David Mitchell’s debut novel, published in 1999. I borrowed a first edition hardcover from the library.
3 out of 5 stars.
The Plot: Remember Cloud Atlas? Ghostwritten gives us nine linked stories named after their setting (Okinawa, Tokyo, Hong Kong, etc.). Each story (except the wraparound) is told in one part, then the ball is passed to the next narrator. At the end, we see the world-changing events that have been orchestrated, sometimes in the background, of the narrative threads.
Mitchell’s technical skills as a writer are already in place in his debut. This is a highly ambitious book and I respect what it’s attempting to do. But Ghostwritten fails to do so many things Cloud Atlas did right:
-The stories in CA are told in different styles (letters, third person, memoir, interview, etc.) while eight stories in Ghostwritten are first-person tales told in a similarly structured (and often confusing) way.
-Sections in CA are split into propulsive forty-ish page chunks, dividing each story into a compelling cliffhanger and satisfying conclusion. Ghostwritten gives us full stories of fifty-ish pages. Ten page-differences don’t sound like much but every story in Ghostwritten dragged. I couldn’t finish any in one sitting.
-The stories in Ghostwritten do not stand alone as satisfying short pieces. The characters rarely spark to life. Unlike CA, I didn’t care what happened to anyone in Ghostwritten and most of the stories had no on-screen resolution.
Cult member Quasar (real name Keisuke Tanaka) is in hiding after committing a terrorist attack on a Toyko subway.
“Ah, yes, Mr. Kobayashi…” So what if she didn’t believe me?
Q: Why wouldn’t a hotel receptionist believe Quasar’s name was Kobayashi? Is it like saying your name is “Smith” in America?
A: Possibly. Kobayashi is the 9th most common Japanese surname. The name is from Japanese ko meaning “small” and hayashi meaning “forest.”
I took one look at them, with their cameras and potato-chip packets and their stupid Kansai expressions.
The Kansai region of the Kinki region lies in the southern-central of Japan’s main island Honshu.
I walked through backstreets, where housewives put out futons to air, living the same year sixty times.
I have always preferred maps to books. They don’t answer you back. Never throw a map away.
The islands beckoned, imperial emeralds in a sky-blue sea. I chose one labeled Kumejimi.
Kumejimi is a town located in Shimajiri District, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan. The town consists of several islands, only two of which (Kumejimi and Ojima) are populated.
The palms of my hands were prickling and sweaty. A seagull strutted along the window ledge and peered in. It had a cruel face.
“Tokunaga… lovely name. It has a regal air.”
Tokunaga means “virtue eternal” in Japanese.
 We will see events and references echoed between characters, emphasizing the link between us all, no matter our backgrounds and locations. Mitchell also weaves more concrete connections between the stories: a bit player in one story becomes a lead in another (Post 2, note  and ); a phone call in one story is received in another as a wrong number (note ).
Here, Quasar has a dream that is shared by Margarita Latunsky in “Petersburg”:
I went to bed and sank into a sleep that was almost bottomless.
The bottom was in a tunnel. A deserted metro tunnel, with rails and service pipes. My job was to patrol it, and guard it from the evil that lived down there. A superior officer walked up to me. (…)
Suddenly, I realize that I have walked into a trap! The evil is my superior officer, ploughing me with questions so it can consume me. My last defense is not to let it know that I have caught on. I am still floundering when a new character walks down the tunnel toward us. She is carrying a viola case and some flowers, and I’ve seen her before somewhere. Someone from my uncleansed days. The evil that is in the guise of my superior officer turns to her and starts the same ruse. “Haven’t you heard about the evil? Who authorized your presence here? Give me your name, address, occupation – immediately!”
I want to save her. Lacking a plan, I grab her arm and we run, faster than air currents.
“Why are we running?”
A foreign woman on a hill, watching a wooden pole sinking into the ground.
“I’m sorry! I didn’t have time to explain! That officer wasn’t a real officer. It was a disguise. It was the evil that lives in these tunnels!”
“You must be mistaken!”
“Yeah? And how would you know?”
As we run, our fingers lock together, I look at her face for the first time. Sidelong, she is smiling, waiting for me to get this most grisly of jokes. I am looking into the real face of evil.
My dream’s just come back to me.
I was hiding in a tunnel. There was something evil down there, somewhere. Two people ran past, both slitty-eyed, a man and a woman. The man wanted to save the woman from the evil. He had grabbed her arm and they were running, faster than gas in air currents. I followed them, because the man seemed to know the way out, but then I lost track. I found myself on a bare hill with a sky smeared with oil paint and comets and chimes. I realized I was looking at the foot of the cross. There were the dice that the Romans had been using to divide Jesus’ clothes. As I looked, the cross started sinking. There was the nail, hammered clean through Jesus’ feet. His thighs, creamy and bloodless as alabaster. The loincloth, the wound in His side, the arms outstretched and the hands hammered in, and there staring straight back at me was the grinning face of the devil, and in that moment I knew that Christianity had been one horrible, sick, two-thousand-year-old joke.
These connections are interesting but lack emotional or narrative payoff. I can feel clever for finding them; Mitchell can feel clever for planting them; but in the end its gimmick without substance.
Cars rusted away in lay-bys.
noun – an area at the side of a road where vehicles may pull off the road and stop.
The thin woman examined the dragon curled around her cup. “They did not specifically choose to become killers. They had chosen to abdicate their inner selves.” I didn’t like her. Her voice seemed to come not from her, but from a nearby room.
“Some crave the camaraderie of the persecuted.”
A sea coconut, shaped like a woman’s loins.
Lodoicea, commonly known as the sea coconut, coco de mer, or double coconut is a monotypic genus in the palm family. They are shaped differently from the typically seen circular coconut.
 One of the (regrettably) few comedic touches:
“Eat eggs, my faithful one.”
“Eggs, my Lord?”
“Eggs are a symbol of rebirth, Quasar. And eat Orange Rocket ice lollies.”
“What do they symbolize, Guru?”
“Nothing. They contain vitamin C in abundance.”
Ghostwritten could have done with more touches of humor or absurd surrealism. To keep going back to Cloud Atlas, Mitchell must have seen this as well because CA successfully combines dark themes and intensity with moments of levity.
My only reply was a barking dog, and a puzzled look from the two lovers, jumping up suddenly from behind a stack of rusty oil drums. The three of us looked at each other in confusion. The dog cocked its leg and pissed against a tractor tire. The ocean boomed its indifference.
Where do people who drop off the edge of your world end up?
And then, so strangely, I’m relieved it’s all over. At least I can stop running.
Echoed directly by Mo Muntervary in “Clear Island”:
And then, so strangely, I’m relieved it’s all over. At least I can stop running.
Young Satoru works in a jazz shop in Tokyo. He falls in love with a passing customer and dreams of her, never expecting to see her again.
In a book filled with mostly unlikable or uninteresting narrators, Satoru is a joy.
A couple of inquiries from a regular customer in Nagano about rare discs that I’d never heard of. Bumf.
noun – British, informal – useless or tedious printed information or documents.
“Stormy Sunday” by Kenny Burrell and “Flight to Denmark” by Duke Jordan.
Kenny Burrell (b.1931) is an American jazz guitarist known for his collaborations with Jimmy Smith. He serves as a professor and Director of Jazz Studies at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music. He released the album Stormy Monday in 1978, with a song titled “Stormy Monday Blues.” I can’t find any “Stormy Sunday” connected to him.
Duke Jordan (1922 – 2006) was an American jazz pianist. His Flight to Denmark was indeed recorded in 1973 and released on a Danish label.
“I met this gorgeous creature of the night last Friday at a club in Roppongi.”
A district of Minato, Tokyo, famous as home to the rich Roppongi Hills area and an active night club scene. Many foreign embassies are located in Roppongi, and the night life is popular with locals and foreigners alike.
 Satoru’s employer Takeshi tells him:
“Only shag women who have more to lose than you do.”
Later, in “Night Train,” Bat echoes the sentiment:
“Never have affairs with women who have less to lose than you do.”
“Woke up Saturday afternoon, with my clothes on back-to-front, in a hotel somewhere in Chiyoda ward (…) We’re having dinner tonight at a French restaurant in Ichigaya.” (…)
“She’s engaged you say?”
“Yeah. To a Fujitsu photocopier ink cartridge reseach-and-development division salaryman.”
Chiyoda is a special ward located in central Tokyo. In English, it is called Chiyoda City. Chiyoda consists of the Imperial Palace and has a population of 54,462, making it by far the least populated of the special wards. “Chiyoda” means “field of a thousand generations.” (The special wards are 23 municipalities that together make up the core and the most populous part of Tokyo. The closest English equivalents for the special wards would be the London boroughs.)
Ichigaya is an area in the eastern portion of Shinjuku, Tokyo. It is the home of several university and the Ministry of Defense headquarters.
Fujitsu is a Japanese multinational information technology equipment and services company headquartered in Tokyo. In 2015, it was the world’s fourth-largest IT services provider.
Static hisses on telephone lines. Jimmy Cobb’s percussion on “Blue in Green.”
Jimmy Cobb (b.1929) is an American jazz drummer. Cobb famously performed on Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue (1959) and is the last surviving player from the session (“Blue in Green” is a track on Kind of Blue). He appeared on many other Davis albums and has worked with a wide range of artists (including Cannonball Adderly, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, etc).
There are many other places. There’s an invisible Tokyo built of them, existing in the minds of us, its citizens. Internet, manga, Hollywood, doomsday cults, they are all places where you go and where you matter as an individual. Some people will tell you about their places straight off, and won’t shut up about it all night. Others keep it hidden like a garden in a mountain forest.
People with no place are those who end up throwing themselves onto the tracks.
I went outside for a moment, to feel the room on my skin. It was like being breathed on.
The van beeped again like an irritated muppet.
Maybe it was that we had left those days and nights for the starry-eyed beepy muppets born seven or eight years after us. Those kids in the coffee bar last night. They were who love was for.
It was a Mal Waldron time of day (…) Every note of “Left Alone” fell, drops of lead into a deep well. Jackie McLean’s saxophone circled in the air, so sad it could barely leave the ground.
Mal Waldron (1925 – 2002) was an American jazz pianist, composer, and arranger. His album Left Alone was recorded in 1959 and “Left Alone” is his signature song.
Jackie McLean (1931 – 2006) was an American jazz alto saxophonist, composer, bandleader, and educator. He played on the title track of Left Alone and also on Waldron’s album Left Alone ’86.
If you know Duke Pearson’s “After the Rain,” well, she was as beautiful and pure as that.
Duke Pearson (1932 – 1980) was an American jazz pianist and composer. The song “After the Rain” was on Pearson’s album Sweet Honey Bee, released in 1967.
“Coming up is ‘After the Rain’ by Duke Jordan.”
Rich Shibuya girls are truffle-fed pooches.
Shibuya is a special ward in Tokyo, Japan. The name “Shibuya” is also used to refer to the shopping district which surrounds Shibuya Station, one of Tokyo’s busiest railway stations. The area is known as one of the fashion centers of Japan, particularly for young people, and as a major nightlife area.
Pigeons ruffled and prilled. I wish I knew more about pigeons. Were they strutting around like that for mating purposes, or just because they were strutty birds?
One of them asked why Japanese kids try to ape American kids. The clothes, the rap music, the skateboards, the hair. I wanted to say that it’s not America they’re aping, it’s the Japan of their parents that they’re rejecting. And since there’s no homegrown counterculture, they just take hold of the nearest one to hand, which happens to be American. But it’s not American culture exploiting us. It’s us exploiting it.
Taro, Mama-san’s bouncer, always told me it’s better to fight and lose than not fight and suffer, because even if you fight and lose your spirit emerges intact. Taro taught me that people respect spirit, but even cowards don’t respect cowards.
The shop is smack bang between the business district of Otemachi and the publishing district around Ochanomizu.
Otemachi is a district of Chiyoda, Tokyo. Otemachi is known as a center of Japanese journalism, housing the main offices of three of the “big five” newspapers as well as being a key financial center and the headquarters for large Japanese corporations.
Ochanomizu is a neighborhood in Tokyo. Ochanomizu is famous for its many musical instrument stores, as well as ski and snowboard shops located a short walk from the station; it is a popular district for bargain-conscious musicians and sportsmen.
This lunchtime Mr. Fujimoto was looking for something Lee Morgan-ish. I recommended Hank Mobley’s “A Caddy for Daddy,” which he promptly bought.
Lee Morgan (1938 – 1972) was an American hard bop trumpeter.
Henry “Hank” Mobley (1930 – 1986) was an American hard bop and soul jazz tenor saxophonist and composer. His album A Caddy for Daddy was recorded in 1965 and released in 1967.
I ran my fingers through my hair and contemplated my face, using a Fats Navarro CD as a hand mirror.
Fats Navarro (1923 – 1950) was an American jazz trumpet player. He was a pioneer of the bebop style of jazz improvisation in the 1940s.
“Where does this myth come from?”
“The one that plagues all men. The one that says a life without darkness and sex and mystery is only half a life.”
I don’t know. But Nicolas Urfe (and so many others) live under this myth (The Magus, Post 3, note ).
“We’re going to see the blossoms in Ueno Park.”
Ueno Park is a spacious public park in the Ueno district of Taio, Tokyo. The part was established in 1873 on lands formerly belonging to the temple of Kan’e-ji. It is Japan’s most popular city park.
 Saturo receives the call that Quasar placed in “Okinawa,” showing us that domino-like effects can occur from random events:
I’ve thought about it many times since: if that phone hadn’t rung at that moment, and if I hadn’t taken the decision to go back and answer it, then everything that happened afterwards wouldn’t have happened.
An unknown voice. Soft, worried. “It’s Quasar. The dog needs to be fed!”
The her that lived in her looked out through her eyes, through my eyes, and at the me that lives in me.
“And when Kowloon gets too much you can escape to the islands. On Lantau Island there’s a big Buddha sitting on a hill…”
Kowloon is an urban area in Hong Kong comprising the Kowloon Peninsula and New Kowloon. It has a population of over 2 million.
Lantau Island is the largest island in Hong Kong, located at the mouth of the Pearl River. The population is around 100,000.
Kowloon and the Buddha on the hill are brought up several times by different characters.
For a moment I had an odd sensation of being in a story that someone was writing, but soon that sensation too was being swallowed up.
I remember her telling me about the ancient Jomon people who buried their kings in mounds, on the Tokyo plain.
The Jomon period is the time in Prehistoric Japan from about 12,000 BC and in some cases cited as early as 14,500 BC to about 300 BC, when Japan was inhabited by a hunter-gatherer culture which reached a considerable degree of sedentism and cultural complexity.
“The last of the cherry blossoms. On the tree, it turns ever more perfect. And when it’s perfect, it falls. And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up. So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air, this way and that, for the briefest time.”
I thought of butterfly knives, and a time once three or four years ago when I was walking out of McDonalds and a businessman slammed down on the pavement from a ninth floor window of the same building. He lay three meters away from where I stood. His mouth was gaping open in astonishment. A dark stain was trickling from it, over the pavement between the bits of broken teeth and glasses.
He ended up buying an old Johnny Hartman disc with a beautiful version of “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart.”
John Maurice Hartman (1923 – 1983) was an American jazz singer who specialized in ballads.
“I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart” is a 1938 composition by Duke Ellington, with lyrics added by Irving Mills, Henry Nemo and John Redman. The song became a number one hit for Ellington in 1938 and it became something of a standard.