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'Ghostwritten' by David Mitchell

Voices connected by thread of despair

Sunday, October 01, 2000

By Sherri Hallgren



By David Mitchell

Random House


In David Mitchell’s absorbing new novel, Satoru, a young narrator in Tokyo explains that in a city of 20 million people “you have to make your place inside your head.”

There’s “an invisible Tokyo built of them, existing in the minds of us, its citizens. Internet, manga (animated pornography), Hollywood, doomsday cults they are all places where you go and where you matter as an individual. Some people will tell you about their places straight off and won’t shut up about it all night. Others keep it hidden like a garden in a mountain forest.”

Satoru is just one of the many voices that speak from their “inside places” in “Ghostwritten.”

There are also Quasar, a millennial cultist responsible for the gas attack in the Tokyo subway; Neal Brose, a frenzied British account executive living in Hong Kong; Margarita Latunsky, who works as a docent in St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum by day and by night in a ring that steals the paintings; even a disembodied soul transmigrating across Mongolia.

The forward thrust of the narrative -- there isn’t really a continuous plot -- is an ongoing restless arc across the globe from Okinawa westward to New York, with stops in Tokyo, Hong Kong, Mongolia, St. Petersburg, London and Ireland.

The novel is constructed in 10 sections, named for the place in which they occur. Each is distinct from the others except for threads of coincidence that run from story to story:

A wrong number phoned from Okinawa in the first section is answered by a clerk in a jazz shop in the second, which takes place in Tokyo. The Tokyo clerk runs off with a girl to Hong Kong, and they appear in a hamburger joint, observed by the banker narrating that section. His maid is the great-granddaughter of the old woman who narrates the fourth section, and so on.

All of these coincidences could add up to a kind of “six degrees of separation” demonstration of the smallness of the world, perhaps some meaningful revelation about the interconnectedness of apparently random, alienated modern life.

But although these connections grow more numerous and complex as the book goes along, none is ever significant in the stories. On the textual level, no characters are aware of any connection to another because they never meet. Nor is Mitchell a god-like narrator, making clear to readers a significance unavailable to the characters themselves

And so the reader works constantly to supply even a thematic coherence. It seems that corruption is a constant across cultures; that politics is a wind-blown, brittle artifice; that everyone seems to have a secret, the most fragile of which is a longing for human connection.

Mitchell’s narrative style makes the reader’s job even harder. Each novella-length section, written in the first-person, often in present tense, takes us inside a new narrator. We enter a thinking mind, and it’s left to us to determine where we are, when it is and whom we are inhabiting -- their gender, age, occupation, relational status.

We learn only what the characters happen to reveal in self-reflection, as they are talking to themselves.

Mitchell certainly rewards our work; over and over we come to care about these desperate people, and many of their stories are deeply involving. But then the scene changes, and we need to reorient to another, equally alienated voice, and the book starts to feel like a travelogue of vividly unpleasant places with unhappy people.

An Englishman living in Hiroshima, Mitchell suggests that the interconnectedness of the new global village is one of disaffection and despair. Indeed, a bit of a hangover hangs over the entire book.

Mitchell’s male characters, regardless of nationality or whether high-tech, high-finance or low-brow, all drink too much, have friends who do drugs and are completely stymied by intimate relations, not that they seem to care.

His female characters are much more sympathetic, varied and, in their own way, grand, whether a simple old Chinese woman who has weathered each squall of the ongoing revolution in her tea shack, or a brilliant physicist who just says no to working for the Pentagon and plots to save the world, on her own stubborn terms.

“Ghostwritten” is a crowded book, with enough terrain, characters, plot strands and thematic material for several novels; at the end, it even takes an odd turn toward science fiction.

Perhaps the scope of the novel is too vast, its relation to its characters simultaneously too intimate yet too impersonal, to make for the kind of coherent sensibility we expect in a novel. But it is a convincing, if disturbing, picture of the complex world as we near the 21st century.

Sherri Hallgren is former director of Napa Valley Writers’ Conference and the MFA program in creative writing at Saint Mary’s College of California.

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