Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Ghostwritten is a really, really cool book. It belongs to that elusive category of exciting literature, a well-written story that moves well and provides a lot of meat. My ideal book is something that can be read quickly, but that provides a lot of opportunity for reflection and unpacking.

Structurally, Ghostwritten is a series of interlinked short stories, each tied to a particular perspective. Each story/chapter is named after a geographic location, and the main character spends most of their time there. These locations move gradually west throughout the book, eventually covering most of the northern hemisphere. Each chapter connects in some ways with the other stories; the meaning behind these connections isn't immediately obvious, and the characters never grasp the significance of what they encounter, but over the course of the book you can gradually build up an idea of the larger story.

The author, David Mitchell,  is a Westerner - I'm not sure whether he's American, British, or something else - who lives and teaches in Hiroshima, Japan. You can see a Japanese influence on the book, and not just in some of its settings. One of the things I enjoy most about popular forms of modern Japanese culture (anime, manga, video games) is their comfort with ambiguity and their faith in the viewer/reader/player. There's a strong compulsion in American works to explain what's going on: at the end of the story, someone neatly summarizes what has happened, for the benefit of those who haven't been paying attention. You rarely get that in Japanese works, and one of the side-effects of that is that the art sticks with you longer: your brain reviews the clues, replays the major scenes, teases out the dangling plot threads and tries to understand how they fit together. I'm still going through that process with Ghostwritten, which is a good sign.


Most of the book is set in the Orient, and from those chapters, most characters are natives. The first chapter is a fairly shocking one: the narrator is a member of a doomsday cult that is not-too-subtly modeled after Aum Shinrikyo. His story begins shortly after he has released a lethal toxin onto a crowded Tokyo subway. He has fled to a remote Japanese island to lie low while the authorities pursue the cult.

The chapter is really stunning. You have the unreliable narrator thing going on, of course. This guy really, deeply believes what he's been told - really, brainwashed into believing. He has a fully-formed worldview that totally devalues all human life that isn't a part of the cult, and a fanatical devotion to his leader and superiors. As he encounters news (from the evil media) about the crackdown, his faith is tested; watching his mental contortions as he tries to justify what he knows with what he learns is just stunning.

I found myself thinking of Murakami's "Underground" while reading the first chapter. Murakami's book focuses more on the victims of the attack, while giving some voice to the cult; Mitchell presents a fully engaged view of the perpetrators. I also found myself thinking of Murakami during the next story, which is set in Tokyo: here, a young Japanese man tends a record store. As with many of Murakami's stories, the young man is a little bit aimless, but very appreciative of Western culture and music, particularly jazz and classic rock. This story is much quieter than the first one.

The first link between stories happens a ways into this second chapter. The clerk is locking up the shop for the night and walking out the door when he hears the phone ring. He tries to decide whether or not to answer it, and ends up picking it up. It was, he informs us in the narration, the call that changed the course of his life: specifically, we learn (although he doesn't know), it is a call from the cultist of the first chapter, who believes that he is reaching a safe line that will cause the leader to levitate emergency cash over to him. Of course, the clerk has no idea who is calling, and so he stays quiet, and, after neither man says anything, hangs up.

Now, as readers, our assumption is that the clerk's life has changed by being swept up into the currents of the cultist: the other cult members will track him down, or he will make a call back to this man and so fall under suspicion, or otherwise follow the first story's plot trajectory. Nope. The reason why it changed his life was by making him stay at the store for two minutes longer than he otherwise would have; because of that extra time, he is able to meet the love of his life, a young lady visiting from Hong Kong. They fall madly in love, and eventually both travel to Hong Kong together. Neither has any further direct contact with the cultist.

This is the sort of connection that keeps happening throughout the book. Events happen that seem inconsequential to particular characters; only we, with access to the larger picture, can see the true importance of apparently random choices.


It gets REALLY literary and interesting at around the midpoint of the book. For a while, you think that the narrator is an alien. It's definitely a non-corporeal being of some sort, and he directly addresses the reader, describing how he can transmigrate from mind to mind. He can peer into the memories of the hosts he inhabits, but does not know anything about himself. He can exercise some control over the thoughts and actions of his hosts, but has to be careful, because they may grow suspicious (perhaps thinking themselves possessed), and eventually crazy if he starts talking to them. He can move from one body to another if they touch skin, and so he spends several decades on a quest that takes him all over eastern Asia, particularly China and Mongolia.

It's a really cool story in itself, due to the suspense and the mystery, but it also is one of the best metaphors I've read yet of, well, reading. After all, each time we move from one book to another, we're experiencing another author's mind; we can plumb the depths of what they have to share; we can only read one book at a time, but one book often brings us to another, and so we undergo journeys through mental space and actual time. I'm probably reading too much into this, but I think Mitchell's a genius.

That particular story ends beautifully, too. It ties in very well with the previous narration, one of the least-western minds in the whole book and probably the kindest, a lady who spends her entire life tending a tea shack at the foothills of a Holy Mountain in China. Anyways, we learn that this entity had taken refuge in her mind for many years, which belatedly explains what she meant when she described "her tree" talking to her and telling her what to do to survive. That woman is far more in touch with spirituality than any other character, and is kindly rewarded for it. The entity, too, eventually gets his reward in the form of learning his origin. Now, I'm still not absolutely clear on this, but I THINK that he was born in the instant that a Buddhist monk died; the monk passed his consciousness on to a nearby witness, as he was being shot by a death squad; the transmigration was incomplete, and so this... well, yes, let's just call it a "spirit", has roamed through the mental ether, unwittingly searching for the other part of his former self's mind. It's strange, and beautiful, and amazing.


I think my overall favorite narrator is probably the manic Englishman of the third story, which is set in Hong Kong. He just has an amazing, hilarious voice.

The overall progression goes:
* Cultist on a Japanese island
* Record store clerk in Tokyo
* English financial trader in Hong Kong
* Tea Shack lady in Holy Mountain
* Spirit everywhere but mainly in Mongolia
* Sadly washed-up Russian female survivor in St. Petersburg
* Ghostwriter (and musician, and wanderer, and wastrel) in London
* Physicist in Ireland
* Late night rock radio DJ in New York
* Cultist

There's some cool stylistic play here that's vaguely reminiscent of Melville or Joyce. The early chapters are done with fairly traditional narration, but with pretty extreme shifts between voice and perspective. Looking back, Mitchell does an amazing job of capturing differences between Western and Eastern minds. The Hong Kong trader's brain is constantly buzzing - his thoughts constantly jump around, he's always flashing back to a previous event or wondering what's happening somewhere else, constantly evaluating and judging what happens around him, most of all himself. In contrast, the tea shack lady, who lives virtually her whole life on a single plot of land, has a very calm, measured, accepting narrative voice that's fully in keeping with her deeply-held Buddhist principles. Even when amazing stuff (mostly bad) happens to her, she takes it in stride, offers it up to Lord Buddha, and continues living her life. (This chapter alone would make an amazing novella, as it captures the stunning sweep of 20th century China, from warlords through revolution through Japanese invasion through the nationalists' bully friends through the glorious rise of Mao through the Great Leap Forward through the Cultural Revolution through the rise of capitalism, all through the eyes of one small woman on the edge of the empire.)

Other chapters have play in form, not just content and style. The most impressive is the New York chapter, which is done entirely in dialog: there isn't a single sentence in the whole chapter that isn't between quotation marks. It's incredibly effective, and we get to know all the characters very well through their own words. Of course, this is entirely appropriate for the chapter's main character, a DJ who makes his living through words. The physicist is interesting too, as her narration seems unmoored in time. We get a series of scenes, but it's difficult to piece together the chronology. Of course, this is entirely appropriate for the physicist, who deals with quantum uncertainty and is well acquainted with the difficulty of knowing anything.


This was an amazing book, and I can't wait to check out more from him. It's such a treat to discover another modern author who writes interesting, involving stories and isn't afraid of treating topics that others might view as science fiction or worse. I've heard that all his books are pretty different from one another, but talent like this deserves to be followed.

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