Ghostwritten , by David Mitchell. Random House, 426 pages, $24.95.
Rereading a novel that gets better the second time is a rare pleasure topped with the promise of more pleasure to come. With reprise reading, you’re looking for confirmation, not discovery: the satisfaction of recognizing that intricate workmanship is actually functional–once again the key turns in the lock–and also a wash of happiness, relief, wonder, gratitude as you step over the threshold and admire a view that spreads wider every time you look.
Of course, it’s easy to read David Mitchell’s amazing first novel just once and come away zapped by the encounter. Ghostwritten is a book of fleeting encounters. In 10 chapters, each of which could almost stand alone as a short story, we get 10 first-person narratives; the various narrators cross paths, then disappear, or sometimes re-emerge in a new setting. Each connection seems casual, coincidental. Taken together, these chance meetings are the fragile building blocks of a daring architecture, or links in a fabulously ductile chain of human (and non-human) interaction, a chain that stretches from the Tokyo subway on the day of the sarin gas attack to the 28th floor of an East Village high rise on a night in the near future, less than two weeks before the likely extinction of mankind.
He begins with the voice of a mass murderer and an event plucked from the headlines: Quasar, a devoted follower of “His Serendipity,” releases nerve gas in the Tokyo subway. Quasar’s mind is poisoned with hate and the mumbo-jumbo of his cult’s crazy doctrines, so it’s a relief when we switch, in the second chapter, to the voice of Satoru, a teenage jazz fan, half-Japanese, half-Filipino, who falls in love with a girl so quickly it seems to come before the proverbial first sight: “The door opened, and I smelled air rainwashed clean.”
Later on there’s money laundering in Hong Kong, art theft in St. Petersburg, a ramble in London, a homecoming to a tiny island off the coast of Ireland and, at last, the New York City episode, which features the hip, despairing patter of “poet DJ” Bat Segundo on “Night Train FM, 97.8.”
Mr. Mitchell circles the globe in 400 pages; he shows us where we are and where we’re headed, all with a spy satellite’s eerie precision and a moralist’s earned authority. And it’s a good thing, too–if his writing were less than completely convincing, his jet-lagged reader would rebel.
Perhaps the most daring chapter takes place in Mongolia. It’s narrated by an entity without physical dimension–a kind of parasite ghost–who passes from one human to another, “transmigrating” from mind to mind at will, needing only the briefest bodily touch to make the switch between hosts. This being calls itself a ” noncorpum “; it lurks in the mind, usually silent and passive, though sometimes exerting its will and even occasionally making its presence known: “[I]f I came across a mystic, lunatic, or writer I would sometimes talk with him.” The noncorpum possesses only one memory distinct from its hosts’ memories, an enigmatic Mongolian folk tale; it has traveled the world over looking for clues to its own origin and hunting, unsuccessfully, for signs of other noncorpa .
This may sound loopy in digest form, but Mr. Mitchell pulls it off brilliantly. The noncorpum burrows into the human mind in the same way a writer does, registering physical sensation (“He had dried tears in his eyes and his mouth tasted of watch straps”) and charting the ebb and flow of thought and feeling. It may require a special talent to invent a credible noncorpum, but ordinary imagination is all you need to follow its adventures, believe in it and–yes–care for it.
There’s another non-human entity in Ghostwritten , an artificial intelligence that calls itself “the zookeeper” and communicates with the world only by calling in, at yearly intervals, to Bat Segundo’s New York radio show. Bat, who jokes that wacky callers will “turn Night Train FM into Radio Schizoid,” can only conceive of the zookeeper as a tremendously resourceful hacker; in fact, “Zooey” is more like HAL in 2001 , an intelligence in charge of a machine–or, in this case, in charge of all machines. A digital God for our digital age, it must figure out on its own how to cope with man’s inhumanity to man.
The zookeeper peers down on our planet from the vantage point of orbiting satellites and tells Bat Segundo what he sees. Some of these passages are hypnotically beautiful, others wizardly, like this bit, courtesy of a “decommissioned Israeli spy satellite … EyeSat 80B^K,” which the zookeeper uses to scope out the Amazon basin: “This world of trees is still dark, to human eyes. Nocturnal eyes and EyeSats can see deeper down the spectrum. There are no names for the colors here. On the roof of the forest canopy, a spider monkey looks up for a moment. I can see the Milky Way and Andromeda in its retina. By image enhancement I can identify EyeSat 80B^K, lit by a morning that hasn’t arrived yet. The monkey blinks, shrieks, and flings itself into the lower darkness.”
The last chapter of Ghostwritten returns to the Tokyo subway and the real-life sci-fi nightmare of doomsday cults and sarin gas, a scenario that makes Mr. Mitchell’s bold inventions seem mild by comparison. How do Quasar and the love-struck teenager and the noncorpum and the zookeeper fit together? Why are they in the same novel? Each of the novel’s chapters prompts a meditation on the forces, many of them invisible, some of them crushingly obvious, that script our lives. A thematic unity is apparent–though just barely–on first reading. Ghostwritten is a marvelous puzzle. It takes time to fit together the disparate pieces, but patience in this case pays off handsomely. Once assembled, the story hums with significance.
Displaying his talent for “profundity on the hoof,” a character in London trots out this easy aphorism: “The act of memory is an act of ghostwriting.” Elsewhere, another character arrives at a more nuanced expression of the same idea: “Memories are their own descendants masquerading as the ancestors of the present.” (A neat post-Freudian credo, that.) Memory is only one of many kinds of ghostwriting in Mr. Mitchell’s novel; chance and ignorance and blind desire and blind hatred do their bit, too.
David Mitchell is a 31-year-old Englishman who lives in Hiroshima. When Ghostwritten was published as a paperback original in Great Britain last year, it earned some excellent reviews, sold something like 13,000 copies, then sank out of sight. Maybe it will do better in America, where we revere literary daring (take a bow, Don DeLillo) and shower with money novelists who show serious scope (that’s you, David Foster Wallace). Maybe a book that wants to be read twice needs to be published a second time before it sticks.
Adam Begley is the books editor of The Observer.