Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Ghostwritten is Booker-winner [Update: -shortlisted] David Mitchell’s first book. I had not actually decided to pick up anything by David Mitchell, when I happened upon Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten while perusing the shelves. Over the past few years, I have several times almost grabbed Cloud Atlas due to its Booker win [Update: nomination] and reputation. Ultimately, I chose Ghostwritten instead because I knew less about it and liked the idea of reading the books of this new-to-me author in the order he published.

GhostwrttenGhostwritten is an ambitious novel.

I clarify that it is a novel because it could be mistaken at first for a collection of linked short stories. Most of the chapters use first person narration, though the narrator is seldom the same from chapter to chapter. In fact, only two chapters have the same narrator, each of the others is told in a distinctive voice. For instance, one chapter is told entirely through dialogue between an early morning radio DJ (on from “the witching hour to the bitching hour”), his callers, and his staff.

The novel is ambitious in that David Mitchell showed considerable gravitas in debuting with this complex tale of many voices. He has stuffed big ideas into this book along with the myriad narrators. This is not a simple tale.

The novel is, in many ways, a puzzle. Determining how the various pieces fit together is a large part of the delight. They do ultimately snap into place, though I am sure a second reading would be rewarded. The puzzle consists of both a taut plot that can compete with the latest thriller in terms of the stakes and heady ideas. The full stakes do not become clear well into the book. The ideas are explored earlier, but more slowly. Mitchell is quite an author.

The first chapter, “Okinawa”, opens with the narrator checking into a hotel under the assumed name “Mr. Kobayashi”. Only a few paragraphs in, the narrator is providing clues that he may be a little off kilter:

So what if she didn’t believe me? The unclean check into hotels under false names all the time. To fornicate, with strangers.

The clerk parts with the undoubtedly routine imperative: “If we can assist you in any way, please don’t hesitate to ask?”

Our narrator, having previously “deployed [his] alpha control voice” takes the parting shot personally:

You? Assist me? “Thank you.”

Unclean, unclean. These Okinawans never were pure-blooded Japanese. Different, weaker ancestors. As I turned away and walked toward the elevator, my ESP told me she was smirking to herself. She wouldn’t be smirking if she knew the caliber of mind she was dealing with. Her time will come, like all the others.

Not a soul was stirring in the giant hotel. Hushed corridors stretched into the noontime distance, empty as catacombs.

“Catacombs” is, like every word in this novel, carefully chosen. The religious connotations are relevant as Quasar, this first narrator, is part of a doomsday cult. The cult is called “The Fellowship” and is led by a leader referred to as “His Serendipity.” Within only a few pages, it becomes clear that Quasar, on instructions from His Serendipity, has engaged in some type of terrorist action and has gone to Okinawa in an effort to escape Japanese police. After a phone call in which he uses the code phrase “the dog needs to be fed”, he expects a “levitator” to bring him additional money to tide him over until the heat cools. Quasar is a true believer.

Because the uproar over the terrorist action does not die down as quickly as he thought it would, Quasar travels from the island he is on to one that is smaller, “but not so small that a visitor would stand out.” Of course, he does stand out. The locals are friendly and even elicit a promise from Quasar to speak to a computer class in the local school about life in a real computer company. His interactions with the locals, like his inner thoughts, are often amusing and always unsettling.

Quasar and his terrorism are not the primary driver of the plot. The second chapter has a new narrator with new concerns. In the early going, especially, the chapters seem somewhat tenuously linked. As the novel progresses, the web of connections, between ideas and plot points, grows more substantial and more clear.

An example of one of many ideas Mitchell explores is this one, identified by Saturo the narrator of the second chapter:

[I]n Tokyo you have to make your place inside your head.

There are different ways people make this place. Sweat, exercise, and pain is one way. You can see them in the gyms, in the well-ordered swimming pools. You can see them jogging in the small, worn parks. Another way to make your place is TV. A bright, brash place, always well lit, full of fun and jokes that tell you when to laugh so you never miss them. World news carefully edited so that it’s not too disturbing, but disturbing enough to make you glad that you weren’t born in a foreign country. News with music to tell you who to hate, who to feel sorry for, and who to laugh at.

Takeshi’s place is the nightlife. Clubs, and bars, and the women who live there.

There are many other places. There’s an invisible Tokyo built of them, existing in the minds of us, its citizens. Internet, manga, Hollywood, doomsday cults, they are all places where you go and where you matter as an individual. Some people will tell you about their places straight off, and won’t shut up about it all night. Others keep it hidden like a garden in a mountain forest.

People with no place are those who end up throwing themselves onto the tracks.

My place comes into existence through jazz. Jazz makes a fine place. The colors and feelings there come not from the eye but from sounds. It’s like being blind but seeing more. This is why I work here in Takeshi’s shop. Not that I could ever put that into words.

Each of the characters in Ghostwritten are trying to find their place in the world. Some more productively than others, but each is an outsider in some way. The striving to find one’s place is a constant theme throughout.

The postmodern playfulness exhibited in the final sentence of the above quote does not suffuse the novel in the same way, but it is frequent enough to keep the reader aware that this is a postmodern novel. For example, another a character muses in a subsequent chapter:

For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing, but soon that sensation too was being swallowed up.

I found the first example less intrusive than the second, but these overt metafictional dalliances are infrequent enough that I did not find them annoying. Besides that, this second quote serves a bigger purpose than authorial mischief.

Ghostwritten is concerned with the issues of chance, fate, and randomness. In most of the chapters, a character recognizes that a seemingly coincidental chain of events has had momentous implications for their life. Often, the crucial link in the chain is what connects that chapter to another chapter in the book. Mitchell manages this very effectively, both as a means of providing the reader with something to look forward to in each chapter, that moment where the link is spotted or revealed, and as a means of exploring the concept of randomness and chance in shuffling humans around, either into a comfortably fitting place or out of it.

The question of whether history is ghostwritten for individuals or is created by them permeates the novel. It is never answered definitively, of course, but the characters who explicitly muse on the subject are intelligent enough to speculate in interesting ways. With respect to this aspect, I particularly enjoyed the chapter narrated by the physicist Mo Muntervary.

Mitchell has a fair grasp of quantum physics and some of the conundrums it poses, better than my own, no doubt. However, you do not have to be familiar with the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox to appreciate the chapter. In fact, this may be the most intensely paced chapter despite the scientific asides. It reminded me a bit of the excellent Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. While I enjoy physics, do not let any of what I am saying frighten you off. The science is background, not the main event. You do not have to enjoy or understand physics to enjoy even this chapter, much less the rest of the book. I just point it out because it was a treat for me.

What I find so impressive about Mitchell after reading Ghostwritten is his control over his novel. It is the type of novel which could spin out of control, possibly while growing to unseemly proportions. Mitchell does not let either of those things happen. He manages the novel with incredible skill, allowing both his characters and the plot enough slack to pursue interesting avenues, but not enough to get lost. Mitchell is not the most poetic writer, but he is able to write in a number of different voices in a way that is affecting, effective, and yet not distracting from the overall story. Mitchell completes his story as few authors seem capable. In the end, the once gossamer threads are pulled tight into beautiful stitching which ties the various pieces together.

I feel duty bound to provide one final caveat. There are at least three noncorpa, as one of the incorporeal beings calls them. The first to show is a ghost. Any further hints as to the identity or nature of the others would be to drain the book of some life. However, if you are not into fantastic themes, as generally I am not, you might be pulled too far out of the story to enjoy it. The noncorpa fit tightly within the story and are, in some ways, essential to the themes Mitchell explores. And, yet, I was not entirely comfortable with them.

I am eager to read more of Mitchell. This will not become one of my favorite novels, but Mitchell could well become a favorite author. He is absolutely worth reading. On the strength of this novel, I plan to continue reading his oeuvre and look forward to Cloud Atlas.

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24 Responses to Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

  1. Sorry, Kerry, but Mitchell has not won the Booker. Cloud Atlas was shortlisted in 2004 but The Line of Beauty won — even if many readers preferred Mitchell.

    I read Cloud Atlas and then went back to Ghostwritten. My impression then was that Mitchell developed a technique in this book which he uses again — with much more success for me — in Cloud Atlas. As your review notes, he uses different characters and different voices in the same set of circumstances, exploring various different aspects along the way. It doesn’t make for easy reading, but the parts do add up to a satisfying whole. He isn’t the kind of writer who appeals to everyone, but I find him rewarding. His most recent novel, Black Swan Green has a somewhat more conventional structure.

    • Kerry says:

      Thanks, Kevin. I do not know why I had in my mind that he did. I cannot imagine I confused either the British Book Awards Literary Fiction Award or the Richard & Judy Book of the Year Award with the Booker. I will update according. Maybe I remember somebody saying it should have won the 2004 Man Booker Award. At any rate, that’s a big “doh”!

  2. Fascinating, I noticed Cloud Atlas but it looked like a rather forbidding entry point (though I read Crumey’s Sputnik Caledonia, so I don’t know why I was put off).

    This sounds excellent, interesting and although I note Kevin’s comment that the same technique is used better, later, like you I rather like reading author’s chronologically where that’s easily done.

    I’ll pick this up, I had Mitchell pegged as an sf author who somehow escaped into the mainstream, to be honest that’s still my thought on reading your review, but thoughtful sf coupled with good writing and literary ability is not so common that it should be sniffed at and I’ll add this one to my TBR pile.

    Have you read any Andrew Crumey by the way?

    • Kerry says:

      Max, I think your description of Mitchell as a sci-fi author with literary sensibilities is pretty accurate, at least based on this one book. The sf component is not so far out that it is offputting, at least to me, and constitutes a fairly small portion of the entire novel. But, as I note in the review, there are elements that could turn off some readers.

      I have not read any Andrew Crumey. Having read your own excellent review, he sounds very interesting. I recently read the physicist David Deutsh’s The Fabric of Reality, a non-fiction book discussing the multiverse theory and its implications. Crumey’s work sounds quite intriguing to me. Thank you very much for the pointer. He goes on my list.

      • It’s worth getting John Self’s opinion too (but then, when isn’t it?). He’s read more Crumey than I have, and recommended one of the others as a good entry point, I forget which but I think John gives some guidance in his comments on my blog (or on his own, I could be getting mixed up).

      • Kerry says:

        Max,
        I completely agree with your point about somewhat arbitrary genre boundaries. I think too often authors or books are categorized by genre instead of by quality. Mitchell, judging from Ghostwritten, is not typical literary fare, but he is an outstanding author.

        You are also correct that it is always rewarding to consult John Self on any literary issues.

        I have not had time to peruse all the comments to your Crumey review, but I look forward to doing so.

        Also, great point about the value of dissenting opinions. As you say, the discussion over on your blog about Derek Raymond added even more depth to the discussion. The review and comments were all very enlightening and interesting, even though I have not read any of his work yet. I likely will now, and will likely get more out of him as a result.

        Kevin,

        Thank you for your dissent. If I do read Crumey, I appreciate that you have lowered my expectations (boring and self-indulgent, ouch! and funny…). Sometimes, the best way to ruin a book is to have too high an opinion of it before cracking the cover. Plus, whether I enjoy it or not, I will know I am in good company.

        I am also happy to know that Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas is similiar to, but an improvement upon, Ghostwritten. That does give me something to which I look forward. But not in an overblown, this is going to be the greatest thing ever kind of way, because, though I liked Ghostwritten very much, it is not one of the best books I have read. Mitchell is very good, but I don’t count him a deity yet.

        Thank you both for sharing your thoughts here. And, Max, if you read Ghostwritten, I will be looking forward to your thoughts.

      • Forgot to say, I have no problem at all with literary sf, I’d actually like to see more of it.

        As Kevin knows, I read sometimes full blown sf. Including elements of it in works focused on more traditional concerns of literary fiction isn’t an issue for me. To be honest, I wouldn’t mind seeing more sf concerned with issues of prose style and character, though really it’s not the point of the genre as a rule.

        But Mitchell and Crumey aren’t bound of course by my or anyone else’s ideas of genre, all they’re bound by is to write the best books they can, which happily they seem to be doing.

  3. I call what Mitchell writes “speculative fiction” rather than science fiction. It is a genre that, for the most part, I don’t like (novelists imagining evil futures — Oryx and Crake — are boring as well as wrong), but I do like the way Mitchell approaches it. Both his scenarios and characters are interesting and get fully developed. I would put Sputnik Caledonia in the same genre and it is one that I did not like (actually did not finish after reading three-quarters of it) — self-indulgent would be added to boring in my assessment. Max and John Self know there stuff so treat my opinion as a dissenting opinion, nothing more.

    I do think reading Ghostwritten first is preferable, if you have the choice. It is quite a good book, but I think Cloud Atlas is better. Just like it is better to work your way up to the best wine on offer, start with the deuzieme cru and then move on to the premier.

  4. It’s a shame you didn’t write up Sputnik Caledonia Kevin, I really liked it and I enjoy dissenting opinions, they’re very valuable and sometimes the gap between the positive and the negative opinion sheds real light on the work.

    Over at mine Jonathan M has accused Derek Raymond of sentimentalism, that’s not a wholly unfair criticism but I had only touched on it, not brought it out as it didn’t strike me as much as him. His opinion though adds depth to my comments, a useful counterpoint, and provokes me to think more about possible failings.

    As for speculative fiction and science fiction, to me they seem very similar but genre arguments are sterile things, the real question is whether it’s any good or not. That said, I think it can be slightly unfair to create a distinction the effect of which is to remove works with literary merit from the genre, as the accusation that the genre lacks literary merit then becomes rather self-fulfilling.

  5. I didn’t mean to introduce the idea of speculative fiction as another pigeonhole, but rather a clarifying description. There is not a lot of science in Mitchell, there is quite a bit of speculative thought (perhaps even more so in Cloud Atlas than Ghostwritten). And I would certainly never get into an argument about whether a book was “science” or “speculative” — or for that matter “literary” — fiction. After all, they are all just adjectives.

    My excuse for not writing up Sputnik Caledonia is better than a letter from the doctor — I wasn’t blogging when I three-quarters read it. I also have a guideline (that so far I have only broken once) that I don’t post thoughts on books that I choose to abandon. So (if you want to torment me) if I had been blogging then, I probably would have finished the book and discovered in the last quarter that it was as good as others said — I don’t intend in the short term to test that rather dubious hypothesis.

    I am somewhat delighted today that Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (more speculative fiction in my description) did not make the Booker longlist.

  6. Kerry: Speaking of speculative futuristic intrusions, why do some of your comments not appear in chronological order? Are you a living version of The Time-Traveller’s Blogger or what? 🙂

  7. Kerry says:

    Kevin,

    I do like your descriptor “speculative fiction”, because the books to which you refer are different in identifiable ways from what is generally referred to as sci-fi. For those who see sci-fi dismiss, “speculative fiction” may be more enticing because interplanetary travel and such is not featured.

    Maybe my attempt to revise history by awarding Cloud Atlas a Booker win has had unintended consequences on my own blog. To follow the Cumey/parallel universes thing, maybe I have gotten lost in the space time continuum.

    It is kind of funny the first post I say out of order was about revising history.

    I have no idea what is causing the problem, perhaps when I hit “reply” rather than simply submitting a comment, that mucks up the system? I will try to determine the cause because it is kind of annoying. Sorry all.

    I suppose I should be happy about the Margaret Atwood thing because the only book of hers I have tried, I abandoned. It was not really because I hated it, but some time issues came up and I was not enthralled by it. I set it down intending to return, but never did.

  8. Kerry, isn’t the timing thing whether one replies to a specific comment or just replies generally using the comment box at the bottom?

    Kevin, if you didn’t like it when you gave up on it, I doubt the end of SC would have saved it for you. Obviously I liked it a great deal, but I think you were probably right to bail when you did. There’s a chemistry between book and reader, and if it’s not there, it’s not there. Sometimes it’s worth pressing on and the end redeems what went before (Antic Hay springs to mind), but usually not. I think this, for you, would have been a not.

    • You pretty much capture what I was thinking at the time, Max. I didn’t hate the book, but it was become increasingly annoying. With some books when I am in the mood, I struggle through (Byatt’s The Children’s Book comes to mind) and with others it seems best just to step aside. The most recent failure that way was Man Gone Down which I abandoned at page 274 — and it promptly went on to win the IMPAC Prize.

  9. I went over to the LRB, for me presently the best bookshop in London, but they didn’t have it in stock.

    But, I picked up Andrew Crumey’s first novel and the other Eileen Chang collection that’s in English, so it wasn’t a wasted trip.

    I’ll pick up Mitchell another time, I’m intrigued enough.

  10. Kerry says:

    Max,
    I will be looking forward to your thoughts on each of those selections and Ghostwritten when you get to it.

    I just read your post on Eileen Chang. I was not familiar with her, but your review and the “Lust, Caution” connection make me think she’ll be well worth checking out.

  11. […] has had. Of the books I have recently reviewed here, Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten both seem to explore themes raised here. Ball and DeLillo both seem interested in questions about […]

  12. […] by David Mitchell Ghostwritten, which I really enjoyed, is David Mitchell’s first novel. I decided to read is oeuvre in order which bring me to […]

  13. I read this while on holiday Kerry. I’ve not yet reread your review in detail, I plan to after I’ve written mine though. I loved it for the first two thirds or so, until it reached Muntervary which was my least favourite chapter (too cod Irish for me) and the SF elements oddly didn’t work for me at all.

    Still, an impressive debut. I didn’t enjoy the final sections particularly and I thought the payoff weak (I won’t say more as people might read this and spoilers are very possible) but the early and mid sections were fantastic.

    I’m looking forward to reading your take in greater detail once I’ve put mine together. Definitely a writer to take note of though.

    • Kerry says:

      I am happy to hear you enjoyed this one (though with caveats). I will definitely enjoy reading your thoughts on it. I actually enjoyed the Muntervary and Bat Segundo sections, though I agree that the payoff was not particularly potent. I will hold further thoughts until you’ve posted your review.

  14. […] The glory of Ghostwritten is that it shows just that. It’s unafraid of complexity. I owe Kerry at Hungry Like the Woolf (possibly the best literary blog name ever) for convincing me to read Mitchell. Kerry’s review of Ghostwritten is here. […]

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