Well, what do we have here? It’s the début novel of my favorite living writer. And do I need to mention the name? I think it’s not necessary, but yes, I will mention it just because I want to: David Mitchell.
Now that that’s part over, let’s go over to what Mitchell thought of writing to start his career. He chose to deal with nine loosely related stories to come up with a cohesive whole. I’m not too sure about the cohesive part but I don’t mind that because each part is good enough to count as a distinct short story.
I think this was already done before, dating back to the modernists of the early 20th century, but in this era where sappiness is immensely rewarded and boldness is heavily criticized, a first novel such as this is something that should be celebrated.
There are three who think about the fate of the world.
First there is the crane. See how lightly he treads, picking his way between the rocks in the river? Tossing, and tilting back his head. The crane believes that if he takes just one heavy step, the mountains will collapse and the ground will quiver and trees that have stood for a thousand years will tumble.
Second, the locust. All day the locust sits on a pebble, thinking that one day the flood will come and deluge the world, and all living things will be lost in the churn and the froth and black waves. That is why the locust keeps such a watchful eye on the high peaks, and the rainclouds that might be gathering there.
Third, the bat. The bat believes that the sky may fall and shatter, and all living things dies. Thus the bat dangles from a high place, fluttering up to the sky, and down to the ground, and up to the sky again, checking that all is well.
Ghostwritten takes us on a worldwide tour and introduces us to characters that link with each other’s life in all sorts of manners. There’s a disillusioned terrorist in Okinawa, a young records store keeper in Tokyo, a recently separated financial lawyer in Hong Kong, an old woman in her tea shack in China, an eight-year old boy’s spirit in Mongolia, a ravishing art thief in St. Petersburg, a womanizing ghostwriter in London, a paranoid physicist in Ireland, and a late night DJ in New York.
Each part is as distinct as every character and place where it is set. Each has its own voice, its own style, and even its own genre. One could easily pass off this book as a collection of short stories, but even such a collection needs something to make each part belong. The events may seem random until you come across a previously important character or object that becomes a mere background or just a trifle in another part and it makes you wonder how vast this world is and at the same time how unknowingly easy it is to be a part of a web of events.
Finishing each part is a little disorienting because one has to start anew with a new voice, but because Mitchell is an astute storyteller, it is not hard to get involved again. As the reader sifts through the narrative, one is never presumptuous to expect familiar events touching certain tangents, making the parts, so to speak, connected.
And what do we make of the whole? Surely, there are gaps in between the chapters. There are even minor nuisances that make one reassess his understanding of the novel or redraw the facts presented. But again, we don’t mind those because it is less of finding faults in the plot structure and more of verifying, just for the fun of it, that each jigsaw piece is placed correctly on the puzzle board.
It also makes the reader wonder if all the connections are accidental or intentional. Is it chance or fate? This question is raised several times in a couple of chapters, and perhaps it is the most dominant theme in the book. Others, such as love as the energy source that makes all things happen, the hierarchy of moral principles, and of course, ghosts as metaphors, are also ruminated.
Ambitious: yes. Astounding: yes, yes. After finishing this, I got additional insights on how Mitchell’s succeeding novels were conceptualized. And to the fan’s delight, characters from these are first read here, such as Timothy Cavendish and Luisa Rey of Cloud Atlas.
And oh, this reading adventure was made more fun with the discussion of my co-member of the David Mitchell Fans Club, Atty. Monique. We were also joined by Mae, a book club newbie who instantly turned into a fan. If my write-up did not convince you to try this novelist, you can go over my buddy’s blog and check out her beautiful review.