, and imagination does not pause but instead flows on from one vision to the next.
This is exactly what opium is like, by the way. A quote from The New York Times Book Review on the back of my edition of Cloud Atlas reads in part, "He writes as though at the helm of some perpetual dream machine...". Precisely that.
But Mitchell is also, I strongly suspect, a knowing and frighteningly skillful manipulator of the reader. I'd already read Ghostwritten and Number9Dream when I began Cloud Atlas, so I knew what to expect. Namely, as soon as you're completely enmeshed in the current dream, you'll be jolted awake and dropped into the next, still vaguely delirious with the previous vision.
Ewing's Journal ceases suddenly mid-ocean, mid-story, and, in case you were in any doubt, mid-sentence. The first thing I did when I bought this book was to strum through the pages, flicker-book style, to check the chapter headings at the top of each page. It was immediately obvious that this was another novel in the form of a series of shorter stories, each of which would probably contain reflections and resonances from one or more of the others. That's exactly how Ghostwritten, Mitchell's first novel, is constructed. But the power of Mitchell's vision and prose is such that, even with the knowledge that the current tale is going to be snatched away from you (and juxtaposed, and re-contexted, and even criticized) it's impossible not to be carried along for the ride.
So, from the middle of the ocean and the middle of an earlier century, we are suddenly thrust into the middle of a correspondence between Robert Frobisher and Rufus Sixsmith in Letters From Zedelghem, which tells the story of Frobisher, a young composer and all-round bounder who, in 1931, goes to Belgium to escape his creditors and to offer his services as amanuensis to a faltering elderly composer, Vyvyan Ayres.
During his audition at Ayrs's mansion, Frobisher remarks on feeling "a certain frisson sitting on Vyvyan Ayrs's own piano stool beforehand..." where the various furnishing had all witnessed, "the conception and birth of Matryoshka Doll Variations ...."
Here's where Mitchell earns his punch in the teeth, although not until my second reading of the book. Because Matryoshka Doll Variations is precisely what you'll be reading here. This book is made up of six stories, each of which contains, sometimes in a literal sense, the previous story, as well as aspects and echoes of the other stories. The way this phrase is dropped in here betrays a level of manipulation bordering on mockery. It's essentially a stage whisper by Mitchell; "Look, you're reading a book, and it works like this, and I'm revealing it to you right now and you'll still be sucked in regardless." It wouldn't be so infuriating if it wasn't true.
There in Ayrs's mansion, Robert Frobisher finds a manuscript, half of which is missing. Its title is, of course, The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.
And it probably won't surprise you to learn that Frobisher's story is cut suddenly short. Here we are in 1975, in the next story, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery, in which a journalist happens to meet Rufus Sixsmith and eventually reads the letters sent to him years earlier by Robert Frobisher. Or rather, she reads around half of the letters...
Half-Lives is of particular note here, because it illustrates Mitchell's power so well. The First Luisa Rey Mystery is an action-packed yarn about a gutsy young investigative reporter, and as such belongs to a genre that I genuinely dislike and recoil from. I'm simply not interested in reading stuff like this. Add to this the absolute knowledge that it's going to be cut off suddenly in mid-stream, factor in the 'falseness' of the context in which the story appears (you already know it's going to be part of another tale... probably a book someone in the next story is reading?) and there is surely no possibility of any kind of involvement in Half-Lives other than cold intellectual curiosity. And yet a few pages into it I'm completely emotionally engaged. Yes, it's a fluff genre, it's rife with clichés, it's hugely predictable, but Mitchell demonstrates exactly why it's been so overdone. Simply, it's because this sort of thing can be enormous fun. It just a Bloody Good Yarn.
And this brings me to the essence of one of the core feelings Mitchell's work gives me: it's that feeling of being manipulated on a level that I can't even properly comprehend. Usually, when people play with our emotions and responses it's possible to know what's happening and to see something of the manipulator's means and intentions. But here I'm not so sure. Possibly there is a sackload of cynicism here, with Mitchell laughing behind his hand as he exploits the cheesy conventions of a jaded genre, with the absolute confidence that his beautiful prose will make you swallow it whole and smile. Or possibly there's just a staggeringly gifted writer with enough exuberance and love of story-telling to turn any tale, in any genre, into something fresh and new enough to remind the reader of why it became a genre in the first place.
That tell-tale reference, Matryoshka Doll Variations, and many many other little comments and hints like it, lead me to believe that even if he's not sniggering about it, Mitchell is playing with the whole idea of fiction in ways that I don't have the capability to fully appreciate. This, I have to say, is incredibly unsettling and hugely attractive to me, and it's something I haven't felt about a book or a writer since I read Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.
The next story is The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, set early this century. Cavendish is a vanity publisher who is sent a manuscript about a gutsy young investigative reporter...
Next up is An Orison of Sonmi~451, set in the relatively near future. It's pretty much pure science fiction, although possibly speculative fiction would be a better description. Readers of Margaret Atwood will likely have heard that description before, and indeed Atwood is one of the writers who comes to mind when reading this story. Annoyingly, the current Wikipedia article mentions both her and Phillip K. Dick in connection with Sonmi~451, and since those are exactly the two people I wanted to mention, all I can do is echo their names here. Of all the stories, this one has the least believable link to the previous tale. This is a very minor matter in the scheme of things though.
Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After is the final story. Sci-fi again, set in the far future. This is what Isaac Asimov would have written if he'd been able to write literature. And here in the far future, it's a tale told by an old man to a collection of avid listeners around a camp-fire. The link to the previous story is perfect. And what do you know, for once we get to hear a story all the way to the end!
The irony of this is, we're only half-way through Cloud Atlas at this point. I'd already guessed where this was going, admittedly partly because of my flicker-book preview, and perhaps you've guessed too by this stage. Specifically: we're now taken back to each of the previous half-finished stories in reverse order, and each of them is brought to a conclusion. The Matryoshka dolls are reassembled.
This 'review' is already too long, and all I really want to do here is to get you to read the book. And if you love stories, you really do need to read it. If you love writing, you need to read it (although it may make you want to give up). If you love puzzles, you need to read it. I've omitted to mention several strong themes of the book as a whole, two of them central themes. I've also completely overlooked Frobisher's great composition, Cloud Atlas Sextet, the structure of which is a model of the structure of the six stories which make up the book.
I've also so far failed to state the one thing which should perhaps be self-evident, but here it is anyway: Mitchell writes like an angel. There are some passages and turns of phrase which are genuinely illuminated, where the use of language is so precise and perfect that it is poetry, but always in the service of narrative, never out of place or for its own sake. This truly is the realm of Nabokov, although Mitchell pretty much earns himself another slap by casually slipping the phrase "speak, memory", the title of Nabokov's memoir, into one of the stories.
One last thing I've omitted which I think requires a mention, and that's any form of constructive criticism. First of all, let's not leave this unsaid any longer: Mitchell is a genius, and Cloud Atlas is probably a masterpiece. It seems not to matter what he writes about, and he makes every genre his own. But after reading the book I felt I wanted something more from Mitchell, and I think I've finally figured out what that is.
In comments published in the back of later editions of Lolita, Nabokov recounts how he first wrote Lolita as a short story which later developed the "claws and wings" of a novel. That phase seems particularly apt here.
Nabokov's masterpiece is 300 pages of the most exquisitely crafted poetic prose, all of it in the service of a narrative about one of the most morally repugnant individuals ever committed to print. That's one of the features which gives Lolita such a biting edge and imbues it with such acute poignancy.
Mitchell's writing clearly already possesses the wings, and he flits everywhere on them. That's not to say that Mitchell's writing is inconsequential, and he tackles some big themes, both in Cloud Atlas and in his previous writing. But he does, after all's said and done, let the reader off fairly lightly, and I'd like to be challenged by him at some point in the future. What I'd really like to see next Mr Mitchell, are some claws.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
First published 2004