Semi-quotidian human lateralness (with shades of destruction). That is the (admittedly oblique) plaque on the wall beneath David Mitchell’s 1999 debut novel Ghostwritten. A fusion of multi-cultural flavors, it spans the globe, stretching from everyday soul to soul, telling stories that culminate in something approximating an encompassing vision—if you squint. The authorial voice striking, the prose bounces and burns across the spectrum of individuals—not always in parallel with circumstance, but certainly with verve.
Clever (occasionally too clever for it own good), Ghostwritten is a rich meal of a novel with the occasionally empty but enjoyable calorie. Using an uncommon approach to novel form, Ghostwritten is less a single narrative and more a mosaic of everyday peoples’ stories. Connected via chance and those quirkly little circumstances that throw strangers together, the people are far from heroes and villains. The element of chance only a part of the premise, Mitchell seems more intent on using the device to tell the fate of ordinary people in the context of violent history, that is, rather than rubbing the idea of fate itself in the reader’s face. I am only partially convinced the nine stories flow into a singular, coherent whole, but then again, life does not allow us that, either.
On the surface, and as is common with short story collections, some of the individual stories will appeal to the reader, and others less so. Burning in my memory still are the young Japanese man working in the jazz shop, the NYC radio dj, and the drummer cum ghost writer cum womanizer living in London. Their stories delivered in a tone that cuts straight to the heart of their characters or situation, they stand strong on their own as much as they are a piece of a whole. A chain seeming the inappropriate analogy, some peoples’ stories are connected linearly, while others are through history or mere circumstance.
And Mitchell does play a little fast and loose with tough moments from history. Moving between manipulative and relevant, the Japanese sarin gas bomber is rendered in simplistic but believable enough terms, while the Chinese tea house owner experiences the sharpest knives that have cut down Chinese people the past century, and is even embarrassing at times for its ease. The embarrassment more a function of tone (i.e. the proceedings are rendered more satirical than dramatic or “serious” due to the jocularity of the narrative voice), it’s time to address perhaps the most singular aspect of Ghostwritten: authorial voice.
Boisterous a word beginning to describe Mitchell’s writing, there are moments of sheer brilliance, all else playful, likable, very approachable in the moment.
You’re listening to Night Train FM on the last day of November, 97.8 ‘til very late. That was ‘Misterioso’ by Thelonius Monk, a thrummable masterpiece that glockenspiels my very vertebrae. Bat Segundo is your host, from the witching hour to the bitching hour. Coming up in the next half-hour we have a gem from a rare Milton Nascimento disc, ‘Anima’, together with ‘Saudade Fez Um Samba” by the immortal Joao Gilbero, so slug back another coffee, stay tuned and enjoy the view as the night rolls by! My Batphone is flashing, we have a caller on the line. Hello, you are live on Night Train FM.”
A first novel, however, there are moments Mitchell’s prosaic exuberance overwhelms any intent. “I watched the lime fizz in my bottle of Sol. A parrot’s pancreas pickled in piss.” And this gem:
“…The bloody machine swallowed my card and told me to contact my branch. I said something like ‘Gah!’ and punched the screen. What’s the point of Yeats if you can’t buy a few rounds?
A round Indian lady behind me with a magenta dot on her forehead growled in a Brooklyn accent, ‘Real bummer, huh kid?’
Before I could answer a pigeon from the ledge above crapped on me.”
Both are excellent examples of the occasional purpling in delivery. Ghostwritten brilliantly written, ok, but it is more than once an uncontrolled brilliance.
As Mitchell is such a better writer than so many hacks published today, I don’t feel right making these comments, but it must be said: the wildly delightful prose causes some additional problems. Each of the nine stories is intended to feature a distinct voice, and by default, story. And indeed, each begins in a singular tone. But all too quickly Mitchell’s own enthusiasm leaks through, rather than the character’s. Word by word the prose enjoyable, it is not, however, always complementary to mood, nor does it continually reflect the disposition of scene or setting. In some of the stories, the musician and radio dj, for example, Mitchell’s voice works near flawlessly. With the tea house lady and art thief, however, the intended somberness is all too often perked up by Mitchell’s energy, resulting in an undecided, and therefore botched ambiance. This uncontrolled mode of expression ultimately leaves the novel hanging on the fence in terms of whether or not it is a unified voice, or many voices.
In the end, Ghostwritten is a marvelous debut novel that occasionally trips over its own shoelaces racing out the door, but by and large announces a very promising new writer on the scene. The major theme of the novel seemingly the unwritten stories of people affected by dramatic history, Mitchell goes one step further to connect his social vignettes with butterfly-effect logic. Containing light elements of science fiction and fantasy, the overall focus remains human, a facet the high-spirited prose quells and propels, yet cannot diminish.