The Concertina of Time

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The good ship prophetess is sailing the South Seas in the 1850s, bound for the gold fields of California, when she comes upon Bethlehem Bay, so renamed by missionaries who have ventured to the Society Islands to "civilize" the natives. When the shipmen and the emissaries of religion meet on the island,they naturally discuss (in perfect Melvillean cadences) the survival of the fittest and the plans of God. Yet all their talk of progress and a New Jerusalem has a slightly piquant air because we know what the future holds in store for them. An earlier section in Cloud Atlas (Random House; 509 pages) has told us that civilization will destroy itself with its consuming greed and Homo sapiens will return to being primitive again, in thrall to animist spirits.

In his dazzling 2000 debut, Ghostwritten, David Mitchell gave us what could be called the first novel of the 21st century, a truly global work of fiction that set stories in Japan, China, London, New York City and elsewhere and somehow wove them into a single tale about the transmigration of souls. In Cloud Atlas, his third novel, the prodigiously talented Briton, 35, tries to do with time what he earlier did with space. Six tales crisscross — moving between Belgium in 1931 and a genomic future in which North Korea has discovered genetic engineering — and so suggest that all times and not just all people are linked by six degrees of separation. It's no coincidence that one composer here is writing a "final, symphonic major work, to be named Eternal Recurrence"; another is composing a Cloud Atlas Sextet.

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The ghosts that possess Mitchell — James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, Martin Amis — are sturdy ones, and this master of voices knows science and generic utopian Asia, Steven Spielberg and British misanthropy. His language crackles with texture and bite: "Faith, the least exclusive club on Earth, has the craftiest doorman" and "[the] sequined gaggle of mantled goslings streamed past me." Mitchell, with typical impenitence, even invents a whole new dialect ("A yarnin' is more delish with broke-de-mouth grinds") for a race in the future. The propulsive zing of his sentences and the unexpected U-turn of his narrative give added fuel to his repeated suggestion that time moves like a concertina, not an arrow.

Yet brilliance, famously, can become an end in itself, and at times Mitchell seems to leave the rest of humanity behind. His visionary flights are more striking than their targets (colonialism, preachers, corporations), and when he cannot get the language quite down — as in a sequence set in 1975 California — the construction begins to feel a little secondhand. The whole of Cloud Atlas never quite lives up to its parts, though every page showcases a high-wire artist who dares us to think of a unified theory of humanity and how "souls cross the skies o' time." Mitchell writes with such bravado and intensity that he can make us believe — as he clearly does — that there's life in the old-media novel yet.