Cloud Atlas" when it came out in 2004: I was reading lots of novels at that point and was trying to stay current with all the best stuff. But I missed it, only to find out about it when David Mitchell's newest book resulted in a bit of hype.
Is "Cloud Atlas" a work of genius? I'm not sure. It's certainly a work of talent. It's as though Mitchell wrote a half-dozen novellas -- a South Sea adventure; a Jazz Age cautionary tale; a pulpy '70s mystery; a dystopian "Blade Runner"-meets-Asimov near-future sci-fi tale; and a post-apocalyptic story of the Last Humans On Earth -- and stacks those novellas on top of each other, weaving enough commonalities and references to the other stories to give it the sheen of a holistic artistic vision. Does that work? Maybe just barely; we begin and end in the same place -- the death of civilizations, redeemed only by the hope offered by one or two good people.
That's not to detract from Mitchell's accomplishment. The South Sea tale -- "The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing" -- sounds remarkably like something written in its era. Same for each of the stories; Mitchell's voice morphs to match his subject matter, cleanly and convincingly in a way few writers can match. Some critics have complained, apparently, that we don't know what Mitchell's voice sounds like in all of this. But that's a silly, forced complaint in the face of his virtuosity. Mitchell and "Cloud Atlas" might be the topic for debate within the "literary fiction" universe, but he just might be the best genre fiction writer alive -- in a number of genres, and all in the same book. The result? More than a little reading pleasure.