I know I arrived two years late to this party, but after hearing about David Mitchell just about everywhere I finally decided to give his “Cloud Atlas“ a try. It absolutely blew me out. It’s not just that the six stories in the novel, each with its own narrative style and voice, are all compelling in their own right. It’s not just realizing that they weave in mysterious ways, forming a whole much greater than its parts. And it’s not just that the underlying theme is so universal. The real kick comes from understanding that, above all of that, Mitchell is playing a game with you: Through subtle tricks (self mockery, metaphysical reflection in the midst of pulpy action, etc.) he admits his book is an ambitious, elaborate artifact, and he’s going to go ahead and do it whether you think it’s possible or not.
I won’t spoil it for you. But by the time I got to the end of chapter 6 (of 11), I had the same feeling I got as a child when watching circus performers do their crazy, risky acts: The man is going to kill himself. This should be the book’s ending. It’s been great so far, but it can only go down now, and when it falls it will be really painful. But it was almost as if Mitchell heard and replied “oh yeah? Well watch this…” and proceeded to get himself out of the traps he built, one after another, with perfect execution, while telling a story with a fascinating message that actually had to be told in the contrived Russian-dolls structure of his novel. And all along the higher-level game continued, with my jaw dropping further and further, my mind thinking the man is bluffing himself out of proportion, and Mitchell smiling, looking back at me and raising the bet anyway. When we finally reached the end I had to surrender, both to the virtuoso performance and to the powerful thematic conclusions. Very rewarding stuff for those with the patience to listen.