am 19. Mai 2001
This is David Mitchell's debut novel, and it has received some lively reviews. It's an ambitious book, which goes from East to West. Ghostwritten seems to follow an Edward Rutherfurd format: nine individual stories that are subtly linked. It's like the Six Degrees of Separation or the Kevin Bacon game, whereby everybody on the planet is linked much more closely to each other than we would have ever imagined. Half the fun of Ghostwritten is trying to spot references from all the other stories. Despite having such seemingly random stories, Ghostwritten does follow quite a strict chronology. There's also a slight element of the ballad in these pleasing repetitions and hooks.
Ghostwritten is very much a book of the nineties. It starts of as a thriller, with a story based on the Japanese Aum cult that released Sarin gas in the underground. This is fairly faithful to the real life events, but by having this part narrated by a devotee of His Serendipity, we don't actually get to see the whole folly of the actual cult leader Asahara. The experimental Sarin gas attack in the Nagano Prefecture did happen, there were links to Korea and Russia, and Ashara's wife did denounce AUM to a certain degree. And then we're whisked off to Tokyo for a very sweet love story, accompanied by some nice jazz. David Mitchell must like John Coltrane. From there, we're summoned to Hong Kong to see a British trader embroiled in some kind of unbearable Barings disaster, and you start to wonder whether David Mitchell has watched too much CNN. The action then shifts to a Holy Mountain in China, and Mitchell covers the Cultural Revolution very well. It was Mao who said that "the more books you read, the more stupid you get", and Mitchell brings the pointless destruction wrought by the Red Guard and their subsequent exclusion poignantly to life.
We then whisk off to the plains of outer Mongolia, and inhabit the gers along with parasitic backpackers and a restless, disembodied, spiritual entity, who hops from body to body. This kind of device is very tempting for a first time novelist, but Mitchell acquits himself well in this story of a wandering spirit. Mitchell is very subtle here as he explores what it might be like to be a Tibetan Lama's spirit, ceaselessly trying to identity itself as it strives to find a final home. Then we're off to St. Petersburg, for a tale of art fraud and gangsters. The next destination is London, and the next host is a ghostwriter. I must admit that I found most of the references to writers and the art of ghostwriting to be quite bland: I don't think there's anything too profound to be discovered from someone who can string two sentences together to write a novel for Naomi Campbell, and I don't think there's anything mystical about the process. 'Ghostwritten' is just a nice, inclusive metaphor for the whole book, and that's where David Mitchell should have left it.
The ghostwriter himself is an engaging chap, and the actual ghost story is quite compelling. The ghostwriter's observations about the various characters of the London tube systems are very witty and ring true. His band is called 'The Music of Chance', and this fits in very well with the themes of the novel. To what extent is life dependent on fate or chance? 'The Music of Chance' is also the title of a novel and film by Paul Auster, and indicates Mitchell's subtle employment of intertextuality, as the Ghostwriter is involved in a night of gambling, just like the characters in Auster's novel. David Mitchell has also created a very believable womaniser in the shape of the ghostwriter. Then we're shipped further westward, to Clear Island off Eire. This is the story of Mo, a scientist who knows a little too much about quantum cognition for her own good. I'm afraid that Mitchell's female characters did not wholly convince me, and the tone of 'Clear Island' seems more Oirish than Irish. One bit of intertextuality I didn't like was the playing of Procul Harum's 'A Lighter Shade of Pale' in the church - I think that was done to far greater comic effect in 'The Commitments'. 'Clear Island' seems less authentic than the other sections, and might have been more interesting if Mitchell had gone into quantum physics in more depth, or maybe mentioned that one of Planck's sons was executed for trying to assassinate Hitler. However, the bit about the wind generator was excellent. The final section concerns the birth of an SF AI; its intriguing debate with another disembodied spirit, and its confessions to a shock jock who loves jazz. I loved the bit about Freddie Mercury, and David Mitchell does have great wit. David Mitchell's prose is also quite lyrical, and is a delight to read. However, the final question about this sparkling debut is this: does it really go round in a circle like a certain London tube line?