November 18, 2009


by David Mitchell
448 pages, Vintage (publisher)

Review by Bill Kirton

There are lots of good writers around today. There are even a few great ones – although I don’t think any list I’d make of them would contain many of the stellar names which keep getting short-listed for the major prizes. And there are, of course, some awful writers – gardeners, models, actors and others who take a couple of months off to write a novel now and then – because it’s something anyone can do, isn’t it? There are all these. And then there’s David Mitchell.

The first of his novels I read was Cloud Atlas. I bought it with gritted teeth because I’d read that it was ‘an experimental novel’ and wanted to know what the fuss was about, even though I knew I’d absolutely hate it, the way I hated (and didn’t begin to understand) the nouveau roman and all the other movements defined by adjectives ending with –ist. They were modernist, post-modernist, structuralist, deconstructionalist and almost any other combination of vowels and consonants as long as they ended in –ist.

Cloud Atlas was a revelation. It’s a rich, astonishing, complex achievement. Following its various interconnected narratives is an absorbing, all-encompassing experience of clambering through layers of meaning, half-perceived connections and elusive echoes. And each of the layers is a bloody good, gripping story which works at basic page-turning levels.

But this is a review of Ghostwritten which, amazingly, is his first novel, and if you haven’t yet tried him, this is where to start because (and I keep having to reach for a thesaurus to find synonyms for amazing and astonishing) not only do themes and even characters interweave back and forth within each individual book, they extend beyond them and reappear in his other, seemingly unconnected novels. This is a novelist with a vision and a grasp of the interplay between fiction and reality which makes me feel unworthy as a reader. But, in case all this hyperbole and sub-academic lit crit, is putting you off him (and me), I should quickly add that he’s also funny, tender, compassionate, mystical, down to earth – and he even writes good sex scenes.

I know I should give you a quick synopsis of the plot but the problem with Mitchell is that you get so many. Ghostwritten is a novel in nine parts, with a different set of characters and plots for each. It’s set in Japan, Hong Kong, China, Mongolia, Russia, England, Ireland and America and extends over huge distances in time and in experiential dimensions. (Sorry, sorry, but I don’t think I have the vocabulary to do justice to the way he conveys contexts in which ghosts cohabit with real people and spiritual truths jostle with basic material beings and things. And Mitchell would find a far more enticing and intriguing expression than ‘experiential dimensions’, ugh!)

The first plot centres on a version of the Sarin episode in the Tokyo underground, narrated by a terrorist. At one point he phones a number he’s been given and simply relays the message ‘the dog needs to be fed’. The next plot is a sweet mini love story between a Japanese boy who works in a record shop and a girl who visits the shop with some friends then leaves. She reappears several days later as he’s closing the shop. The only reason he’s still there is that the phone had rung as he was shutting up and delayed him. It must have been a wrong number because the caller simply said ‘the dog needs to be fed’.

And so it goes on, with money laundering in Hong Kong, the life story of an old woman who lives on The Holy Mountain in China and experiences feudal brutality as well as the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath; a noncorpum in Mongolia which moves through the bodies of different individuals searching for its origins and spends some of its time in the body of the old woman in the previous plot; art thieves and fakers in the Heritage museum in Petersburg, whose finances are linked with the earlier money-lending section; a ghostwriter with links to the Russian and Hong Kong episodes; and so on and so on.

I only hope that this ponderous listing of the bare bones of what are fascinating, involving stories full of well-defined characters and packed with convincing settings, dialogues and plot twists isn’t putting you off. No plot summary can do justice to what Mitchell has achieved here. The stories intertwine subtly, sometimes barely noticeably. Their interconnections are mysterious, tantalising and seem to extend their significance. They can consist of the reappearance of an actual character or throwaway images, such as that of a skinned rabbit. The overall effect is to immerse you in a world where the artist is in complete control of his material.

This is more than writing; it’s verbal alchemy. I’ve focused on the stories and the woven nature of the narratives but there’s so much more to it than that. His style changes to match the cultures he’s dealing with and he’s as adept at the cool distances of Chinese folklore as he is using the modern Western vernacular. This review doesn’t do justice to his achievement because above all, the book is satisfyingly readable too. And it’s his first novel, published when he was just thirty years old. I should hate him, but a person who can give the reader such an intense experience with such apparent effortlessness is very, very special.


  1. Great review, Bill. It made me think you'd really enjoy Evan Dara's The Lost Scrapbook, if you haven't read it.

    I too have avoided Mitchell so far, not just out of 'experimentalism' which I also fear, but out of a basic mistrust of "literary lions," by which I mean critics and authors both. Richard Powers for instance I know to be a fine writer, but his stuff is so lacking in what Evelyn Waugh once called the "rich glint of lunacy" that I haven't been able to finish a single one of his books, and I think we have three of 'em. So when I read yet another critic all celebrating The Genius of Powers, it just makes me feel tired. I have the same trouble with Gaddis, and also Vollmann. Ho well. I'm hoping one day it will all just hit me like a ton of bricks and I'll yell "Eureka!" and leap out of the bathtub waving my copy of You Bright and Risen Angels or whatever it is.

    Wait, sorry we were talking about D. Mitchell, okay, I am hereby emboldened to give him a try.

  2. Yeah, this made me actually curious about the Mitchell book...even enthusiastic, which I hadn't expected (the -ist problem; I have that big-time). (Richard Powers, by the way, I find utterly, completely unreadable; I have a sneaking fondness for Wm. Gaddis, though -- he makes me laugh, even if I've never actually quite worked up the momentum to FINISH one of his books somehow...!)

  3. I'm glad to hear I'm not alone in backing away from literary lions. Life is too short to have to work hard at reading. I could never go along with the Mallarmé attitude to poetry - I want to understand what I'm reading right away (and, as a bonus, have flashbacks and eureka moments after I've finished the book). Nowadays, if I'm not drawn into the narrative by page four or five, that's it. But I'm fairly confident that Mitchell will keep you with him.