Friday, January 2, 2015

David Mitchell's "Ghostwritten": Book Review

After enjoying Cloud Atlas (Amazon US 3-13-13; see an expanded reflection on my blog), I resolved to read David Mitchell's novels in order. I find the same strengths in his 1999 debut, and some of his slight weaknesses. The challenge Mitchell's fiction embeds is his genre. If it takes its energy and ideas from speculative styles, it also contains that genre's flaw. Ideas dominate, and compelling characters or plot coherence may lag, or flag as thriller elements and mass-market tropes (evil government, financial chaos, conspiracy, terror, thievery, struggling artists or writers, mythic messages, globalization) mingle with more elevated reflections from literary fiction (quantum physics, time and space loops, transmigration, and still more conspiracies and collusions). Mitchell's skill keeps him juggling the reiterating images, and it's fun to watch. Camphor trees, for some reason, prove to me the most enduring of these. You'll also find glimpses of characters/themes in his later work.

That aspect, for an author beginning his career, intrigued me: one reason why I am moving backwards in Mitchell's oeuvre to watch the dots connect. As many summations of these nine interlinked stories of Ghostwritten can be found, I will limit my review to  a favorite snippet from each that captures its essence. "My last defense is my ordinariness." (27) So confides a Japanese fugitive hiding on Okinawa, in a first chapter inspired by real events unleashed, where Mitchell was living in Hiroshima when this was published. We find people seemingly like us in this book, but of course, all hold some secret or are tied to a larger destiny, as elusive as the meaning of camphor trees.

Another Japanese man, barely out of his teens, falls in love. He's a jazz aficionado and sax player.. At the record store he clerks in, he finds his destiny in a comely customer. "The her that lived in her looked out through her eyes, through my eyes, and at the me that lives in me." (54). Satoru's account draws you in: a literate and thoughtful register that sets off the paranoid devotion of his countryman in the previous chapter effectively. You get the sensation as does he you as a reader are in a story written by another: a casual note that lingers in this novel.

Neil Brose, an Englishman in Hong Kong and a lawyer enmeshed in the markets sector, finds himself noticing what the title of the novel portends, in everyday terms. "Her coming was the coming of a fridge. A sound you grow accustomed to before you hear it." (80) His tale, also set in Asia, overlaps slightly with that of Saturo, as that one did with the man we know as Quasar in the opening.

Moving inward, more Chinese terrain is seen, if from the limited vantage point of an old woman who converses with her "Tree" on Holy Mountain, a site where Nationalists, warlords, brigands, Communist cadres, and finally PRC capitalists contend to control and despoil over the past century. "Nobody owns the land, so nobody made sure it was respected." (125) Cleaning up the messes men make, the anonymous tea shack guardian watches over a patch of the world trying to evade those who seek to cleanse it for greed, ideology, and power. She sees through all her persecutors. "Nothing often passes in men as wisdom."(128) So goes the folly of collectivism. Buddhism enters these tales at a tangent, as does the creation of entities and the apparent transfer of souls; Mitchell glances at these notions more than obsesses on them, and they're filtered by the culture and background and understanding of each of the protagonists.

This wobbles all over the next chapter, the unsteady center of the narrative. We appear to be told by the guiding spirit its origins with a Chinese brigand in Mongolia in the 1930s, and a Tibetan Yellow Hat monk seems to have played a role in its conception or generation. "Slowly I walked down the path trodden by all humans, from the mythic to the prosaic. Unlike humans, I remember the path." (155) Recalling for me (pp. 194-5) the bardo in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, this quest stays dim; this part follows the narrator as she travels from person to person trying to learn of her own creation.

A security guard at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg enters, cocky of her connivance. "As exquisite as being shot!" (204) So she savors a cigarette early in her chapter. The relentless struggle continued from Soviet Russia into capitalist thuggery gets its time on stage, in a section reminding me of pulp entertainment--the heist itself, I might add, as elsewhere in Mitchell, works on its own merits, too. They may be limited intentionally or by the conventions of the genre, but they keep you engaged.

Tim Cavendish will star in his own chapter (and Luisa Rey who appears in a later one) in Cloud Atlas, five years after this novel appeared, and they have cameos here. Tim meets with Marco, a drummer for a loose band The Music of Chance, and Marco conveys the downside of downscale Cool London from the late '90s effectively. He reflects tellingly (on pg. 283) on fate vs. chance. Fate is when your story is read by one on the outside, as in a novel. Chance is when you are in that novel, with no idea of how your story will conclude, or why it's yours at all. This begins with an episode tying this to chapter three, and from here on, characters will begin to enter each other's stories, if perhaps as extras or walk-ons, until the end of the novel. As Marco wonders about memories and actions: it's as if they're "pre-ghostwritten by forces around us." (287)

Mo Muntervary's predicament as forces unleashed precisely in the First Gulf War lead her to confront the security state as a physicist who rejects using knowledge for weapons of mass destruction. "Technology is repeatable miracles." (329) I liked how Mitchell delays the revelation of the teller's gender and of the spouse's condition, but I did not like two errors. "Seventeen counties of Ireland" (317) from a native of that Republic in recollection falls short of the mark, partition or not; also, wouldn't a scientist measure the time it takes the sun's radiated light to hit a retina on earth at eight rather than "twenty-six" (343) minutes? And, on Clear Island off Cork (Mitchell later moved to Clonakilty), inhabitants feel more as if from some Brigadoon in fake-Celtic details than as real.

I doubt anyone in Ireland inherited surnames such as Mrs. Cuchthulain (sic) or Tourmakeady. Also, Mo's surname, Muntervary, is a garbling of nearby Sheep's Head in the original Irish. Something's up, as Daibhi O Bruadair appears (he was a Gaelic poet centuries ago) and so does a dead Gabriel Fitzmaurice (a living Irish poet) as islanders. Given Mitchell's usual command of detail, this chapter feels awry. He left it in two errors, or he erred twice, Mo's chapter rests on unreliable facts, or Mitchell's parodying an "airport paperback" mass-market genre resting on flimsy or bad backstory.

With Mo's foes such as The Texan, Heinz Formaggio, and Mr. Stoltz on behalf of Homer Quancog, one suspects Pynchon territory by now. The penultimate chapter features d.j. Bat Segundo's Night Train call-in show for the New York graveyard shift. The Zookeeper warns listeners: "You are all lapdogs, believing your collars to be halos." (414) This proved engaging, but as another caller explains (?), "I'm speaking through an ingrown looped matrix, Zookeeper." (417) That caller may or may not be the teller of the final vignette, therefore.

Is this legerdemain or talent? Mitchell sets up the kind of postmodern circularity that his predecessors and influences pioneered, and which contemporaries pursue. Borges, Pynchon, De Lillo, or later Roberto Bolano (as the following decade after this novel appeared has brought him international acclaim) and naturally Haruki Murakami fit onto this same eclectic shelf. This slows at times and in the middle and the end you feel the attempts to make links either match or not, and this playfulness can get too sly; you sense a young writer straining to make his mark originally. He comes close, however, and it's a deserving if somewhat uneven entry into his lively imagination.
(Amazon US 8-18-13)

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