David Mitchell – Ghostwritten

Posted on | May 11, 2011 | 12 Comments

Ghostwritten - David MitchellGhostwritten is David Mitchell’s first novel, and on finishing it, I’ve now read all his works, which pleases me greatly. Of course, the fact that this is a tremendous debut adds to the pleasure, albeit, I really do wish there was another Mitchell on my shelf, just waiting to be read.

The sub-title of the book reads, “a novel in nine parts,” and so it is. It could easily a collection of nine short stories, each told in first person by a different narrator, who seemingly have nothing to do with the previous narrator(s). However, six degrees of separation (or fewer) bind the characters together, through time and different geographical locations. The link between the characters isn’t blatantly evident though, as one might come to expect from Mitchell, and at times, it’s confusing as to how the characters come together, and to figure out if there is any kind of causal sequence. That said, one can’t help but anticipate the revelation of the link, and then deliberate over it for a bit, which in turn means that one can’t help but read the book, scrutinising almost every word to see where the link lies.

{note: there are some spoilers below, but I have tried to keep them to the minimum}

The first story, Okinawa, is inspired by the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway – an act of domestic terrorism. Quasar, a terrorist, is on the run after wreaking havoc on a train, as he imagines a world without the “unclean” – forgive the comparison, but similar to the way some pure-bloods (and Voldemort and his Death Eaters) fell about mud-bloods in Harry Potter. Quasar believes he can communicate with the leader of his cult telepathically, and while he hides out in Okianawa, waiting for things to quieten down, he gets the news that His Serendipity has been captured. While the locals rejoice, Quasar tries to get in touch with the powers that be, to figure out the next course of action. The password to get in touch with the powers that be is simply, the dog needs to be fed.

Cue the second story, and the shift in location to Tokyo, where a teenager works in a record store, specialising in jazz. One day, a group of girls enter the store, and he’s instantly attracted to one of them, but they leave the store, and he is resigned to never meeting her again. A few days later, while he’s closing up the store, he hears the telephone ring, and being conscientious, goes in to answer the phone. The voice at the other end simply says, it’s Quasar. The dog needs to be fed. As fate has it, this slight delay leads to him meeting the girl again, and they immediately hit it off. End of the second story. Yes, the links are that random.

“The last of the cherry blossom. On the tree, it turns ever more perfect. And when it’s perfect, it falls. And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up. So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air, this way and that, for the briefest time … I think that only we Japanese can really understand that, don’t you?”

{end of spoilers}

Through the rest of the stories, the reader meets the Russian mafia, and a ghost that transfers from being to being by touch; a physicist involved with the Pentagon and a night-time DJ in New York; a tea shack owner at the Holy Mountain who laments as to why women are always the ones who have to clean up, and a drummer/writer in London who also works as a ghostwriter to pay the bills.

I couldn’t get to sleep afterwards, worrying about the possible endings of the stories that had been started. Maybe that’s why I’m a ghostwriter. The endings have nothing to do with me.

You know the real drag about being a ghostwriter? You never get to write anything that beautiful. And even if you did, nobody would ever believe it was you.

We’re all ghostwriters, my friend. And it’s not just our memories. Our actions too. We all think we’re in control of our lives, but they’re really pre-ghostwritten by forces around us.

The above quotes illustrate another prominent aspect of the book: the role of fate, of chance, of the chain-reaction. The sheer randomness of the stories, and the way the characters inter-connect is pivotal to the novel, and keeps the reader completely engrossed. Of course, the other side is, by the time the reader actually starts relating to the narrator or nodding in agreement with their sentiments, a new narrator is introduced and the old narrator a thing of the past.

And then there’s sneaky little political comments just dropped, making the book a lot more relevant in today’s day and age. The below snippet, for example, reminds me of the preamble to Iraq.

“Have you noticed,” said John, “how countries call theirs ‘sovereign nuclear deterrents,’ but call the other countries’ ones ‘weapons of mass destruction’?”

It’s an overtly ambitious work, with some fairly profound statements, that had me admiring the debut from the get-go. It was thought-provoking and massive – perhaps not as demanding as Cloud Atlas, but a hell of a ride, nonetheless, and one couldn’t help but marvel at how it all unraveled.

Integrity is a bugger, it really is. Lying can get you into difficulties, but to wind up in the crappers try telling nothing but the truth.

Of course, the other impressive thing was, how all nine narrators found a unique voice in the novel, totally disconnected from the previous narrator, similar to Cloud Atlas. Speaking of his most acclaimed book so far, two characters from Cloud Atlas also made an appearance in this book: Tim Cavendish and Luisa Rey – their occupations remain the same across the books, i.e. publisher and writer respectively. Not only that, but a character with a comet-shaped birthmark has a cameo role to play as well. I have to say, love finding old friends in new books!

Personally speaking, my primary complaint with the novel was that I didn’t get a sense of closure or fulfilment on finishing the book. I enjoyed it, but I just didn’t get the ending. I re-read the last “story” thrice, but to not much avail. I believe this book would benefit from a re-read, as there might have been a multitude of subtle hints that I missed – inadvertently.

Have you read David Mitchell’s debut novel? Or, anything by him? What’s your favourite? My unequivocal pick would be Number9Dream, but that might have something to do with it being the first Mitchell I read. I almost feel as though I have to re-read all his works in the order of writing, to truly appreciate the erratic wondrous world of fiction he has created.


12 Responses to “David Mitchell – Ghostwritten”

  1. She
    May 11th, 2011 @ 3:27 am

    I am reading Black Swan Green right now which will be my third book of his. I also have The Thousand Autumns waiting in the wings, so I suppose Ghostwritten will be my last book of his to read.

    I would have to say that Cloud Atlas is my favorite so far, but like you, I think it’s because it’s the first of his I’ve read. I love figuring out his little twists and turns and those subtle themes he has running through out his books. He’s fantastic!

  2. Justine Saidman
    May 11th, 2011 @ 6:08 am

    I only recently read Ghostwritten and loved it. Parts of it were somewhat unsettling and it certainly isn’t a book for anyone, but I thought the subtle connections between parts were intriguing and I was thoroughly taken by Mitchell’s writing. I will definitely be reading more!

  3. Jo
    May 11th, 2011 @ 10:35 am

    Oh,I’ve sill got two to go-Number9Dream and Thousand Autumns. I’m trying to spread them out! I agree with virtually everything you wrote! I loved this, but I also struggled with the bizarre ending, and I loved making all the connections throughout each story.

    I do enjoy finding all the references to Mitchell’s other books in his novels, it’s just a bit of an ‘Aha’ moment that make me smile. When I read this, I had a vague notion of havng encountered Neal Brose somewhere before, possibly Black Swan Green, but I didnt mention it when I wrote about it, as I couldn’t be sure, and I don’t have that book any more.

  4. Jackie (Farm Lane Books)
    May 11th, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

    I have read all his books too, but this is one of the ones I read so long ago that I’ve forgotten a lot about it. My favourite is sometimes Cloud Atlas, sometime Black Swan Green, but all of his books have something special about them. I’d say this was the weakest as it doesn’t have the lasting impact of the others, but for a first novel you can’t complain too much :-)

  5. Steph
    May 12th, 2011 @ 1:43 am

    I have been trying to slowly collect Mitchell’s books, but so far only have Cloud Atlas and Number9Dream. Really want to get a copy of this one, however! It sounds soooo cool! Normally I don’t like short stories, but I really like the way Mitchell creates something bigger than a novel by using smaller narratives.

  6. Books are my Boyfriends
    May 12th, 2011 @ 10:08 pm

    Oh, I am a David Mitchell NERD! I like Ghostwritten (and Number9Dream) a lot too, but my twin favorites are Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas for its epic scope and the general mind-blowingness and Black Swan Green for being sweet as spun sugar and one of my favorite coming of age tales. I could not do Jacob de Zooet though, I tried, I tried so hard and I just could not make it work.

  7. charley
    May 15th, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    Nice work on reading all of Mitchell’s books. I have read Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas, both of which I enjoyed.

  8. kiss a cloud
    May 17th, 2011 @ 5:42 am

    Wow congratulations! And here I have never read even one by him. But I really mean to. :)

  9. sakura
    May 20th, 2011 @ 3:11 pm

    I remember reading this way before he became famous when I stumbled upon it at my local library. I really enjoyed it and number9dream but my favourite so far is Cloud Atlas. I still have his latest two to read and I’m determined to read them this year!

  10. Sarah
    May 21st, 2011 @ 1:31 am

    I have read only Cloud Atlas, liked it immensely, and regretfully declined the challenge of writing a post.

    From that not very informed vantage point your review does remind me of Cloud Atlas. Ghostwritten sounds like a novel which I would enjoy very much…

  11. Joanna
    June 1st, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

    I love David Mitchell and have read everything except for the latest one. I’m thinking about re-reading them all soon, actually, I think they’re definitely re-read material!

  12. anothercookiecrumbles
    June 4th, 2011 @ 2:20 am

    @She: I couldn’t agree with you more – he is fantastic!! I can’t wait to read his next book – don’t know if there’s one in the pipelines yet, but… enjoy the two remaining books by him! Hope you enjoy them – If you loved Cloud Atlas, you’re almost guaranteed to love this.

    @Justine Saidman : I think the subtle connexions were what made this book a novel, and not a collection of short stories… and the fact that it was brilliantly written made the whole thing immense. I look forward to your thoughts on his other works, specially Cloud Atlas.

    @Jo : Ah, I missed the Neal Brose link. Good call :) I’m kind-of ambivalent as to how I feel about the ending. Practically everyone I’ve spoken to about this book has struggled with the ending, but is that part of what makes this so good – that we’re thinking about it long after the book’s over and done with? Or, the fact that we can fabricate our own conclusion?

    @Jackie : It’s interesting that you say that, i.e. that this is probably his weakest novel. It doesn’t have a lasting impact in the way Cloud Atlas does, but I thought it was better than Black Swan Green. Don’t get me wrong – I loved Black Swan Green, but… it wasn’t Mitchell-esque enough, if you know what I mean? It was all too normal (well, comparatively). I do think we’re just lucky to have read all the books by Mitchell, and unlucky to have to wait for the next one.

    @Steph : It is totally awesome, so I highly recommend it!!! You hit the nail on the head with the comment about how this is much bigger than a collection of short stories… the scale of this novel is immense!

    @Books are my Boyfriends : Oh no :( I am sorry to hear about Jacob de Zoet. Interesting that you and Jackie have both picked Black Swan Green and Cloud Atlas as favourites. I guess Black Swan Green is so far removed from what I’d expect in a Mitchell novel that… *sigh*… I don’t know! I loved it… finished it in two sittings as well, if I recall correctly, but… oh well!! Guess that’s the talent and power of Mitchell…

    @charley : I hope you enjoy the rest as well :)

    @kiss a cloud : Oh, you really should. I do think you’d love both, Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green, so please do give it a whirl!

    @sakura : Hope you love the two remaining ones. Cloud Atlas is magnificent, and well… think you’re in for a treat (or two) with his remaining books. Can’t wait to read what you think of them.

    @Sarah : I think you’d enjoy it. In fact, I think you’d enjoy almost all of Mitchell. I really do wish you’d posted your thoughts on Cloud Atlas, for I would be really interested in your thoughts on it. More oft’ than not, your reviews always make at least five points that I hadn’t thought of, and get me thinking…

    @Joanna : Definitely. Next year will be the David Mitchell re-read year for me, as I’d love to go back and read all his books chronologically, as opposed to in the haphazard manner in which I’ve read these few.

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