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Book Review: Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

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Maybe the truth is under your nose, and you can indeed tell the forest for the trees. “As chess players or writers or mystics know, the pursuit of insight takes you deep into the forest,” notes one character in Ghostwritten. “Days were I’d just gaze at the steam rising from my coffee, or stains on the wall, or a locked door. Days were I’d find the next key in the steam or the stains or the lock.”

There’s not a chess player to be had in English expatriate David Mitchell’s dazzling, rich novel. But there are writers and mystics and a dizzying array of key-seekers and globe-hopping settings ranging from the edenic to the apocalyptic. In what is a synopsis-defying collection of genre-bending, interconnecting stories and round-and-round-and-comes-out-here development, we follow the widely-varying circumstances of, among others, a brainwashed terrorist in Okinawa; a deceitful, “bent little lawyer” in Hong Kong; an elderly woman running a tea shack in China; a Manhattan disc jockey; an Irish physicist; and a transmigrating spirit in Mongolia who has “walked down the path trodden by all humans, from the mythic to the prosaic.”

Besides interrelated, puzzling, and puzzle-making references and reappearances by key players, the stories, whether prosaic or of the “shinier-myth” kind, are held together by a ping-ponging thematic stance on chance and fate, cause and effect. “Why do events have this life of their own?” wonders one character, while another contends that “we’re all ghostwriters, my boy. And its not just our memories. Our actions, too. We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us.” More determinably chancy is the belief that “evolution and history are the bagatelle of particle waves,” and that “the most malicious god is the god of the counted chicken.”

Just as Mitchell is adept in couching philosophical ideas about chance and cause within the appropriate cultural context, so too is he convincing in setting the tempo and mood when relaying differing concepts of, and attitudes to, time and truth. An old peasant woman in rural China expresses a reflective, resigned feeling: “With the certainty of an old dying woman, I know it’s not the truth that much matters.” She also considers that “all the yesterdays and tomorrows spin around again sooner or later. The world has long forgotten, but us mountain-dwellers live on the prayer wheel of time.”

In contrast and with equal expertise, Mitchell also conveys the harder-edged precision and almost frantic truth-seeking and prayer wheel-spinning of a scientist who, after giving her own brief history of time, concludes in one-nanosecond-forward-two-nanosecond-back frustration. “But you can no more measure the speed of time than you can bottle days,” she bemoans. “Clocks measure arbitrary meters of time, but not its speed. Nobody know what it is.”

Ghostwritten has its fun times, too; part of the adventure in reading the novel is stumbling across the expressive, evocative and poetic don’t-blink bon mots and wordplay that are seamlessly woven throughout. One character is described as having “one of those Andy Warhol accents. He speaks as though receiving words from far beyond Andromeda.” Another relaxes as “that happy Gulliver-tied-down-by Lilliputians feeling sagged my organs.” Billie Holiday is depicted as having a “doomed, Octoberish oboe of a voice.” Chet Baker’s voice was “zennish murmurings in the soft void,” while his trumpet sound was one that had “nowhere urgent to be and all day to get there.”

A couple sections in Ghostwritten meander like they had all day to get to the end of a chapter, and some of the references and allusions that keep this deliberately fragmented book somewhat cohesive seem forced and inconsequential, dislodging the continuity at times. But overall, the satisfying accomplishment of this well-crafted, many-voiced mix of such styles as science fiction, ghost story, romanticism, and espionage paints David Mitchell as an ever-inquisitive and all-embracing writer with more than a few things on his mind. As one of his characters maintains, “A life without darkness and sex and mystery is only half a life.” Mitchell makes sure Ghostwritten contains and conveys a full one.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • http://philobiblion.blogspot.com Natalie Bennett

    This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks, Natalie.

  • Mike

    I really enjoyed Ghostwritten, especially the opening, but I felt that Mitchell struggled here and there. Have you read Cloud Atlas too? Ghostwritten is a warm up for Cloud Atlas. Some of Ghostwritten’s motifs and characters pop up in Cloud Atlas, and Cloud Atlas strikes one as the book Mitchell may have wanted when he sat and wrote Ghostwritten but realised he’d missed and so he sat down and had another go and came up with Ghostwritten to the power of ten. Ghostwritten is good work, Cloud Atlas is major.

  • http://gohah.blogspot.com Gordon Hauptfleisch

    Thanks Mike–haven’t yet read Cloud Atlas, but it’s been on my to-read list. Your comments here, though, makes it more intriguing–so I’ll make sure to get to it sooner rather than later.

  • Mike

    Gordon, I’ll be interested to see your thoughts on it when you’ve read it.