The music of chance

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 The annual complaint therefore seems to me quite simply out of date.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.


Filed under Mitchell, David, SF

18 responses to “The music of chance

  1. As an addendum, I used the science fiction category because people interested in that genre might find this interesting. I don’t have a literary fiction category (it got too big to fit comfortably in the category cloud) but if I had it would definitely have been in that category also.

  2. Max,

    Thanks! I really enjoyed your review because it did take a different tack than my own. I think your points are all quite valid. You read far more sf than do I, so I probably found it fresh where you found it unconvincing. In other words, I probably am not sufficiently versed in sf to see how much better those chapters could be done. Also, the Clear Island chapter reminded me of Crytonomicon a book ofwhich I have only fond memories.

    You make excellent points about the neocons and an Islamic superstate and the unreality of all that. Given the entry of ghosts already, I think I was maybe willing to give the book more leeway or had already resigned myself to a bit of unreality.

    I would write at more length, but haven’t the time at the moment. Seeing your post, though, I wanted to relate how much I enjoyed it. You raised points that I wish I had seen while reading it. Very perceptive review, Max. I am almost out of Mitchells, but now I see I need to re-read all of them….well, maybe not Thousand Autumns, but the rest.

  3. I like the word “breathtaking.” That basically sums up my impression of the reviews of the Thousand Autumns. “Ambitious” is another one.

    Not my sort of book, and I must say I am a bit disappointed that you’re not out there “bending” the law.

    For some reason I thought this was the book of the recent Brosnan, McGregor film. You know how it is, you see a book title off in the periphery and then come to some conclusion about it….

  4. Thanks Max. That makes me really want to read it, funnily enough. Even if the final third will need approaching with caution.

  5. I read Ghostwritten after Cloud Atlas — my main memory of it was that Mitchell was testing a technique (multiple locations each with its own viewpoint) that worked much better in the later novel. And your review was a healthy reminder that while I remember parts of this novel very well (the tea house section in particular), other parts I don’t remember at all (particularly the latter sections that you found wanting). I will be interested when you get to number9dream since I found it Mitchell’s least successful effort — although, like you, I give him high marks for being ambitious, even if he does not always succeed. There certainly was enough in your review to convince me that I should return to this novel at some point.

  6. Hi all,

    For me the problem with the final section wasn’t that it wasn’t good sf (actually it wasn’t bad in that regard at all), it’s more that as the sf elements came to the foreground the characterisation slipped to the background.

    SF of course commonly foregrounds ideas over characterisation (and sometimes language, though that’s not an issue here). That’s natural, it’s a literature of ideas after all. For most of its length Ghostwritten juggles language, character and ideas with surprising effectiveness and I just thought one of the balls fell to the ground a bit in the final stages.

    There are those though who rate this as Mitchell’s best. My slipping ball (that really doesn’t sound quite right now I’ve written it) could be someone else’s audacious change of tone.

    It is a bit ironic that as the person who probably reads most sf here (other than Sam) I’m the one complaining about those elements though.

    The tea house section is worth the price of admission alone. It plays games with time, with narrative and manages to be funny while describing a life that from outside is one of poverty and injustice but that from the inside isn’t a bad one. That other sections are arguably as good, certainly as clever, means that I don’t for a moment regret reading it.

    Number9Dream will be a little while yet. I’m off to Naples this weekend and taking The Jinx with me. When I get back I’m then hoping to get started on the second Proust. In the meantime I already have four novels read but not yet blogged, which will keep me going for a bit…

  7. leroyhunter

    I’m in exactly the same boat as Kevin: I remember most of this vividly (and you evoke the different chapters nicely Max), but I seem to have blanked the end section(s) entirely. Neocons?? Islamist super-state?? No, can’t recall any of it. Oh well.

    Funnily, the Clear Island bit has vanished as well, so I can’t comment on the stage Oirish elements you mention. Surprising that he seems to have gone so badly wrong, because he lives in Ireland and you’d assume had some sensitivity to ways of portraying the place. I’m also surprised because I have a fairly low tolerance level for that sort of stuff and would have thought it’d stick out. I might have a quick reread.

    I liked number9dream (more then this, actually) but I seem to have just stopped with Mitchell after that. I own Cloud Atlas but have never really considered reading it.

  8. LaurencePritchard


    Interesting review. I read Ghostwritten about a year back and agree with your thoughts about the first three of four chapters. The sheer amount of stuff going on, the sharp changes in register, the history, the range are all highly impressive.

    But it was like a magician spinning plates: he keeps them in the air for a while, then they all spin off and he loses it.

    I honestly don’t remember much of the last part of the book; it wasn’t the SF element, I just my attention wavering, and questioned what he was really trying to say.

    I loved the beginning of Cloud Atlas too. But not so much the second half.

    I fear that often, just when he is starting to say something really interesting, he dives off into another area; at the time you’re exhilarated, but at the closing pages you realise that DM has less to say than you first thought. Maybe I just don’t get him that well, agree that he is ambitious though.

  9. Leroy, I had a look again last night. Neocons was I think an overreading on my part. Looking fresh at the text it’s more Pentagon hawks and a president who is implied to be eager for war. Given when it was written that could easily be a reference to Clinton as much as anything else, or just a caricature of American militarism in the vein of Dr Strangelove.

    The Islamic superstate is much clearer. There’s a rival power with a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying the West. That’s the equivalent of Soviet Russia at its height, and is plainly fantasy.

    I have to dash. I also found a useful quote about the many worlds interpretation which I’ll post when I get back.

  10. It may be he’s still finding his voice Laurence. Have you read much of his more recent stuff? I’ve seen different views on Thousand Autumns, some saying it’s a departure from his normal good form and others saying it’s the best thing he’s done so far and the first where all his talents really come together.

    Here’s the many worlds quote I found last night. It’s from the Clear Island section:

    “And what happens to the other universes where electrons follow other paths, where thoughts and mutations and actions differ? Where I was captured in Huw’s apartment? Where my father is still alive and my mother bright as the button she always was, where John never went blind, where my precocity and ambition were those of a small farmer’s wife, where nuclear weapons were invented in 1914, where Homo Erectus went the same fossilised way as Australopithecines, where DNA never zipped itself up, where stars were never born to die in a shroud of carbon and heavier elements, where the big bang crunched back under the weight of its own mass a few jiffies after it banged?
    Or are all these universes hung out, side by side, to drip dry?”

    I also found this line though which summed up for me the unreality of that particular chapter:

    “You were like a one-woman electron in Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.”

    That second quote illustrates the issue I had with the chapter which is that the ideas are starting to swamp the narrative. It’s the sort of line I’m used to in sf novels where exposition can often intrude into the dialogue, less so here though where the vast bulk of the book is extremely well written. The first quote I think works much better. Yes, it’s exposition, but it’s in-character exposition from a quantum physicist and I think it’s a clue as to what may be going on. Also, I love that image of universes hung out side by side like washing on the line.

    Not that I think there’s necessarily a single answer to what’s going on. I think this is one interpretation the book allows, I don’t think it’s the only one or intended to be the only one.

  11. LaurencePritchard

    Max, I haven’t read any others. Will probably go for number9dream next. I think he has a voice in the sense that you can say ‘Oh yeah, he does those stories that link together’ kind of way, but i’d like to see him focus more – maybe this is what happens in the new one.

    Reminds me a bit of the films by Inarritu; the technique was interesting at first but then tends to become a bit of the ‘join the dots’ where the “x” eats the sandwich that was prepared by “y” etc.

    Anyway, I’m sounding too critical of these writers and I don’t mean too – maybe it’s that however dazzling the technique (and i agree that the first long paragraph you quote above is excellent) we can’t get away from the fact if we don’t care for the characters or something jars in the telling of the story (whatever style) the book isn’t going to fully work.

  12. You can’t fault Mitchell for his research abilities – both locations and historical settings. I think he’s an extremely clever writer although I don’t always take to his books – finding them sometimes in need of a good editor.

    Did you see Nicholson Baker’s article on the Kindle 2 in the New Yorker – fantastically informative. [www_newyorker_com]

  13. The research is excellent, yes. The editor point though is a good one, he reminds me slightly of Neal Stephenson (who wrote Cryptonomnicon referred to by Kerry above), another writer with dazzling ideas but in need of a good editor.

    Kerry, have you read Stephenson’s Baroque trilogy? I’ve only read the first, but it builds on what he did with Crypto and I think betters it. Superb stuff.

  14. I forgot, I hadn’t seen that article Tom, thanks for the tip.

  15. Just a minor comment (I also found Mitchell’s book quite enjoyable and fascinating). As someone who is both a Formaggio and a physicist (no joke), I can assure you the name Heinz Formaggio (at least the Formaggio part) is quite a real name.

    –Joe Formaggio, Physics, MIT

  16. Nice place to be doing physics Joe. Thanks for the correction on the name.

    That’s the trouble with reality. It’s just so unrealistic.

  17. Neutrino research Joe. I note from your page that the solar neutrino problem was solved back in 2001. That takes out the core premise for my favourite Arthur C Clarke novel – The Songs of Distant Earth (wonderful title).

    In that it turns out the existing model was fine. The solar neutrino problem didn’t mean the theory was faulty, it meant that the sun was. The Earth is doomed and so ships go out to take a handful of settlers and the records of our civilisations to the stars.

    The novel is about the arrival of the last ship from Earth at a now well settled colony world. They’re there to top up the ice barrier they use to protect their ship from micrometeors. What impact though will the arrival of the Earthmen have on the colony, and will they all be happy to leave when the time comes to move on?

    It’s a wonderfully elegaic novel. Hugely flawed like all Clarke in terms of character and writing, but marvellous for all that.

    I imagine he’d have been pleased that the problem was solved without the need to evacuate the Earth.

  18. Pingback: Brazil is not a serious country | Pechorin’s Journal

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