Writers of some of the most intriguing contemporary literary fiction are dispensing with traditional narrative modes to fashion works that are geographically dispersed and temporally disjointed, and that exploit multiple storytelling techniques. Novelist and critic Douglas Coupland calls this new, boundary-crashing genre “translit.” But translit—exemplified by David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men—has roots in earlier literary invention, as this map reveals.
Writers of what Douglas Coupland terms “translit” throw over conventions of literary unity to play madly with genre, time and space. The six novellas constituting David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas—each written in an entirely different style—bounce across time, from the 19th century to several 20th-century eras to two distinct dystopian futures (a speculative one not too distant and a postapocalyptic one several centuries hence). Geographical settings are diverse: the South Pacific, Belgium, England, Southern California, Korea and the Hawaiian Islands. Although Mitchell preserves chronological progression, there’s a twist: In the book’s first half, each tale breaks off in the middle, to be resumed later on. The result is a palindrome of literary genres. Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men, by contrast, travels haphazardly backward and forward in time but doesn’t stray far, geographically, from a single location: a strange three-pronged rock formation in California’s Mojave Desert that exerts a mystical attraction on many of the novel’s characters and that may somehow be responsible for the disappearance of a four-year-old autistic boy. Unlike traditional fiction, both of these translit works ask readers to trust that, in the end, everything will neatly add up—even if it doesn’t.
The canvas on which translit writers work can be stretched to the limit—of human history (or a goodly chunk thereof) or even of the universe, as in Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men. Kunzru’s plot invokes extraterrestrial beings and mysterious forces beyond human ken, without, however, explaining who those beings or what those forces are. That sense of history’s being manipulated by powers that, far from being controllable, cannot even be understood (or their existence verified) is one that Gods Without Men shares with one of translit’s precursors, Thomas Pynchon’s novel The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon’s heroine, Mrs. Oedipa Maas, comes home from a Tupperware party one summer afternoon to find she’s been named executor of a deceased ex-lover’s estate—a role that soon involves her in trying to discern and then disentangle a vast, centuries-old conspiracy. Gods and Crying are paranoid works, in which ordinary people may be the unwitting pawns on a chessboard whose limits they can barely make out. But these two novels are agnostically paranoid, withholding from the characters and the reader certainty about what is really going on.
Novels—indeed stories of all kinds—play out over time, but in traditional fiction the chain of causation is apparent, and time passes in a linear, logically unproblematic fashion. In his novel The Time Machine, H.G. Wells began to interrogate the nature of time: His hero spends weeks in the distant future but finds on his return to his suburban London laboratory that only three hours have passed. Later science fiction—including Ray Bradbury’s 1952 story “A Sound of Thunder” and even the Back to the Future film trilogy (1985–1990)—have expanded the inquiry, wondering, for example, how a time traveler’s actions during a visit to the past may alter the present. But as inventive and brain-twisting as such stories often are, they haven’t usually questioned the assumption that causation, however complex, is chain-like, with one thing leading to another ad infinitum. What’s so unsettling about Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men is that even this bedrock assumption is open to debate. Kunzru’s book reintroduces the concept of the miraculous—that a power outside time may intervene in human lives, altering destiny in a way that has nothing to do with the rules of narrative or the laws of physics.
The title character of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando: A Biography is both hero and heroine because, roughly halfway through the book, the protagonist unaccountably changes gender. He (later she) needs no time machine to travel centuries into the future; all that’s required is simply to keep on living, for Orlando appears, equally unaccountably, to be immortal. Woolf was a great experimenter with language, literary form and temporality; what’s curious is that Orlando, Woolf’s single foray into what’s termed speculative fiction, is, for all the strangeness of the events recounted, rather straightforwardly told. That style, in which the narrator maintains a reportorial cool while telling a highly unlikely story, links Woolf’s book to the science fiction of H.G. Wells. And so does Woolf’s notion that outward change may mask an identity that perdures—an idea that Wells played with in The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Invisible Man, and that David Mitchell, in Cloud Atlas, pushes even further. Unlike Wells’s books, which have too often been victims of execrable film adaptations, Woolf’s Orlando found its ideal cinematic translator in director Sally Potter, whose 1992 film stars an exquisitely androgynous Tilda Swinton in the title role.
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando lives through several contiguous incarnations over five centuries. Japanese writer Yukio Mishima lived for only 45 years, yet he packed more into his brief life than most people could even if given Orlando’s lavish lifespan. Besides being a prolific novelist, Mishima was a playwright, lyricist, movie actor and director and the right-wing fanatical leader of a private army. As if that weren’t enough, he was also bisexual.
The multivalence of identity not only characterized Mishima’s life but is also the theme of his last major literary work (completed just before his celebrated ritual suicide), a four-novel cycle called The Sea of Fertility, comprising Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, The Temple of Dawn and The Decay of the Angel. Covering 60-plus years of Japanese history, the novels tell the stories, sequentially, of a melancholic, lovelorn student; a firebrand young Japanese nationalist; a beautiful, self-concerned Thai princess—all of whom die at age 20—and, last, a psychopathic orphan. All these characters are reincarnations of the same person, at least in the obsessed mind of the tetralogy’s main character, a lawyer named Shigekuni Honda, who develops a doomed infatuation with each in turn.
Providing a kind of glue binding together the disparate narratives of both Cloud Atlas and The Sea of Fertility is the Buddhist doctrine of reincarnation—or, rather, transmigration, since the Buddha taught that there is no passage from one body to another of a substantial, eternal soul but rather a transmission akin to the flame of one candle igniting the flame of another. David Mitchell identifies the main character in each novella as the reincarnation of the previous story’s protagonist in nearly the same way Yukio Mishima did: In Cloud Atlas, each character bears a comet-shaped birthmark in the hollow of his or her shoulder; in Mishima’s tetralogy, each possesses an arrangement of three moles on the midriff, below the armpit. It’s unlikely that Mishima believed in reincarnation; in fact, at the very end of the tetralogy, the premise connecting the novels is thrown in doubt—appropriately by the abbess of a Buddhist convent. About reincarnation, Mitchell has said, “I’m not sure what I believe,” while also speculating, in good Buddhist fashion, that “the soul is a verb and not a noun.”
A physical location is central to the plot in The Bridge of San Luis Rey and Gods Without Men. Both sites—a rope bridge spanning an Andean chasm and an oddly shaped rock formation, called the Three Pinnacles, in the Mojave Desert—are based on real places. (Thornton Wilder modeled his on an ancient Inca suspension bridge in Peru that remained in use until it collapsed in the 1890s, while Hari Kunzru’s formation resembles the Mojave’s Trona Pinnacles.) Writers have long created fictional settings using real-world models, but rarely have they invested them with such otherworldly significance. Wilder’s protagonist, the Franciscan Brother Juniper, hopes to detect the hand of God at work in the San Luis Rey bridge’s sudden collapse; Kunzru’s characters are drawn into the Pinnacles’ presence and find their lives utterly transformed. The cavalcade of characters in Gods Without Men also includes a Franciscan friar named Francisco Garcés, who encounters the Pinnacles on his travels through the northern reaches of New Spain in 1775. Unlike Wilder’s Juniper, Garcés receives a revelation “piercing the veil that surrounded God”—though the meaning of that epiphany and whether its source is benign or malevolent remain unclear.
Is there “a divinity that shapes our ends,” as Hamlet contends? Versions of that question—call it one of metaphysical authorship—play important roles in both Thornton Wilder’s Bridge of San Luis Rey and David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The question is foregrounded in Wilder’s novel: A Franciscan friar named Brother Juniper witnesses a catastrophic bridge collapse in which five people die, then spends years researching their lives, attempting to discern a grand design that could have led all five travelers to arrive at the bridge at that fatal moment. In Mitchell’s book, the question of cosmic design underlies the novel’s six very different narratives. Wilder’s book has been adapted for the screen three times, most recently in a star-studded but critically panned 2002 production; rather more improbably, because of its length and complexity, Cloud Atlas has likewise been made into a feature film, released in 2012.
Mitchell has, by the way, made no secret of his debt to Wilder’s book, and Cloud Atlas bears an homage to Wilder in the name of one of its characters, the intrepid journalist-sleuth Luisa Rey, heroine of the novel’s third story, “Half Lives.”