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David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

In his first novel, Ghostwritten, Mitchell used a technique involving nine seemingly separate episodes, with tenuous connections between them all, but it worked because the stories told were well told and because you had to hunt for the connections, which added to the enjoyment. In this novel, while he finally seems to have cut the umbilical cord to Murakami, he has reverted to this technique and, frankly, it seems far less successful this time. Firstly, as I shall explain, the stories seem far less interesting and far too clichéd. Secondly, he uses a variation of the technique. He tells five stories, all seemingly without an ending (one actually ends in mid-sentence), then a sixth story which does end, and then, in reverse order, gives us the remainder of the five stories, providing endings. Thirdly, he makes the connections more obvious, just in case we hadn’t got the ones in Ghostwritten.

The first story is straight into cliché. It is one of those stories of hard times in the British colonies in the nineteenth century but seen, of course, with a modern sensibility. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Here it doesn’t. Mitchell trots out all the standard clichés. The hero is naïve (though an American lawyer, rather than your standard Englishman.) There is the bad captain and his bad bosun on the ship on which they travel. There is, of course, the noble savage. Exotic landscapes (Chatham Island and Tahiti), religion (and how to thwart it), the usual bloodthirstiness and, of course, sex, including violent homosexual rape, to round it out. Ho hum.

The second story has a rogue on the run (ho hum, again). This time he is a budding composer and manages to flee to Belgium, to help a blind composer start composing again. And, in case you don’t get the Delius/Fenby reference, Mitchell kindly spells it out for us and even thanks Fenby in the acknowledgements. Of course, our rogue composer has an affair with the composer’s wife, lusts after the composer’s daughter (and is rudely rejected) and tells his story in letters, to one Sixsmith, who will be murdered, many years later, in the next story. The next story is your standard evil-nuclear-power-station-owners-murdering-the-opposition-but-a-crusading-journalist (a Hispanic woman, of course)-will-save-the-day story. Nothing original here. Please move along.

More rogues appear in the next one, which is called The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish. Cavendish is a vanity press publisher in financial difficulty. Then one of his authors has his novel trashed by a well-known critic. Author kills critic in public. Book takes off and makes a lot of money, though author goes to prison. Author’s large Irish brothers visit Cavendish and want their cut. He has spent the money on paying off his previous debts so, at his brother’s suggestion, he does a runner to Hull. However, his brother has booked him into an old people’s home where you can check in but cannot check out (large guards, knockout drugs). And if you don’t get the reference to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Mitchell kindly spells it out for you. Will he get out? What do you think?

The last two really are grim. The first is set in a futuristic Korea and is Blade Runner (which, of course, comes from a Philip K Dick book) meets Brave New World. The story is about the replicants, sorry, fabricants, and their issues. And just to show how awful it all is, he even throws in a sub-Soylent Green reference, though the used fabricants are made into soap, not food (or, perhaps, that is a Nazi reference.) The story is tiresome, perhaps even more so than the final one, which is set in an even more futuristic but post-apocalyptic Hawaii, where they worship Somni, the main replicant, sorry, fabricant, from the previous story. As this is post-apocalypse, they all speak some sort of dialectal English with bad grammar and syntax, the g at the end of present participles and many vowels replaced by an apostrophe – well, you know the drill. It reminded me somewhat of Riddley Walker, a book which had some success a few years ago but which I found pretty well unreadable. The story is standard sci-fi cliché. Primitives are helped by someone who is more advanced intellectually and technologically (and it’s a woman!). They are enslaved by bad guys. She frees them. Ho hum, again.

The stories finish off in the second part, mostly (though not all) with fairly happy endings but retain their clichéness throughout. Maybe I am being unfair to Mitchell. Many reviewers thought this was a wonderful book. Perhaps I just missed it. But I think he is better when he is ripping off Murakami.

Publishing history

First published 2004 by Sceptre