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.