Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Book review: Ghostwritten

In many ways, Ghostwritten, David Mitchell's 1999 debut novel is the precursor to his more highly-renowned work, Cloud Atlas.  Discerning readers of both novels will quickly recognize that the patterns and presentation of Ghostwritten very much foreshadow the ground-breaking structure of Cloud Atlas.

Like Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten consists of several distinct but intricately-related stories.  Each story is a separate chapter and has a unique setting and protagonist.  The book opens with the story of Quasar, a member of a doomsday cult in Japan who is seeking to elude authorities after releasing nerve gas in a Tokyo subway.  The penultimate chapter is the story of Bat Segundo, a late-night radio talk show host in New York who is thrust into the roll of emcee as humanity approaches apocalypse.  In between these two stories, readers follow the lives of a Japanese saxophone player, a Hong Kong financier, an aging Chinese woman running a tea house, a spiritual noncorpum inhabiting the body of a traveler in Mongolia, a Russian art thief, a womanizing musician in London, and a genius scientist on the run from the CIA.

Mitchell's gifts as a story-teller are so exquisitely tuned that, although each chapter ends on a note of expectation, he manages to provide resolution through indirect reference in subsequent chapters.  With the exception of the Quasar story, none of the other stories are directly revisited, and yet, at the end of the novel, Mitchell has somehow managed to tie up all the loose ends. 

Now that I've nearly completed the Mitchell canon, I've noticed several recurring themes in his novels:
  • Mitchell is never satisfied, it seems, to draw definite conclusions.  He presents his case in convincing fashion, then once the reader is sold, injects uncertainty, calling everything he has created into question.
  • Mitchell's characters recur throughout his works.  Characters in Ghostwritten also appear in Cloud Atlas and number9dream
With Ghostwritten, Mitchell yet again displays his versatility and imagination.  There is not much more to say, really.  Just like each of the other three Mitchell novels I've read, Ghostwritten fascinated me start to finish.  In today's hyperbole-infested zeitgeist, the term "genius" is all too often abused.  But in David Mitchell's case, I believe it's justified.

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