“Ghostwritten” (Post 4/4)


[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1/4

Post 2/4

Post 3/4

Clear Island

The Plot:

Mo Muntervary is a physicist on the run from the American government. She returns to her home, knowing she will be found but wanting a final visit with her husband and son.

“Clear Island” is the most bloated story in Ghostwritten. Mo’s confusing jumping-around-in-time narrative doesn’t pay off (other than giving us hollow Easter eggs for earlier stories). It’s especially frustrating because of its similarities to Quasar’s story in “Okinawa”: Someone hiding on an island, waiting to be caught by authorities. We immediately know how it’s going to end. The plot doesn’t justify the fifty pages it takes to get from A to Z.

And while Mo isn’t unlikable, she’s not very interesting, either.

[182] References:

St. Fachtna cleared the crosscurrents between Illaunbrock shoal and Clarrigmore rock, rounded the west cape of Sherkin Island, and my black book and I, after a trip of twelve thousand miles, could see the end. Clear Island moved into view, my face felt crusty as the seawater dried, and here was home.

The lonely arm of Ardatruha pointing out to the Atlantic.



Illaunbrock Townland is an island in County Cork, Ireland.

Clarrigmore may be an invention of Mitchell’s.

Sherkin Island lies southwest of County Cork in Ireland alongside other islands of Roaringwater Bay. It has a population around 100.

Cape Clear Island lies south-west of County Cork in Ireland. It has a population of over 100. It’s nearest neighbor is Sherkin Island, 1 mile east. It is reputably the birthplace of Saint Ciaran of Saigir (Ciaran the Elder) (Post 3, note [132]).

[183] Translation:

Alain spilled some wine. “Putain!



French: whore

[184] Reference:

“Heavenly weather for the Fastnet Races.”



The Fastnet Race is a famous biennial offshore yacht race organized by the Royal Ocean Racing Club of the United Kingdom.


The double-crossed, might-have-been history of my country is not the study of what actually took place here: it’s the study of historians’ studies. Historians have their axes to grind, just as physicists do.



He spoke with the leisure of a never-interrupted man.


[187] Reference:

“Father Wally’s organizing a lock-in.”



A lock-in is when a pub owner lets drinkers stay in the pub after the legal closing time, on the theory that once the doors are locked, it becomes a private party rather than a pub.


Technology is repeatable miracles.


[189] Vocabulary:

Strewth… there was I… I’m sorry.”



An expression of surprise or dismay. Originated as an alteration of “God’s truth.”


“Have you noticed,” said John, “how countries call theirs ‘sovereign nuclear deterrents,’ but call other countries’ ones ‘weapons of mass destruction’?”

“Yes,” I said.


[191] Reference:

“One time he said King Cuchulainn had given Bonnie Prince Charlie all his gold to look after before he went mad and turned into a newt.”



Cu Chulainn is an Irish mythological hero who appears in the stories of the Ulster Cycle, as well as in Scottish and Manx folklore. He is believed to be an incarnation of the god Lugh, who is also his father.

[192] Reference:

Wigner maintains that human consciousness collapses one lucky universe into being from all the possible ones.



Eugene Wigner (1902 – 1995) was a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist and mathematician. He received half of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1963 for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery and application of fundamental symmetry principles.

[193] Reference:

“He’s a hell-bound atheist and slippery as an eel when it comes to the Russian Bishop’s Switchblade, but he’s got the patience of Job.”


The phrase “Russian Bishop’s Switchblade” is only found in Ghostwritten. I don’t know what Mitchell means by using it.


“Folks with most to complain about seldom complain most.”


[195] Vocabulary:

“Mo, I’m not asking you to discuss any of that secret hoipolloy.”



Hoi polloi is an expression from Greek that means the many or, in the strictest sense, the majority. In English, it has been corrupted by giving it a negative connotation to signify depreciation of the working class, commoners, the masses or common people in a derogatory or, more often today, ironic sense.

From the context in this case, it seems like it’s being used to mean “nonsense.”

[196] Vocabulary:

“Mind how you go. Red! Frape it!”


This word has come to mean abusing someone’s Facebook profile when they leave it logged in (“Facebook rape”). It’s a stupid and offensive term. My brain is stupider for knowing it.

I can’t find the meaning that Mitchell was going for here. From context it seems like “Frape it” means “Step on it!”

[197] Reference:

Mo thinks of the first part of William Butler Yeats poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” (Post 3, note [164])

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.



“Are you going to die now?”

“Aye, Mo,” said my da,” and I can tell you, poppet, it’s an intriguing experience.”


[199] Reference:

Trebevij’s constant broke the log jam.


I can’t find a historical Trebevij or any reference to “Trebevij’s constant” outside of Ghostwritten.

[200] Vocabulary:

Where Homo erectus went the same fossilized way as australopithecines.



Australopithecines are the extinct, close relatives of humans and, with the extant genus Homo, comprise the human clade.

Night Train

The Plot:

Bat Segundo runs a late-night radio show in New York City. He begins receiving calls from “Zookeeper,” an individual who claims to have control over the fate of humanity.

This is the only story that breaks the established first-person pattern of Ghostwritten; it is told entirely through dialogue.

[201] Reference (and an appearance of Satoru from “Tokyo”):

“Tenor saxophonist Satoru Sonada who, regular listeners will recall, guested on this very show two weeks ago, performing ‘Sakura, Sakura.’ ”



Sakura Sakura” is a traditional Japanese folk song depicting spring, the season of cherry blossoms.

[202] Another main character from Cloud Atlas shows up:

“Good evening, Mr. Bat. My name’s Luisa Rey, and I’m just calling-”

“Heyheyhey, one moment: Luisa Rey? Luisa Rey the writer?”


Ghostwritten begins with a quote from the book The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Is Luisa Rey’s name a reference to that work?

The Bridge of San Luis Rey is American author Thornton Wilder’s (1897 – 1975) second novel, published in 1927. It tells the story of several interrelated people who die in the collapse of an Inca rope bridge in Peru, and the events that lead up to their being on the bridge. A friar who has witnessed the accident then goes about inquiring into the lives of the victims, seeking some sort of cosmic answer to the question of why each had to die.

I’ll be damned. Wilder’s book sounds very much like a Mitchell novel. I would not be at all surprised if Mitchell is a fan and if Luisa Rey’s name is indeed a nod to Thornton’s book.

It is also suggested that Luisa Rey dies during the events in “Night Train”:

“That was Led Zeppelin’s ‘Going to California,’ dedicated to the memory of Luisa Rey.”


Though Ghostwritten shares a strip of the same timeline with Cloud Atlas, the two stories diverge at this point. In Ghostwritten, a humanity-destroying comet is on an imminent path to the Earth. This event is not referenced in Cloud Atlas.


“Lunatics are writers whose work writes them, Bat.”

“Not all lunatics are writers, Mrs. Rey – believe me.”

“But most writers are lunatics, Bat – believe me. The human world is made of stories, not people. The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed.”



“It’s a dilemma. If you knew what to do, it wouldn’t be a dilemma. You chose one of the options, make your bed and lie in it.”


[205] Reference:

A stone transforms into a pelico lizard when a desert vole strays too near, munches and swallows, and turns into a stone again.


I can’t find any “pelico lizard” or any meaning for “pelico” (other than Urban Dictionary defining it as freebase cocaine).

[206] The “Zookeeper” is the technology Mo was working on in “Clear Island”; a sentient weapon. Different people hear different things in the voice of “Zookeeper”:

“He just said he was a Zookeeper, Mr. Segundo.” (…)

“Was it scripted, do you think, or was she making it up as she went along?” (…)

“What do you mean, ‘she’?”



“Well, she’s consistent.”

“She? He.”

“One of those voices that could be both. But ‘she,’ I’d have said.”

“ ‘He,’ I’d have said. What do you think, Kevin?”

“M-me, Mr. Segundo?”

“Uh-huh. No other Kevins here. Is the Zookeeper a he or a she?”

“I’d somehow go for, er, neither, Mr. Segundo.”

“Then what would you go for?”

“Er… both?”


[207] References:

“Coming up in the next half-hour we have a gem from a rare Milton Nascimento disc, Anima.”



Milton Nascimento (b.1942) is a prominent Brazilian singer-songwriter and guitarist. He released Anima in 1982.

[208] Reference:

“Thirteen kilometers above Spitsbergen.”



Spitsbergen is the largest and only permanently populated island of the Svalbard archipelago in northern Norway.


“Tell people that reality is exactly what it appears to be, they’ll nail you to a lump of wood. But tell ‘em they can go spirit-walking while they commute, tell ‘em their best friend is a lump of crystal, tell ‘el the government has been negotiating with little green men for the last fifty years, then every Joe Six-Pack from Brooklyn to Peoria sits up and listens.”


[210] Reference (?):

“Them, you, me, Kevin, and Lord Rupert on the thirty-third floor.”



“You are welcome to lodge your complaints up Lord Rupert’s hole.”



Rupert, Mr. Wanamaker, and I have discussed some interesting proposals.”


A semi-sly reference to media mogul Rupert Murdoch?

[211] Continuity mistake with date (or Bat has no idea when his daughter’s birthday is). Bat tells us:

“It’s the last morning of November, and the news is that there is no news…”


…and then we get:

“The next track… I’m going to dedicate this song to my daughter, Julia, who’ll be eight next Tuesday, if there is a next Tuesday.”


This would mean Julia’s birthday is in December, but then we are told:

“Julia Puortomondo Segunda, aged seven, born November 4th.”


[212] Quasar calls into Bat’s show, believing Zookeeper is his cult leader:

“A message to His Serendipity.”


But the Zookeeper says:

“Your caller is a severe delusional, wanted by the police in his own-”



“Everybody bites. You just gotta know what bait to dangle.”


[214] Reference:

“My friends call me Arupadhatu, but you are not my friend, friend.” (…)


A Sanskrit word that means “formless space.” It is a term used mainly in Buddhism to refer to the highest sphere of existence and the one in which rebirth may take place.


“As if information itself is thought!”


[216] References:

Borrelia burgdorferi, airborne Campylobacter jejuni, and Pneumocystis carinii are pandemic.”



Borrelia burgdorferi is the predominant causative agent of Lyme disease in the United States.

Campylobacter jejuni is one of the most common causes of food poisoning in the United States.

Pneumocystis jirovecii is a yeast-like fungus. Prior to its discovery as a human-specific pathogen, it was known as Pneumocystis carinii.

[217] Reference:

“It may be tribalism; a belief that the villagers were harboring Bacillus anthracis.”



Bacillus anthracis is the etiologic agent of anthrax – a common disease of livestock and, occasionally, of humans.


“Are you not what you believe yourself to be?”

“That’s not a question you answer with a ‘No.’ ”


[219] Reference:

“Comet Aloysius is getting more dazzling by the day.”


There are many Aloysius’ but one seems significant in this context:

Saint Aloysius Gonzaga (1568 – 1591) was an Italian aristocrat who became a member of the Society of Jesus. While still a student at the Roman College, he died as a result of caring for the victims of an epidemic.


“Strange, huh? Two sources of light, everything has two shadows.”



The Plot:

A short epilogue: We are with Quasar (from “Okinawa”) again, back at the point where he leaves the chemical weapon on the subway train. But things happen differently this time and, for a minute, it seems like he may fail to escape before the gas is released.

[221] As Quasar attempts to escape, he has hallucinatory thoughts and sees things which evoke the other stories from Ghostwritten in order:


A saxophone from long ago circles in the air.


“Hong Kong”:

Buddha sits, lipped and lidded, silver on a blue hill, an island far from this tromboning din.


“Holy Mountain”:

Here is the tea, here is the bowl, here is the Tea Shack.



Grasslands rise and fall like years, years upon years of them. The Great Khan’s horsemen thunder to the west.



A glossy booklet is splayed against his uniform. The spine is warped and cracking. Petersburg, City of Masterworks.



A crayon-colored web that a computer might have doodled: The London Underground.


“Clear Island”:

On the label of Kilmagoon whisky is an island as old as the world.


“Night Train”:

I’ve fallen forwards and have headbutted the Empire State Building, circled by an albino bat, scattering words and stars through the night.


We are left unsure of what has happened, if anything has happened. Is this last section a dream of his while waiting to be caught on his island? Or was the entire book a dream of his while trying to escape the train?

Most telling of Ghostwritten‘s failure for me: I don’t care enough to dig through the book again for answers.

As a sort of postscript, here are some words that became motifs through the stories. Make of them what you will:



I cleaned myself and examined my face in the bathroom mirror. You are one such survivor, Quasar.



She pulsed invisibly like a quasar.



Some stay on the fringe, like quasars.



camphor trees


I passed an ancient camphor tree, and a field where a goat was tethered.


“Hong Kong”:

I saw Buddha’s head above the camphor trees, almost close enough to touch.


“Holy Mountain”:

Outside the school the teachers were tied to the camphor tree.



I could plant a garden on a mountainside under camphor trees.



I hear things being shunted across the floorboards. A camphor tree swims in the sun in the little park next to St. Andrew’s Cathedral.



I followed Alfred’s gaze, to the dripping camphor tree across the road from the study.


“Clear Island”:

“Camphor trees. What colors can you see?”


“Night Train”:

“The blimp swayed, the horses looked up, startled. The ebbing shock waves stroked the leaves of the camphor trees.”





The swan spreads its wings and flies up through the roof.


A story is read about a man who traps a swan in beautiful human form to be his wife (p.188-189).

“Clear Island”:

A Chinese schoolgirl on her way back to Hong Kong is asleep next to me. She is around the age when lucky young women transform into beautiful swans.


“Night Train”:

“Now this snow is big-flaked dying-swan snow.”





I remembered His Serendipity’s words that morning. “I have seen the comet, far beyond the farthest orbit of the mundane mind. The New Earth is approaching.”


“Holy Mountain”:

My Tree had been nervous for weeks, but I hadn’t known why. A comet was in the northeast, and I dreamed of hogs digging in the roof of my Tea Shack.



“It must be quiet down in hell,” I thought aloud. “All the demons have come to the Holy Mountain. Is it the comet, do you think? Could it be bathing the world in evil?”



“I am here.”

“Well, I didn’t think it was Leonid Brezhnev poking around in there,” says the grandmother. “It’s about time! I saw the comet.”



The stars are not quite there tonight. A light is moving among them. A comet, or an angel, or the last decrepit Soviet space station falling down to Earth?



Post 3, note [176]

Truth holds no truck with any of this. A comet doesn’t care if humans notice its millennial lap, and Truth doesn’t care less what humans are writing about it this week.


“Night Train”:

“I told him straight – top ten or no deal. So we got swapped out with Earthbound Comet, since nobody but a bunch of Hollywood homosexuals and Japanese sushi-for-brains with wires hanging out is backing that one.”



“You can see Comet Aloysius veering in front of Orion… quite a sight, ain’t it?”



I am on my knees, safe on the platform, looking up, looking down. The lanky foreigner offers me a hand, but I shake my head and he rejoins the mass of unclean waiting for the next train. Wait for the comet, wait for the White Nights.




“Tokyo” (and I think this character is Bat Segundo, the main character of “Night Train”):

The first customer of the week was a foreigner, either American or European or Australian, you can never tell because they all look the same. A lanky, zitty foreigner. He was a real collector, though, not just a browser. He had that manic glint in his eyes, and his fingers were adept at flicking through meters of discs at high speed, like a bank teller counting notes. He bought a virgin copy of “Stormy Sunday” by Kenny Burrell, and “Flight to Denmark” by Duke Jordan, recorded in 1973. He had a cool t-shirt, too. A bat flying around a skyscraper, leaving a trail of stars. I asked him where he was from. He said thank you very much. Westerners can’t learn Japanese.


“Mongolia” (the bat is a character in the fable of “the three who think about the fate of the world”):

Third, the bat. The bat believes that the sky may fall and shatter, and all living things die. Thus the bat dangles from a high place, fluttering up to the sky, and down to the ground, and up to the sky again, checking that all is well.”



Outside, bats dangle from the high places, fluttering up to the sky, and down to the ground, and up to the sky again, checking that all is well.



I finished my cigarette. Even the bats had gone.


“Clear Island”:

“A dead bat fell out of the sky and landed at my feet.”



John’s bat-cloak dressing gown.



I almost stepped into the black thing that was suddenly at my feet, the flies buzzing around it. “Yurgh…”

“What?” asked John. “Sheepshit?”

“No… Argh! It’s a fangy little dead bat with its face half-eaten away.”


 Ghostwritten is high-concept, made of ideas. Cleverness, form, and structure are given priority over character and plot. Mitchell relies heavily on symbolism, dreams, and hallucinations, which creates more distance between the reader and the characters. Reality is played with – the reader is often left unsure of what has actually happened or is happening, summed up best by Margarita in “Petersburg” (Post 3, note [144]):

None of this happened. None of this really happened.

If the book is a lie within a lie, then I have no reason to be invested.

I will never read Ghostwritten again. I would only recommend it to Mitchell completionists (though, please, don’t start with this one) or people who want to see how the same author can approach the same concept with near-perfection (Cloud Atlas) and with mediocrity (Ghostwritten).

Up next week: the conclusion of Stephen King’s Bill Hodges trilogy, End of Watch.


4 thoughts on ““Ghostwritten” (Post 4/4)

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