It’s all David Mitchell’s fault. Well, him and Murakami. You see, as well as being a part-time blogger, full-time worker, occasional student and stressed out father, I harbour ambitions of one day actually getting a little book out there myself (first, wobbly baby steps towards that goal can be seen here). But then, whenever I start thinking that I might be able to knock off something half-decent, something other people may like to spend their time casting an eye over, I read one of David Mitchell’s books and scream out, “Crap, that’s exactly the kind of book I want to write!!!”. Which probably explains why nobody wants to sit next to me on the train in the morning.
But I digress. What I actually want to do today is have a little chat about Mitchell’s debut novel Ghostwritten, a frankly brilliant piece of work (his debut novel too! I hate him). There are definite tinges of Murakami in this book, quite apart from the parts set in Japan. The foregrounding of the issue of the pace of progress, the highlighting of the extraordinary in the ordinary, the jazz… All these things leave the reader thinking that Mr. Mitchell has a fair few of Haruki’s novels tucked away somewhere. However, Ghostwritten takes some of these aspects and runs off into the distance with them, often in several directions at once.
The book is divided into nine parts which would, in most books, be wholly unrelated. Starting in Okinawa and gradually winding its way westward around the world, the book explores how technology and consumerism have changed our world both for better and for worse. While we are now able to travel and expand our cultural horizons, some are also free to use this privilege to attack those they disapprove of or take advantage of the riches available.
One of the most prominent ideas set out is that of inter-connectedness and the way we are all linked to what happens on Earth. Just as a butterfly’s wings may cause a typhoon on the other side of the world, tiny, seemingly unimportant actions can have enormous implications on humanity. Can saving a woman from being run over by a taxi lead to the end of the world? Quite possibly… The writer lays out the disparate events unfolding with a unifying plot in mind, forcing both the characters and reader to consider carefully what they believe in: are we buffeted by the winds of chance or manipulated by the hand of destiny?
One of the things I admire about Mitchell is an ability to tightly plot his books, despite an apparent lack of connections. Throughout Ghostwritten, there are a wealth of both anaphoric and cataphoric references as people, places, events, books and songs pop up repeatedly, both after and before our first sight of them. Young Satoru from the Tokyo section is later mentioned on the radio show in the Night Train section as a successful jazz musician; Mo Muntevary appears at least three times in different sections (twice before we know who she is!). For the die-hard Mitchell fans, there are also some exophoric references as we are told of information which will occur in some of his other books. Ingenious (still hate him).
Mitchell also writes about the inexorable rise, or rather spread, of consumerism and progress, and our attempts to either run away from it or create our own way of dealing with it. Satoru hides from the bustling Tokyo outside by listening to the jazz records in his shop; Caspar and Sherri are wandering nomads, seekers of civilisations lost (with huge backpacks and water purification tablets); Quasar finds his sanctuary in simply abdicating individual responsibility for his actions and turning his mind, and possessions, over to a cult. This advancement has, you see, come at a cost – a loss of connection with family and cultural roots. It is no coincidence that the majority of the characters (like an increasing number of people today) have uncertain, heterogeneous backgrounds. This contributes to the feeling of unease which they live with and which forces them to seek new connections.
There are differences in the extent to which the world has changed within the nine scenes. In the Asian sections, the world has become so crowded that it is only inside your own head that you can map out a little piece of the universe for you alone. On Clear Island, off Ireland’s Atlantic Coast, life is still relatively simple and unchanged, yet even here (in the shape of Mo’s pursuers) progress is slowly catching up.
Of course, by the end of the book, with the emergence of the Zookeeper, Mitchell shows us where his world of infinite interconnections is heading. Artificial Intelligence, designed to protect us (or, at least, those of us with the right skin colour) turns out to be more intelligent than those who created it. As mankind spreads over the planet, destroying and devouring (reminiscent of Agent Smith’s description of humanity as a ‘virus’ in The Matrix), it becomes more and more difficult to save us from ourselves. We are left with a warning of the consequences of mankind’s technological achievements outstripping its capacity to ethically consider whether they really are achievements.
Ghostwritten is brilliant. David Mitchell has created a stunning, thought-provoking piece of work. And for that, as you already know, I hate his guts.