I know I should stop reading David Mitchell’s books. Not because they’re not good, but because I’m very close to having read all of his backlist, and then I’ll be left with the unpleasant feeling of not having anything left (until he writes a new one).
Those might be worthy considerations but they weighted very little when I saw Ghostwritten somewhere, his first novel. Well, I still have “Slade House” left.
I half expected the fist novel syndrome – that is, something that felt unpolished, unaccomplished, where you can recognize some of the later style or content but somehow veiled or clumsier. I should have known better.
This, as with his later work, is a novel split in narrative sections, most with first person narrators, who are interconnected in some tenuous ways, each one to the previous section. Some are also characters recurring in his other novels, unshackled by space or time.
It starts in Japan, where the narrator, called quasar, is the member of an occult cult hiding after having committed a gas attack in the subway, moves to a young Japanese guy working in a Jazz shop (Murakami’s influence duly noted, and homage paid on a side note with the character receiving a Fitzgerald novel translated by Murakami), then to Hong Kong with a British lawyer involved in money laundering schemes and fighting a strange ghostly presence and a separation, to China on a Holy Mountain, spreading through the life of a woman who echoes the whole contemporary history of China, to Mongolia with nomads and travellers, to Russia with art smugglers and to a New York Radio late night DJ to come back to Japan, on a circle. If that makes your head spin, so does the book, that’s the principle.
You could say it is a bit slow in some chapters, a bit stereotypical in others. The female characters in particular are all slightly forced, the Russian ditzy-in-love-gangster-girlfriend art smuggler whose weapons are seduction and “playing men” like a fiddle has been seen and written in countless gangster movies, I would wager. But in other places the rhythm picks up and you can hardly catch a breath.
Already, and very impressively, each character’s voice is unique – maybe less than in his later works, but still. The links, which sometimes seem like coincidences, sometimes like something much bigger, never truly explained, already create a sense of metaphysical thrill, leaving you on the search for a clear cut explanation, which is never provided. And when Mitchell does venture into metaphysical explanations, it is always via some of his most ironical characters, so you never know what to believe.
But despite (or thanks to) the limited reaches of the explanations provides the whole gives a sense of being much greater than the sum of the parts – which might be a comment on individual lives versus masses, omnipresent in this books: the subway crowds, the young narrator’s reflection on the innumerable crowds living in Tokyo, etc… It is also a representation of the metaphysical theories the book hints to: is there a destiny, is there a persistence of the soul outside of the body, does something more connect to seemingly random human acts?
All of which you might say is true for any Mitchell’s novels. But each of them, despite the same construction, and recurring characters, is unique. I don’t know how it’s done, and, even in this first novel not so subtly paying homages to Murakami, Borges and Paul Auster, I don’t know of any one that can do it like him.