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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]

Memories and Tunnels

Picking up from yesterday’s post. I know this book is like nothing I have read. It’s not the same as the linked narratives in Oliver Kitteridge. I don’t expect any one of the narrators will physically overlap—but the way these people are connected is just so surreal and intriguing.

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]

Ghostwritten has been a challenging reading exercise. At first I couldn’t make of these surreal, mystical remarks that are woven with the narratives.

I returned to my Holy Mountain, possessing knowledge from over a hundred hosts, but still knowing nothing about my origins. I had tired of wandering. The Holy Mountain was the only place on Earth I felt any tie to. For a decade I inhabited the monks who lived on its mountainsides. I led a tranquil enough life. I found companionship with an old woman who lived in a tea shack and believed I was a speaking tree. That was the last time I spoke with a human. [166]

The puzzle is slowly revealed, but not without some re-reading and back-tracking. The effect is one that is both shocking and engrossing. A disembodied spirit is in the working underneath all these narratives.

Now I wonder what will happen next.

Current Readings

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This week BTT asks:

What are you reading right now? What made you choose it? Are you enjoying it? Would you recommend it? (And, by all means, discuss everything, if you’re reading more than one thing!)

The one book that I’m focusing on is Ghostwritten by David Mitchell. I chose the book because I have always wanted to read David Mitchell, whose new book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, was longlisted for this year’s Booker Prize. I read somewhere that Cloud Atlas consists of six different stories that march forward, and then backward, through time. Each of the characters narrates the first half of their stories which make up the first half of the book. Intrigued by Mitchell’s style and impressed by press reviews, I decided to start from his debut. Ghostwritten consists of linked narratives of nine characters from all over the world. I am in the middle of the fourth narrative, which takes place in a revered locale called Holy Mountain in China. I cannot yet make of the connections between these people but am keeping my fingers crossed. These events are more like coincidental events rather than interlinked for now. I have a feeling these connections are very subtle.

I rarely read more than one book at a time but I am also flipping through Theft by Peter Carey, who is shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize for Parrot and Olivier in America. Like Mitchell, Carey is a new author for me. Another reason to peruse him is that he is from Australia, a country of which the literature I absolutely know nothing about. That he has been a two-time Booker Prize winner makes his works more appealing, even though I don’t always agree with the panel of judges. Anne Enright would be a good example. The Gathering is well-written but it’s a stretch to be awarded the prize. A peripheral reading goal is to explore English-language authors who are not from the United States and England: authors from Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. Peter Carey fits perfectly in this criterion.