Ghostwritten by David Mitchell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
”There is truth, and then there is Being Truthful.
Being Truthful is just one more human activity, along with chatting up women, ghostwriting, selling drugs, running a country, designing radiotelescopes, parenting, drumming, and shoplifting. All are susceptible to adverbs. You can be truthful well or badly, frankly or slyly, and you can choose to do it and not to do it….
Truth’s indifference is immutable.”
Have you ever had anyone say to you...Just tell me the truth?
So I ponder what someone wants when they ask that. Do they want the truth as it was last week, as it is today, or what I think it will be tomorrow? Truth mutates like a gecko lizard changing to fit each new environment, each new question. Truth evolves, devolves, with each added experience. The new hemorrhages into the old. Memories fade and are overlaid by new recollections of old events. The good or the bad are enhanced, magnified so large that they hide the very elements that kept a memory anchored near the site of “truth”.
As long as we all agree that a memory is only a version of many truths we will get along just fine.
”The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting.”
I don’t know if David Mitchell pulled the wool over a publisher’s eyes or he simply convinced them that they could publish these short stories and call them a novel. I was into the third section (short story) when I realized exactly what this young Brit had accomplished. Sure all the stories interweave by way of these sometimes very tenuous crossovers, they are the gossamer that drapes around the “truth” and can convince the reader that...yes, this truly is a novel.
After all short story collections are what successful writers publish when their next novel is proving to be rather tricky. Generally, publishers don’t publish short story collections for a writer’s first book. There is a good reason for that because the taste of the public has moved away from short stories. Short story collections without a readership established by a writer’s novels tend to go unloved, unread, ignored, and are quickly pulped/remaindered. If the writer rallies back from the uppercut to the jaw and the flurry of punches to his stomach the public handed him on his first book and writes a novel to great acclaim, that orphaned short story collection becomes a much sought after collectible.
”The strong force that stops the protons of a nucleus hurtling away from one another; the weak force that keeps the electrons from crashing into the protons; electromagnetism, which lights the planet and cooks dinner; and gravity, which is the most down-to-earth. From before the time the universe was the size of a walnut to its present diameter, these four forces have been the statute book of matter, be it the core of Sirius or the electrochemical ducts of the brains of students in the lecture theater of Belfast. Bored, intent, asleep, dreaming, in receding tiers. Chewing pencils or following me.
Matter is thought, and thought is matter. Nothing exists that cannot be synthesized.”
So, really that is what Mitchell has done. He has combined these stories into a coherent whole. He has synthesized a short story collection into a novel. My tendency is to review this novel like I would a short story collection by talking about each tale separately or highlighting a few of my favorites, but then that would really be “letting the cat out of the bag” wouldn’t it?
I liked all the sections of this novel, some I liked immediately, and some grew on me as Mitchell spun out the elements of manipulation. My favorite is the one set in Tokyo set around a tenor saxophonist named Satoru who works in a record store. We like it when a writer writes about us or more precisely about someone we identify with. We appreciate meeting characters that are very different from us, but if “truth” be known we like the characters that are most like us the best. I don’t think it is possible to work in a record store or a bookstore without being a romantic. How else could someone work for such low pay without believing what they are doing is larger than what it seems? These professions are redolent with mythology as they provide opportunity for something truly grand to happen at any moment.
Like a girl, THE girl walking into the shop.
”She was so real, the others were cardboard cutouts beside her. Real things had happened to her to make her how she was, and I wanted to know them, and read them, like a book.”
But she left, evaporated, sucked back into the universe.
”I couldn’t remember accurately what she looked like. Smooth skin, highish cheekbones, narrowish eyes. Like a Chinese empress. I didn’t really think of her face when I thought of her. She was just there, a color that didn't have a name yet. The idea of her.”
She becomes so mystical, so constructed out of straw, that his own existence becomes contingent on her returning. He can’t be who he is suppose to be until the moment she walks back into the shop.
”The her that lived in her looked out through my eyes, through my eyes, and at the me that lives in me.”
His clock winds back up.
There is a terrorist in this book, a man that hates the world, wants to change it, but in reality he is so angry, so disassociated, that he really wants to crack it in half and let the sun eat the pieces. There is a ghost that haunts a stockbroker, a man proud of his ability to compartmentalize, but as his life destabilizes he discovers that logic is illogical. There is a woman living on the Holy Mountain in China who watches her life diverge because of the cowardice of people who should be mandated to protect her.
In Mongolia we spend time seeing the world through the eyes of a disembodied spirit with no memories of it’s own to help guide the present or the future.
”Why am I the way I am? I have no genetic blueprint. I have had no parents to teach me right from wrong. I have had no teachers. I had no nurture, and I possess no nature. But I am discreet and conscientious, a nonhuman humanist.”
A spirit that becomes more human than the humans he inhabits when it is faced with the ultimate sacrifice.
In St. Petersburg we get to hang out with an art curator at the Hermitage Museum. A concubine, a manipulator of men:
”Margarita Latunsky plays men like a master violinist. When I want something from a woman I get angry. When I want something from a man I pout.”
Despite those natural god given abilities or maybe because of them she falls in love and hangs her dreams on the wrong man.
In London we meet a womanizer named Marco who is a ghostwriter or whatever he needs to be if it will get a woman to fall in bed with him. He is the member of a band called The Music of Chance, a nod to the New York author Paul Auster. He is in love with a woman named Poppy, but he can’t give up the randomness of his life to form an even number with her. He wants the roulette wheel to spin every day giving him a chance for something bigger.
We meet a physicist who has escaped to her homeland on Cape Clear Island. She finds it ironic that like a criminal she can’t help but go where she will be found. She quit being a member of a think tank when she discovered her research was being used to make weapons. She hopes they will let her go after all she is in her forties.
”Nobody’s going to kidnap me. Look at me. I’m middle-aged. Only Einstein, Dirac and Feynman made major contributions in their forties.” And now Muntervary.
There is also The Zookeeper, an artificial intelligence who escaped his military caretakers, and instead of trying to destroy the world as we have been lead to believe any rogue IA will attempt to do by the blockbuster movies out of Hollywood, is actually determined to do the opposite. The Zookeeper is trying to live up to his name by keeping the animals with animus separated. The stones they wish to throw must never be allowed to launch.
So if each story is a pearl we could fashion them into earrings, bracelets or rings and they will be beautiful, but if we want them to dazzle we should string them on a necklace where each will enhance the rest.
Maybe, if that is the case, we should call this a novel.
In the future when some linguist/scientist/reader is trying to piece together who we were before we evolved into more perfect beings, the histories will give them a body, but it will be the novels that will put blood in our veins, send electrical impulses to our nerves, and bring air in to our lungs. Our “lies” will tell our story the best.
”Who is blowing on the nape of my neck?”
View all my reviews