December 17, 2008

Tales from the Completist: "Ghostwritten," by David Mitchell

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Ghostwritten (book; 1999)
By David Mitchell
Random House / ISBN: 0-679-46304-6

Although I haven't brought up the subject here in awhile, the fact is that as a book critic and a lover of underground literature, it's important to me to become a "completist" of certain artists out there, or in other words to have consumed every single artistic project they've ever done. After all, I'm behind on a lot of this stuff compared to other critics my age -- I spent my twenties and early thirties as a working author myself, concentrating much more on writing my own books than reading other people's; and that leaves me near the age of forty with just these sometimes giant holes in my underground-arts education, embarrassing holes that as a critic I absolutely shouldn't have.

Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell

Take, oh, say, David Mitchell for example, who over the course of a decade now and four celebrated novels (three of them nominated for the freaking Booker) has become widely acknowledged as one of the best living surrealist authors on the planet; but before this week I hadn't ever read a single word by him, which should be some sort of crime against the underground arts if it isn't already. And it just so happens that one of the Chicago library branches up here by my place owns all four of Mitchell's books (I'm looking at you, cute nerdy acquisitions manager with the clunky glasses), so I've decided to finally start tackling them all myself, starting with the oldest, 1999's Ghostwritten. And that of course brings up one of the interesting things sometimes about reading the early work of someone who's now famous for their mature work; because many times, although not out-and-out terrible, such novels simply won't hold up to the "early masterpiece" hype of later years, or will contain diamonds in the rough that the author ends up polishing in later work, or sometimes are just so influential that they become blasé later in history, simply for all the ripoffs that came afterwards.

That's something you can honestly say about Ghostwritten too, although I found it more interesting than disappointing; that when all is said and done, the novel is essentially a British guy writing like Haruki Murakami, back in the late '90s before most English-speakers had heard of Murakami, making it not nearly the revelation anymore that I'm sure it was to Western audiences when it first came out. It's essentially what filmmaker Richard Linklater calls "vertical storytelling," a collection of tales that are mostly unrelated but with a series of fascinating synchronicity-style details, small decisions within some stories that will sometimes have devastating major consequences in others, with the chapters set around the world but especially in many Asian countries, and examining among other things the various stereotypical ways that Asians think of other Asians when white people aren't looking. All of these stories, though, have some sort of metaphysical or poetic element to them, and are written with an engaging mix of Asian minimalism and British fascination with language; one for example concerns a poltergeist in a yuppie apartment in Hong Kong, one a subway-bombing cult member hiding out from the cops in Okinawa, one a jazz-loving hipster teen in the middle of downtown Tokyo.

Ten years later, we've gotten a lot more used to these things -- metaphysical elements in our mainstream fiction, the influence of Asian minimalism on Western literature -- but when it first came out, seeing it in Ghostwritten I'm sure made a lot of people freak out in a pleasantly positive way, which I'm sure is how Mitchell gained his intense cult following to begin with, and what allowed him to go on and kick out three Booker nominees in a row after this one. And let's face it, even this novel isn't bad, even ten years later when many of its tropes have become a lot more common; even with this very first book of his, Mitchell displays a confidence in his material usually only seen in veteran authors, a relaxed assuredness with what is already experimental work, being written at a time when there were literally no precedents for it in English-language literature. Granted, I suspect at this point that his later books are going to be even better, and that readers not purposely trying to become Mitchell completists might want to actually skip this first one; then again, you might not, especially if your interest in weird lit is only a passing one, and if you mostly prefer the narrative feet of your stories planted firmly on realistic ground. I can definitely say, though, that I'm glad I read Ghostwritten; and I can also definitely say that I'm eagerly looking forward to his next, 2001's big breakthough hit number9dream, which hopefully I'll be tackling before too terribly long.

Read even more about Ghostwritten: Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 4:23 PM, December 17, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |