on 15 November 2001
Each chapter in this book is a short story in itself and at the same time they're all collected together to create one incredible and bizarre epic. Mitchell has the kind of talent that just drips off the pages. It's like attending a nine-course banquet, with each dish more fabulous than the last one. He carries you away and amazes you with every new thought. An incredible piece of work. Absolutely fantastic. Soulful is the right word I think.
There's a different character in each chapter so he adopts a different voice to reflect that character. You're inside the head of an old Chinese woman living up a mountain one minute, a disembodied lost spirit the next and a middle-aged genius scientist the next. It's really quite beautiful to read.
There are so many different subjects condensed into one book it's hard to say what it's about, other than the way chance affects our lives. We have the Tokyo subway attacks in one story; the history of China from the Japanese occupation through the cultural revolution through Deng Xiaoping's reforms in another.Then theories of quantum physics and a late night radio show. It's stuffed full. You never know what's coming next.
People who are looking for a conventional story won't like this, nor will people who want their characters to be fully developed. Not that the characters aren't well written. But we don't necessarily get a full picture of their lives, we just get a slice and you don't necessarily know everything about them. Anyone who doesn't like figuring things out for themselves won't like it either, because he leaves quite a lot to the reader's imagination. You have to put the story together yourself and that requires work.
But for people who do like this kind of thing it's the sort of book that's inspiring because it broadens your own expectations. It switches on a light for you. Shows you the world in ways that you haven't seen before. In particular the way he has of dipping in and out of people's heads was fantastic. Reading this book feels like astral walking - it takes you to another level.
Ghostwritten has all the hallmarks of a dry run for David Mitchell's massive novel Cloud Atlas; though the ambition is large it produces less of a sprawl in this earlier novel and the links between the nine disparate characters are more obvious. Ghostwritten encompasses settings in Japan, China, Hong Kong, Mongolia, Petersburg, London, Clear Island off the coast of Northern Ireland and finally, a New York disc-jockey's studio. The links between them are cleverly made and the characters involved range from a saran-gas terrorist on the Tokyo Metro tube to an ethical female physicist tracked by the FBI to a tiny Atlantic island. The ghosts alluded to in the title are variously a small girl in a Hong Kong high-rise, a sentient being in Outer Mongolia desperate to trace the inception of his transmigratory soul, and, more literally, a young writer in London who is ghosting the biography of a minor intellectual polymath nearing the end of his life.
Adventurous, provoking and intriguingly constructed, this is an absorbing read from beginning to end. Characterisation is handled with flair - male and female - and some sections of the book are laugh-out-loud funny, while others feature conspiracy theory, the frailties of stock-market excess, art fraud and, in one case, the history of Chinese Communism as it affects a young girl living with her father on a Holy Mountain.
The `ghost' theme fragments and fractures at various points, and to some extent exists where an overarching plot might ordinarily have been. As a linking device it is not quite strong enough, but Mitchell's theme also coheres by virtue of his greater interest in story. It is as a story-teller that he excels in this novel. The ending attempts to tie the stories together, with an apocalyptical climax. Perhaps a more accessible work than Cloud Atlas, it doesn't have the astonishing ambition and vast time-line of that book. However, Ghostwritten does showcase Mitchell's extraordinary, not to say visionary, creative talents.
For the first time ever I couldn't quite decide how to score this one. I hovered my mouse over 4 and 5 stars for ages. I wanted to give it 4 and a half. In the end I marked it down slightly. How hard to please am I?
To be honest, I really enjoyed this book. I thought it was a breath of fresh air in terms of UK literary fiction. As always with story collections, some were stronger than others; but when it clicked into gear, this one worked brilliantly. I found story one a little bit mediocre, but then that was followed by a superb, Murakamiesque tale of young love in Japan, a ghost story set in Hong Kong, a historical tale about life on the Holy Mountain and an outstanding offbeat piece about a disembodied consciousness trying to discover its own history in Mongolia. It then gets maybe a little less compelling until the penultimate section which unfurls through a series of talk radio conversations.
Is it a novel? Well, not really. It's more a set of inter-related shorts. But the scope and breadth of them when taken as a whole is really quite surprising. Mitchell writes well and he holds your attention. My only gripe, which knocked it down from 5 stars, is that occassionally he gets a bit oblique and I was left enjoying the way the sentences sounded but thinking I wasn't 100% sure of what they were saying. As an introduction to his work though, I found it quite impressive and I'll certainly be checking out a few of his others.
on 7 July 2009
The structure of David Mitchell's Ghostwritten is ambitious, particularly for a debut: it is told through nine different prisms - each chapter is a new story, superficially unrelated to the others, but each has fleetingly contiguous episodes: during the first, a fugitive cultist subway bomber telephones his anonymous handler and leaves a cryptic message. In the second story we see the other end of that conversation: the phone is picked up and treated, as a crank caller, by an unwitting record shop owner from Tokyo. Later the record shop owner follows his girlfriend to Hong Kong and, in the third story, we see the pair observed from afar as passing figures by the subject of the third story, an expatriate lawyer who is involved in financial fraud. And so on. These inter-plot encounters are inevitably light and seemingly incidental, but plainly they're deliberate, knitting the narrative ever so loosely together. It's a striking effect, and led me to reflect on the way we tend to hermetically seal our compartmentalised worlds when at some level there is a fundamental interconnectedness of things, but all the same I doubt this was Mitchell's primary concern.
What it was, however, I really couldn't say. The knitting of the episodes was extremely loose, and scarcely drew tighter as the book progressed: the stories are otherwise very different, and each obliges the reader to acquaint himself with a new set of dramatis personae, infer a new set of relationships between them and absorb a new set of personalities. Allowing roughly three significant characters in each story (there are often more) that's roughly thirty characters to hold in contemplation, none of whom can be segregated from the others (as they might in a collection of short stories, for example) since, for all the reader knows, they may need (and if usual conventions are obeyed, ought) to be held *in relation to* one another. That's an imaginative feat which may well be beyond my powers of literary comprehension, and was certainly beyond the limits of my patience.
In places, therefore, I found Ghostwritten very frustrating indeed. Just when you'd expect an ordinary novel to pick up some momentum, Mitchell asks you to put on the brakes, set aside what you've learned, and start learning about a new set of characters. As a result, the book is rather too easy to put down and it took me some time to finish it.
It might have been passable were the episodes self-contained dramatically - if each had its own dilemma, plot and resolution - but for the most part they did not - each episode asks the reader to engage for closure in the next: figuring out this book involves assimilating some very odd pieces of jigsaw, which don't make much sense by themselves, and are only really brought together at all - and even then only weakly, at the very death.
I thereby confess I didn't understand the point of the last two episodes - and therefore the book - at all, as these were the ones which seemed intended to pull the book together (and in the last, join back to the beginning as if some sort of Möbius strip). As a piece of fiction Ghostwritten failed spectacularly for me.
Mitchell writes well in places but lazily in others, and his characters are mostly underdrawn and generic (all were narrated in the first person, and most spoke in more or less the same idiom). There were some interesting contrivances along the way - the disembodied being in Mongolia was fun - but Ghostwritten didn't grab my interest nearly hard enough, nor pay off that attention nearly well enough - to make this a recommended read.
on 14 October 2005
Ghostwritten is at first glance a collection of short stories, located in places as diverse as a small jazz shop in Tokyo, a tea shack on Holy Mountain, a small Irish island and a radio studio in the United States. But all the stories have connections with each other: characters from previous stories pop up, sometimes so glancingly that you have to be very aware. In the end this is a (very intelligent and masterfully crafted) novel about what is and is not true, what is real and what only exists inside (or even outside) the human mind and why do make people which decisions. It is actually quite diffucult to summarize the contents of the book, but it is absolutely wonderful: read it!
on 31 July 2005
I've read all the reviews here, and maybe I am missing something here. My take on the book is that all nine sections are completely related - each of the narrators has been possessed by a 'spirit' at some point, thus the novel is 'Ghostwritten' as it is the 'spirit' writing the stories of the people it inhabits? Maybe I am way off track. One of the spirits narrates one chapter, and reveals that it inhabited the woman on Holy Mountain in the previous chapter. At the end of the book in the Night Train section, a spirit is a caller on to the radio show and when asked 'How many are you?' it replies 'Five that I've encountered. Three others I've heard of' then says 'They squander their gift. They transmigrate into human chaff for hosts, and meditate upon nothingness upon mountains'. Surely this is the connection between the stories that makes them a whole stand-alone novel? I admit I may be totally wrong, and it took me a few days to figure it out! I loved the book, though I did find the Clear Island chapter not as strong as the rest, and would recommend David Mitchell to anyone. Whether his books work or not is up to you, but the guy is a genius simply for what he attempts to do with the novel in today's 'chick lit' and 'lad lit' saturated marketplace.
on 2 September 2006
I came to this after reading 'Cloud Atlas' and 'Black Swan Green'. As I thought that both of those books were truly excellent I wasn't sure that 'Ghostwritten' would be able to match them, being Mitchell's first work. How wrong I was! This is magnificent.
Like 'Cloud Atlas' and to some extent 'Black Swan Green', Ghostwritten takes the form of interconnected short stories (9 of them here) in which the connections aren't just linear (one story leading to another) but network, so that a small piece of information, speech or feeling in one of the earlier stories suddenly takes on greater significance in a later story. But you cannot judge each story individually because the book itself is definitely more than just a sum of its parts. Some people criticise Mitchell's books for not being "novels". I think this is a misplaced criticism. Surely the best novels don't just have a linear narrative with a defined beginning, middle and end. There must be a place for novels that reflect the reality of ideas, people and places connecting via spidery, tenuous networks. If some feel disappointed that the stories seem to end without much happening then I'm sorry, I don't know what to say other than you are missing something in the reading. These are novels about ideas (love, death, birth, the spirit, greed) as much as actions. I couldn't concieve of reading either 'Cloud Atlas' or 'Ghostwritten' in any other way than as a novel. I don't think the book would make any sense if I dipped in and read the stories individually.
The writing itself is masterly. I find it difficult to see Mitchell's influences but for some reason I keep feeling Ray Bradbury about here somewhere - I can't figure why though. I disagree that the characters have no depth as they have no time to develop. I find Mitchell's characters have more depth than most traditional novels. Somehow they seem more human than most novelists achieve.
The stories as I say intertwine so I don't want to contradict what I've already talked about by splitting the stories up, but the high point of the novel for me was "Night Train" where the ideas developed in the preceding chapters really begin to unwind. This was extraordinarily chilling and really tied the book together beautifully.
Eight people and one strange, disembodied spirit give dramatic, first person stories here, in nine different locales, ranging from Okinawa to Mongolia and New York. Each chapter is as compressed and carefully drawn as a short story, and the author gives a virtuoso performance in finding an appropriate, and different, narrative voice for each individual character--from the tough art thief in Petersburg, to the romantic lover in Tokyo, the savagely abused young woman in China, the disillusioned scientist in Ireland, and the manic night-time talk show host in New York.
As good as these individual chapters are, and as good as the writing is within each chapter, however, the feeling persists that the author is almost auditioning--showing all the wonderful talents he has (and they are many) and all the diverse writing styles he can employ. Ultimately, the book remained for me a collection of interrelated short stories. They did not come together into a coherent novel.
Some obvious overlaps of people and events occur among the chapters, along with many subtle overlaps of theme, reflecting the author's concern with free will vs. control, love and connection vs. alienation and isolation, and the planned vs. the random. But these overlaps serve to whet the reader's appetite for a big conclusion that will tie together all the many characters and the world-wide events in some significant way, and they understandably lead the reader to expect some comprehensive resolution, thematically. With the entire world as his scope and some of literature's biggest themes as a focus, this book ended, "not with a bang but a whimper." Mary Whipple
on 14 March 2001
Neither a traditional novel or a book of short stories, it is in a genre of its own. A book of interrelated episodes. The episodes are linked in terms of themes - chance, identity, relationships. The stories show how the consequences of one character's actions influence the events in another chapter. For example, the gas bomber of chapter one makes a call which is answered by the CD shop worker of chapter two. This action makes him late closing and as a result he meets the girl he has been dreaming of and they start a relationship. In a more sinister vein Rudi the art thief ends up murdered as a result of Neal's death in chapter three, and his money laundering operation being discovered. Ultimately the book is about chance and how our lives are dictated by chance e.g. being in a certain place and being drawn into the effect of another person's actions. The chapters are all named after places but the place is immaterial. What is important is the people and their relationships. A relationship is present when a person has an effect on another person; or the effect the actions of one person have on another e.g. the train they take decides whether they live or die. All actions have consequences and we must be aware of these and take responsibility for the outcome of our actions. Very moral! A brilliantly written, thoroughly enjoyable book - it offers us a new perspective from which to understand and interpret the world, and what more can a book do? I get the feeling that David Mitchell is not a well known author, however, I feel that this book will be viewed with increasing reverence over the next ten years.
on 24 November 2010
Ghostwritten is a series of short stories, each told in the first person by a different narrator, all of different nationalities, linked by chance encounters and cross-referencing. It's a very clever conceit, and the final couple of chapters contain enough references to the previous 7 or 8 to almost persuade you that it all adds up to a coherent narrative. Unfortunately, for me, it didn't quite.
I had two main problems with the book. The main one was, I just didn't believe in all the different characters. Partly this is the problem with a self-consciously "literary" work of fiction - it strives for literary effect. Many of the characters write literary similes and metaphors that were not only similar in style, but also seemed way out of character. ("I lay entombed in a slab of rock, in an embryo curl". ""Oy!" I yelled, and some genteel ladies walking dogs harrumphed. "Alfred Kopf!" I yelled, and a man dropped out of a tree with a turfy thump." Does anyone write, let alone speak like that in real life?) Plus the characters are mostly pretty unpleasant, making it hard to identify with their various troubles.
The other problem was the way the book occasionally lapses into cliche. The section in Ireland is horribly, horribly cliched, with everyone straight out of central casting, including the shop where you leave the money when the shopkeepers are absent, the ex-hippy who stayed and now grows locally respected marijuana, Father Wally the ubiquitous twinkle-eyed priest on his tricycle and, God help us, all-night sessions at the pub: "'Come by then later, Mo, or whenever, so. Eamonn O'Driscoll's boy is back with his accordion, and Father Wally's organising a lock-in.' Lock-ins at The Green Man. I was home.") And I wished he'd drawn the Americans with the same care he applied to the Japanese or Chinese - the military in particular seem to be based on characters from The Simpsons or Dr Strangelove.
As others have said, the old woman on Holy Mountain section was outstanding, worth reading the book for that alone, and the disembodied spirit was also beautifully handled. The St Petersburg gangsters were pretty unconvincing, though, and unlike the Asian chapters, felt like things he's got from movies than actually experienced.
So, ultimately, I felt it was clever, a very interesting read - but a bit cold, and more like an intellectual exercise than a depiction of real people with real problems - except for that wonderful old woman on the mountain...