Each of the stories is told in a very different style, using a language appropriate to its place, even bending its sentences to fit its moment. Mitchell seems to find prose enchantingly plastic, shaping it to his changing purposes rather than defining a personal style. The cover tells us that the stories are "linked," but even that seems far too obvious for whatever it is that is happening in Cloud Atlas. There is a birthmark that seems to recur on characters of different gender and race at very different moments in real or imagined history. People in the future find books and films that refer to the earlier stories. There is a recurring reflection on what freedom might mean and how we humans tend to twist that meaning to suit our own purposes.
None of that, however, captures the indefinable atmosphere of a novel that is unlike any other. Even the idea of "reincarnation" seems far too easy for whatever is happening in these stories. It appears as if Mitchell has created a world where the simple fact of our humanity, the physical nature of our species, moves beyond the limitations of our individual mortality. The effect is haunting.
Mitchell reads from his work on October 29 at 5:10 p.m. at UMMA, and he gives a lecture there on November 1.