There are so many people living in the world. We jostle up against each other in subway stations in Tokyo.
We crowd into art galleries in Petersburg, vying for the best location to view the masterpieces on display.
We take trains and planes around the world, with mountains, plains, rivers, valleys, and, above all, people rushing by us, in a blur. Holy Mountains, China
Where is there a place for the individual in the midst of this overwhelming motion? Still from Koyaanisqatsi
In his first novel, Ghostwritten
, David Mitchell innovatively explores our quest for understanding, for meaning, for connection, in the crowded isolation that makes up human life in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. This is a novel that explores big questions: is our life ruled by chance? Do the coincidences and parallels that help to connect people to one another have a deeper significance, or are they simply akin to the random effects of a ricocheting pinball? What is our connection to the planet -- is there a story that we can discover to explain our origins and, perhaps, point our way to the future? And in the end, are our lives and deaths marked by continuity and connection with others, or are we truly isolated, even when surrounded by so many others?
Mitchell’s novel is remarkable, not only because he explores such crucial questions, but also because he provides such poignant depictions of individuals and their settings. He structures the novel as a series of interconnecting chapters, each taking place in a different location, and each centering on a specific individual, from a cult member in Japan, to an employee in a jazz music store in Tokyo, to a woman selling tea in the shadow of one of China’s holy mountains, to a ghost or spirit moving from human host to human host in search of understanding of its origins. Although I have heard others describe these chapters as linked short stories, Mitchell’s careful attention to connecting themes, characters, and episodes provides them with a sense of coherence that gets stronger the further the reader gets into the book. Making Your Place/Marking Your PlaceTokyo
Mitchell imbues the novel with a remarkable sense of place. He has a particular interest in representing city life in all its diversity. For example, in the Tokyo chapter, Satoru describes Tokyo as follows: “Twenty million people live and work in Tokyo. It’s so big that nobody really knows where it stops. It’s long since filled up the plain, and now it’s creeping up the mountains to the west and reclaiming land from the bay in the east. The city never stops rewriting itself. In the time one street guide is produced, it’s already become out of date. It’s a tall city, and a deep one, as well as a spread-out one. Things are always moving below you, and above your head. All these people, flyovers, cars, walkways, subways, offices, tower blocks, power cables, pipes, apartments, it all adds up to a lot of weight. You have to do something to stop yourself caving in, or you just become a piece of flotsam or an ant in a tunnel. In smaller cities people can use the space around them to insulate themselves, to remind themselves of who they are. Not in Tokyo. You just don’t have the space, not unless you’re a company president, a gangster, a politician or the Emperor. You’re pressed against people body to body in the trains, several hands gripping each strap on the metro trains. Apartment windows have no view but other apartment windows.
No, in Tokyo you have to make your place inside your head.” (37)
In this passage, Satoru conveys one of the central questions of Ghostwritten
: how can humans carve out a place for themselves that provides them with a sense of identity and belonging, in the face of the postmodern weight which threatens to bury us? London
Mitchell’s sense of place is so strong within the novel that he often represents cities almost as human characters. For example, Marco notes, “The top of the hill. Breathe in, look at that view, and breathe out! Quite a picture, isn’t it! Old Man London, out for the day.... Italians give their cities sexes, and they all agree that the sex for a particular city is quite correct, but none of them can explain why. I love that. London’s middle-aged and male, respectably married but secretly gay. I know its overlapping towns like I know my own body. The red brick parts around Chelsea and Pimlico, Battersea Power Station like an upturned coffee table.... The grimy estates down Vauxhall way. Green Park. I map the city by trigonometrical shag points. Highbury is already Katy Forbes. Putney is Poppy, and India of course, not that I shag India, she’s only five. Camden is Baggins the Tarantula. …” In spite of this personification, London still poses the danger of engulfing its residents: “A city is a sea that you lose things in. You only find things that other people have lost.” (282)Hong KongLondon is a Language
There are many ways that Mitchell’s characters attempt to make their place. One is through a quest to explain experience and existence through language, which extends beyond humans to include cities and places as well. In the London chapter, Marco notes, “London is a language. I guess all places are.” (269) Throughout Ghostwritten
, Mitchell returns repeatedly to the theme of language -- and its limitations. As the spirit notes in the Mongolia chapter, “Once or twice I’ve tried to describe transmigration to the more imaginative of my human hosts. It’s impossible. I know eleven languages, but there are some tunes that language cannot play. When another human touches my host, I can transmigrate. The ease of the transfer depends on the mind I am transmigrating into, and whether negative emotions are blocking me. The fact that touch is a requisite provides a clue that I exist on some physical plane, however sub-cellular or bio-electrical. There are limits. For example, I cannot transmigrate into animals, even primates: if I try the animal dies. It is like an adult’s inability to climb into children’s clothes. I’ve never tried a whale. But how it feels, this transmigration, how to describe that! Imagine a trapeze artist in a circus, spinning in emptiness. Or a snooker ball lurching around the table. Arriving in a strange town after a journey through turbid weather.
Sometimes language can’t even read the music of meaning.” (158-159)
Given the limitations of language, some of Mitchell’s characters gravitate to music instead, which features prominently throughout the novel. Satoru notes, “My place comes into existence through jazz. Jazz makes a fine place. The colours and feelings there come not from the eye but from sounds. It’s like being blind but seeing more. This is why I work here in Takeshi’s shop. Not that I could ever put that into words.” (38) Marco is a drummer in a band called The Music of Chance, named after Paul Auster’s novel. And in the apocalyptic chapter “The Night Train,” DJ Bat Segundo’s choice of music provides a soundtrack for the critical questions that arise when New York is faced with the prospect of its destruction. Ghosts, Spirits, Doubles, and the Human Spirit
Throughout the novel, Mitchell explores the limitations of physical boundaries. In spite of the walls and buildings and other physical barriers that separate us from each other, is there any indication that people transcend the physical? That physical boundaries are permeable, and that people can interact the most meaningfully with spiritual elements in their earthbound lives?
In some cases, the ghosts appear in forms familiar to Western readers. In the Hong Kong section, Neal Brose describes the ghost that shared an apartment with him and his wife Katy:
“Unless you’ve lived with a ghost, you can’t know the truth of it. You assume that morning, noon and night, you’re walking around obsessed, fearful and waiting for the exorcist to call. It’s not really like that. It’s more like living with a very particular cat. 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.” (93)
In other cases, Mitchell describes spirits that he models from Eastern traditions, as seen in my two favorite sections of the novel, “The Holy Mountain” and “Mongolia.” In “The Holy Mountain”, the unnamed tea shack lady describes her living in the shadow of Mount Emei with ghosts and a spirit-laden tree as her companions over decades of hardship: “In the misty dusk an old woman came. She laboured slowly up the stairs to where I lay, wondering how I could defend myself if the Warlord’s Son called again on his way down.
‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘The Tree will protect you. The Tree will tell you when to run, and when to hide.’ I knew she was a spirit because I only heard her words after her lips had finished moving, because the lamplight shone through her, and because she had no feet. I knew she was a good spirit because she sat on the chest at the end of the bed and sang a lullaby about a coracle, a cat, and the river running round.” (113) Mount Emei, ChinaTea shack, Mount Emei, China
In the chapter on Mongolia, Mitchell memorably presents a noncorpum
, or a spirit that travels from human host to human host, as his central character. This spirit clearly differentiates itself from its human hosts: “I have my gifts: I am apparently immune to age and forgetfulness. I possess freedom beyond any human understanding of the world. But my cage is all my own, too. I am trapped in one waking state of consciousness. I have never found any way to sleep, or dream. And the knowledge I most desire eludes me: I have never found the source of the story I was born with, and I have never discovered whether others of my kind exist.” (165)Trans-Mongolian Railroad
At the same time, the spirit does acknowledge some similarities between himself and some of the humans it encounters: “Backpackers are strange. I have a lot in common with them. We live nowhere, and we are strangers everywhere. We drift, often on a whim, searching for something to search for. We are both parasites: I live in my hosts’ minds, and sift through his or her memories to understand the world. Caspar’s breed live in a host country that is never their own, and use its culture and landscape to learn, or stave off boredom. To the world at large we are both immaterial and invisible. We chew the secretions of solitude. My incredulous Chinese hosts who saw the first backpackers regarded them as quite alien entities. Which is exactly how humans would regard me. All minds pulse in a unique way, just as every lighthouse in the world has a unique signature. Some minds pulse consistently, some erratically. Some are lukewarm, some are hot.
Some flare out, some are very nearly not there. Some stay on the fringe, like quasars. For me, a roomful of animals and humans is like a roomful of suns, of differing magnitudes and colours, and gravities.” (153-154)
As the noncorpum
continues on its quest for its origin stories, it demonstrates another profound similarity with humans -- the need to anchor identity, and future, in one's beginnings. This parallel helps to provide this chapter with its strong resonance and significance -- in spite of the unfamiliar trappings of this story, the central theme within it is all too familiar to human readers. Central MongoliaQuantum Theory, Chain Reactions, Chance, and the Human Zoo
In the concluding chapters of Ghostwritten
, Mitchell develops the questions of the role of chance in governing people’s lives, as he describes the experiences of Mo Muntervary, a quantum physicist appalled by the apparent uses to which the US government is putting her work. She attempts to buy time to address her concerns by returning to her home, Clear Island, Ireland. Throughout this chapter, Mo intersperses details of her return to the island with her memories of her work on this project, and her reflections on the role of quantum physics in explaining human life and cauastion: “The strong force that stops the protons of a nucleus hurtling away from one another; the weak force that keeps the electrons from crashing into the protons; electromagnetism, which lights the planet and cooks dinner; and gravity, which is the most down to Earth. From before the time the universe was the size of a walnut to its present diameter, these four forces have been the statute book of matter, be it the core of Sirius or the electrochemical ducts of the brains of students in the lecture theatre at Belfast. Bored, intent, asleep, dreaming, in receding tiers. Chewing pencils or following me.
Matter is thought, and thought is matter. Nothing exists that cannot be synthesised.” (335-336)
Mo’s references to the modern world as a zoo relate to the novel’s penultimate section, in which Bat Segundo, a late night DJ and talk show host strikes up a prolonged conversation with an entity that refers to itself as the Zookeeper. The Zookeeper demonstrates an eerie omniscience into human life and devastation throughout the planet, while also discussing the profound limits of its omniscience in keeping human life in balance. I will leave it to you as a reader to discover how Mitchell develops these themes. Clear Island, IrelandThe Breath
Mitchell threads references to a breath throughout Ghostwritten
. The breath provides a strong sense of continuity, as well as raising the question of which entities are threading through the novel, surrounding the human characters. Is there an impermeable boundary between them? Are these entities observers, or do they have a more crucial role to play in causing events to happen -- or preventing events? In the end, are they as human as any of us living in the zoo?