What a great read! Talking at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last week, the very humble and witty David Mitchell said that he is interested in interconnectedness. When writing Ghostwritten, his first novel, a collection of nine ‘long’ stories, he said he started out with the first three or so as separate entities and it was only after these that he recognised teh true character of the novel he was writing and started to see the connections between characters and use recurring motifs. He said he was interested in the question of how and why things happen. The stories offer numerous possible answers, including chance, fate, luck, God, mistakes, the ghost in the machine. Mo Muntervary, the protagonist of ‘Clear Island’, thinks [p375]:
Phenomena are interconnected regardless of distance, in a holistic ocean more voodoo than Newton.
The risk with multi-protagonist novels is that one (or more) of the characters lacks something that the others have, that their stories are not of equal quality. Well, there’s no danger of that here. The nine stories take us around the world, from the Orient and Mongolia to Petersburg, then Ireland, London and New York. Each has vitality, linkages, humour, and tragedy.
Mitchell’s fascination with interconnectedness extends beyond this book too – with characters showing up in more than one book. One of the things he said with regard to this practice was that he does it in part to amuse himself. One of the joys of this book for us readers is that we can see those moments and share in them. This extends from the more obvious questions of how does one character fit in another’s story, down through ‘mid-level’ recurrences such as notions of physics, and all the way to motifs which reappear, such as camphor trees, comets, quasars or Kilmagoon whiskey. As a reader, part of the fun is in those moments of frisson when you become aware or spot another link.
One of the slight misgivings I had with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was that some of the descriptions of ‘place’ seem disconnected or just ‘dropped in’. There is no evidence of that here. The descriptions of the cities like Okinawa, Tokyo, Hong Kong and London are vivid and grounded. Having lived in London, I particularly liked the way Mitchell links the web of suburbs into the narrative (by the sexual conquests of a writer named Marco no less!). Some other descriptions of setting are imaginative, for example the old Battersea power station described as an upturned table. The way Mitchell depicts the passage of time in Tokyo through the cherry blossoms is wonderful. Then they fall thus, [p60]:
‘The last of the cherry blossom. On the tree, it turns ever more perfect. And when it’s perfect, it falls. And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up. So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air … I think that only we Japanese can really understand that, don’t you?’
There’s loads of witty moments too. Writers are not to be trusted, thinks one character, because they make everything up. Another character has received a postcard from a friend with a photo of Earth, on which he has written, ‘wish you were here.’ In a lovely description of the forces of physics, gravity is described as being ‘the most down to earth’! And Schrödinger the cat ‘looks around hypercritically.’
It’s really hard to pick the best of them. Even the Mongolia chapter, which seemed to sag ever so slightly in the middle, came with such a kick ending that you soon forget any quibbles. I loved the ‘Clear Island’ chapter, the story of quantum physicist Mo Muntervary, whose brilliant technology has found its way into smart bombs. She tries to resign but the firm she works for won’t let her. She goes on the run, escaping back to the island off the coast of west Ireland where she was born and raised. The way things end up for Mo is spellbinding. ‘Night Train’, the final of the nine stories, (before a short capstone chapter), is hilarious, with the mysterious caller to Bat Segundo’s late night radio show in New York. The way Bat assists ‘Zookeeper’ as the person calls themselves in deciding what to do with the animals in the zoo is breathtaking.
AS Byatt proclaimed Ghostwritten to be “the best first novel I have ever read.” High praise and warranted. If you haven’t read it yet, make a bee-line for it. David Mitchell at his best. Superb.
(The notion of interconnectedness came up elsewhere at SWF 2011: I’m now off to read Gail Jones’s Five Bells which sees the lives of four adults come together in Circular Quay on a single day, and after that I’ve lined up The Body in the Clouds by Ashley Hay, which is also set in Sydney and links three separate characters across time in a rather unusual way: stay tuned!)
Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
Source: the local municipal library