Review: Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell

>>Published: August 1999

>>Finally got around to it: February 2011

Well, Love went to bed. It fucked, over and over, until it got sore-knob bored, quite frankly. Then Love looked around for something else to do, and it saw its lovely friends all having lovely babies. So Love decided to do the same, but Love kept having its periods, same as ever, however much it inseminated itself. So Love went to an infertility clinic, and discovered the truth. As far as I know Love’s stiff is there to this very day. And that, boys and girls, is the Story of What Happened to Love.

***

At the recommendation of many, I recently picked up a copy of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, possibly the most well known of his works. Before cracking it open, I decided to do something I’ve never done for an author: I checked him out online. I’m glad I did. Mitchell, it seems, shares an interest of mine—the interlinking and weaving together of stories, characters and plotlines across not only one book, but several that, on the outside, would seem disconnected from one another. Without spoiling too many details for myself, it was easy to see that his characters were constructed legacies meant to carry ideas, themes and concepts across a body of work, rather than being constricted to simple one-shots or a more readily defined series of linked titles. As a direct result of this research, I decided to hold off on Cloud Atlas and start at the beginning, with Mitchell’s first book—Ghostwritten.

Divided into nine parts, Ghostwritten tracks several characters—a Japanese terrorist, a pair of young lovers in Tokyo, a distressed businessman in Hong Kong, the owner of a small tea shop at the base of a mountain, a disembodied spirit in Mongolia, a group of art thieves in Petersburg, a ghostwriter-cum-musician in London, a physicist on Clear Island, and a late-night radio host in New York—as their lives gradually intersect in increasingly more dramatic and world-changing ways.

The intersection of these characters, in the hands of a lesser writer, could feel like nothing more than a six-degrees-of-separation plot device. But these characters are evidence of a greater plan, which Mitchell has chosen to slowly divulge over the course of this book (and, ostensibly, in books to follow). Their connections are never forced or presented in an overtly clever way; rather they feed into one another with butterfly-effect ramifications, the extent of which can only be understood when the individual parts are looked at from a distance, the way one would only be able to understand the logic of a maze from a bird’s eye view.

Though the title of the book is not invoked until the seventh part, the theme of ghostwriting—of abdicating responsibility for the impact one leaves on the world—runs through all of the book’s plots and subsidiary themes: history, culture, art, economics, and warfare. While some parts are certainly stronger than others, with some characters unfortunately relegated to role of thematic ciphers, the impact of the cumulative whole is satisfying.

All in all, Ghostwritten is an intriguing read. It falters only when ideas trump character development and plot, but not significantly enough to dampen the impact of Mitchell’s creativity, or the quality of his multi-tonal writing.

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