Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell

>> Monday, August 28, 2017

TITLE: Ghostwritten
AUTHOR: David Mitchell

PAGES: 426

TYPE: Fiction

A gallery attendant at the Hermitage. A young jazz buff in Tokyo. A crooked British lawyer in Hong Kong. A disc jockey in Manhattan. A physicist in Ireland. An elderly woman running a tea shack in rural China. A cult-controlled terrorist in Okinawa. A musician in London. A transmigrating spirit in Mongolia. What is the common thread of coincidence or destiny that connects the lives of these nine souls in nine far-flung countries, stretching across the globe from east to west? What pattern do their linked fates form through time and space?

A writer of pyrotechnic virtuosity and profound compassion, a mind to which nothing human is alien, David Mitchell spins genres, cultures, and ideas like gossamer threads around and through these nine linked stories. Many forces bind these lives, but at root all involve the same universal longing for connection and transcendence, an axis of commonality that leads in two directions—to creation and to destruction. In the end, as lives converge with a fearful symmetry, Ghostwritten comes full circle, to a point at which a familiar idea—that whether the planet is vast or small is merely a matter of perspective—strikes home with the force of a new revelation. It marks the debut of a writer of astonishing gifts.

This is David Mitchell's first book, and you can clearly see here things that will come up again in the future. Just like The Bone Clocks (which I haven't reviewed yet, but absolutely adored) and Cloud Atlas, this is something in between a collection of short stories and a single plot thread novel. We move around the world, jumping from head to head and place to place. There's a fugitive terrorist in the more distant Japanese islands, a jazz-obsessed high-school graduate in Japan, a bent lawyer in Hong Kong, an old woman living at the foot of the Holy Mountain in China, a gallery attendant in St. Petersburg. Each section is not just a different story, but a different style and voice, what I've seen called literary ventriloquism. Mitchell is fantastic at that.

In one of the sections, there's a non-corporeal being who can jump from person to person, and is desperately trying to find the origin of a story that is one of the only memories it has from its very beginning, hoping this can help it figure out its own origins. This was reminiscent (more than that, actually, it's probably the genesis of the idea) of some of the metaphysical mumbo-jumbo in The Bone Clocks, only much better. In The Bone Clocks the metaphysical stuff was, I thought, the least successful element in an otherwise excellent book. In Ghostwritten, however, this section turned out to be one of my favourites, and truly moving.

Other sections are less successful, like the shock-jock DJ taking calls from a very strange being. Now that was proper mumbo-jumbo, and I'm afraid it ended the book in a bit of an anticlimactic note. In general, it felt like the earlier sections were much stronger than the later ones, much more interesting to read and more thought-provoking.

I read this with part of my mind always thinking about what themes linked the different sections together. There are links between the stories. They start out with simply small references in each story about what happened in the previous one (an event is mentioned, a character is seen having dinner in the background), but they become more numerous as we go along, and start going beyond simple references to more thematic echoes. I'm not sure if there's a single overarching theme. I've thought, and thought, but honestly, I don't know. Does it matter? Not really for the first sections, but understanding the thread might have helped me enjoy the last few ones a bit more.

Still, Mitchell is always worth reading. He's a great storyteller, and I love the way he ranges across the world and focus in on characters so very different from each other.



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