The Reviewed: Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
The Reviewer: Corey Eastwood
“London is a language. I guess all places are,” writes David Mitchell in his 1999 debut, Ghostwritten. By his own definition Mitchell attempts to speak nine languages throughout the course of this imaginative, wide-reaching book. Called a “novel in nine parts,” Ghostwritten employs a mosaic structure with a series of loosely connected chapters each set in a different place and told from the perspective of a different first-person narrator.
Our first language is Okinawan—a peculiar dialect particular to one of the members of the doomsday cult that released Sarin gas into Tokyo’s subways system in 1995. He has just committed the act and is eluding authorities while awaiting the end of the world. Luckily for Mitchell’s readers, the world doesn’t end and we’re given snapshots, moving from east to west, of its troubled and strange continuance. In Tokyo we follow a Murakami-esque teenage romance set to a jazz soundtrack, in Hong Kong our guide is an English businessmen reeling from a divorce and embroiled in a major financial scandal. On the Holy Mountain in China, an old woman explains the Cultural Revolution through her relationship with a talking tree, and aboard the Trans-Siberian a ghost leads us around Mongolia. Next we’re jetted through a noirish art caper in St. Petersburg, a day with a womanizing ghostwriter spent fumbling through London, the arrival to a small Irish island by a physicist hiding from the CIA, and a late-night radio show in an apocalyptic New York. The book concludes by returning to Japan and the cultists.
If this sounds like an overly ambitious set-up for a novel, perhaps it is. But reading Ghostwritten for the first time in 2010 the reader has the luxury of knowing what Mitchell is capable of— four more novels including the masterpiece, Cloud Atlas and the widely acclaimed 2010 release, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet — and can trust that this isn’t just the conceit of a bored grad student studying international relations, but that of one of the most talented novelists writing in English today.
The book’s parts are connected in two ways; thematically, through the metaphor of ghosts and ghostwriting, and coincidentally, through chance encounters and influence between characters. At their best these connections are subtle and plotted with Dickensian calculation. At their worst they seem perfunctory as if they’ve been included after the fact to justify the sections existing under the same cover; i.e. they read like back stories in episodes of Lost.
Because none of the sections stand alone, the structure is continually frustrating. The more the reader enjoys one place and set of characters, the more disappointed he is to abruptly leave them. But Mitchell, like a good travel planner, recognizes this, and makes sure that though the reader will lament leaving St Petersburg, he’ll have mostly forgotten it after two captivating pages in London.
To mask our inabilities when speaking non-native languages, we improvise; we use unorthodox word pairings, employ hand and facial gestures and generally do whatever it takes to be understood. Mitchell’s solution is ghosts — both the real, sci-fi variety and the metaphorical type, the ghostwriter. In Hong Kong the difficulties of the expatriate life are propelled by a child ghost that helps break up a marriage. In New York an omniscient frequent caller to a radio show carries the narrative. For the most part these ghosts work, serving to successfully distract us from Mitchell’s incomplete language of place, while providing a metaphorical undercurrent that laces together the sections. However, Mitchell really seems to hit his stride in the sections when the ghosts are absent – particularly in London where our narrator is clearly the voice of a local authority.
On page 403, in the New York section, Mitchell writes, “Outside the night train FM building here in East Village.” One might say “here in Hackney,” or “here in Causeway Bay,” but The East Village is like The Bronx; it’s wrong without the “the”. The missing word gives up Mitchell’s game as a non-native speaker in New York and undermines his credibility in the other eight places. Though imperfect, his feat of multilingualism is strong enough, and the narratives compelling enough, that even the most stubborn New Yorker can forgive Mitchell this mistake—especially when we remember that Ghostwritten was his first novel. Fluency and mastery only develop after years of practice, and if Mitchell’s newest novels are any indication, he’s well on his way.
Corey Eastwood is a 29-year-old writer and bookseller (www.bookthugnation.com) from Brooklyn, NY. His work has been published in Pear Noir!, Filling Station Magazine and Assembly Journal (online).