Week one: interruption

What do we think a novelist most wants to achieve? Surely the reader’s interest, attention, captivation. “I couldn’t put it down”: so the cliché about the pleasure of novel-reading goes. Yet David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas seems to contrive the reader’s absorption only in order to break it off. The novel will introduce us to a voice, elaborate a storyline, establish a central character – only to stop in medias res and begin a completely new story. It is composed of six different narratives, set in six different times, in six different genres, and in six distinct forms of narration (journal, letters, omniscient third-person narrator, unreliable first-person narrator, interview transcript, oral reminiscence). The narratives are nested within each other: A is interrupted to make way for B, which is interrupted to make way for C . . . and so on. Only once we have had the central sixth section (the only one to be presented without interruption) do we work our way back, picking up each narrative, in reverse order, at the point at which each was interrupted.

Each interruption leaves us in mid-air. The abrupt termination of the first section, set in the mid 19th century, leaves us with Adam Ewing, en route from the Chatham Islands to San Francisco, convinced that a parasitic worm – Gusano Coco Cervello – is breeding in his brain. His friend Henry Goose, the ship’s doctor, has diagnosed his affliction and is attempting to cure it with obscure medicaments. In the next section, comprising letters written in the early 1930s by aspiring young composer Robert Frobisher, Ewing’s “journal” is discovered in the library of a reclusive old composer named Vyvyan Ayrs. Reading it, Frobisher is in no doubt of the true meaning of the narrative. “Ewing . . . hasn’t spotted his trusty Doctor Henry Goose is a vampire, fuelling his hypochondria in order to poison him, slowly, for his money.” But he will have to wait, like us, for the upshot. “To my great annoyance, the pages cease, mid-sentence, some forty pages later, where the binding is worn through.” His own story is interrupted after he has wormed his way into the Ayrses’ favours, but with the great man’s libidinous wife, whom he has bedded, increasingly unpredictable in the demonstration of her affections.

We have got used to Frobisher, a camp, mildly venomous, highly literate narrator, a connoisseur of what is finest, forced to live by his wits. But then a jolt, and we are in some kind of thriller, set in the 1970s, and narrated in the third-person present tense. Journalist Luisa Rey investigates efforts to hush up the dangers of a new nuclear reactor. The interruption of her story is the novel’s most conventional cliff-hanger, as a hitman forces her car off the road into the Pacific Ocean – only for us to be forced into a new story, told by loquacious publisher Timothy Cavendish, in some time close to our own, as he finds himself imprisoned in a sinister old people’s home somewhere outside Hull. While he eats his institutional lunch, something bad happens – “a chain of firecrackers exploded in my skull and the old world came to an abrupt end”. Then what?

Interruption has been made a narrative principle before. In the 18th century, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy had a narrator who kept interrupting himself to insert some new digressive reflection or anecdote. More recently, Cloud Atlas owes an acknowledged debt to Italo Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller. This book’s numbered chapters muse on the pleasures and perplexities of novel-reading. Interleaved with these are 10 opening chapters of 10 supposed novels, each to be interrupted at some narrative climax. Yet Calvino’s novel is unified by his own playful presence. Even the samples from novels are being contrived in front of us. “The novel begins in a railway station, a locomotive huffs, steam from a piston covers the opening of the chapter, a cloud of smoke hides part of the first paragraph.” Mitchell tries something different. He wants you to lose yourself in each story in turn. When the novel’s fifth section gives you the interrogation of a rebellious clone, Sonmi~451, in some dystopian future, it is to draw the reader into an unlikely sympathy with the “fabricant”, treated as non-human by the “purebloods” she serves. By the time her narration is interrupted, we are to care about her fate – yet not know it.

The structure of interruptions forces connections on the reader. The larger story of domination and predation across civilisations and centuries takes shape because the reader’s appetite for connection has been so sharpened. Thus interruption makes for thematic coherence. But, for all its formal trickery, interruption is also a test of the most time-honoured power of a novel. You stop reading: when you start again, does the story come back to life? All novels must survive interruption; Cloud Atlas makes this survival a measure of the reader’s enjoyment. It sets out to explore an ordinary mystery: how a narrative that has been put aside can stay in the mind, ready to seize on the reader again.

John Mullan is professor of English at University College London. Join him and David Mitchell for a discussion at the Guardian Hay festival tomorrow at 8.30pm, the Guardian Stage, Hay Festival site. Tickets £6: hayfestival.com; tel 01497 822 629.

guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds