My admiration of David Mitchell began when I read his semi-autobiographical “Black Swan Greene,” from 2006. His poised perfect dialogue and his interconnecting short story format (echoing that of Sherwood Anderson’s seminal “Tar: A Midwest Childhood”) appeal not just to the serious scholar but particularly to the younger reader: the reader who has grown up appreciating snappy wit and easy bookmark stops more than the epics of Tolstoy, Eliot, or Homer.
From “Black Swan Greene” I retreated two years to 2004’s “Cloud Atlas:” a viable MUST for any reader, be they serious or sporty (I gifted “Cloud Atlas” to my mother and brother, two very diverse readers, each of whom was consumed for days after). Here, Mitchell weaves details, stories, haphazard events and seemingly random occurrences through a sprawling genre-splice as though they were Wagnerian leitmotifs. In so doing, he allows these events to transcend their normal humdrum-ness to become integral to universal humanity.
All very prosaic stuff.
Mitchell’s first novel “Ghostwritten,” which he wrote in 1999 after absconding to Japan, shows the precocious writer stretching his powerful literary muscles. Many first novels I have read fumble around in the beginning searching for a voice. These new writers usually clinch the middle, having established their characters, but drive the plot safely into the port at the end. The experience is standard: enjoyable and predictable.
Mitchell is not one of these authors. His writing is bold, ambitious, risky, wildly intelligent. If his prose went to your high school, it’d be the student who started partying as a freshman, seemed to never open a book, and yet always knew more than you no matter how much you studied.
Most, if not every, writer has said in one form or another that beginning the story is the hardest part. I imagine this to be true because most writers only ever settle for one beginning for each of his stories. “Ghostwritten” has ten beginnings, one for each of its settings: Okinawa, Tokyo, Hong Kong, (the) Holy Mountain, Mongolia, Petersburg, London, Clear Island, (the) Night Train, (the) Underground.
With each of these settings comes a separate character and a separate style of writing to accentuate the persona. For example, a London womanizer’s is defined by casual self-deprecation and irony, while a Chinese teashop owner’s is told simply, earnestly, and reads like a fable.
With ten (technically nine) separate characters, each of whom has their own agenda, an overarching plot is hard to wrestle from “Ghostwritten.” A paranoid terrorist, Quasar, who works for a shady organization known as “The Fellowship” opens the story.
Quasar has committed a grievous crime in the name of “The Fellowship,” but we only get smatterings and details of his humdrum life before suddenly we’re dropped straight into the life of an American businessman who deals with outrageous sums of money for Japanese powerhouses. He’s dropped too, replaced by a new narrator and a new agenda, and the pattern repeats.
Mitchell doesn’t generally buy into the single plot game. His stories are chance encounters or interviews between characters; one of which shares a startling commonality with another. Dialogue is Mitchell’s talent; his speciality is in constantly twisting the dialogue to fit new molds.
As in “Cloud Atlas”, the scope grows and the stakes rise as the novel progresses. One human act starts as one human act, and then becomes a ripple throughout the world. One human life starts as one human life, and then becomes the universal human life. In this way his writing reflects not the rules of the novel, but the rules of the world.
Even so, “Ghostwritten” can feel clunky. Quasar, the paranoid terrorist, reflects a composite voice of cliché cult and bad sitcom, where nonmembers are the “unclean” and frustration reflected in ridiculous metaphors: “the fury of the damned is as impotent as a rat gnawing a holy mountain.” Mitchell is best when he doesn’t try to sound too dramatic. Doing so reduces his work to the level of bargain book science fiction. He can also have the opposite problem of making his work intentionally dull, although to his credit I will admit that I reference the chapter narrated by a nonhuman.
With as much scintillating, witty and oftentimes racy first-person that “Ghostwritten” offers, one cannot lodge many complaints about narration. Mitchell, in an incredibly short time, has revolutionized both the novel form and the function of language in fiction. I recommend not only this first work, but all the works of this modern-day marvel.