Bennet's Reviews > Ghostwritten

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
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's review
Jun 02, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: novels-stories
Read from January 15 to February 17, 2012

I’m wondering if you can tell a lot about a person by which of these stories she likes best. I approached the book as I do a collection of short stories, more interested in Mitchell’s way with words and characters than whether or not the book turned out to be a novel.

Each chapter is named for the location in which a first-person narrator is attempting to understand the particulars of his or her life and situation, despite all the attendant variables and possibilities. What each chapter or character has to do with the others is a mystery that reading the book is supposed to solve, though one thing is clear from the start: the future of humanity and the survival of the planet are quite likely at stake.

Ghostwritten is called a novel, the blurb telling me I’m in for lives converging with fearful symmetry and coming full circle. Sounds good, but I read regardless, enjoying each chapter as a story unto itself, some more than others. My favorites are Clear Island, Holy Mountain, and Night Train, in that order.

Along about Petersburg, my least favorite, the editor in me kicked in, the one who used to do a lot of content analysis and revision. I’d get documents in need of sorting out, like puzzles put together not quite right, lacking logic or coherence or pieces; the authors knew their parts, but not necessarily how best to make a whole. Until I got tired of it, helping them figure things out was a game for me and fun.

Along about Petersburg, I had connected some dots leading to the whole of Ghostwritten that was supposed to be a novel, enough to see that the stories were indeed puzzle pieces, though the dots were few and far between. Was I missing something, I wondered, or was it just a matter of time, of working through the full circle. I remembered how fun content analysis could be, and found myself wanting to finish the book so I could go back and analyze it, to examine how Mitchell crafted the work, to see if he seemed to really know what he was doing (and what I could learn from that) or if he was half-assed or just winging it or what.

I still think it’d be fun to do, but in the end I found the individual chapters so satisfying I didn’t mind the novel remaining amorphous, and suspected that was the point. The novel seems the world in a way, each chapter a stop on a tour that amounts to no more than glimpses of the big picture. It seems clear to me that Mitchell’s primary concerns are the nature of storytelling and the meaning of life, and he’s exploring them through dynamics of scale, a kind of literary game of “I spy”: the individual and isolated as spied within the universal and contiguous.

Clear Island, Holy Mountain, and Night Train are my favorite chapters not because everything in them converges, but because the details that converge and the details that don’t are, as I read them, comparably essential and make the best stories.

Clear Island is my very favorite because of how brilliantly physics and place and relationships work as metaphors. The narrator is an Irish physicist who’s abandoned her American post and gone home (to Clear Island) because of America’s militaristic plans for her scientific finds. She genuinely fears for the future of humanity should the American government get its way. In the process of fleeing the powers that be and reuniting with her family, she attempts to understand the particulars of her life within the larger physical and metaphysical contexts.

Why am I who I am? Because of the double helix of atoms coiled along my DNA. What is DNA’s engine of change? Subatomic particles colliding with its molecules. These particles are raining onto the Earth now, resulting in mutations that have evolved the oldest single-celled life-forms through jellyfish to gorillas and us, Chairman Mao, Jesus, Nelson Mandela, His Serendipity, Hitler, you and me. Evolution and history are the bagatelle of particle waves.” (p. 360)

I love that, but if asked to pick a favorite paragraph from the book, it would probably be this:

What happens to all the seconds tipped into the bin of the past? And what happens to the other universes where electrons follow other paths, where thoughts and mutations and actions differ? Where I was captured in Huw’s apartment? Where my father is still alive and my mother bright as the button she always was, where John never went blind, where my precocity and ambition were those of a farmer’s wife, where nuclear weapons were invented by 1914, where Homo erectus went the same fossilized way as australopithecines, where DNA never zipped itself up, where stars were never born to die in a shroud of carbon and heavier elements, where the big bang crunched back under the weight of its own mass a few jiffies after it banged? Or are all these universes hung out, side by side, to drip dry?” (p. 368)

And the most daunting and hopeful and telling bit is probably this, though it is not how the book ends:
The ground became land, the land an island, and Clear Island just another island among the larger ones and smaller ones . . . Finally, I understand how the electrons, protons, neutrons, photons, neutrinos, positrons, muons, pions, gluons and quarks that make up the universe, and the forces that hold them together, are one.” (p. 371)

Even had I not enjoyed the stories so much, I’d consider the book worth reading for the fascinating things it did to my perspective of time and place and the significance of connections made or missed along the way. Somewhere and always it is Friday in Santa Monica.

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Quotes Bennet Liked

David Mitchell
“I am going to tell you a secret. Everything is about wanting. Everything. Things happen because of people wanting. Watch closely, and you’ll see what I mean.”
David Mitchell, Ghostwritten

Reading Progress

02/08/2012 page 154
36.0% "All minds pulse in a unique way, just as every lighthouse in the world has a unique signature. Some minds pulse consistently, some erratically. Some are lukewarm, some are hot. Some flare out, some are very nearly not there. Some stay on the fringe, like quasars. For me, a roomful of animals and humans is like a roomful of suns of differing magnitudes and colors and gravities."
04/15/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-14 of 14) (14 new)

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message 1: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye Great review, JB.

I made two lists of the music that was mentioned in the novel in the David Mitchell Discussion Group.

I think you'd love what you find.

The linking of the stories is still what fascinates me.

I haven't put it back on the shelf, because I was going to list and write about the links, but the longer I take, the less enthusiastic I am and it probably won't happen now.

I'm just about to finish and review N9D.

I think Mitchell has become a bit critical of his youthful pyrotechnics and showing off.

We have to rescue some of his early works from this self-re-assessment.

I think he's a bit harsh on himself and can deprive us of the pleasure that we both got out of this novel.

P.S. I'm worried that I don't seem to be getting updates and only just found your review from my home page.

Bennet Ian, I did see your music lists and loved what I found as well as your review, though I have yet to join the Mitchel discussion group. Maybe now.

I've heard some of the criticism about this work being youthful and showy but it didn't strike me that way at all. The whole dynamics of scale thing struck me as quite mature, and it's what made the book as a whole work for me, thinking of it in those terms, of the individual and isolated within the universal and contiguous, etc.

Now that you mention it, I'm worried about my updates too. In particular, I was looking forward to you reading this one, posted a couple days or so ago:

message 3: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian "Marvin" Graye I'll come back to your other review in a few hours. I'm just about to go for a walk.

Stephen M "I found the individual chapters so satisfying I didn’t mind the novel remaining amorphous, and suspected that was the point."

I felt the same as this when I first read the book. But I will say that piecing the book together with a second read makes the stories even that much more rich. I'm glad to see you enjoy Mitchell. He's one of my favorites.

Bennet Stephen M, I just started Number 9 Dream, and Thousand Autumns ranks among my favorite novels. I'm joining the Mitchell discussion group and hope to see you there.

Stephen M Great to have you on board. Number9Dream is a great deal of fun. Look out for a few reoccurring characters; Mitchell loves to give main characters cameos in other books.

s.penkevich Good to see the Mitchell bug is spreading! How are you liking n9d so far? I'm near finished and loving it.

Bennet I'm barely into n9d and loving it already.

s.penkevich Good to hear. It gets rather exciting. I'm hoping to finish it today, I haven't been able to put it down lately. There are a few really cool allusions to Ghostwritten as Stephen M mentioned, it made me smile.

message 10: by Sandy (new)

Sandy Hennessey I liked the book as I read it, and yes, I have my favourite stories. But now that I've finished it I like it even better. The move from physical, personal connections to virtual connections was masterfully done. And his writing! Superb. I don't usually bookmark paragraphs so I can go back, but I sure did with this novel. My book club has chosen four books that are connected short stories. So far this is the only one that I feel truly qualifies as a novel. We'll see what the other members think when we meet.

message 11: by Ann (new) - added it

Ann I love the quotes that you chose for this review, and especially your last line. Your 5 stars is so strong. Sometimes I think I feel disappointed if a book is billed as a novel but turns out to be more like short stories. I am not as fond of books of short stories. I'm wondering if this style was at all similar to Olive Kitteridge, though Ghostwritten sounds certainly more scholarly, I enjoyed O.K. a lot.

message 12: by Sandy (new)

Sandy Hennessey Ann wrote: "I love the quotes that you chose for this review, and especially your last line. Your 5 stars is so strong. Sometimes I think I feel disappointed if a book is billed as a novel but turns out to b..."

Olive Kitteridge is one of my all-time favourites!Ghostwritten is harder to follow, and I understand that his motifs follow through all his books, not just the stories in this volume. Give it a try. Maybe you have to be into writing style to really like it. Most of my book club did not like it at all.

Bennet Ann wrote: "I love the quotes that you chose for this review, and especially your last line. Your 5 stars is so strong. Sometimes I think I feel disappointed if a book is billed as a novel but turns out to b..."

Annie, I don't know Olive Kitteridge but just marked it to read based on your and Sandy's comments and lots of good reviews. It sounds fascinating. I am almost always disappointed in novels told through short stories, but a couple are notable exceptions to that rule and this proved to be one of them. I think you'd like it.

message 14: by Ann (new) - added it

Ann I will have to at least give it a try and get out of my comfort zone. Will be interesting to see if I am able to follow Ghostwritten. I may need a good strong dose of Starbucks to help my concentration. Glad you are going to try Olive Kitteridge. Sandy is right. I thought it was well-written.

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