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A Sextet for Overlapping Soloists Overlapping Soloists

David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas

"Spent the fortnight gone in the music room," writes Robert Frobisher, a disinherited composer, to his lover in England, "reworking my year's fragments into a 'sextet for overlapping soloists': piano, clarinet, 'cello, flute, oboe, and violin, each in its own language of key, scale, and color. In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor; in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan't know until it's finished, and by then it'll be too late."

Frobisher would appreciate his situation, were he to know of it: He is a character in David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, a novel that shares a structure with Frobisher's sextet. His "solo" comes second in the novel, which begins with the diary of a San Francisco notary. Frobisher reads the diary; his letters, in turn, are given to Luisa Rey, a tabloid reporter in the 1970s, and so forth until Cloud Atlas brings us into a post-technological, dystopian future. The novel then begins the long process of raveling back up, concluding with the same notary's diary. It is an impressive technical run, easily understandable and immediately appealing.

The question that Frobisher poses, however, remains: Is it revolutionary or gimmicky? In truth, it is neither. Mitchell draws heavily from Italo Calvino and Thornton Wilder for his structure; for the prose, though the sections are markedly different, clear influence can be seen of Martin Amis, Haruki Murakami, and especially Andrea Barrett's Ship Fever, a National Book Award winner in 1996 and the stylistic foundation for much, if not most, historical literary fiction since. Despite the obvious nods to Barrett et al, and the occasional misplayed note, Mitchell pulls off his flourishes and runs.

The novel's problems come in the middle sections and especially in the centerpiece, "Sloosha's Crossin' an' Ev'rythin' After," which is narrated entirely in a dialect of Mitchell's own imagination. Perhaps derived from contemporary Caribbean speech, it begins, "Old Georgie's path an' mine crossed more times'n I'm comfy mem'ryin', an' after I'm died, no sayin' what that fangy devil won't try an' do to me."

Mitchell's difficulties continue as he struggles to end each story and transition to the next. At times, this becomes little more than self-aware gimmickry. Sonmi-451, the Joan-of-Arc heroine who narrates the fifth section, asks her interviewer, "Did you not detect the hairline cracks in the plot?" In another part, an editor reads a manuscript of Luisa Rey's tale and proclaims it "far too drug-hippie New Age."

The two sections in which the composer Frobisher appears, however, are breathtaking, the best pages of the novel. At a castle outside of the Belgian town of Bruges, Frobisher writes to his lover about dragonflies that make "an ecstatic sound like paper flaps in bicycle spokes." Through Frobisher's eyes, Bruges becomes a city of "leery Gothic carapaces, Ararat roofs, shrubbery-tufted brick spires, medieval overhangs, laundry sagging from windows, cobbled whirlpools that suck your eye in, clockwork princes and chipped princesses striking their hours, sooty doves, and three or four octaves of bells, some sober, some bright." Mitchell's ability to deliver a jaw-dropping description or turn of phrase throughout Frobisher's letters isn't fair to the rest of his novel, which comes off light and easy in comparison.

By setting two of the stories in California, Mitchell makes it clear that the wandering line of history that leads to dystopia cannot help but detour through the Golden State. If you're looking for a novel that nails the spirit of a place at a salient moment, however, Mitchell's strength, at least for now, lies elsewhere. His California, "Reagan's California," embodied in the fictional city of Yerbas Buenas, is on the map somewhere between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and stylistically, too: Mitchell seems stuck in a noir exercise somewhere between Dragnet and The Maltese Falcon. Like his attempt at dialect, his choice is motivated by an ambition of voice, to try things on and take chances, but the output falls flat.

There's yet another genre Mitchell borrows from, with far more intriguing results. Within the matryoshka doll structure, the solos connect through a shared theme of repressive and oppressive powers, a technique of social criticism that comes from, and is essential to, good science fiction. The San Francisco notary Adam Ewing encounters enslaved South Seas natives; reporter Luisa Rey fights the heartless executives of a nuclear power corporation; and Sonmi-451 is a clone genetically engineered to work at a McDonald's-esque restaurant named Papa Song's. Even Frobisher, employed as an amanuensis, finds himself coerced by his employer.

Cloud Atlas, however, is more than its individual narratives. The cumulative effect of Mitchell's subtly powerful message only begins to be audible at the end of the novel. Once apparent, it quickly builds with strength and resonance greater than the sound of each soloist, a crescendo that leads the reader to a fantastic finish, in which the worth of the novel becomes palpable and the previous off-notes evanesce before the very beauty of the musical, lyrical convergence.