This is my review of Ghostwritten by David Mitchell.
Ghostwritten defies an accurate description of what it is really about, but seems best summarised as nine – or ten -short stories, each with a strong sense of place and well-developed main characters. Mitchell is very versatile and ultra-imaginative, so he can transport us from Japan to Hong Kong, then Mongolia, Russia, London and so on, with some ingenious plots, good sense of comedy, very humorous dialogues, yet also situations of great tension and menace, heightened because we know the author is ruthlessly prepared to destroy any character to serve the drama – although he seems to have a soft spot for his "nicer" creations.
The stories are loosely connected – in some cases these links could be missed, so that part of the fun is looking out for a familiar character or an event from a previous tale. Often, disproportionately serious outcomes arise from minor or random events.
Then there are the ghosts. I may have failed to notice them all but they take various forms: the mischievous poltergeist pestering the corrupt financial lawyer in Hong Kong, or the wise spirit in the Chinese Tea House Tree which turns out to be the transmigrating force which hops from body to body in Mongolia. Then, there is the charming London drifter perhaps on the brink of "facing up to responsibility" who is quite simply a ghostwriter for minor celebrities.
I was not always certain what purpose these ghosts served, and if you do not care for Sci-fi or magic realism, the paranormal aspect may be unappealing. The parts where I for one lose patience are where, say, the state of the migrating "non corpa" is analysed and "explained" with a kind of "ludicrous logic". Likewise, the AI taking control of the world's computerised defence systems is "over the top". Yet, I agree with those impressed by Mitchell's prescience. I had to check that the publication date preceded 9/11, the weapons of mass destruction and invasion of Iraq. I suppose that Reagan's "Star Wars" may have triggered the writer's imagination.
As a set of short stories, "Ghostwritten" is brilliant – well-written, creative and diverse in style and coverage.
As a novel, the whole seems less than the sum of the parts. I think this is because some of the links between stories are so tenuous. Also, although the stories are page turners (different styles will appeal to different readers), they oblige you to work hard mentally, getting to grips with a set of people and situations, only to end inconclusively (not necessarily a criticism) and force you to start afresh. This is not conducive to the kind of coherence, progression or "structure" a novel requires.
Also, although technically very clever and clearly sincere in, say, questioning our current values and misuse of resources, and the evil of one regime imposing ideas on others, I do not feel that Mitchell has the kind of clear, insightful message that a "great" novel might convey. Individual characters are often too busy wisecracking and being too clever by half to be genuinely moving.
This book is definitely worth reading, and may merit greater prizes than it has won, for its originality and skilful writing.