Steve's Reviews > Ghostwritten

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
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's review
Apr 26, 11

really liked it

With Ghostwritten you catch glimpses and sometimes even longer scenes of the feature-length greatness that’s to come in Cloud Atlas. This was Mitchell’s publishing debut. As may be true of many first works, he could barely contain all that he wanted to say. It was chock full of people, places and ideas. He gave himself nine very different vehicles for addressing the question of why things happen as they do. The settings of the nine stories span Asia, Europe, and the US. Good, bad, young, old, East, West – it’s all there, with different tones for each. They connect often in incidental ways. For instance, events in story A are probably not crucial antecedents in story B. But the links can be entertaining in the same way that recognizing characters Mitchell reused in his other novels can be. Seeing the likes of Neal Brose, Luisa Rey, and Timothy Cavendish, who reappear in later books in different phases of their lives, can be fun. It’s like when you watch Mystic Pizza years after it was filmed, and see Matt Damon in a minor role as the kid brother of the spoiled, rich guy. Anyway, these connections, and all connections, could be mere happenstance. Or they could be fate. Then ask yourself this: Is everything determined by sets of causal inputs? Is there a role for free will? Is choice an illusion? What are the drivers within the system, the control variates, the precipitants? What part is played by love, greed, altruism, or self-interest? Mitchell’s answers to these questions were sometimes oblique, but he deserves full credit for raising them.

Getting back to structure – the focus of many reviews – Mitchell’s hallmark inventiveness was in early evidence here. To be honest, though, I didn’t think the pieces were stitched together quite as effectively in this one as in Cloud Atlas. Still, there were signs of the mastery to come. He switched voices well, clearly recognized the importance of good storytelling, and only occasionally dragged when describing the many people and places. I thought the stories set in Tokyo and London were especially well done. Other characters were appealing, too, or if not that, at least interesting. The common thread of the parts I enjoyed most was that they were told without devices, in a straightforward, true-to-life kind of way. I felt in other parts of the book that the then less mature Mitchell relied too much on transmigrating spirits, sci-fi AI constructs, and other phenomena not of this world. The supernatural entities helped tie things together, but for my taste they took more away in cogency than they added in creativity. He was also more convincing with the nobler traits. The young sax player in love was so much better drawn than the terrorist who was brainwashed. Thank you, David, for that.

I’ll sum up my experience reading this with a reference to Keith Jarrett. He’s the pianist that the young jazz buff in the Tokyo chapter appreciated for his improvisational skills. Jarrett will occasionally throw in little vocalized drones during his solos that can be a distraction. Despite this, you often get some of the best original work ever. And he just makes it all up.

With a rating of four I’m dropping a star, but not my membership in the Mitchell as Marvel Fan Club.
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05/04 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-16 of 16) (16 new)

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message 1: by Deborah (new) - added it

Deborah Edwards Great review, Steve. As someone who is currently reading my first Mitchell book, I appreciate your thoughtful critique.

message 2: by Susan (new) - added it

Susan If your Keith Jarrett analogy is any guide, then I look forward to Ghostwritten with great anticipation. In fact, I think I'll put it on deck right now. I'll be ready for it as soon as I've satisfied my bi-monthly murder mystery craving.

Steve I've become quite the promoter, it seems. Mitchell is certainly my latest kick. I hope Deborah enjoys her introduction to the man.

Susan, as you know, Keith Jarrett has been an object of my ballyhoo for much longer. Ghostwritten is like one of Jarrett's more melodic pieces, but I hope you're not put off by what Mitchell himself calls the "jiggery-pokery". I think you'll mostly like it.

message 4: by Susan (new) - added it

Susan "Jiggery-pokery," eh? Does that translate as the magical realism aspect to the novel? I think I'm a tad more open to MR than you, but I agree that these things can be overdone. I'll just have to speed through my current book so I can judge the first Mitchell for myself.

Steve I think MR is certainly a part of J-P. The synonyms in include: trickery, hocus pocus, and manipulation. The context for Mitchell was in talking about how Black Swan Green lacked the J-P. He mentioned the Chinese boxes and Russian dolls that described the structures of his first 3, whereas number 4, and from what I hear, number 5 are simpler, straight narratives. Anyway, it's a great word, isn't it?

message 6: by Phyllis (new)

Phyllis Steve, your review of this book and Susan's comments have made it very clear to me that I have to add a D.M. book to my list of books to read. I think I'll start with Cloud Atlas since a good friend has offered to lend me her copy!

Steve If I've guessed right who this friend is, Phyllis, she'll be happy to give you tips for maximal enjoyment. One thing I'll mention myself is to open your mind up wide for some very different kinds of stories. I hope you'll agree that they link together well, and have plenty to say.

message 8: by Julia (new)

Julia Batalla Dad, would you recommend this as the next DM book I read???

Steve I liked this one a lot, Julia, but I liked Black Swan Green even better. What's more, I think it would be very much to your taste: a coming of age story by a smart kid, set entirely in England.

message 10: by Julia (new)

Julia Batalla Yes, that sounds up my alley! I'll put it on my to-read list right now.

Megan Baxter That's funny - my reaction to the Japanese cultist story was that it was a masterful look at a mind whose best rationalizations are under attack at a basic level, but can't admit it to himself. I found it absolutely engrossing. (But I also loved the saxophonist-in-love story.)

Steve I should reread the first and last bits of this with your interpretation in mind, Megan. Thanks for sharing this.

Jeffrey Keeten I really appreciated the Jazz references in the Tokyo segment. It would have been cool to highlight that more in my review, but my word count was already rather audacious. :-) I've been listening to Jazz every chance I get since finishing the book. I'm a bit Johnny come lately to Mitchell, but certainly now a dedicated fan. Great stuff Steve!

Steve That means a lot to me coming from you, Jeffrey. I guess I was more of a Johnny come early to Mitchell (at least by American standards), but his magic hasn't worn off. Granted, I haven't read The Bone Clocks yet, but it will take a lot to put me off him entirely.

Glad to hear the jazz bug has hit you hard, too. Here's the incredible ending to Keith Jarrett's popular Koln Concert:

I'm nearly in tears at about the 1:55 mark. And if that's not enough for you to give it a listen, I'll mention, too, that I played this for my wife on our first date -- a Halloween party where I think the song was the turning point allowing her to see beyond my hunchback.

Jeffrey Keeten Steve wrote: "That means a lot to me coming from you, Jeffrey. I guess I was more of a Johnny come early to Mitchell (at least by American standards), but his magic hasn't worn off. Granted, I haven't read The..."

Wow! Chalk another conquest up to Keith Jarrett! Were you tickling the ivories or did you let Jarrett do all the work? :-) Lovely, lovely song. Thanks for sharing that song and story with me.

Steve I let Keith do the playing that night if I recall. ;-) Actually, my musical talents are closer to Quasimodo's -- a rope ringing a bell would be more my speed.

Glad you liked it! He's great in concert, if you ever get the chance. But bring cough drops. He gets distracted if anyone breaks the spell.

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