Oblivious to the bizarre ways in which their lives intersect, nine characters - a terrorist in Okinawa, a record-shop clerk in Tokyo, a money-laundering British financier in Hong Kong, an old woman running a tea shack in China, a transmigrating "noncorpum" entity seeking a human host in Mongolia, a gallery-attendant-cum-art-thief in Petersburg, a drummer in London, a female physicist in Ireland, and a radio deejay in New York - hurtle toward a shared destiny of astonishing impact. Like the book's one non-human narrator, Mitchell latches onto his host characters and invades their lives with parasitic precision, making Ghostwritten a sprawling and brilliant literary relief map of the modern world.
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I'm a bit amazed that David Mitchell was only in his late 20s when he wrote this kaleidoscopic novel, given his adeptness with language, setting, voice, and ideas. As in his more famous (and later) Cloud Atlas, Mitchell blends history, tragedy, wit, myth, metaphysics, moral questions, and consciously cinematic melodrama into a swirling literary collage.
Like Cloud Atlas, this one contains a set of loosely-linked stories that take place in different locations around the world and, in some cases, span decades of history. The protagonist of each is at some moment in his or her life when everything is about to change. There's a Japanese doomsday cultist whose conviction in his deluded belief system gives rise to disquieting, yet infecting observations about the world. There's a young, jazz-obsessed slacker working in a Tokyo record store (an obvious Murakami nod), who falls in love with a girl that happens to wander in by a chance. There's a harried 30-something British financier watching his life and his biggest deal fall apart, while convinced that his Hong Kong apartment is haunted by a ghost. There's an old Chinese woman who runs a noodle stand on a sacred mountain, and has come through much history mostly by being beneath its concern. There's a “noncorpum”, a disembodied spirit that transfers itself between human hosts and travels across Mongolia, in search of its own origins. There's a female Russian art thief, waiting for the moment to carry out a big heist, but acutely conscious of her departing youth.
Unlike Cloud Atlas, which played games with which stories were "real" (and what "real" ultimately means in the context of imaginative constructions), this book puts its characters on the same broad stage and has them crossing paths with one another. At first, the connections are fleeting, but as the book progresses, the stories and their themes intersect more and more, building towards a crescendo that includes an Irish quantum physicist trying to evade the militaristic designs of the US government, a noncorpum of another sort, and a late night radio DJ on the eve of the end of the world.
Mitchell is mad juggler of a writer, taking a collection of ideas that would be somewhat hackneyed on their own, and reconfiguring them into a grand mural in motion. Each story has its own lyrically sordid details, powerful truths, and cosmic absurdities, yet their meaning is in their connectedness. It would seem that we’re all ghosts in one another’s machines, mostly unconscious of each other, yet profoundly linked, part of the same endless universal cycle of suffering, joy, death, and rebirth.
It's not hard to see that this was Mitchell's first book. There's a sense of a young author appropriating ideas with the enthusiasm of a rail tourist snapping photos, though with enough tongue-in-cheek that it doesn't feel like theft. And the ending, which borrows elements from sci-fi B-movies, feels a little clumsy and preachy compared to the rest of the book.
Still, it’s a damn impressive debut, showcasing Mitchell’s ample gifts at technique and full of questions and beautiful insights. If you like literary fiction that hovers on the edge of fanciful, without crossing over into full-blown magic realism, then he’s someone you should read. Cloud Atlas is my personal favorite, but if that one sounds too meta, you might connect more with Ghostwritten. I'm pretty happy with the audiobook narrator chosen here, William Rycroft. He doesn't do a wide range of accents, but his tone and delivery are quite skillful.
So Kill me. I really like David Mitchell, and reading this knowing it was his first novel is one of those things you can only really believe if you've read his other novels. This seems like an embryonic version of Cloud Atlas, with a lot of the same ideas, themes, and even a borrowed character or two. But that seems unfair, because most floret-novels never actually seem beautiful before their time. This one seems both a shinny fetus and world-ready.
This baby was my JAM. Yes, there are/were times (each of his books have several TIMES) when Mitchell's transcendent/jazzy/flash*flash/UnitedColorsofBeneton schtick gets a little tired, but he still pulls it off. Kind of like when I'm watching the Winter Olympics and I get a little overwhelmed by the flamboyance of the whole "we-are-the-world-in-tights" routine, but I still end up watching most of the crazy programing.
Anyway, it was fun to read and to already know the future. I read this already knowing that Mitchell wasn't going to be a one-hit-wonder, that his best books were ahead of him, that he would always have an Asian thing, that the Wachowskis/Tom Hanks would almost RUIN Cloud Atlas for me, that I would read every book he ever publishes, and usually buy several copies in many formats for several friends.