“As an experienced editor,” says the pompous publisher Timothy Cavendish in David Mitchell’s third novel, Cloud Atlas, “I disapprove of flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices; they belong in the 1980s with MAs in postmodernism.” But this declaration is, of course, a tricksy device—and not just because Mitchell’s own MA was in postmodern fiction. Cloud Atlas famously consists of six novellas, all crammed with flashbacks, foreshadowings, and tricksy devices of various kinds, and each set in a different time and place, from the nineteenth-century Pacific to a postapocalyptic Hawaii. The six are connected by their common themes—including rapaciousness and the dangers of human tribalism—and by the book’s structure, with every narrative breaking off halfway, until the Hawaii story is told in full, and we then get the conclusion of the previous five in reverse order. (And that’s the simplified explanation.) Yet what’s perhaps most remarkable of all about Cloud Atlas is how world-conquering it proved to be: it is one of the few intricately constructed nests of centuries-spanning stories to have been made into a movie, starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry.
So how has Mitchell pulled off the same trick the Beatles once did—acclaimed by critics for his technical daring, while still almost universally enjoyed? The answer, I think, is for the literary equivalent of the same reason. On the whole, no matter how experimental the Beatles became, they never forgot the importance of a good tune. Likewise, however challenging Mitchell’s novels might seem, they’ve always provided plenty of classic old-school storytelling, complete with narrative twists and thrilling set pieces. “I’m a plot ’n’ character guy,” he insists—and one who believes that the best books “stroke your brain and milk your adrenaline gland at the same time.”
With some writers, the brain-stroking might be produced by the exploration of highly complex ideas. With Mitchell—and again, this might help to explain his popularity—it’s more related to the solving of puzzles and the making of connections. Once you’ve put the various elements of his books together, there’s generally no difficulty distinguishing the bad characters (greedy, often murderous) from the good ones (fundamentally kindly, but unafraid to fight villainy). Nor is there much likelihood of disagreeing with his central themes: that cruelty and oppression are wrong, and that any hope of a better world lies with people laying aside their divisions.1 Nevertheless, there’s no denying the pleasure to be gained from making the connections—especially given the infectious exuberance of all that storytelling.
It was a method that Mitchell announced in his first novel, Ghostwritten (1999). Not for him the obviously autobiographical portrait of a bookish teenager growing up in middle England. Instead, he gave us ten loosely overlapping novellas by nine narrators on three continents, and in genres that ranged from romance to thriller, science fiction to social realism. Next came Number9Dream—its title…
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