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[313] Ghostwritten – David Mitchell

” I experience memories like a network of tunnels. Some are serviced and brightly lit, others are catacombs . . . But access to memories does not guarantee access to truth. Many minds redirect memories along revised maps ” [168]

Ghostwritten is David Mitchell’s debut novel but he is not playing safe with a conventional straight narrative style. With ten sections that adopt a variety of style and voices—formal, informal, chatty, humorous, surreptitious—these stories, which revolve around nine characters make for a jigsaw puzzle of a novel of which the grand design becomes clear as the last pieces are put in place. Episodic novel has to reach a higher bar to success because the different sections often fall prey to unevenness in terms of holding readers’ interest. Ghostwritten is no exception. While individual character can be sentimental, despite the ingenuity of juxtaposing ideas of transcendence that bear no initial connection over time and space, the overall atmosphere of the book is dispassionate.

As my infancy progressed, I became aware of another presence in ‘my’ body. Stringy mists of color and emotion condensed into droplets of understanding. I saw, and slowly came to recognize, gardens, paths, barking dogs, rice fields, sunlit washing drying in warm town breezes. I had no idea why these images came when they did. Like being plugged into a plotless movie. Slowly I walked down the path trodden by all humans, from the mythic to the prosaic. Unlike humans, I remember the path. [155]

The novel begins in Okinawa, Japan, where a cult member has fled after participating in a gas attack on Tokyo’s subway that is reminiscent of the sarin attack unleashed by the Aum followers. From Quasar, the terrorist, the book is set in motion as episodes that seem unrelated to one another supersede over international locales, almost like telepathy. From Okinawa the narrative moves on to Tokyo, in which an orphaned Filipino-Japanese lad who works in a jazz record shop falls in love with a girl of Japanese descent but lives in Hong Kong. When Satoru visits Tomoyo in the former British colony, an expat financier finds his personal life in tatters. On top of his divorce from his wife and an affair with the house maid, Neal Bose’s money laundering for a Russian criminal has doomed him. From here the story snaps into China, where an old Buddhist woman runs a tea shack near a shrine at the foot of Holy Mountain. She reflects upon the austere life under the red flag during Cultural Revolution. Across the border, in Mongolia, is where a disembodied spirit, a non corpum entity, looks to transmigrate into human hosts.

Birth deals us out a hand of cards, but as important as their value is the place we are dealt them in. [314]

Together with an elaborate art theft conspiracy at the Hermitage, the quantum physicist who dodges the CIA, the London ghostwriter who lives a life of libido, a New York wee-hour DJ who doesn’t cut slack, and an unusual caller produced by artificial intelligence, the novel takes on a philosophizing path, but not without a metaphysical edge. It muses about the duality of chance and fate in life, about fortuity and synchronicity. The story does come full-circle back to where it started, but sans destination. The subtle links that traverse the narratives, which are actually the keynote of the book, illustrates how a minor incident in one person’s life could turn the world upside down for another. The circuit of synchronicity never stops. For a debut, Ghostwritten is more than impressive, and keeps readers thrilled.

426 pp. Trade paperback. [Read/Skim/Toss] [Buy/Borrow]

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8 Responses

  1. Wow! This book sounds great! I’ve only read Cloud Atlas by Mitchell and I thought that was a fantastic read, so this one truly sounds like its right up my alley. And wow for a debut, it does indeed sound rather impressive. I love this style of writing where the story is broken into separate pieces but comes together at the end – everything is intertwined, but not in an obvious way. I’ll definitely be adding this title to my list of books to buy! Great post! Thanks!

    • Technically speaking, I’m not sure if all the pieces come together at the end, but the novel does leave you a sense that people who are of different station in their life must have stumbled upon one another in pure chance. It’s that ever evolving duality between chance and fate that makes this book fascinating to read.

  2. “The circuit of synchronicity never stops.” This makes this novel sound like a must-read for me as that’s one of my favourite themes in fiction, especially when it’s done subtly, as it seems to have been here. I love that! Thanks for the intriguing review.

    • Synchronicity is definitely the key in this book. It’s ubiquitous in our life. I read that a few characters from this novel form the basis of his subsequent works, which I’m looking forward to read.

  3. This definitely sounds like it was Mitchell playing with many of the ideas and forms that he would later go on to perfect in Cloud Atlas. If you enjoyed this, then I highly suggest you try that book too. I’ve not read this one, but I’m eager to do so!

  4. I enjoyed this review. Ghostwritten was my first Mitchell, but I have since read all but Black Swan Green. This debut holds up well against the(deservedly) Booker-nominated later works. And the great thing, to me, about Mitchell is that each of his books is very, very different, and yet has an elemental “Mitchellness” that suggests if you like one, you’ll likely enjoy them all. And, by the way, the interlinking is not only between sections of this book, but between this book and his others. Themes, motifs, and characters recur throughout his oeuvre in pleasing ways.

    For another take on this work, Max of Pechorin’s Journal has recently read and reviewed Ghostwritten and has a favorable opinion as well. There are lots of comments discussing the book. Or, you can follow my name to my blog where I also reviewed it (also with an extensive discussion in the comments).

    If you think you might read it, I would encourage you to read it without reading more about it. Come back to the reviews to discuss it.

    Max and his commenters draw out some interesting points about the novel, Matt, that you and others who have read it might find interesting. And for those who haven’t read both number9dream and Cloud Atlas, I strongly recommend starting Ghostwritten and placing those two in your TBR queue.

    • Having read Mitchell and Murakami in tandem in pure coincidence, I realize these two authors explore very similar themes in synchronicity, and that ever evolving duality between chance and fate. I have promptly put number9dream and Cloud Atlas on my list.

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