Cloud Atlas

So here’s a cool idea. You start a story, get the reader into it, and then abruptly cut it off 4o pages later—in mid-sentence, no less. Then you begin a totally different story, one that takes place in a different time with different characters—written, even, in a different style—and wriggle in a reference to the previous story somewhere in the process.

Then you do it five more times.

That’s the methodology underlying David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which begins as a colonial travelogue but quickly morphs into a sassy correspondence—then a thriller—then a black comedy—then an interview—and finally a storytelling session in a tribal dialect of the future. But just when you’ve reached the last story—in the middle of the book, that is—the whole piece unwinds, returning to and tying up each story in reverse order.

As if that wasn’t painfully clever enough, Mitchell even has one of his characters, a musician, compose a piece called the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” which shares the book’s structure. In a letter to a former lover, the character describes his work:

In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor: in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? (445)

Well, the world has spoken, and it looks like the vote is for “revolutionary.” Or at least awesome.

Of course, even so, Cloud Atlas was not a bestseller. It often requires, like, concentration—which would explain why it took ME so long to finish it—and each plunge into a new story can leave you discombobulated. So this is definitely not your mainstream fare. But snobs and linguaphiles, take this one on! The reward for your efforts is lush and beautiful writing, the work of a clear master.

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