The very definition of a mixed bag – but this book contains a glittering jewel of contemporary short fiction

cloud-atlasWith Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell tests his readers’ patience to the limit and gets away with it – just.  Half way through five of the book’s six stories, Mitchell breaks off – sometimes on a cliffhanger, sometimes in mid-sentence – and embarks on the next. Only the central story, ‘Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After’, is presented without interruption, an apple core around which the others begin and conclude in sequence. Depending on your point of view this is either an audacious narrative device, or a thin pretext for stringing together a bunch of short stories and calling it a novel.

Sure, there’s a sprinkling of cross-references, and interlinking themes such as imperialism, anthropology and Nietzchean philosophy; protagonists encounter one another’s stories as texts, and some even discover that they share mysterious birthmarks: “Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies,” one character tells us suggestively.

This vague air of quasi-mysticism is one of Cloud Atlas‘s weaknesses. Another is the degree of pastiche evident throughout, particularly in the first three stories – a journal of a 19th century sea voyage that riffs off Melville and Conrad; a string of confessional letters charting the misadventures of an amoral young aesthete in inter-war Belgium, which reads like John Banville; and a political conspiracy thriller which takes its cue from Watergate-era movies like The Parallax View and The China Syndrome. For another story, a blackly comic farce, Mitchell essentially relocates One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest to a retirement home in Hull.

Thankfully there are plenty of flashes of brilliance, and even at his most derivative Mitchell carries it off with enough verve to keep you turning the page.

But Cloud Atlas’s masterstroke comes with the fifth story, ‘An Orison of Sonmi 451’, in which Mitchell delivers a glittering jewel of contemporary short fiction. It’s a slice of dystopian sci-fi set in the Korea of the far future – a totalitarian corpocracy presiding over a privileged class of passive consumers whose every whim is catered for by servile synthetic clones, or ‘fabricants’.  Sonmi is one such drone, her entire world circumscribed by the daily rituals of a fast food diner. The story of how she acquires self-knowledge, escapes her fate and becomes a talismanic figure in a secret resistance movement, is nothing short of scintillating.

Once again, Mitchell’s inspirations are less literary than filmic, paying tribute to the visions of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner and George Lucas’ THX 1138.  But ‘Orison’ transcends its familiar premise, as Mitchell creates an entire culture in meticulous, glowing detail, a world at once thrillingly alien yet uncomfortably close to home. It’s a cautionary parable of mythic proportions, whose themes continue to resonate in the story that follows, set in an even further-flung future in which humanity has regressed to the iron age.

Mitchell is as at home with the edge-of-your-seat action sequence as he is painting rich narrative vistas.  A capricious talent, he tends to falter when he attempts profundity, but the versatility and potency of his imagination frequently dazzle. A fearless stylist who can turn his hand to almost anything, David Mitchell loves to take risks without a safety net. If you’re willing to forgive the occasional wobble, it’s a high wire act not to be missed.

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