People have been recommending this book to me for so long that it seemed inevitable that I would never get around to it. But then last fall my friend Edward forcibly lent me a copy--I found it in my mailbox at work--and, some months later, another friend spent twenty minutes of a car trip telling me how good it was. So I went to my office, got the book, and dug in.
The pleasures of this novel are many, as are my qualms about it. But the pleasures are great and the qualms are petty. It's really quite a masterful piece of work, with all of the qualifications that word suggests...an unusual project of an unusual writer.
In case you haven't had the pleasure, Cloud Atlas is essentially a series of nested novellas spanning several hundred years, from a recognizable past to a dystopian future. The novellas are connected in clever ways--primarily by theme, but also (successfully) by some interesting inter-textual shenanigans and (not so successfully) a series of identical birthmarks. Each novella is written in a drastically different style--there's a journal, a series of letters, a pulp mystery, a kind of neo-gothic comedy, a sci-fi story, and...well, I won't even bother trying to describe the last one. The stories are arranged in a kind of pyramid, each but the final one split into two, so that you get the first half of every story first, moving forward through time, and then the second half as you return to the past.
I tried to resist this novel: it is at times too didactic (especially the ending), too tricky, too virtuosic. But Mitchell is so good. I'm not terribly wild about the journal or mystery sections, but even those are executed with tremendous skill; the writer's ability to inhabit different characters, historical situations, and styles of language is simply incredible. Reading him, I kept hearing that line from Charles Baxter's "Gryphon," where the narrator is scolded by his friend for attempting to ape their wildly inventive teacher: "Don't you try to do it. You'll just sound like a jerk." It's hard for a writer to read this book--at times, Mitchell seems like a different species of creature entirely.
I guess my primary complaint with this novel is that it's all so arbitrary--the structure just seems like an excuse for Mitchell to show off his chops. But hell--I enjoyed pretty much every second of it, so who am I to complain? He's got a new one out, and a bunch of others I haven't read, so I'm going to dive in and see if Mitchell doesn't end up becoming my favorite new superhuman writer.