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GHOSTWRITTEN by David Mitchell


by David Mitchell

Pub Date: Sept. 11th, 2000
ISBN: 0-679-46304-6
Publisher: Random House

An inordinately ambitious first novel, the work of a Westerner living in Japan, traces a chain of events that affect lives on several continents, explored in stories “ghostwritten” by other (in some cases, literally alien) intelligences than those of the people who experience them.

The narrative begins and ends (in “Okinawa,” then “Underground”) in the mind of a member of a millennial cult that commits mass murder by releasing poison gas into the Tokyo subway system. An errant phone call links him with a Korean-born music-store clerk working in “Tokyo” who’s smitten with a beautiful student, and follows her to “Hong Kong.” There, the couple are glancingly observed by a British finance lawyer who’s cast off by his resentful (childless) wife, sexually dominated by their Chinese maid, drawn into money-laundering for a Russian criminal conspiracy, and haunted by the unthreatening ghost of a young Oriental girl. Similarly accidental connections lead gradually from East to West, focusing on a series of art thefts that occur in “Petersburg,” a rootless jazz drummer’s sexual and artistic progress (as a ghostwriter of celebrity autobiographies) through London’s musical and political worlds, and a woman scientist’s painful exile from her past as part of a surveillance team performing secretive services—on an island off the coast of Ireland—for the US Department of Defense. This is a fairly extreme example of the contemporary “systems novel” (as practiced by Pynchon, DeLillo, McElroy, et al.) obsessed with the interrelationship—not to mention intricacy and opacity—of postindustrial culture’s supersophisticated technologies. The impression of a world systematically endangering itself lies heavily on every page. Hollander’s bleak black-comic dramatizations of the depersonalizing effects of a global village worshipping such strange new gods doesn’t entirely escape redundancy and obscurity, but the most interesting chapters, especially those depicting a Chinese woman victimized by Mao’s Cultural Revolution and a Mongolian spirit vainly seeking a stable “host” body, rise to impressive levels of both ingenuity and poignancy.

A richly layered, difficult text that may well be worth the several readings it probably requires.