Monday, June 27, 2011

Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell

Ghostwritten (1999) was David Mitchell's first novel.  I struggle to write about it on its own merits, because it has much in common with his later work, Cloud Atlas.  Both novels are works of literary architecture, constructed of discrete blocks which are connected by intricate and sometimes barely discernible threads.  As I was reading Ghostwritten, I often smiled, nodded, and thought, "Yup, there he goes again," as a character's name crops up in Kowloon and again in Ireland, or as a quasar symbolises two different (or maybe not so different?) things in Okinawa and Mongolia.

This is not, mind you, a particularly astute observation. It's on a par with a concert-goer at Bayreuth remarking that the operas all sound as if they were written by the same composer.  These comments don't do justice to either Wagner or Mitchell.

For one thing, building a novel from very tangentially connected plot lines comes across as a trendy gimmick unless it's done with Mitchell's skill.  Yes, he's used this approach with two of his books now, and although there are a few trademark Mitchell touches, each book is a masterpiece of originality and imagination.  In retrospect, Ghostwritten was obviously the warm-up act for the more elaborately-structured Cloud Atlas, but it is in no way a lesser book.  Mitchell dreams up an Irish physicist who yearns for control of her research, a Mongolian spirit who inhabits one nomadic herdsman after another in search of the creation myth, a woman who spends her life re-building her tea shack on the side of a holy mountain as China lurches through its series of regimes, a financial lawyer involved in shady trades in Hong Kong, and a young member of a Japanese doomsday cult, just to mention 5 of the 9 story-tellers. Mitchell lightly weaves glimmering threads of music, astronomy, politics, spirituality and terrorism through them, a familiar image or name popping up as if at random.

I like to imagine a David Mitchell devotee standing at a white-board with a fistful of coloured markers, devising a diagram of the places, themes, references and characters and ending up with something like the mad scribbles and arcs of a mathematical proof, or maybe a mandala.

When we tire of admiring the architecture of the story, we can start complimenting the prose. A young jazz-lover in Tokyo eschews the university for his job in a record store.  When a clique of school-girls minces into the shop, he sizes them up in an instant:  "Rich Shibuya girls are truffle-fed pooches."  One of them, however, stands apart from the rest, and finally she speaks to him in "a doomed, Octoberish oboe of a voice."

And voice is another one of David Mitchell's strong suits. He's giving us 9 narrators, most (but not all) of whom are human, scattered across the globe and across time, of different genders and ages. Each of them speaks in a distinct voice, and each voice sounds pitch-perfect.  Margarita is a Russian woman, formerly the lover of important men, now involved in a scheme to smuggle art masterpieces out of St. Petersburg. She works as a docent in the Hermitage, contemplating one painting in particular as she strolls about the room. (Don't you wonder what those docents are thinking about when you visit museums?)
I gaze into my next conquest. Our next conquest, I should say. Eve and the Serpent, by Delacroix. Loot brought back from Berlin in 1945. Head Curator Rogorshev was saying how the Krauts want it all back now! What a nerve! We spend forty million lives getting rid of their nasty little Nazis for them, and all we get out of it is a few oil paintings.

A Texan agent from the Pentagon delivers a chilling lecture to an Irish physicist on why her work is not her own and, as a result, her life will never be her own.
"War is making a major comeback – not that it had ever gone anywhere – and scientists like you win wars for generals like me. Because quantum cognition, if spliced with Artificial Intelligence and satellite technology in the way that you have proposed in your last five papers, would render existing nuclear technology as lethal as a shower of tennis balls."

Critics adore David Mitchell's work. I know several readers who are essentially David Mitchell groupies.  Hey, I would type his manuscripts any day and fetch his coffee. He's published five novels to date.  I'm rationing them.  It would feel criminal to gorge, to read them serially on a Mitchell binge.  His second book, Number9Dream, and his latest, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, are still on my shelf, waiting for the perfect day to begin them. I also look forward to the perfect day to start re-reading all of them.  They all warrant it.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for visiting Katz Tales. Great book review! You must enjoy the analysis part of reading a lot.


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