Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

July 27, 2009

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.