Books: A phantom menace that stalks the earth

Lawrence Norfolk applauds the globe-trotting, shape-shifting ambitions of an astonishing fictional debut; Ghostwritten by David Mitchell Sceptre, pounds 10, 436pp

NOVELISTS START their books as they them mean to go on. Unfortunately, the "going on" inevitably collides with the "meaning", and such collisions produce new meanings - which necessitate more goings-on again. Linearity has never been as simple as it looks. How otherwise to render the inchoate mass of unfiltered information without surrendering to its formlessness? How to present the sheer bulk of stuff which constitutes our modern lives?

Tristram Shandy-esque digressions, Dickensian sub-plotting, Joycean allusiveness, Pynchon-like erudition: the novel has acquired a formidable set of power- tools over the past two centuries. David Mitchell has had to deploy most of them to marshal the great spread of stories which he tells in his debut, Ghostwritten.

Ten seemingly discrete sections chart a mock-imperial westward progress. The Sarin nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway leads to a love-affair between two semi-Japanese juvenile jazz-buffs, thence to a tea-shack in revolutionary China. From there we are whisked into a rogue soul's spiritual progress through Mongolia. Art fraud and gangsterism in St Petersburg follow, then philandering, gambling, and bad indie rock in London.

The flight of a quantum physicist from her Zurich laboratory to an island off the coast of Ireland (via Ulan Bator, naturally) seems to result in the creation of a free-floating artificial intelligence who dials into a New York talk radio show celebrating the possible end of the world. The very last section is too ambiguous to call.

Scope, then, is not David Mitchell's problem. But how to organise the material in these apparently disparate stories? Chronologically, the story begins with a massacre of counter-revolutionary Mongolian monks in 1937. The scene can be found on page 199, with the first conscious stirrings of a disembodied being who transmigrates between human hosts by touch. Of course, by page 199 much of this being's future is already behind it, for Mitchell's narrative typically cuts across chronological time. The imperatives of his stories take precedence over those of calendar and clock.

While each section can be read independently, all relate - one way or another - to all the remainder. A desperate telephone call made in Okinawa rings as a haiku-like wrong number in Tokyo. A crooked banker's vision of God turns out, four sections and 159 pages later, to be his death from undiagnosed diabetes, which will cause the gangland execution of a minor cog in a plot to steal a Delacroix painting two sections later again, and thus a momentary sadness and valediction in a third section.

The intricacy and extent of these links furnish a kind of omni-directional underlay for Mitchell's more conventional stories. As a result, readers must read doubly. One eye tracks fleeting significances (the multiple reappearances of a Queen Anne chair, a Borges cameo, the comic reincarnation of the "Petersburg" section as a trashy true-crime book), while the other attends to the larger patterning of narratives. For Ghostwritten's readers, God is assuredly in the details.

And God, famously, is a storyteller too. The spirit at the centre of "Mongolia" (the theological and narrative heart of the book) is in search of "the three who think about the world". The fleeing physicist has formulated something called quantum cognition, which mutates into an artificial intelligence standing (malevolent?) guard over the world. The book is peppered with stories of creation and disappearance, but its most urgent quests are for the standpoints from which the world's stories can be told.

Mitchell shuttles ceaselessly between overviews and ground-level action. At various points, Ghostwritten could be called a post-Cold War thriller, a love story (or several), a cult expose, a radio-show transcript, an island romance, a compendium of creation-myths, and - unsurprisingly - a ghost story. Mitchell juggles these genres with great aplomb, and without losing the uneasy sense that none of them is quite comprehensive enough.

Similarly, many of Ghostwritten's characters are in transit, or full flight, or troubled by a deficient sense of belonging. The novel's geographical promiscuity comes to seem less of a narrative decision than an underlying condition. Mitchell, an Englishman living in Hiroshima, seems equally at home on anyone's turf.

But all turfs are not equal, let alone the same. Mitchell's greatest strength is in marshalling his material without homogenising it. There is an archaeological and preservative character to what he does. Because Ghostwritten moves relentlessly westward, it must at last re-arrive at where it began. "Who was blowing on the nape of my neck?" asks the novel's very first sentence. The image completes itself 436 pages later: the character turns, and discovers that it was only the back-draught of a metro train on which he has just planted a Sarin bomb; or perhaps a ghost from among those soon to become his victims. Every one of these intervening pages deserves and demands to be read and re-read. Ghostwritten is an astonishing debut.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
Arts and Entertainment

Grace Dent on TV

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
    Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

    Diana Krall interview

    The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
    Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

    Pinstriped for action

    A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

    Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

    'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

    Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

    Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
    Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us