Man, this book is a hell of a ride. Cloud Atlas is by turns pulpy, Tarrantino-eque plot goodness—racing along, what’s going to happen??? —and Milan-Kundera-Gabriel-Garcia Marquez-like mystic philosophy, slowing down to let you digest your good meal. The novel’s characters are often very funny, too, which always kicks my review up at least a half star. Mitchell structures Cloud Atlas as six stories, told by turns in the form of a diary, epistles to a lover, a noir detective story, a posthumous interview, a dishy memoir, and a folk tale handed down to a younger generation. Mitchell does what I judge, as a reader, to be a risky thing: he ends a chapter just as the story gets interesting and then completely shifts to a seemingly unconnected story in the next chapter. The book has no table of contents and does not give you any hint as to when or if it will resume the narrative in which you’ve invested yourself. (Yes, you will eventually realize the stories are connected in non-obvious, but gratifying ways.) So, Mitchell takes a big risk in alienating its readers with its unusual structure, but I’m here to tell you: it’s WORTH IT to stay with the book.
As you make your way through (if you love fiction you should really read this, so I’m assuming you will), you’ll hear the disparate voices of a Victorian, Gold-Rush era San Franciscan abroad in the South Seas; a pansexual half-con artist, half music-composing genius swindling his way through Europe during the jazz age; a feminist reporter working for a low-level news rag in the 70’s; a convicted revolutionary and martyr-to-be clone slave from the not-too-hard-to-imagine near future; a geriatric captive in a present-day rest home, and an aboriginal refugee from the distant future (?) after “The Fall.” In each section, Mitchell demonstrates a beyond-Joycean ability to create language that immerses you in its worlds. If an author with an iota less ability than Mitchell tried to do what he does with this book, the result would be grand crap on the scale of “Battlefield Earth” or a Donald Trump...anything. Instead, happily, Mitchell is a genre-defying master and I can’t wait to read everything else he’s written.