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I like big books.

Cloud Atlas: A Novel

Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell What did I think? I think David Mitchell is a genius flying below the radar. True, the Cloud Atlas movie coming out in the Fall should do much to catapult him into some well-deserved limelight, but from what I've seen of the trailer, the film takes some rather drastic changes to the original story. Well, that much should be expected, the format of Cloud Atlas doesn't lend itself to a two-and-a-half to three hour film very well. I think the better route would be a high quality made for tv mini-series or something on one of the cable networks, but I digress from the original point that I was making: David Mitchell is a genius.

The best description of Cloud Atlas is one that's been used by several reviewers before me, so I'll borrow it and add my own embellishments. The novel unfolds like one of those Russian matryoshka dolls. A series of short stories nestled within and cross-referencing one another over the course of several centuries to tell one thematic story of the human condition that seems to be timeless: the will to power, subjugation, compassion and self-discovery. Each of the sub-stories envelopes a different literary genre with its own unique narrative format and style that range from historical fiction to noir industrial espionage and dystopian science fiction. Mitchell plays each trope flawlessly, mastering the accepted norms of the various genres with a naturalness that would suggest that he were a genre-writer himself. His prose and his diction are expansive, intimidating and delicious with always the perfect word or phrase to fit the required observation or description. Adding to the complexity, the story self-references in several points throughout the narrative, with the term Cloud Atlas bubbling to the surface in each story (as an observation of the historical process or the name of a symphonic composition) and each time it does, it adds meaning and subtext to the unfolding human drama. Mitchell keeps the readers focus on the thread throughout these very different stories by highlighting commonalities very subtly. At times there are blatant connections between protagonists outlined for the lazy reader, but if you pay close attention, there are dozens of subtler, more nuanced similarities that are, surprise, surprise, akin to a symphonic overture with each piece of the orchestra picking up a melody originated by some previously spotlighted instrument and carrying it through. Each piece breaks off in mid-stride, right when you're fully enveloped and adjusted to the sub-plot and you have to fight the temptation not to just skip to its resumption in later pages.

I really think there's something here for everyone if you're willing to invest the time and branch out into genres you may be less familiar with. The prose here is spectacular and in each sub-plot Mitchell creates a world that is vital, realistic and engrossing. Whether you're on a 19th century sailing vessel crossing the Pacific with racist Social Darwinists or in the bowels of a Papa Song's diner in a weird clone-based corpocratic future, it's a testament to Mitchell's storytelling power and characterization that you feel invested in the people and the exploration of the world. This is all the more true, because it is our world. Definitely adding to my favorites shelf. There's a lot of re-readability here and I have the distinct feeling that there were tons of things I missed on my first read-through. Don't go see the movie until you've read the book!