Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
Random House ($14.95)

What David Mitchell has created with Cloud Atlas is amazing: a puzzle box of six narratives ranging from the 1850s to the distant future. Each of the stories is told in a different style, and each is a well-crafted example of plot-driven writing. The first story is a journal describing the exploration of the Pacific by a decent American man. The story, set in the 1970s, recalls the pulpy, socially conscious mysteries of the era, written by as good as anonymous hacks and sold to blandly anonymous readers. Others--about a charming bisexual man who worms his way into his favorite composer's life, and about a dystopian, near-future Korea--range from beguiling to something akin to the interest evoked by a strangely shaped parking garage (in that order). So is this book the next big literary thing?

The answer, turns out, is "eh." The sci-fi roots (and clichés) show a little too often to make the book hum the way it should. In an attempt to link the chapters, each main character is marked by the same comet-shaped birthmark, and the central post-apocalyptic story is told in a pseudo-calypso slang that evokes more Jar Jar than Eloi. These alone didn't ruin the book for me, since all the other cadences and rhythms are perfect: Chapters are echoed in each other with symphonic surety. The situations are all interesting in different ways, with the Amis-like present-day chapters being among the gutsiest of the tricks--a book critic is thrown from a window to his death in the first few pages. In total, the winning column far outranks the losing, but each segment has enough flaws--consistent flaws--to make the most damning statement about this kind of experiment true: It's an entertaining read, if you don't think about it too much.