Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell
Ghostwritten is both brilliant and badly flawed. It’s David Mitchell’s first novel and not his best known. His third novel Cloud Atlas got nominated for the Booker prize and a host of other prizes (some of which it won), including the Arthur C Clarke. His latest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is another Booker nominee. He’s clearly an author on the rise.
As an aside, there’s an annual complaint with the Booker that science fiction novels never get nominated. Cloud Atlas was nominated for two science fiction awards and contains clear science fiction elements. None of that prevented it from making its way onto the 2004 Booker shortlist. The annual complaint therefore seems to me quite simply out of date.
Anyway, I’ve not read Cloud Atlas or any of Mitchell’s later novels yet. Ghostwritten was my first as well as his. It’s a difficult book to write about, both because of its structure and because I was so thrilled by the first two thirds or so and so let down by the final third.
Ghostwritten opens in Okinawa (each chapter is titled by reference to the location where it takes place). Within a page it’s obvious that there’s something deeply wrong with the viewpoint character. Either he’s psychic and the whole novel is about to go into pulp sf territory, or he’s deeply delusional. It’s not a spoiler to say it soon becomes apparent that this isn’t pulp sf.
The protagonist in the first chapter is a terrorist with the code name Quasar. He has released a gas attack on the Tokyo underground at the orders of the doomsday cult to which he belongs, and is now on the run. The whole incident is clearly a fictionalisation of the 1995 attack by Aum Shinrikyo.
Lying low in Osaka, Quasar (believes he) receives telephathic messages from cult leader “His Serendipity” and waits for the next phase of His plan to be put into effect. Disturbingly, the news is full of reports of cult members being arrested and turning on each other to minimise their sentences. Quasar’s faith is strong, but it’s far from clear how all this fits in with the program to the apocalypse.
Quasar’s story is coming to a head as his money runs out and the possibilities of staying hidden run out with it. The story then shifts though, moving to Tokyo and a new viewpoing character. Sakura is a twentysomething slacker who works in a jazz shop and who is avoiding committing to a real career. He’s only half-Japanese, his mother a Filipino guest worker and he’s been raised in a brothel. As such, in Japanese society he’s very much the outsider.
One day a girl comes into Sakura’s shop. Like him she’s only half-Japanese, with one of her parents being Hong Kong Chinese. He falls in love with her, and where the first chapter was a disturbing account of madness and terrorism this one becomes a rather touching romance.
What’s going on? In a sign of what’s to follow there are connections between Quasar’s story and Sakura’s, but they’re chance connections. They don’t know each other, but Quasar’s life touches Sakura’s in ways invisible to Sakura.
Next the book moves to Hong Kong (I’m not going to go through every chapter), and to a financial lawyer named Neal Brose. Mitchell is unfortunately a bit confused about the differences between financial lawyers and investment bankers (which is my world so the fact he gets it wrong really stood out to me), but that aside the core story here is of Brose’s life falling apart.
Quasar’s story was based on the real life Tokyo sarin gas attack. Brose’s story is similarly based on the real life 1995 collapse of Barings Bank, with Brose filling in for Nick Leeson.
As noted above, Mitchell does get confused about the differences between investment banks and City law firms (which wouldn’t be an issue for a lay reader), but the section still works and I had to laugh at lines like this:
I’m a financial lawyer. I bend the law every day.
By now the pattern should be apparent. Each chapter shifts geographically. Osaka; Tokyo; Hong Kong; Holy Mountain (a sacred mountain in China); Mongolia; Petersburg; London; Clear Island (in Ireland); and finally Night Train (a late night talk radio show hosted in New York). Each time the viewpoint character shifts, and each time the nature of the story shifts.
The first three chapters cover terrorism, youthful romance and financial scandal. They include a ghost, and they include a lot of internal cross references. Neal Brose sees Sakura and Sakura’s girlfriend in a Hong Kong cafe, which reminds him of how his own life used to be. That impacts his choices.
In the London chapter a ghostwriter is affected when his publisher suddenly loses a lot of money due to the collapse of the firm Brose worked for, which was headed up by the publisher’s brother. That same ghostwriter happens to save someone from being hit by a taxi, who in turn becomes the narrator of the Clear Island chapter.
The book drips with connections. Sometimes characters meet without realising it. Sometimes the same phrases are used but in different contexts and by different people, sometimes literally the same sentences are used by characters or by Mitchell himself as author. Sometimes the same minor incidents happen, but to different characters at different times. Everywhere chance is at work, free will is an illusion.
The ghostwriter reflects on why things in life happen as they do:
Chance, that’s why. Because of the cocktail of genetics and upbringing fixed for me by the blind barman Chance. That Big Issue vendor guy there, why is he selling his magazine next to a shop where people spend £250 on a brass-knobbed antique bedstead and congratulate themselves on a bargain? Chance. Why is that guy a bus driver, and that woman a rushed-off-her-feet waitress in Pizza Hut? Chance. People say they choose, but it comes down to the same thing: why people choose what they choose is also down to chance. Why did that grey oily pigeon lose its leg, but that white and brown one didn’t? Chance. Why did that curvaceous model get to model those particular jeans? Chance. Isn’t all this obvious?
The scope of the novel is breathtaking. The Holy Mountain chapter (one of my favourites) follows a woman who runs a tea shack on a mountain which is the site of pilgrimage for its statue of a giant buddha. Her chapter spans the course of the twentieth century, as nearly every violent force in China during that period comes to the mountain (and that’s a lot of violent forces); each one smashing her tea shack in the process. The chapter manages to be warmly human while showing an appalling spread of brutality. Each invader behaves the same way, only the rhetoric and justifications change.
This one could speak. Strange Cantonese, squeezed through a mangler. ‘We are your liberators. We are requisitioning this wayside inn in the name of His Imperial Egg of Japan. The Holy Mountain now belongs to the Asian Sphere of Co-prosperity. We are here to percolate our Sick Mother China from the evil of the European imperialists. Except the Germans, who are a tribe of honour and racial purity.’
The Petersburg chapter features a daring art theft. It’s a heist story from the viewpoint of a Margarita Latunsky, who is acting as a honeypot to get inside the Hermitage museum. She’s past her prime, and there’s a definite gap between her internal account of herself as a romantic free spirit and the evident truth that she’s being manipulated in her turn by the boyfriend she believes loves her. Matters get complicated when the bank he’s been laundering their proceeds through suddenly goes bankrupt…
Like everyone, Latunsky believes she’s a protagonist making her own choices. Like everyone, her choices are set for her by influences she’s unaware of. In her case it’s her boyfriend, but nobody in this novel is free. As the ghostwriter later notes:
We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us.’
By the time I finished the Petersburg chapter I was dazzled. This is a novel dealing in issues of free will and the relationship between chance and predestination. This is a novel with scope and ambition. I had literally no idea where it was going next, and when a book’s as well written as this (and it is well written) it’s thrilling to read each chapter without the slightest clue as to what might happen next.
The London chapter makes the themes much plainer. The quote above is taken from it (and is one of many allusions to our lives being ghostwritten such as “The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting”). There’s a sense at this point of the book accelerating. Unfortunately, the next chapter didn’t work for me at all and from there it was fast dowhill.
The Clear Island chapter features a man named Heinz Formaggio in a supporting part. Formaggio isn’t actually a name. It’s Italian for cheese. That rather threw me out of the novel.
Worse though, much worse, is that Clear Island is an extraordinarily cliched image of Ireland. Everyone drinks Guinness. It’s full of whimsical characters. The protagonist comes there on the run and the villagers rally round as if they’re in a Hollywood movie regardless of the risk to them. It’s a cross between Father Ted’s Craggy Island and the sort of thing the Irish tourist board likes to see in films it helps fund.
Given how good the Asian sections in particular were I was hugely disappointed with the depiction of Ireland. Mitchell captured Chinese history in a chapter, explored issues of Japanese racism, showed a real understanding of that part of the world. For the Clear Island section he seems to have used his local Blockbusters as his reference material.
From there the book veers fast into outright science fiction. An earlier chapter featured a noncorporal entity, a spirit of sorts, as a protagonist. That was fine and it worked well with the book’s themes. From here though we head into the realm of quantum physics and artificial intelligences and despite the fact I regularly read and enjoy sf it was a leap too far for me. I didn’t buy it.
By this point in the novel I didn’t care about references to Isaac Asimov. I didn’t care about the sf elements generally. Equally problematically, Mitchell introduces a caricature of the American right which just doesn’t work. There’s a military buildup between an ultra hawkish US and a nuclear armed Islamic superstate which is just nonsense.
To put it mildly I’ve no love of the recent Bush administration or of pretty much anything it did. Ghostwritten predates that presidency, but clearly looks forward to it and it does so with the worst sort of caricature. The depiction of the Neocons is cartoonish in its villainy. The reality was, as it always is, much more complex. Equally, in our world there is simply no possibility of an Islamic superstate with the bomb (yes, I’m aware of Iran, I wouldn’t call it exactly a superstate).
The result is a crude depiction of a fantasy America facing off against a fantasy Middle East; all of which serves as the backdrop to a departure into pure sf. One interesting possibility is that the Islamic superstate is itself a clue. It’s not credible in our world, but is this our world?
There’s a reference earlier in the novel to the possibility that this is but one of myriad possible universes. The Islamic state and the ultra-hawkish US may be intended as clues that that’s precisely the case. That not only is there no free will within the world, this isn’t even the only world. There’s an infinite number of them, so that everything happens somewhere.
In this world there is an Islamic superstate. In this world there are noncorporeal intelligences and AIs. In our world things differ. The difference between our world and the one in the novel is simply chance, a few thiings happened differently and they get to where they are instead of where we are.
Or I may be overthinking it and it may just be clumsy and Mitchell may know far less about the Middle East than he does the Far East. I’m not sure.
Whatever the answer, it’s a disappointing end to a potentially great novel. The first two thirds are brilliant. The sheer density of connections between chapters, apparent to us (though I doubt I caught all of them) but invisible to the characters gives us the perspective of gods (or noncorporeal intelligences). As we read we see how fate unfolds and shapes lives.
For me ultimately the book failed. It was though an ambitious failure, and I vastly prefer that to mediocre success. There’s so much in this novel that I’ve barely scratched the surface. I also note that although I hadn’t intended to discuss every chapter I pretty much have anyway. So it goes.
I’m looking forward to Mitchell’s next, Number9Dream. In the meantime I’ll finish up with a final quote, one that I hope gives another taste of the sheer richness of this funny and clever novel:
There are so many cities in every single city.
The glory of Ghostwritten is that it shows just that. It’s unafraid of complexity. I owe Kerry at Hungry Like the Woolf (possibly the best literary blog name ever) for convincing me to read Mitchell. Kerry’s review of Ghostwritten is here.
Kerry’s review is very good on the literary aspects of Ghostwritten, drawing out its postmodern playfulness and the careful use of language in a way I now wish I had. Kerry also really likes the Clear Island chapter which I really didn’t and picks out some themes I didn’t dwell on, so there’s a nice point of comparison there. Basically, it’s a very good review and one that doesn’t get bogged down in detail (which I have a bit).
Ghostwritten. I read it on my Kindle so missing out on that rather excellent cover.