Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

I love mosaic books that make the reader piece together what happened by telling related stories from various perspectives. The Fifth Head of Cerberus, 2666, City of Saints and Madmen, and Wylding Hall are probably my favorites that use that device. The first David Mitchell book I read, Cloud Atlas, belongs in that conversation. I’ve since read Mitchell’s books that were published after that, and really loved all of them, especially The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. I’m sometimes hesitant to read the early work of writers who I discovered through later books, and thus had put off reading Mitchell’s first two novels with the thought that it might disappoint. In the case of Ghostwritten, Mitchell’s first, the fear was fully unwarranted. I need to reread Atlas and De Zoet so that I can avoid recency bias, but I like this fully as well as anything else by him, and possibly those. While each novella in Ghostwritten is told all at once rather than split as in Cloud Atlas, and thus stand on their own more, taken together they add up to an elegant and forceful meditation on chance. 

Each novella is named for the location in which its main action takes place. The first, Okinawa, is the story of a man hiding on one of the smaller islands after committing an act of religious terrorism. The world will be ending around the turn of the century according to this faith, and he and some of his colleagues have killed people in the Tokyo subway before his retreat. The second, Tokyo, concerns a record store clerk who falls in love with a woman visiting from China. In the third, Hong Kong, a crooked western lawyer with secrets to hide breaks up with his girlfriend and begins a relationship with his maid. In Holy Mountain (Mount Emei in China) a woman grows up, after a traumatic childhood, and runs her family’s tea shop. Her life spans from the Japanese invasion through the Cultural Revolution and into the period with more capitalist leanings and is further damaged by each. This one starts to verge into fantasy/magical realism. This genre shift continues in Mongolia, which is narrated by a being that nests in the mind of various people and is in search of its origins. The genre changes again in Petersburg (Russia) which centers around a museum heist. In London, a ghostwriter (who works for Tim Cavendish a publisher with a larger role in Cloud Atlas) thinks about chance as he goes through a harrowing night of gambling. In Clear Island (in Ireland) a scientist who is developing a sentient AI but fears its use in warfare is dodging the US government. Night Train, named for an overnight radio chat show in New York, consists of the transcripts of that show as the host talks once a year to an AI who has inordinate power.

Mitchell is a master at writing in a wide array of voices. Each narrator’s is distinct, each is compelling. The ways in which these narrators show up in various ways in the other novellas join together to reinforce the central argument of the book; whether life is dictated by chance or fate. It appears to the characters as if they are ruled by chance, but they are in a narrative that is finished and thus fated to act the way they do. The central metaphor of the book is that people’s lives are ghostwritten, though whether the anonymous writer is chance or fate is never really stated. The actions of the characters impinge on each other in ways that seem almost random, but again they’re orchestrated by the writer. If I’m reading it correctly, Mitchell argues that life is determined, but one should act as if it’s governed by chance. That could be spun as bleak, but in Mitchell’s hands it seems humanistic and hopeful.

Obviously, I love the structure of the book. The writing is consistently excellent, and the book moves at an exciting pace. The stories can be enjoyed singly, but the enjoyment of piecing together the larger narrative is at least as great. The array of genres and voices on display is impressive; it is hard to believe this is a first novel.

Canon worthy.

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