Non-Accredited Book Reviews: David Mitchell.

David Mitchell is brilliant. David Mitchell is hilarious. David Mitchell is bleak, tragic, elitist, poignant, sardonic, pandering, casual, terrifying, awestruck, detached, angry, and any other adjective you can think of applying to him or his book. He may even be a bit hungry.

It’s perhaps an unusual tactic for me to start out discussing a book by talking about the author: that’s a huge no-no in the academic world, isn’t it? In fact, I think it’s probably a more unusual tactic to start out discussing a book by reprinting the opening to my previous review of Mitchell. It’s not an unheard-of tactic, however; I actually “borrowed” the idea from Nick Hornby’s March 2004, March 2005, and March 2006 reviews in his “Stuff I’ve Been Reading” column for The Believer. You may recall I also reviewed Hornby’s collected Believer columns in my second “Non-Accredited Book Review.”

This self-referentiality is not without its point, as will become rapidly obvious. Earlier today I felt the great sense of accomplishment* that comes with finishing two books in a single day[i]: David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten (London: Sceptre, 1999), and Nick Hornby’s A Long Way Down (New York: Penguin, 2006). In the spirit of pedantic accuracy and time efficiency, then, I give you:

Non-Accredited Book Reviews: David Mitchell, Nick Hornby, and me.[ii]

To begin: the traditional* pivotal excerpt:

For the last few months I’ve been living with three women. One was a ghost, who is now a woman. One was a woman, who is now a ghost. One is a ghost and always will be. But this isn’t a ghost story: the ghost is in the background, where she has to be. If she was in the foreground, she’d be a person. (96)

There are at least seven ghosts, both literal and metaphorical, in Mitchell’s new text [iii]: a capitalising cult terrorist leader from Okinawa who can purportedly dematerialize and rematerialize at will, the ghost of a jealous young girl (and the first ghost referred to in the passage above) who haunts an English money launderer living in Hong Kong (and who may or may not be the girl who appears at the doorway to the land of death in the fourth segment of the text), a Mongolian maid who is spoken of but never speaks in two of the stories, a disembodied transmigrating soul from an ageless Mongolian tribe, the disappearing apparition of an Englishman named Alfred, an literal ghostwriter named Marco, and an artificial consciousness known as “the Zookeeper”.

Yet in spite of Mitchell’s definition of a ghost in the excerpt above, all of the characters, even the speaking ones, are ghosts; in fact, we all are ghosts, at least to the individuals who pass us in traffic each day, barely registering us as they muddle their way through their own crises. This is precisely what Mitchell’s text, divided into nine related segments, each focusing on a different character and location, but each bearing casual references to characters appearing elsewhere in the text, thematizes. The non-ghost figure of Neal in the passage above (the third segment of the text) becomes a ghost in the London segment, where Neal’s ex-wife becomes the one-night stand of our current narrator, Marco: both characters are delightfully self-absorbed, but the two narcissistic narratives reveal how insignificant the other self-absorbed I voice is.

In alluding to the casually-related geographies and narrative voices that structure the text, I am hopefully recalling the structure of the earlier-reviewed Cloud Atlas. Cloud Atlas emphasises the temporal relations between characters, moving from the mid-1800s through many centuries in the future. The first and last stories in Cloud Atlas, then, while they occur in the same geographical location, and share symbols and phrases, are actually the furthest apart narrative-wise. The main plot of Ghostwritten, contrary to Cloud Atlas, is limited to a four-year period (with most of of the narrative occurring in a single year): relationships between many of the characters are indeed casual, in that small, seemingly random acts and encounters have significant effects on the other characters, but the emphasis seems more on the causal relationships between the ghosts.

These causal relationships illuminate another difference between the texts: Cloud Atlas reads like a series of short stories complete in themselves, and while there is an übernarrative, that narrative seems to be history itself, and thus is not reduceable to the same cause-effect structure of a typical narrative. Ghostwritten does possesses a discernible übernarrative[v], it’s just that that narrative is itself almost a ghost: that is, few of the narrators are aware of its existence, even as they play their parts in bringing it to its end.

While Mitchell’s main debate in Cloud Atlas is one of fiction v. reality, in Ghostwritten, it’s fate v. chance. The two are not unconnected, however, and both are related to the art of story-telling itself, as the following passage makes evident:

When [a football] game is on video then every tiniest action already exists. The past, present, and future exist at the same time: all the tape is there, in your hand. There can be no chance, for every human decision and random fall of the ball is already fated. Therefore, does chance or fate cntroll our lives? Well, the answer is as relative as time. If you’re in your life, chance. Viewed from the outside, like a book you’re reading, it’s fate all the way. (292)

Here a fictional character perceives his life as though it were fiction, which it “really” is. This passage reminds us that as much as life acts as the model of fiction, so too does fiction affect how we perceive ourselves in “reality”[vi].

The too-perfect relations between characters in Mitchell’s text, however (along with a consistent narrative voice throughout the text), make the simulated reality a bit transparent overall. There are, however, very realistic character responses that Mitchell is brilliant at portraying. Most of these are women:

Suhbataar turned, feigning surprise. ‘I don’t think Rudi is going to be dealing in stolen masterpieces for a while.’

‘I want it!’

With the greatest respect, Ms. Latunsky, you don’t count. You never have. (261)

Admittedly this scene isn’t quite as powerful out of context, still, I think it captures the marginalised position of women throughout Mitchell’s novel: unsurprising, considering that first excerpt which reveals that three women in Niel’s life are ghosts[vii]. Of the nine narrators in Ghostwritten, only three of these are women, and each of these women is raped, captured, swindled, or just plain ignored by the males in the text. [viii] I can’t help but wonder if, in a novel that examines the power politics behind nuclear war, the marginalisation of the female voice isn’t a sad reflection of women’s actual positions in these struggles. I would love to be able to pose an essay question on the matter:

Conduct an analysis of the three female narrators in Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. Is the text’s sympathetic attitude towards the autonomous woman in contemporary society ultimately constructive? Does the novel’s emphasis on the often successful persecution of woman by larger political, scientific, and economic institutions act as a valid critique of destructive patriarchal attitudes, or does it merely reproduce and normalise social positions typically associated with gender? Does the simultaneous oppression and destruction of the natural, impoverished, and spiritual worlds in the text further solidify the connection between women as mothers, healers, and mystics, and thus impotent figures in contemporary politics and economies? Similarly, does the conclusion of the novel argue for women’s ability to compete evenly in a scientific (typically patriarchal) environment with men, or does it merely reaffirm woman’s association as nurturers, mothers, and mistresses of deception?

One day I will inflict this question on my students.

1453 words, and I haven’t even begun to review Hornby. No fear though, as I didn’t plan to conduct a lengthy review on his text. In a paragraph or so, A Long Way Down is a novel about four strangers (Martin, Maureen, Jess, and JJ) who climb to the top of Topper’s* House (a fifteen-story building) on new Year’s Eve with the intention of killing themselves. As you would expect, the narrative that follows is sad, and full of black comedy. It’s brilliant, Hornby style, which means that though the plot is full of absurd and impossible situations, the emotional responses of the characters are terribly realistic: which means we are left neither in utter despair, nor entirely reassured of life’s meaning and work-outability. This comforts me somehow.

To end on another ego-centric note, somewhere along the way the “Topper’s Four” form a reading group in which

we were going to read books by people who’d klled themselves. They were, like, our people, and so we thought we ought to find out what was going on in their heads. Martin thought we might learn more from people who hadn’t killed themselves — we should be reading up on what was so great about staying alive, not what was so great about topping yourself. But it turned out there were like a billion writers who hadn’t killed themselves, and three or four who had, so we took the easy option, and went for the smaller pile. We voted on using funds from our media appearances to buy ourselves the books.

Anyway, it turned out not to be the easy option at all. Fucking hell! You should try to read the stuff by people who have killed themselves! We started with Virginia Woolf and I only read like two pages of this book about a lighthouse, but I read enough to know why she killed herself: She killed herself because she couldn’t make herself understood. You only have to read one sentence to see that. (188-189)

It occurred to me at this point, that lately I’ve been reading a number of books about women, but haven’t spent a lot of time in recent memory reading, as Jess would say, about “my people.”[ix]

So then, now seems as good a time as any to begin my plan of reading the major novels of Woolf herself. I’ll be starting with Orlando, and then maybe finally getting through Mrs. Dalloway. I may even take recommendations.

Updates are certain to follow.

End Notes:

[i] in a single day. I started David Mitchell’s book about three weeks ago, so this isn’t as heroic a feat as might first appear. Still, that’s nearly 400 pages of reading in a single day. Before you comment that I could have done a lot more with my day, let me remind you that I could also have done less: I could have spent the day watching seven seasons of Buffy.

[ii] and me. Yes, I am going to refer back to my own reviews, but as this will allow me to omit critiques of style, and references to the writers’ biographies, and thus significantly shorten my review, it is not a narcissistic gesture at all, but is done out of a sense of civil responsibility. Obviously.

[iii] new text. Which is actually an older text than Cloud Atlas, being Mitchell’s first book (Cloud Atlas is his third, with number9dream separating the two).

[iv] the excerpt above. delivered by a man named Neal. Mitchell’s actual conception of what it means to be a ghost is, as I point out, a tad more nuanced.

[v] a discernable übernarrative. It’s a contemporary cold-war, earth on the brink of nuclear destruction, if you care to know. Actually, this is a rather important point that I refer to a couple of times in the following paragraphs. I can only hope you are reading these endnotes as you go along, like a responsible reader would. What’s that? If I were a responsible writer I’d edit the article so the reference stands on its own? Possibly, but I’m already sacrificing my spare time to write this anyways. You could at least make some of the effort.

[vi] in reality. Where is Baudrillard when you need him? Interestingly, one of the largest egos in Cloud Atlas (that of publisher Timothy Cavendish) is actually a minor character in Ghostwritten, which further adds to the fiction/reality confusion in Mitchell’s works.

[vii] considering the first excerpt. If the original excerpt would have illuminated this point just as well, why did I bother including the second excerpt? It’s my favourite moment in the book and, also, I don’t have a page or word limit in WordPress, that’s why.

[viii] only three of these women. Actually, the percentage holds for Cloud Atlas as well: only two of the six narrators are women and, now I think on it, they are similarly persecuted.

[ix] “my people”. I’ve also spent a lot of time reading Mitchell and Hornby, and while they are delightful, I think it’s time to add some more variety to my “Non-Accredited Book Reviews.” It’s no wonder I’m non-accredited when I only read two writers.

4 May 2008

Glossary of Terms:

Accomplishment. n. Yet another relative term: Erin’s ability to read 400 pages in a single day seemed less of an accomplishment to her friends who were actually employed.

Traditional. adj. Habitual. i.e. requiring at least 20 posts on an archive.

Toppers. n. (Brit.). Individuals with suicidal tendencies. Are not always successful suicides, as the novel makes perfectly clear.


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