Thursday, 1 September 2011

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

Mitchell’s 1999 debut is an episodic musing on the nature of ghosts, a complicated inter-linked set of nine short stories, (starting in Japan just after the nerve-gas attacks on the Tokyo subway and wending their way through revolutionary China, post communist Mongolia, to a future war and artificial intelligence), and an exploration of the concept of free will and choice. The germ of Mitchell’s hugely successful Cloud Atlas appears in Ghostwritten with many of that later novel’s themes and motifs (including a reference to a birthmark shaped like a comet) appearing here first.

By chapter seven, the book finds itself in London, where musician and ghostwriter Marco wakes up in a bed that doesn’t belong to his on-off girlfriend and mother of his child:

My smirking hangover gave me a few moments to make my last requests, and to take in the fact that whoever’s bed this was it wasn’t Poppy’s. Whash! Then it laid into me, armed with a road-surface shatterer. I must have groaned pretty loudly, because the woman next to me rolled over and opened her eyes.

Connections, connections: the lady he has woken up with is the widow of a corrupt Hong Kong trader who died in chapter three, and Marco is about to save the life of a brilliant physicist who is fleeing to an island off the coast of County Cork in chapter eight... He’s blissfully unaware of this, of course, and is trying to piece together what happened to him the night before:

I’d been at the private view on Curzon Street. Oil paintings by some artist friend of Rohan’s, Mudgeon or Pigeon or Smudgeon or something. This redhead had come up to me then, and we’d done the old quantum physics equals eastern religion bollocks. Then – a taxi – a wine bar on Shaftesbury Avenue – then another taxi – that would be most of my money gone – and then another wine bar on Upper Street. Then to here, though how was anyone’s guess. What was her name... A little nest of tissues and condoms down my side of the bed, and a bottle of red wine with almost nothing in it, but 1982 on the label. Why do the best things happen when I’m too pissed to remember them?

Shown the door by his one-night-stand, Marco makes tracks to the subject matter of his book, an old spy who was part of a ring of double agents after the war. Hanging around long enough to hear a ghost story, he’s given the bum’s rush again when his host hears that a friend has died in St Petersburg. (We the reader have been aware of the man’s demise for at least twenty pages now...) Oh well, off to the literary agent, the well-to-do Tim Cavendish:

Glance at Tim’s desk and you’ll see everything you need to know. The desk itself was owned by Charles Dickens. Well, that’s what Tim says and I have no reason to disbelieve him. Terminally overpopulated by piles of files and manuscripts, a glass of Glenfiddich that you could mistake for a goldfish bowl of Glenfiddich, three pairs of glasses, a word processor I’ve never seen him use, an overflowing ashtray and a copy of A-Z Guide to Nineveh and Ur and The Racing Post.

He entertains Marco long enough to ladle him out a snort of whisky and explain that the act of memory is an act of ghostwriting before the phone rings with news that Cavendish’s brother has found himself financially embarrassed in Hong Kong and the proposed book is almost certainly off...

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