Ghostwritten by David Mitchell: Splendifantabulicixcellent!
This is sheer awesomeness on the printed page. An un-put-downable epic contemporary odyssey spanning whole continents and fusing themes as disparate as gas attacks, global terrorism, geopolitics, Eastern mysticism, quantum mechanics, looming apocalypse, ghostwriters, radio jockeys, transmigrating incorporeal spirits, futuristic robots in moral dilemmas: all these with such alarming surefootedness and erudition, it instantly earns the masterpiece badge. If I had to allude this multi-layered work, I would use the analogy of blood-the ubiquitous fluid seemingly flowing smoothly through our arteries, veins and capillaries in a homogenous liquid form, but once centrifuged, separates elegantly into its constituents in vitro.
For the life of me I cannot believe I let something as seminal as this just pass below my radar for so many years now. Besides the fact that it is so intellectually accomplished and informed, the anticipatory tone in the thread of global terrorism and politics is oddly chilling given that the book’s publishing year is 1999 and consequently, the way things panned out right from the first year of this decade.
Contemporary almost to a fault, I am in a fix whether I should string a bouquet of adjectives for Mitchell’s prose or for being a stylist-extraordinaire as Ghostwritten’s first major triumph is its structure. The hyperlink format of seemingly unconnected characters and narrators scattered across the world linked slimly-almost amorphously [sometimes by a chance encounter, at other times a distant metaphor, or as a faraway acquaintance or just as a passing, unlikely knowledge or suggestion], any lesser author would have bludgeoned the format to ramrod the connections home. Mitchell crafts these connections as delicately as a miniaturist and as unceremoniously as a clerk, making you half-smile in awe at the sheer subtlety.
And then there are the stories themselves, each one mounted with milieu, atmosphere, tone and dialogue so contrastive, it is almost like reading nine separate, self-sufficient novellas. The attention to detail never slips. MItchell, almost like a polyphonic ventriloquist adopts wholly different and convincing voices and leaves you spellbound.
Also noticeable is how much heart he invests in the conflicts of these characters. Be it the disorientation of a criminally brainwashed rookie gas-bomber in Okinawa, or a saxophonist in Tokyo in a dilemma of taking the plunge in love, or your average exec-next-door in Hongkong losing it one fine day, or the desolation and despair of a female trapped in a Tea Shack in a remote Chinese province all her life: with Mitchell’s pen everything from the most personal of hallucination to the most epic sweep of national politics, nothing passes by without creating a ripple of the most personally profound version. Soul-vibrating so to speak. Sharp and effective, as he shifts his scenes later to Petersburg, then to Trans-siberian Express, then to the arid expanses of Mongolia to posh suburbs of London, his delivery no matter how divergent, never falters. And so do his human stories. Peopled by real, complex characters throughout, they all feel like they belong where Mitchell puts them.
I cannot get that transmigrating incorporeal entity flitting from person to person in the parched expanses of Mongolia to find the source of a story integral to its existence out of my head or the Big Brother-esque cyborg conjured by fantastical quantum cognition cybernetics called “Zookeeper” calling up a late-night radio show and laying bare his ethical predicaments and laying on thick the detail and quality of sensitive information and views he has at the snap of his fingers. Even the most ethereal creatures here present with such identifiable ruminations, you are beguiled all the way.
Then another virtue here is that drama’s potency isn’t intruded upon. Ever. Like in the Ireland thread, there’s the welling emotion as we follow the story of a moral physicist-turned-global-fugitive in the wake of her scholastic research and her expertise being bound to service militaristic objectives of Uncle Sam and how acutely she misses her loving blind husband, her bright son and her caring town as she’s running for her life. That care is never messed with. No matter how many stylistic traps he employs, for example here his flitting between different timelines of the same character his care for the human figures and their existential, emotional, intellectual conflicts resonates through, making formidable characters you root for.
The style always complements the emotion and the machinations of real memory, real life reminisces, real life thought-speech, besides adding a distinct personality to every one of the nine stories. Like there is the wizened 30-something bloke from London whose indulgent and hilarious internal monologues on everything from London Underground to ghostwriting in general had me in raptures [Mitchell's humour is on full show when he remains inland], but as the final sequence unfolds with him betting away the only money available to him, I could feel the tension and the stakes as he responded to every spin of roulette. It is that honest and liberated. Plus in true Murakami style, I completely fell for his winsome, unfussy stream-of-consciousness style and jazz-affinity in the Tokyo storyline.
In all, this was one breathtakingly ambitious work that intrigues, charms, challenges, enlightens and completely mesmerizes with its sheer sheer sheer sweep! After Murakami’s Hard Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I never thought I would come across anything in this definition-defying genre. Mitchell, as Murakami’s successor proves me wrong, to my relief I must add. I am really keen to see if he himself can better this bold and big absurdist-science-fiction-cum-socio-poitical-contemplative-fantasy-drama-esoterica-medley with his Cloud Atlas, for I cannot think of an equal.
A really original book that has re-written the rules of how mainstream fiction can be written, Ghostwritten is a stylistic tour-de-force and a genuine saga of our times that affirms one’s belief in the mind-numbing complexity and similarity of human experience!