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Brave New Modernism, Revisited 

Or, truth survives power

"All times are contemporaneous," the American modernist poet Ezra Pound once proclaimed. Pound certainly tried to make good on that assertion, throwing everything from Homer to Confucius to Thomas Jefferson into the kitchen sink of his Cantos. His literary colleagues T.S. Eliot and James Joyce did their best on the project as well: Eliot quoted both Dante and Hindu Vedanta in "The Waste Land," and Joyce compressed 10 years of Odyssean wanderings into one day in the life of Dublin in Ulysses. In the 32 years since the death of Pound, though, publishers in the English-speaking world haven't been inclined to bet on intellectually challenging, culturally allusive works. (No, The Da Vinci Code doesn't count.) Liberally educated fiction readers seeking graduate credits in Western civilization generally have had to be content with translations, such as The Name of the Rose by Italian Umberto Eco or the Ficciones of Argentinean Jorge Luis Borges.

In a refreshing attempt to buck this trend, British author David Mitchell has taken up the modernist gauntlet in his novel, Cloud Atlas, which has been issued in an American edition by Random House. Superficially, Cloud Atlas is a novel about time. In fact it takes place in six different times: an 1850s Pacific voyage recounted by an American legal representative, the misadventures of a talented but amoral young English composer in the 1930s, a magazine reporter investigating nuclear treachery in the 1970s, the roughly contemporary plight of a down on his luck publisher involuntarily confined to a nursing home, and two stories set in a future replete with genetic engineering and primitive, post-apocalyptic tribesmen. Mitchell weaves these stories together with great art, giving each one a clever linear connection to one happening previously in time. Sometimes the connection is through a cultural artifact, such as an unpublished journal, a book, a movie, or musical composition. Other times are connected by human emotional relationships, ranging from the erotic to the spiritual.

Anyone familiar with the classic Borges story "The Garden of the Forking Paths" will recognize this plot device, but Mitchell isn't content just to entangle his readers in a Borgesian labyrinth. Instead, Mitchell organizes his stories to go forward in time for the first half of the book, then backward in time for the second half. Like the ancient hero Theseus, Mitchell gives the reader a string to find the way out of the labyrinth by retracing the way in. Another analogy can be drawn from the sonata form in classical music (appropriate since the book takes its title from a composition by Robert Frobisher, one of its characters). In the sonata form, the composer introduces a central melody, subjects it to variations in rhythm and harmony, and then re-states the melody at the end. The listener is brought "full circle," much as Mitchell turns the linear time of his novel back to its beginning in Cloud Atlas.

One basic theme holds all the formal sophistication of Cloud Atlas together: the unequal confrontation of truth and virtue with the maneuverings and manipulations of ruthless power. Each of the six stories offers a different version of the issue, from the oppression of literally "pacific" islanders by despoiling rival tribes and missionaries in the 19th century to the cynical exploitation of genetically engineered fast food servers in a future Singapore and the vulnerability of primitive Hawaiian Valleymen. Mitchell clearly identifies virtue with innocence, but he manages to avoid the Romantic cliches in portraying it. The oppressed Moriori islander of the first story is a skilled seaman and perfectly capable of violence if necessary. Robert Frobisher, the young composer of the second, seems a total rake and hustler, but it's all just a faade covering a vulnerable artistic purity. The seemingly innocent Valleyman of the last story seems a bucolic bumpkin until his words and terms gradually reveal the elements of a lost civilization that dimly reflects our own, reminding us of what might be left in the centuries after some shattering apocalypse. In sum, the innocent virtue that Mitchell portrays as oppressed by power is no ideal, but rather just the best that honest people can do in impossible circumstances.

Sometimes the protagonist is aware that he or she is being used or abused, sometimes not. One of the beauties of the book, though, is the way Mitchell uses irony and dark comedy to show that the saviors of virtue rarely do so as a conscious act for good, but rather as a spontaneous, life-affirming act that runs counter to their stated self-interest. In Mitchell's narrative, then, virtue becomes a miracle of individual discovery, made again and again at different times -- not the product of a doctrine, and most certainly not something that can be coerced into existence.

Like James Joyce, who deliberately chose different writing styles to fit the themes of his Homeric chapters in Ulysses, Mitchell has a different "voice" for each of his time periods, beginning with the overwritten self-consciousness of the 19th century diarist Adam Ewing and culminating in the illiterate dialect of the post-apocalyptic Valleyman of Hawaii. Each new "voice" requires a re-orientation on the part of the reader in order to grasp the cultural context. The "historical" stories, for instance, might motivate one to brush up on Herman Melville's Pacific travel narratives or the major composers of the 1920s and 30s. The monologues of the "fabricant" fast-food worker Sonmi-431 and Zachry the Valleyman are littered with allusions that reveal how the culture we take for granted today might be distorted and perverted in some dystopic future. If he/she is willing to put in the mental effort to follow these allusions, five of the six narratives draw the reader convincingly into their time and space. The only one that falls flat is the 1970s section entitled "Half-Lives: the First Luisa Rey Mystery." Mitchell seems uncomfortable with the spoken American idiom, and the earnest heroine's pursuit of conspiratorial corporate corruption reads too much like the screenplay for a remake of Silkwood or The China Syndrome.

Whatever quibbles this reader may have with one of its individual stories, Cloud Atlas deserves a wide American audience. David Mitchell has composed a book that hearkens back to the multi-cultural experiments in unified style and content attempted by the literary modernists, yet he's grounded his work on an accessible, universal theme of profound relevance. Cloud Atlas speaks truth to power by vividly demonstrating, over a great expanse of real and imagined time, how truth survives power.

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