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David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas.

David Mitchell. Cloud Atlas. Random House, 2004. 509pp. Paper: $14.95.

This book gives the reader full value and then some. Mitchell, with two earlier successful novels, Ghostwritten (1999) and number9dream (2001), has taken a stride forward, developing some of the structural strategies and techniques of these works and adding a notable theme. Whether Cloud Atlas gets its name from books categorizing those ever-shifting phenomena, from the character Frobisher's final musical composition, The Cloud Atlas Sextet, or from the apparent process of metempsychosis reflected in the comet-shaped birthmark shared by major characters eludes me. Nonetheless, what Mitchell has provided certainly makes for the most interesting reading experience I have had since Danielewski's House of Leaves. Cloud Atlas consists of six stories, set in different times, written by or built around six different characters. Structurally, it revises the idea of a cyclical collection of intertwined stories, Winesburg, Ohio, for example, by spreading the tales not over a locale but over time, using material from the Maori conquering of the Moriori recorded secondhand in a mid-nineteenth-century journal to a much later destruction of a post-atomic-holocaust Hawaiian tribal remnant. "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After," the central story, essentially repeats the Moriori experience that opens the book, the only one complete in its original telling. The other five have abrupt interruptions, though they intermingle in one way or another with the stories that follow and are completed in reverse order after the central story, each tale taking on a much different complexion than that it had had before interruption. Mitchell succeeds in distinguishing narrative voices, in reflecting the various genres he uses--journal, letters, thriller, memoir, science fiction, "oral" narrative--and sending up some (fairly) contemporary writers: Coetzee (Foe?), Martin Amis, and Anthony Burgess, among others. Pound claimed that criticism "is of no value unless it comes to fruit in the created work later"; on that note, I suggest that Dale Peck step aside as Mitchell in his art has made him superfluous. In the "Oxen of the Sun" episode Joyce traversed the world of "English" style, not necessarily accessibly; here, Mitchell traverses narrative modes and styles accessibly, carrying out the idea of the evil of domination, in the process satirizing our corporate world and its greed.
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Author:Murphy, Richard J.
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2004
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