Monday, October 15, 2012

Early Cartography: David Mitchell's "Ghostwritten"

Due to time constraints and an ever-growing, ever-fluctuating reading schedule, I had to set aside my goal of re-reading David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas before seeing the film version at the end of October. However, as much as I want/need to return to that work (and as much as I want to do second takes on multiple titles), I realized I'm getting closer to finishing Mitchell's complete bibliography. I recently used a window of time to read Ghostwritten, his 1999 debut, therefore leaving Number9Dream as my only unread novel by one of my favorite living writers. By doing this inadvertent, non-chronological reading, I've had a unique view of Mitchell's development over the years. Of course, I would likely have the same opinions had I started with Ghostwritten and explored his works in a chronological fashion. But by recalling the diversity of his novels, I'm also recalling the diversity of my growth as a reader, especially in hindsight. Cloud Atlas will always be one of my top five favorite novels; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet might very well be underrated, despite its acclaim upon release; and while Black Swan Green is an enjoyable, smaller work, I may have over-praised it upon my first reading, since I was still feeling the afterglow of Cloud Atlas. Ghostwritten, however, proves to be an impressive debut, and while it is more reminiscent of his masterpiece than his other works, it's an excellent piece of writing as well as an example of a talented artist getting a feel for how to explore a vast collection of themes, eras, and atmospheres.

My working title for this essay was "Pocket Atlas," but I was worried that would be misleading, since it could potentially insinuate Ghostwritten as a lesser version of Cloud Atlas, when, for all of the craft similarities, it should stand alone (even though Timothy Cavendish and Luisa Rey make cameos of sorts). In his debut, Mitchell explores the lives and problems of different people from different places, connected by happenstance, brief interactions, and mysterious entities. The characters include a member of a dangerous Japanese cult; a Japanese record store employee; a woman running a mountainside tea shack in China; a British adulterer/money-launderer working in Hong Kong; a wayward London drummer; a Russian art thief; an Irish physicist; a late-night New York DJ; and a spirit-like organism that transfers itself among living hosts. Their stories and lives are singular, yet the connections reveal themselves over the course of the book. However, for a first major novel, these revelations are not presented with any gimmicks or "ah ha!" moments; Mitchell lets the reader see how these lives are linked, but places the emphasis on the individual stories. Throughout, there's an equal mix of mystery, humor, and an international scope. Giving fuller synopses of the plot might be beneficial, but my recap above is enough for a general description. Therefore, it's better to explore the various aspects of craft employed by Mitchell. His opening chapter is wise--he sets the reader up to expect a standard (yet well-written) thriller. The story of a dangerous cult member shows how today's influx of mass market mysteries could be elevated with more emphasis on good writing instead of cheap thrills:

"The subway train in Tokyo was as crammed as a cattle wagon. Crammed with organs, wrapped in meat, wrapped in clothes. Silent and sweaty. I was half-afraid some fool would crush the phials prematurely. Our minister of science had explained to me exactly how the package worked. When I ripped open the seal and pressed the three buttons simultaneously, I would have one minute to get clear before the solenoids shattered the phials, and the great cleansing of the world would begin.
I put the package on the baggage rack and waited for the appointed minute. I focused my alpha telepathy, and sent messages of encouragement to my co-cleansers in various metro stations throughout Tokyo.
I studied the people around me. The honored unclean, the first to be cleansed. Dumb. Sorry. Tired. Mind-rotted. Mules, in a never-ending whirlpool of lies, pain, and ignorance. I was a few inches away from a baby, in a woolly cap, strapped to its mother's back. It was asleep and dribbling and smelt of toddlers' marshiness. A girl, I guessed from the pink Minnie Mouse sewn onto the cap. Pensioners who had nothing to look forward to but senility and wheelchairs in lonely magnolia 'homes.' Young salarymen, supposedly in their prime, their minds conditioned for greed and bullying (Mitchell 15-16)."

After this set up, the following segments feel radically different, but there's a consistent emphasis on both positive humanity and our species' more negative, deplorable traits. Again, for a debut novel, these divergent notions are generally well handled, but occasionally, Mitchell feels the need to explicitly inform the reader about what he's doing, especially when the non-human organism narrates its own chapter:

"I have no story of a blinding conversion to humanism. It just didn't happen that way. During the Cultural Revolution, and when I transmigrated into hosts in Tibet, in Vietnam, in Korea, in El Salvador, I experienced humans fighting, usually from the safety of the general's office. In the Falkland Islands I watched them fight over rocks. 'Two bald men fighting over a comb,,' an ex-host commented. In Rio I saw a tourist killed for a watch. Humans live in a pit of cheating, exploiting, hurting, incarcerating. Every time, the species wastes some part of what it could be. This waste is poisonous. That is why I no longer harm my hosts. There's already too much of this poison (Mitchell 163)."

There are several scenes of assault and violence in Ghostwritten, and all are handled with intense but understated detail. There's nothing gratuitous about the more tense scenes, but when Mitchell wants to explore the shameful sides of humanity, he does so with much precision, and therefore renders statements (like the one above) redundant and obvious. This isn't meant to be picky, but for someone as talented as Mitchell, these are examples of someone still finding his way around thematic nuances. At the same time, he still doesn't get credit for his comedic side. In every one of his novels (with the more obvious example being Black Swan Green), there are sometimes hilarious asides and scenarios. For example, Marco (the London drummer) awakes from a one-night stand. His partner is another character from elsewhere in the novel, but the emphasis here is on Mitchell's humor:

"'Hi.' I grimaced as pleasantly as I could, peering through the sheets of pain. Not a face I could imagine smiling easily. I hoped this wasn't going to be one of those GuiltLine wake-ups when she tells you about her boyfriend and her dead brother and her run-over-last-month dog Michael and you end up wondering how many people are in this bed (Mitchell 257)."

Mitchell mixes history and carefully detailed explorations of the various lands, which, along with the character descriptions, creates some very compelling asides. Nothing in Ghostwritten is unnecessary, since even the slightest detours become mini-stories in their own right. In the passage below, a character describes the various lines of the London train system:

"The Northern Line is black on the maps. It's the deepest. It has the most suicides, you're more likely to get mugged on it, and its art students are most likely to be future Bond Girls. There's something doom-laden about the Northern Line. Its station names: Morden, Brent Cross, Goodge Street, Archway, Elephant and Castle, the resurrected Mornington Crescent. It was closed for years: I remember imagining I was on a probe peering into the Titanic as the train passed through. Yep, the Northern Line is the psycho of the family. Those bare-walled stations south of the Thames that can't attract advertisers (Mitchell 268-269)."

Again, I haven't even come close to hinting at the various plots, let alone their true connections. This isn't laziness or an oversight--the beauty of Ghostwritten is its minutiae. It's not a novel that can be fully reviewed or explored through its various recaps. Again, my brief overview above tells everything and nothing. By sharing various passages and writings, I'm getting into Mitchell's eye for detail, but the bigger picture has to be felt through an actual reading. Said details remind the reader of where a given scene is taking place, yet the narration turns up small, consistent details. Whether a part of the book is taking place in Europe, Asia, or America, there's a constant battle between old and new, with history and contemporary details sometimes being at odds with each other. Sometimes this is more apparent in specific chapters. The shared humanity is also a shared view of an increasingly small world. "Petersburg," for example, yields this assessment:

"In the winter, I take the metro. Otherwise, I prefer to walk. If the weather's fine I walk up the Troisky Bridge, and then cross the Mars Field, where the women wait. But if it's raining I walk down Nevsky Prospect, a street of ghosts if there ever was one. Jerome says that every city has its street of ghosts. Past the Stroganov Palace and the Kazan Cathedral. Past the Aeroflot offices, and the scrubby Armenian Cafe. Past the flat where I made love to my Politburo member. It's been turned into an American Express office now. All these new shops, Benetton, the Haagen-Dazs shops, Nike, Burger King, a shop that sells nothing but camera film and key-rings, another that sells Swatches and Rolexes. High streets are becoming the same all over the world, I supposed (Mitchell 210-211)."

With this emphasis on cultural experiences becoming increasingly corporate, Mitchell's use of ghosts and other-worldly unification takes on an essential meaning. It doesn't make Ghostwritten a religious or new-age novel--it uses these mystical ideas to link the characters (and, by extension, humanity as a whole) by more noble facets. Despite the stress, violence, and problems faced by the characters, there's a common theme of all of us being in this world together, and basic hopes and dreams being universal. Again, there's a philosophical paradox that makes Ghostwritten successful--world citizens are more alike than we realize, but at the same time, we're becoming most distant and distracted. We're all touched by human experiences, for better and for worse. This may reek of a touchy-feely new age plot, but Ghostwritten, especially as someone's debut novel, uses grandly postmodern settings to evoke classic themes.

And while I hoped to distance it from Cloud Atlas, I stumbled upon an early review that is almost creepy in its prediction of a better effort by Mitchell to connect time and place. Writing for Salon in 2000, writer Laura Miller offered this statement in her closing paragraph:

"'Ghostwritten' injects pop attitude into what were once frustratingly cryptic or dauntingly cerebral postmodern experiments. But, unlike [Mark] Danielewski, who grafted Borgesian ontological puzzles onto a Stephen King plot, Mitchell doesn’t yet seem to have invented a cocktail that really packs a wallop — though perhaps someday he will."

Work Cited:
Mitchell, David. Ghostwritten. Copyright 1999 by David Mitchell.

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