David Mitchell’s New Novel The Bone Clocks Falls Far Short of His Best Work


David Mitchell’s latest novel The Bone Clocks is 624 pages in hardback, its sprawling metaphysical plot jammed into six overlapping sections that move through six decades and several genres. Any number of critical placeholders might be applied here: Sweepingambitious, genre-skeweringkaleidoscopic (I stole that last one from the book jacket). Or, perhaps we prefer our descriptors more academic? Okay: Postmodernmetatextualmetacritical, polyglossic. With The Bone Clocks, Mitchell has used these functional, formal postmodernist techniques to string together a few good novellas with some not-so-good novellas into a novel that’s not bad—but also not particularly good.The Bone Clocks is just okay. It fills space, it fills time. But unlike Mitchell’s previous stronger novels—Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas in particular—The Bone Clocks fills without nourishing.

The Bone Clocks opens in 1984 with “A Hot Spell,” introducing us to the novel’s ostensible subject, Holly Sykes, a fifteen year-old who runs away from home. This section also introduces us to Mitchell’s consistent idiom here, a first-person present tense narration that forces the plot forward like an engine. When Mitchell needs to deliver any background information, the narrator simply trots out old memories, or a character politely shows up to dump exposition. The exposition-dumping is particularly egregious in the novel’s final sections.

Our heroine Holly Sykes helps out with some of that exposition early on, filling in some of the contours we’ll need to understand if we want to suss out the Big Metaphysical Plot of The Bone Clocks: There are “the radio people,” voices that contact Holly, um, telepathically; there are the strange figures of Marinus and Constantin; there is the drama of Holly’s deep-souled, old-souled little brother Jacko, who ominously makes her memorize a labyrinthine map in the book’s early pages (foreshadowing!):

The one Jacko’s drawn’s actually dead simple by his standards, made of eight or nine circles inside each other.

“Take it,” he tells me. “It’s diabolical.”

“It doesn’t look all that bad to me.”

“ ‘Diabolical’ means ‘satanic,’ sis.”

“Why’s your maze so satanic, then?”

“The Dusk follows you as you go through it. If it touches you, you cease to exist, so one wrong turn down a dead end, that’s the end of you. That’s why you have to learn the labyrinth by heart.”

Christ, I don’t half have a freaky little brother.

“Right. Well, thanks, Jacko. Look, I’ve got a few things to—” Jacko holds my wrist. “Learn this labyrinth, Holly. Indulge your freaky little brother. Please.” That jolts me a bit.

See how young Holly doesn’t quite cotton that Jacko has, like, responded to her by using the same phrase she thought but didn’t say aloud? Mitchell has a talent for crafting characters like this—characters who can’t see their own blind spots, characters utterly naïve to how we see them. Mitchell excelled at this technique in Black Swan Green, whose narrator Jason Taylor describes for us what he cannot name or fully understand. Holly’s 1984 narrative often feels like a rewrite of Black Swan Green. Jason actually shows up—sort of—in The Bone Clocks; his cousin Hugo Lamb, a minor character in Black Swan Green, narrates the section after young Holly’s story.

Hugo Lamb’s “Myrrh Is Mine, Its Bitter Perfume” propels us to 1991. Lamb is a charming, conniving con man. If young Holly echoes Adam Ewing of Mitchell’s superior novel Cloud Atlas in her naïve innocence (she does), then Hugo Lamb echoes Cloud Atlas’s genius con man, Robert Frobisher. Indeed, most of the central narrators in The Bone Clocks read like familiar repetitions of characters from Cloud Atlas. I enjoyed Frobisher’s plotting and scheming, and I enjoyed it again in Lamb, a sympathetic rake. I was digging The Bone Clocks all through his section, despite feeling vaguely worried that Mitchell was not exactly doing much to flesh out The Big Metaphysical Plot that would have to hold this thing together.

Continue reading “David Mitchell’s New Novel The Bone Clocks Falls Far Short of His Best Work”

I Riff on the Cloud Atlas Movie


1. Cloud Atlas is neither the bizarre trainwreck I thought it might be, nor is it a disastrously wrong-headed reinterpretation of David Mitchell’s novel.

2. It’s actually about as faithful an adaptation as one could expect.

3. A major deviation from the novel:

The filmmakers (the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer) of Cloud Atlas chop up and rearrange the novel’s six sections such that each section’s individual arc (e.g. exposition, climax, dénouement, etc.) runs concurrently with the other narrative arcs—like braided strands—whereas the novel nests them—like matryoskha dolls.

It’s very clear why the filmmakers would wish to use a more traditional grammar, but the effect is often more taxing than rewarding—the work’s themes of eternal recurrence are overstated (yet somehow underdeveloped), pressed repeatedly on the viewer. There’s little breathing room.

4. Another (possible) deviation from Mitchell’s novel:

The filmmakers cast their company (including Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, and Hugo Weaving) in multiple roles, so that each actor portrays a new character in each section. Mitchell’s novel played with the idea of eternal recurrence subtly, using a comet-shaped birthmark as a linking signifier. The film adaptation overloads the theme, creating the impression of a system that simply doesn’t inhere through the plot unless the viewer chooses to impose it (granted, certain actors tend to be cast in villainous roles or heroic roles—but there isn’t a coherent system of correspondences between the actors and the characters, despite what snippets of dialog would wish the viewer to believer).

5. The biggest problem with casting actors across a variety of roles:

The effect is extremely distracting—especially when actors are playing characters across gender or across race (especially the film’s notorious use of “yellow face,” which is problematic on many levels, not the least of which is that the make-up and prosthetics just look awful—and the part of the yellow face that’s worst to me (and perhaps the least-remarked-upon) is the awful fake “Asian” accents that the white actors use, with mangled intonations, etc. Disastrous).

The gambit may have worked (only may) if the filmmakers had cast actors who could actually pull it off. Denis Lavant, Tilda Swinton, and Gary Oldman all come to mind as actors who inhabit their roles to such a degree that the character transcends them (in plainer language: Gary Oldman is excellent at not looking like Gary Oldman). Tom Hanks—well, Hanks is wonderful at balancing charm with profound gazes—but he looks just like Tom Hanks in every damn scene he’s in, whether he’s playing a contemporary British gangster (maybe the low point of the film) or a post-apocalyptic tribesman (which, let me just shoehorn this in here real quickly—I imagined the Zachry of the novel to be like, much, much younger than mid-fifties). Halle Berry looks like Halle Berry, even in white face. And Hugo Weaving doing his Nurse Ratchet impression…well, leave it alone, leave it alone.

6. One thing the film does very well:

Stylized action sequences. We might expect this—the Wachowskis gave us The Matrix trilogy—but I was surprised at how well these moments fit into the film. There must have been a temptation to wedge shootouts and battles and cool cityscape sequences into the film, but these pockets of action are used sparingly, effectively buoying the film.

7. Another thing the film does well:

Explore the themes of slavery (and slave-master dynamics) that are central to Mitchell’s text.

8. The biggest thematic short-coming of the Cloud Atlas film:

Its muddled handling of eternal recurrence. In my review of Mitchell’s novel, I suggested that the book was overtly investigating the relationship between Nietzsche’s concept of eternal recurrence and his infamous and often misunderstood übermensch. Granted, the film does posit history as a cycle of domination and submission, and also suggests that figures who wish to break or disrupt or upset this cycle will be assassinated or martyred—but the film elides the novel’s Nietzschean impulses in favor of New Age contours. There’s a broad, hippy-dippy streak of faux-spiritualism to the film that’s too syrupy to swallow. (In full disclosure, dear reader—I prefer a healthy dose of bitter with any sweets).

9. Another problem:

The music. It’s not that the score by director Tom Tykwer and two collaborators is bad—it’s fine, I suppose—it’s that the filmmakers rely too heavily on music to stitch their story strands together. The effect is at times simultaneously dulling and claustrophobic.

10. An extension of the previous point:

This is perhaps the biggest shortcoming of Cloud Atlas: Its compression. The film runs to an epic three hours, but somehow feels rushed.

There’s not enough space for characters to develop, and because the film has created a system through which characters are essentially reiterations of previous “selves,” the changes that the characters do undergo seem like fore drawn conclusions. Perhaps the most drastic example comes in the fabricant Sonmi-451. She’s an emblematic character to the narrative, a messianic figure, and her catechism provides the novel’s perhaps strongest exploration of what it means to be human and free. While the film hardly botches the Sonmi-451 segment, it doesn’t devote enough time to showing her revolutionary arc.

11. I know, I know—the film is already three hours, and here I am asking for more.

Suggestion: Cloud Atlas might have been much stronger as a twelve part miniseries, giving its characters and themes room to breathe and grow.

Another suggestion: Cloud Atlas as a one-man theatrical show starring, I don’t know, Gary Oldman (?). 75 minutes tops.

12. My criticisms might seem overly nitpicky, and to be clear, they are from the perspective of someone who read and enjoyed the book first. Still, I hate to fault the Wachowskis and Tykwer for their ambition, scope, technical prowess, and, oddly, their restraint. The film is far more focused and coherent than it has any right to be and its themes come through clearly. The filmmakers show a deep respect for Mitchell’s novel as well as the film’s audience while at the same time offering their own personal interpretation of the source material. When Cloud Atlas stumbles or outright fails, it does so on its own terms—which is why I think the film ultimately succeeds.

In Which I Review the Cloud Atlas Film Trailer

I liked David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas.

I reviewed it here in some detail, but here’s a brief overview:

Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas comprises six sections, each interrupted by the next section (with the exception of the sixth section), and then commenced again in reverse order (a simpler way to think of this might be a schema: 1-2-3-4-5-6-5-4-3-2-1). Sections 1-6 move forward chronologically and, significantly, each section represents a new literary trend. (Again, perhaps a schema with illustrating examples would work better here; for more detail, check out my review: 1: Melville-2: Modernism-3: Airport novel-4: Contemporary novel (Roth?)-5: Dystopian sci-fi (post-Orwell, shades of PKD)-6: Post-apocalyptic (language games, à la Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker)). In short, Cloud Atlas is an exercise in several genre styles, glommed onto a few ideas cribbed from Nietzsche: eternal recurrence, master/slave relationships, will to power, all that jazz. Ultimately—and more interestingly, I think—Cloud Atlas is an exercise in postmodernism-as-genre, a sort of critique perhaps (intentional or not), brought into even greater relief when one examines Mitchell’s novels Black Swan Green (a coming of age story) and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (a straight-up historical romance), which are, again, genre exercises.

This leads me up to the film adaptation of Cloud Atlas, the long trailer for which dropped today.

I would embed the goddamn trailer, but it’s been blocked on YouTube and other similar sites by Warner Brothers, who apparently have absolutely no idea how publicity works.

You can watch the trailer here.

[Update] Here’s the trailer:

Did you watch it? Okay. I’m gonna riff a little:

I know that trailers have to advertise films to a wide range of potential audience members, and that often leads to overwrought musical cues and lines pulled out of context and big flashing words in all caps, but damn, this is cheeseball stuff. Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is a subtle book (at times), one that works best when the readers are allowed to do most of the work. The trailer suggests spectacle over nuance, bombast over substance. But again—just a trailer.

Not that the Wachowskis—who are directing and writing and producing (along with Tom Tykwer, whose films Run Lola Run and Perfume I recall enjoying)—-are known for restraint.

And, while I’m bringing up the Wachowskis: They are most famous for their visual inventiveness (these are the guys who did The Matrix), but great looking films don’t necessarily mean much. I mean, the last film they did was Speed Racer (okay, Cloud Atlas looks a lot more restrained than that fiasco, but still, these guys have major problems with storytelling).

Now, based on the trailer, the filmmakers seem to have done some significant rewrites. In Mitchell’s novel, each section (or sections 1-5, at least), exists as a narrative of some kind—fictional narratives, in a few cases. Each protagonist comes to find him or herself echoing or tracing or otherwise repeating or prefiguring the protagonist of another narrative—but there’s always the recognition of the textuality (and hence, metatextuality) to this patterning. Put another way, these are all characters in stories that are awfully familiar to us, and Mitchell strives to make the reader aware of this textuality: it’s a thoroughly postmodern move. 

The film seems to connect the characters in two ways: 1, it seems to use actors across separate roles (this could work) and 2, it seems to have characters from previous segments interact with each other across segments. I might be misreading the trailer when it comes to point 2 here, but I think that having characters actively puncture the nested narratives of Cloud Atlas is a bad idea. And, even if I am misreading this, the film clearly imposes a unifying style across the narratives—sure the dystopian sci-fi scenes will have different set dressing, etc., than the Pacific journal narrative scenes—but take note of how all the scenes seem to follow a unified visual sensibility. The joy of Mitchell’s novel is the way he plays with, parodies, adores (etc.) the narrative styles he’s reworking. For example, Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery reads like a bad airport mystery (or at least a mediocre one). I was hoping that the filmmakers would attempt to do something similar with the film—actually play with the concept of genre, actually manipulate and amplify the distinct genre conventions at work in Mitchell’s book. Which, maybe they do. Again, I know: it’s just a trailer.

But it’s an awfully slick, shiny trailer.

Okay, perhaps I’m griping too much. All the characters seem to be there, and the casting doesn’t seem terrible. My curiosity is piqued, admittedly, but mostly because I want to know how the filmmakers will handle the nested narratives (also: how long will the movie be?). In any case, I’m sure this will be one of those movies where people sigh and say, “Yeah, the book is way better.”

Bret Easton Ellis on David Mitchell’s Novel Cloud Atlas

Seven Fragmentary Novels That Aren’t The Pale King

I finished David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King the other night (don’t worry—I know that there’s been a terrible shortage of coverage for this obscure book, so I’ll post a review pretty soon review here). The Pale King unfolds as a series of fragments, some short as one page, many the length of long short stories, and one novella length piece. Characters recur, but themes, images, and motifs hold these pieces together rather than any linear plot. The better pieces can stand on their own as short stories, yet are much richer when read with/against the rest of the novel. The Pale King remained unfinished at the time of Wallace’s death, but his notes on the manuscript (published at the end of the book) suggest that fragmentation was always his intentional method.

The fragmentary novel is nothing new, but its particular powers have gained resonance against the backdrop of a world where authority, information, and communication are increasingly decentralized, scattered, and, well, fragmented. Fragmentary novels might have roots in the picaresque (those one-damn-thing-after-the-next novels like Don QuixoteCandide, Huckleberry FinnInvisible Man, Orlando, Blood Meridian . . .), but picaresque novels tend to have a shape, a trajectory, even if they seem to lack traditional plot arcs or characterization. What I’m talking about here are novels made of pieces, segments, or chapters that work fine on their own, and  may even seem self-contained, but when synthesized help reveal the novel’s greater project. So, seven fragmentary novels that aren’t The Pale King—

Steps, Jerzy Kosinski

There’s force and vitality and horror in Steps, all compressed into lucid, compact little scenes. In terms of plot, some scenes connect to others, while most don’t. The book is unified by its themes of repression and alienation, its economy of rhythm, and, most especially, the consistent tone of its narrator. In the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s the same man relating all of these strange experiences because the way he relates them links them and enlarges them. At a remove, Steps is probably about a Polish man’s difficulties under the harsh Soviet regime at home played against his experiences as a new immigrant to the United States and its bizarre codes of capitalism. But this summary is pale against the sinister light of Kosinski’s prose. Here’s David Foster Wallace: “Steps gets called a novel but it is really a collection of unbelievably creepy little allegorical tableaux done in a terse elegant voice that’s like nothing else anywhere ever. Only Kafka’s fragments get anywhere close to where Kosinski goes in this book, which is better than everything else he ever did combined.”

Speedboat, Renata Adler

Telegraphed in bristling, angular prose, Speedboat unwinds as a series of seemingly unrelated vignettes, japes, and jokes all filtered through the narrator’s ironic, faux-journalist sensibility. Adler’s novel eschews plot, conventional characters, and resolution—its contours are its center. Speedboat was published in the early 1970s, but it would seem ahead of its time even if it were published tomorrow.  Adler captures the deep existential alienation of modern life, converting dread into verve and despair into marvel.

2666, Roberto Bolaño

Bolaño’s opus bears considerable superficial comparison to Wallace’s The Pale King: both were published posthumously, both have endured a process of buzz and backlash, both are unfinished, and both are purposefully fragmented. 2666 comprises (at least five) parts, some connected explicitly, others tied loosely together, but all interwoven with themes of violence, darkness, art, and love. The book’s most notorious section, “The Part About the Crimes,” is itself a fragmented beast, a procession of murders and rapes, dead-end investigations, bizarre TV appearances, and other sinister doings. Prominent characters disappear into the violence of Santa Teresa never to return again; the great mystery of the book seems unsolved. But like Ariadne, Bolaño offers his readers a thread through the labyrinth, a layering of motifs, as words and images repeat throughout shifts in space and time.

Naked Lunch, William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch’s cut-up origins are well-known and probably greatly exaggerated: the book is far more coherent than its reputation insists. Still, Burroughs’s infamous novel is all over the place (quite literally), moving through time and space and even to Interzone. Comic, rambling, lusty, and perverse, Naked Lunch’s satire is often overshadowed by its seedier, more sensational side. Burroughs claimed his novels were part of an antique literary pedigree: “I myself am in a very old tradition, namely, that of the picaresque novel. People complain that my novels have no plot. Well, a picaresque novel has no plot. It is simply a series of incidents.”

Vertigo, W. G.  Sebald

Vertigo blurs the lines between fiction, history, autobiography, and biography. The book comprises four sections. The first section tells the story of the romantic novelist Stendhal (or, more to the point, a version of Stendhal); the second section details two trips Sebald made to Italy, one in 1980, and one in 1987; the third section describes a trip Kakfa took to Italy near the end of his life; the final section describes the narrator hiking from Austria to visit the village where he was born in Bavaria. Underwriting and uniting these separate episodes is the narrator’s attempt to find a common thread between past and present, to find a unity in a Europe fractured by time and war. There’s also a deep, throbbing melancholy mixed with beauty and wisdom here.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell

Mitchell constructs Cloud Atlas like a doubled matryoshka doll, nesting narratives inside narratives that work their way to an apocalyptic future; once Cloud Atlas hits its middle mark, it works outward to the past, back to its own edges. With the exception of the middle piece, a nod to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, Mitchell fragments each piece of Cloud Atlas at a key turning point, an old literary trick really, but one that pays off. The tales likely hold up on their own, but their intertextual play is the real delight of the novel, as Mitchell showcases a variety of styles and genres and forms that reflect the content and era of each tale. At its core,  Cloud Atlas explores Nietzschean themes of eternal recurrence and the will to power; its clever fragmented structure emphasizes the loops of history humanity finds itself caught in again and again, even as brave souls seek a new way of seeing, living, doing.

Go Down, Moses, William Faulkner

Faulkner always insisted that Go Down, Moses was a novel, although in its initial publication it was presented as a collection of short stories.  And granted, any of the stories can be read on their own. “Was” is hilarious homosocial hijinks, but read against the sorrow and anger in “The Fire and the Hearth” and “Pantaloon in Black,” or the prolonged majesty of “The Bear,” Faulkner’s project becomes much clearer—he is taking on a century in the lives of the Mississippi McCaslins. Go Down, Moses is strange and sad and funny and truly an achievement, a book that works as a sort of time machine, an attempt to undo or recover the racial and familial (and in Faulkner, these are the same) divides of the past.

“Without Any Jiggery-Pokery” — David Mitchell on Writing His Novel Black Swan Green

David Mitchell talks about writing his novel Black Swan Green in his 2010 Paris Review interview


I’d actually started Black Swan Green years earlier. In 2003, while I was finishing Cloud Atlas, Granta asked for an unpublished story, and all I had were a few sketches about the world I grew up in. I didn’t want to be overly distracted from the end of Cloud Atlas, so I decided to knock one of the sketches into a publishable story. In doing so, I began my next novel.


Did you, like Jason, write poetry under a pseudonym for the parish newsletter?


I did.


Was your pseudonym the same as Jason’s: Eliot Bolivar?


James Bolivar—after a character created by an American science-fiction writer, Harry Harrison. I’ve never told anyone that before. You can see why.


And, like Jason, did you go see a speech therapist?


Just the same, aged about thirteen. Like Jason, I would go, and my stammer would vanish in the presence of the therapist, but come the next day, I’d be stammering again. One very pleasing result of Black Swan Green is that the book now appears on course syllabi for speech therapists in the UK. I hope that the book is useful for anyone wanting to understand an insider’s account of disfluency. For most of my life, the subject was a source of paralyzing shame, scrupulously avoided by family and friends. They were being kind, but to do something about a problem it must be named, discussed, and thought about. After writing the second chapter of Black Swan Green I realized, This is true, real, and liberating. I felt a little like how I imagine a gay man feels when he comes out. Thank God—well, thank me actually—that I don’t have to pretend anymore. Now I’m more able to feel that if people have a problem with my stammer, that problem is theirs and not mine. Almost a militancy. If Jason comes back in a future book, he’ll be an adult speech therapist.


When you were creating Jason Taylor, did you ask yourself, What was David Mitchell like at that age?


It was largely that, yes. Arguably, the act of memory is an act of fiction—and much in the act of fiction draws on acts of memory. Despite the fact that Jason’s and my pubescent voices are close, his wasn’t the easiest to crack because it had to be both plausible and interesting for adult readers.


It was perverse of you to write a first novel after having written three others.


When I started out on this head-banging vocation, my own background simply didn’t attract me enough to write about it. An island boy looking for his father in Tokyo; sarin-gas attackers; decayed future civilizations in the middle of the Pacific—these were what attracted me. It took me three books to realize that any subject under the sun is interesting, so long as the writing is good. Chekhov makes muddy, disappointed tedium utterly beguiling.


Black Swan Green is very carefully structured.


Get the structure wrong and you blow up shortly after takeoff. Get it right and you save yourself an aborted manuscript and months and months of wasted writing. Make your structure original and you may end up with a novel that looks unlike any other. So yes, Black Swan Green is carefully structured—like all halfway decent books—but simply structured too, with one story per month for thirteen months. After Cloud Atlas I wanted a holiday from complexity. I was reading Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and Alice Munro—all three great No Tricks merchants. After doing a half Chinese-box, half Russian-doll sort of a novel, I wanted to see if I could write a compelling book about an outwardly unremarkable boy stuck in an outwardly unremarkable time and place without any jiggery-pokery, without fireworks—just old-school.

“There Are Anthropological Limits on Reading” — David Mitchell Talks About Writing

Cloud Atlas — David Mitchell

Friedrich Nietzsche famously wrote that “There are no facts, only interpretations.” David Mitchell takes this idea to heart in his 2004 novel Cloud Atlas, using six nested narratives to mull over Nietzschean matters of truth and perspective, the will to power, what it means to be a slave or a master, and the different methods by which one might narrativize one’s life. At its core, Cloud Atlas works to illustrate Nietzsche’s hypothesis of eternal recurrence, the idea that we live our lives again and again. To wit, each of the central characters in Cloud Atlas‘s six sections seems to be a reincarnation of a previous one. Mitchell arranges his narrative like a matryoshka doll, interrupting the first five stories with Scheherazade-style cliffhangers. Each narrative propels the book’s chronology forward a century or more until reaching a crescendo in a post-apocalyptic world, the only section that remains uninterrupted. Mitchell then resumes each narrative, working backward through time to his starting point in 1850, with The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing.

The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing features a naïve American’s tour of the South Pacific, focusing roughly on his trek from New Zealand to Hawaii. The journal’s style readily and purposefully recalls Herman Melville; indeed, Ewing himself professes to be a fan of Melville. Early in Ewing’s journal–which is to say, early in the novel Cloud Atlas–we are treated to (or subjected to) a somewhat lengthy description of the enslavement and slaughter of the pacifist Moriori tribes of the Chatham Islands at the hands of the Māori. Here, Mitchell introduces his novel’s dominant theme of slavery and civilization. Again and again in Cloud Atlas, we find groups of people preying upon other people, enslaving them and decimating their cultures. The Pacific Journal reiterates this theme when Ewing helps to rescue an enslaved Moriori who has escaped his slavers by stowing away; the episode also echoes the relationship between Ishmael and Queequeg, of course.

The next episode, Letters from Zedelghem, features a young bisexual composer named Frobisher; his narrative comprises letters he sends to his best-friend (and sometime lover) Rufus Sixsmith. Frobisher’s robust voice is one of the great achievements of Cloud Atlas; he finds music everywhere and in everything, and even though he repeatedly gets himself into terrible situations (which are always entirely his own fault) it’s hard not to feel for him. In debt and on the lam, he finds work as an amanuensis in Belgium, laboring under an aged, sometimes-despotic composer named Ayrs. Ayrs enlists Frobisher’s talents in creating a work named “Eternal Recurrence,” but ends up stealing most of his ideas. The Frobisher narrative is the only section to explicitly name Nietzsche and his ideas. Given the setting–Belgium, 1931, Europe precariously dangling before the precipice of another war–there’s a certain ambivalence toward Nietzsche perhaps, or at least a tacit acknowledgment that ideas like the Will to Power might be radically misapplied. Letters also most openly alludes to the structure of Cloud Atlas. In its second part–which is to say its conclusion, which is to say near the end of Cloud Atlas–Frobisher writes the following–

Spent the fortnight gone in the music room, reworking my year’s fragments into a “sextet for overlapping soloists”: piano, clarinet, ‘cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky?

Frobisher’s question perhaps reflects Mitchell’s own reticence over his complicated structure; in any case, it amounts to a post-modern wink. Frobisher’s narrative also initiates the book’s process of connecting the narratives, as each protagonist finds a copy of the earlier principal’s story. Frobisher finds Ewing’s Journal and devours it; in one of the book’s funnier moments, he scolds Ewing’s naïvety, comparing him to Captain Delano in Melville’s Benito Cereno. Frobisher’s criticism is apt. With its themes of slavery and mastery, truth and representation, and exterior and interior, there is probably no book that Cloud Atlas echoes as strongly as Benito Cereno.

Mitchell moves from a wonderful and witty approximation of the epistolary novel into a dull exercise in boilerplate fiction with the next narrative. Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery follows the adventures of a plucky newspaper reporter in the 1970s as she tries to reveal a multinational corporation’s evil doings to the public. Aided by the report of a scientist named Rufus Sixsmith (yes, that Rufus Sixsmith), Luisa plunges into a world of intrigue and mystery and blah blah blah. Half-Lives intends to comment on airport novels, but Mitchell outdoes himself with the bad writing–it’s easily the weakest section of Cloud Atlas, and although it plays with the novel’s overarching themes it does little to enlarge or invigorate them. It does, however, introduce the comet-shaped birthmark that connects the heroes of these tales as they are born and reborn.

Mitchell seems more at home in the amplified voice that propels The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. Set in and outside of London in the near future–that is to say, our near future–The Ghastly Ordeal is probably the funniest section of Cloud Atlas. Cavendish, the aging publisher of a small vanity press, finds success (and trouble) when one of his authors openly murders a critic. A dispute over royalties finds him hitting the road and fleeing for safety outside the urbane confines of London. Soon, he’s held prison in a home for the elderly somewhere in the barbaric north. Cavendish is scowling, imperious, overeducated, and arch; his racism and classism seem to belong to a different age and he’s prone to hyperbole (scratch that–he’s all hyperbole). Cavendish’s narrative is deeply reactionary: early in, he relates being mugged by a group of school girls, and the episode seems to come from A Clockwork Orange. How honest he is here, of course, is under suspicion, but that’s kinda sorta the whole point of Cloud Atlas. Cavendish’s narrative is the hardest to place stylistically–it doesn’t immediately resonate with any of the genre tropes that characterize the other section–but I suppose that there’s something of the post-Modernist (as opposed to postmodernist, of course) white-male-reactionary flavor to his Ordeal–hints of Saul Bellow, Updike, Roth perhaps? I’m not sure. The Ghastly Ordeal is the most contemporaneous episode of Cloud Atlas, so its tropes may be harder to spot.

The dystopian tropes of An Orison of Sonmi-451 are more readily apparent. Orison jumps centuries ahead, pointing to a future where an imperial Korean dominates what’s left of the non-burned Earth. Corporations have replaced government and consumerism has replaced religion. The rigid class structure that has developed relies on a slave class of fabricants–genetically modified clones–who perform dangerous jobs and manual labor. The narrative unfolds as an interview with Sonmi-451, a fabricant who “ascends,” positioning her in a level of unprecedented self-awareness that positions her to become the signal in a revolution to end slavery. There’s more to Orison than I can possibly unpack here, an observation that cuts both ways for Cloud Atlas. On one hand, Mitchell’s dystopia is repellent and enchanting, grimy and brightly lit, a world of fascinating extrapolations that mirror and satire contemporary society. On the other hand, Orison is overstuffed; its seams show the strains of containment. One gets the sense that Mitchell’s had to restrain an entire novel here, and the frequent need to dump exposition on his readers undercuts his otherwise nimble prose. (Alternately, the clunky exposition dumping might be a reference to Philip K. Dick). Mitchell is clearly comfortable working in the idiom of Orwell and Huxley (Sonmi explicitly references both writers, by the by), but the second half of Orison–the descending half, if you will–cannot reclaim the energy of its first part. Beyond Orison, a sense of contraction rules the second half of Cloud Atlas.

Perhaps the deflation in the novel’s second half results from its triumphant middle passage, Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After. Dystopia moves to post-apocalypse, and maybe a thousand years after the time of Ewing, we are back in the Pacific, in the Hawaiian islands, where a man named Zachry spins one of the better adventure yarns I’ve heard in some time. Mitchell writes Sloosha’s Crossin’ in an invented argot that readily (and purposefully) recalls Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece Riddley Walker. Like that book, Sloosha’s Crossin’ showcases an environment removed from the apocalypse–the narrative is more about how civilizations might reform after a fall. When a woman named Meronym from a “tribe” called the Prescients comes to stay with Zachry’s family, the stress between civilization and savagery comes to a head. The Prescients seem to be the last group of people on earth with any vestige of command over prelapsarian technology. Meronym (who bears a comet-shaped birthmark) does her best not to intervene in the day-to-day life of the family, but when the Kona, an aggressive tribe of slavers attack, she finds her self unable not to act. As the central, unbroken narrative of Cloud Atlas, Sloosha’s Crossin’ must both climax the novel as well as tie its disparate ends to its organizing themes. It doesn’t disappoint, both encapsulating, repeating, and commenting on the various slave-slaver narratives that run through the rest of the text. When the Kona attack Zachry’s Valleysmen, we see eternal recurrence–Māori slaughtering Moriori, Christian colonials ousting aboriginals, corporations using their fabricants for slave labor. A dialogue between Zachry and Meronym (delivered in Zachry’s argot, of course) spells out the novel’s concerns. Zachry asks Meronym if it’s “better to be savage’n to be Civ’lized?” She replies–

What’s the naked meanin’ b’hind them two words?

Savages ain’t got no laws, I said, but Civ’lizeds got laws.

Deeper’n that it’s this. The savage sat’fies his needs now. He’s hungry, he’ll eat. He’s angry, he’ll knuckly. He’s swellin’, he’ll shoot up a woman. His master is his will, an if his will say soes “Kill” he’ll kill. Like fangy animals.

Yay, that was the Kona.

Now the Civ’lized got the same needs too, but he sees further. He’ll eat half his food now, yay, but plant half so he won’t go hungry ‘morrow. He’s angry, he’ll stop’n’ think why so he won’t get angry next time. He’s swellin’, well, he’s got sisses an’ daughters what need respectin’ so he’ll respect his bros’ sisses and daughters. his will is his slave, an’ if his will say soes, “Don’t!” he won’t, nay.

What we see here is, I believe, a subtle reading of Nietzsche’s famous, infamous, and not-so-well understood concept of the will to power. Meronym’s solution to save endangered humanity is not blind adherence to conventional morality but rather an individual’s ability to overcome his or her animal instincts to thrive. The Übermensch enslaves his own will, his id, and preserves his ego.

As Sloosha’s Crossin’ concludes and Cloud Atlas moves outward and back into the past, there’s a twin sense of deflation and redemption. Orision does not have the room it needs to breathe; although Sonmi’s inevitable martyrdom follows a narrative logic that Sloosha’s Crossin’ more than justifies, it feels undercooked. The second half of the Cavendish narrative is more fulfilling. No spoilers. Mitchell manages to shoehorn a strange missive by a physicist into the second half of Luisa Rey; it’s only a page and a half, it doesn’t really belong there, and it’s the most interesting thing about the whole narrative. Like Frobisher’s description of his sextet, it functions as one description of the book. Luisa gets to hear that sextet, by the way; she special orders one of only fifty pressings. Frobisher’s narrative I’ve remarked upon at some length, so I will leave it alone by saying that it’s one of the finer points of Cloud Atlas and noting that it ends with a specific invocation of Nietzsche’s idea of eternal recurrence. The Journal of Adam Ewing is also very satisfying; in many ways it has to be, for it is the beginning and the end and the second end (and thus new beginning) of the novel. Ewing’s experiences–which, to leap right through the chain of protagonists, must also be Meronym’s experiences–lead him to reject the common morality of his time. As the novel concludes, he elects to return to the United States as a committed abolitionist, his stated mission in life to fight slavery in all its forms.

Cloud Atlas is a postmodern novel through and through. It riffs on genre and style with a keen awareness of textuality, an overt reliance on intertextuality, and a formally experimental schema that, as one of its principals puts it, might be “Revolutionary or gimmicky.” It lovingly pairs the high with the low, the philosophical with the vulgar, the musical with the mud, and its best moments do so seamlessly and gracefully. It’s a very good read–a fun read–and readers daunted by its structure need not be: Mitchell has created a book that they in many ways probably already know–they just don’t know that they know it like this. Highly recommended.