In which I try a favorite author’s earliest book only to find some welcome familiar faces
Author: David Mitchell
What it’s about: In a series of nine interlocking short stories, David Mitchell takes us from a terrorist’s hideout in Okinawa to the booth of a late-night radio DJ in New York City. Ghostwritten (2001) was his debut novel, but many readers, like myself, will have come to Mitchell through Cloud Atlas, his 2003 best seller. It was surprising to me to take a step back in time and find not only a very similar format to Cloud Atlas, but also some familiar faces. In fact, Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas inform one another in surprising and revealing ways, and I found myself making connections and opening mental doors as the events in Ghostwritten unfolded.
The nine stories in this book seemed to be more solidly connected than those of Cloud Atlas, as each character encounters the next in a fleeting but tangible way and as the book progresses more and more points light up on the metaphorical switchboard and our narrators tend to have greater effects on their counterparts. While Atlas was a journey through time and space, Ghostwritten spans a much shorter period and most of the stories overlap temporally, all the while drawing us east and forward to a terrible catastrophe.
The book begins and ends with extremes (a cultist experiencing the aftermath of a bomb he planted, and a supercomputer searching for the solution to humanity’s tendency toward destruction), but bookended are a few more grounded tales. Each story contains an element of the fantastic, be it a non-corporeal being searching for its origin or an impoverished ghostwriter roped into a gambling competition in a London casino, but also focuses on a simpler human element. Mitchell’s characters are risk takers and make sacrifices for what they want. They share a kind of drive toward something, a conviction in some goal. This brings an intensity to the book and also a feeling of forward movement. I also enjoyed Mitchell’s different meditations on the nature of love—be it the Russian woman involved in an art theft ring to please her gangster boyfriend or the scientist on the run who returns to her ancestral home on Clear Island for a few days with her husband and son before the U.S. government forcibly removes her to a hidden facility in Texas to create a master-weapon.
I do wonder why Ghostwritten hasn’t found as wide an audience as Cloud Atlas when they share so many qualities. His most recent The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a beautiful focused historical fiction with only a few spotlighted characters, and markedly different from his earlier books (though many have commented that intertextuality is one of his hallmarks and Mitchell claims there are several carryover characters in Autumns, but I appear to have missed them). But for fans of Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten will seem like a meeting with an old friend. It’s shorter and, with more stories, it clips along at a faster pace. You’re sure to enjoy the winks and nods to Mitchell’s other work. And if you’re coming to Mitchell for the first time, this is as good a place to start as any (and I recommend you do).