Cloud Atlas: A Novel, by David Mitchell. Random House. 510 pages. $14.95.
British novelist David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is a highly imaginative, inventively structured and sometimes exasperating work that will challenge any serious reader of fiction. It is a book with large themes -- civilization, conflict, power and redemption -- presented as six novellas, each set in a different time and each written in a different style.
The six sections cover periods from the 1850s to hundreds of years from now. All except one are written in the first person, and all the episodes are connected because the narrators always discover the works, diaries or testimonies of their predecessors. A physical characteristic also is common to all.
The first narrative concerns a 19th-century American lawyer sailing across the Pacific and his encounters with the violent Maori tribe and the peace-loving Moriori, various missionaries and sailors and an eccentric English doctor. The second segment is about a young, down-on-his luck composer in 1931 who persuades a dying musical genius to take him on as an apprentice. Much mischief -- sexual and artistic -- ensues. The composer's story is conveyed through a series of letters written to his lover, who turns up in part three as a scientist in California in the 1970s. He is a central character is this section, which is a neo-noirish tale of corporate malfeasance and nuclear scandal.
The fourth and most hilarious character is a 1980s publisher of obscure works from London, who mistakenly winds up in (and eventually escapes from) an old people's home. The fifth novella is written as the testimony of a cloned slave in a future state, a woman whose intelligence and insight emerge as she awaits execution. The last and most demanding section is written in the voice of a tribesman, Zachry, who is back in the Pacific Islands after the end of the civilized world. Each section ends without conclusion. A second part of the book provides the denouements for all six sections.
If all this seems bit confusing, Mitchell's ability to maintain narrative clarity makes it work. He connects with cultural touchstones, works of art, novels and the basics of human nature that touch the mind and the heart.
The one problem is that because each voice varies significantly in tone (only one is not written in the first person) the sections also vary in effectiveness. The composer and publisher sections are the most engaging, while the longer Zachry sections occasionally feel forced and can become tedious.
Mitchell is considered a major talent for good reason. This, his third novel, shows that he is ambitious without being self conscious; brilliant without being pretentious. Cloud Atlas is serious literature for the new century. It requires concentration and some latitude from readers, but the rewards make it worthwhile.
Consider this excerpt: "Mother used to say that escape is never further away than the nearest book. Well, Mumsy, no, not really. Your beloved large-print sagas of rags, riches and heartbreak were no camouflage against the miseries trained on you by the tennis ball launcher of life, were they? But yes, Mum, there again you have a point. Books don't offer a real escape, but they can stop a mind from scratching itself raw."
Paul Moore is The Sun's public editor.