Ghostwritten by David Mitchell (1999) 436 p.
Ghostwritten is the first novel by British writer David Mitchell, who also wrote the Booker-nominated Cloud Atlas, a book I read earlier this year which I loved to a degree words cannot express. Naturally eager to read the rest of his works (of which there aren’t many), I started with Ghostwritten. In the same style as Cloud Atlas, this novel is a series of short stories or novellas that have wildly different settings but are linked through multiple connections, sometimes large and obvious, sometimes small and subtle.
Whereas Cloud Atlas is a voyage through time and space, Ghostwritten is merely a voyage through space, taking us from the busy subway of Tokyo, to the empty deserts of Mongolia, to the gloomy streets of St. Petersburg and to the thousand of little rooms, attics and offices of London. There are nine stories in total, some better than others. Mitchell has lived in Japan, the U.K. and Ireland, and these locations are portrayed more vividly than the others – particularly Petersburg, which didn’t sit right at all with me. Likewise, some plots are stronger than others; I was naturally more invested in the Irish physicist on the run from the CIA who makes a last stand in her hometown than I was in the thoughts and feelings of a jazz store clerk with a crush on a customer.
What’s the book about? A lot of things. The major one would seem to be the connectivity of the world, how everything we do has repercussions and how we are all linked together. This didn’t impress me much – it’s been done before and is somewhat gimmicky. But there’s a myriad of other themes present: destiny, desire, responsibility, identity, globalism, helplessness… the problem is that there’s far too many of them, and they’re expressed rather clumsily. While Cloud Atlas focused on one major theme (power), Ghostwritten has a hundred little morals elbowing each other out of the way for stage time. Nonetheless, there are a few pieces of thoughtful wisdom littered throughout. This was my favourite, a depressing condemnation of the existence of altruism:
“A traveller went on a journey with an angel. They entered a house with many floors. The angel opened one door, and in it was a room with one long bench running around the walls, crammed with people. In the centre was a table piled with sweetmeats. Each guest had a very long silver spoon, as long as a man is tall. They were trying to feed themselves, but of course they couldn’t – the spoons were too long, and the food kept falling off. So in spite of there being enough food for everyone, everyone was hungry. ‘This,’ explained the angel, ‘is hell. The people do not love each other. They only want to feed themselves.’
“Then the angel took the traveller to another room. It was exactly the same as the first, only this time instead of trying to feed themselves, the guests used their spoons to feed one another, across the room. ‘Here,’ said the angel, ‘the people think only of one another. And by doing so, they feed themselves. Here is heaven.’”
Tatyana thought for a moment. “There’s no difference.”
“No difference. Everybody both in heaven and hell wanted one and the same thing: meat in their bellies. But those in heaven got their shit together better. That’s all.”
Having said all of this, it’s unfair to compare Ghostwritten with Cloud Atlas. This was Mitchell’s very first novel, and for a debut it’s quite impressive. Yes, the message is a bit messy, and yes, some of the sections are weak. Yet it still drew me in, and entertained me, and presented a thoroughly interesting and well-constructed world.
As a novel, Ghostwritten is quite good, and as a first novel it’s amazing. It’s just a shame for Mitchell that the first of his novels I read was Cloud Atlas, one of the crowning literary masterpieces of this decade, and thus I envisage him as a godlike being of pure energy that pumps out miracles 24/7. It’s the same damned thing that happened with Michael Chabon and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.