David Mitchell's first novel Ghostwritten (2000) linked nine characters throughout the world and showed how chance meetings among them determined their fates. Mitchell's second work,Number9Dream (2001)—like Cloud Atlas, a finalist for the Man Booker prize—combined one man's confusion between reality and fantasy with primary-source and fiction-within-fiction elements, including excerpts from a diary and several short stories. Cloud Atlas similarly links several characters through letters, diary entries, interviews, and narrative prose in a puzzle connecting the past to the future and fiction-within-fiction to the novel's reality.
Nineteenth century American notary Adam Ewing is a passenger on the ship Prophetess, sailing the Pacific Ocean on a business trip and keeping a diary of his journey. When the Prophetessstops for repairs at Chatham Island, near New Zealand, Ewing sees that vicious local tribes have conquered the island's peaceful Morioris. Ewing's harrowing traveling conditions and his brutish fellow seafarers are horrifying enough, but then Autua, a Moriori enslaved on Chatham Island, stows away on the ship, putting his own life—and Ewing's—in danger. Meanwhile, Dr. Henry Goose, whom Ewing also met and befriended on Chatham Island, diagnoses a chronic ailment of Ewing as a parasite in his brain. He prescribes poison and persuades Ewing that taking a small dose every day will eradicate the bug.
Ewing's diary ends mid-sentence and is followed by Robert Frobisher's “Letters from Zedelghem,” dated 1931. A British composer and musician, Frobisher is estranged from his wealthy family and barely avoiding his creditors when he devises a plan to become amanuensis to the famous composer Vyvyan Ayrs. For years, Ayrs has been isolated in Belgium, nearly blind and too ill to compose. Frobisher charms his way into Ayrs's household. With Frobisher transcribing for him, Ayrs begins to write music again. Frobisher describes their work, the affair he is having with Ayrs's wife, and the valuable first editions he is stealing from Ayrs's library in glib, chatty letters to his friend and sometime boyfriend Rufus Sixsmith.
Frobisher finds a published version of Ewing's diary propping up one leg of his bed at Zedelghem. The book is torn in half; Frobisher asks Sixsmith if he can identify the fragment and find the rest of Ewing's story. Confessing he is tired of Ayrs's wife, Frobisher plans nonetheless to remain with the older composer's household for at least another year, partly to learn from Ayrs and partly because, while there, his expenses are covered.
Sixsmith and Luisa Rey are the focus of “Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery,” a third-person narrative set forty years later in Buenas Yerbas, California. Sixsmith is the only dissenting scientist among several consultants to Seaboard Incorporated, a nuclear energy company whose chief executive officer is planning to build a power plant on Swanekke Island outside Buenas Yerbas. Twelve scientists were hired to confirm the safety and wisdom of building the plant; Sixsmith alone has not endorsed it and carries an incriminating report on the plant's potential negative effects. Seaboard's executive arranges for Sixsmith's murder, not knowing that Sixsmith has already sent a young reporter, Rey, a copy of his report.
Rey works for Spyglass, a tabloid newspaper, but sees a real story in the unsafe nuclear reactor planned for Swanekke Island. She is ready to expose the corruption at Seaboard when a hit man forces her car off a bridge. As she sinks, trapped in her Volkswagon Beetle with Sixsmith's report hidden under the seat, the narrative switches to “The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish.”
Cavendish, co-owner of the vanity press Cavendish-Redux, narrates his own tale in the first person voice. Dermot Hoggins, a Cavendish-Redux client and author of the fictional memoirKnuckle Sandwich, has murdered a critic, propelling his book onto the best-seller lists. Cavendish suddenly finds himself considered a legitimate publisher, and as Cavendish-Redux's standard contract gives him ownership of every book, no royalties are due the murderous author. When Hoggins's brothers break into Cavendish's apartment, demanding money and threatening violence, Cavendish panics; in spite of the success of Knuckle Sandwich he remains impoverished by longstanding debts. His brother Denholme offers him a place to hide, arranging for him to...
(The entire section is 1833 words.)