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the Complete Review
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David Mitchell

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To purchase Ghostwritten

Title: Ghostwritten
Author: David Mitchell
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 430 pages
Availability: Ghostwritten - US
Ghostwritten - UK
Ghostwritten - Canada
Ghostwritten - India
Ecrits fantômes - France
Chaos - Deutschland
Nove gradi di libertà - Italia
  • Awarded the Mail on Sunday/John Llewelyn Rhys Prize

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Our Assessment:

B : uneven but often rewarding novel -- though a bit heavy on the supernatural hooey

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian B 21/8/1999 Nicholas Blincoe
The LA Times A+ 8/10/2000 Regina Marler
New York A- 18/9/2000 Daniel Mendelsohn
The NY Observer A+ 11/9/2000 Adam Begley
The NY Times B 12/9/2000 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. B 17/9/2000 Richard Eder
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Spring/2001 Jason Picone
Salon B 10/10/2000 Laura Miller
The Times B 29/7/1999 Erica Wagner
The Washington Post A+ 1/10/2000 Michael Schaffer
Die Welt . 20/11/2004 Wieland Freund

  Review Consensus:

  No complete consensus, though all agree that it is ambitious, and Mitchell has talent. Many are in absolute awe, but others find it an uneven effort.

  From the Reviews:
  • "(A)lthough Ghostwritten suffers because of its episodic structure, Mitchell is never guilty of a creative abdication. The book hangs together through its own hard work, not because it relies on ideas supplied from the outside. The glue is the concept of the ghost writer, interpreted in a variety of ways (.....) Ghostwritten fails insofar as it resembles a 20th-century literary novel, but succeeds stunningly where it imagines a literature for the 21st century." - Nicholas Blincoe, The Guardian

  • "To complement its heady themes, Ghostwritten is also elegantly composed, gracefully plotted and full of humor." - Regina Marler, The Los Angeles Times

  • "For all its ingenuities, Ghostwritten is oddly dispassionate; the brilliant narrative ploys can't compensate for what any novel on this scale (and with these ambitions) needs, which is characters you care about. I found myself fascinated but never swept up or moved by the novel." - Daniel Mendelsohn, New York

  • "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 (.....) Ghostwritten is a marvelous puzzle. It takes time to fit together the disparate pieces, but patience in this case pays off handsomely. Once assembeled, the story hums with significance." - Adam Begley, The New York Observer

  • "Some of his narrators showcase his remarkable talents as a ventriloquist, but others sound like phony talent-contest impersonations. (...) It is when Mr. Mitchell tries to explain these random events with portentous allusions to ghosts and never-dying spirits that his otherwise gripping and innovative novel stumbles into the realm of the hokey." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "Mitchell's spirit-summoning seeks to assert unity, but the best segments are true gems in a ponderously worked necklace. For the most part they would do better unstrung." - Richard Eder, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Ghostwritten's great achievement is that it incorporates fairly heady scientific ideas into its structure while remaining readable, intellectual, and humanist. While the novel is sufficiently confounding to upset any easy conclusions, ultimately that's part of its allure. (...) This novel reads like a brilliant daydream that attempts to explain plausibly how a seemingly insignificant event in one person's life can irrevocably alter the life of a complete stranger halfway around the globe. It's probable that Mitchell wrote the novel to show just this." - Jason Picone, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "With Ghostwritten, we have a kind of elective boldness, the spectacle of an artist who may not be particularly original trying his hand at the wildly imaginative. (...) The result is often readable, but never inspired, a peculiar effect considering the project is the kind of thing usually only attempted by eccentric geniuses following fiercely individual visions. It's as if a B-plus architecture student decided to build his own interpretation of Antonio Gaudí's Sagrada Familia." - Laura Miller, Salon

  • "Mitchell has the makings of a good storyteller. The individual sections of this novel are strong: no wonder reviewers took note of the Mongolia section that appeared in Vintage's New Writing 8. Mitchell has a good feel for language too, and a good sense for when a cheap joke is required." - Erica Wagner, The Times

  • "Unlike so many of the chroniclers of the 21st-century pastiche (...) Mitchell has set out to craft actual characters, not archetypes. The result is a dazzling piece of work, which at times is so moving, and so funny, that you forget that this novel (...) has been hyped as the great new evocation of the nomadic global epoch." - Michael Schaffer, The Washington Post

  • "Chaos ist das Kunststück seiner Konstruktion, ein virtuoses Spiel mit Differenz und Wiederholung, Echo und Bumerang -- auf der Stilebene ebenso wie auf der der Handlung. Wie die Gesellschaft, die er beschreibt, setzt der Roman aufs Risiko, gewinnt und kann auch verlieren. Manchmal fordert die Maßlosigkeit ihren Preis. Nicht jeden seiner Schauplätze gestaltet David Mitchell überzeugend aus, nicht jede seiner sanft ironischen Anleihen (bei Hornby, Murakami oder den Weltnachrichten) überzeugt." - Wieland Freund, Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ghostwritten is David Mitchell's first novel, and it is an elaborate and ambitious undertaking. There are ten separate sections, making for a jigsaw puzzle of a novel whose design only truly becomes clear as the last pieces are put in place. Most of the sections are first-person narratives, told by different narrators and set in a variety of locales. Beginning in Okinawa the novel moves to Tokyo and across Asia and Europe, before ultimately coming full-circle back to its beginning.
       The novel begins in Japan, in Okinawa, where a character going by the name of "Quasar" belonging to a cult similar to the Aum Shinrikyo has fled after participating in a gas attack on Tokyo's underground similar to the sarin gas attack unleashed by the Aum followers (see our review of Murakami Haruki's Underground for an excellent account of those events). The episodes that follow each seem basically unrelated to each other, but there is always at least one connecting point from one to the next as the narrative thread is passed on. Mitchell neatly makes the transition from one section to the next, often with what appear to be inconsequential encounters and occurrences (or occurrences that are consequential in entirely unexpected ways). These transitions are, in fact, the most successful part of the novel.
       From Quasar the story progresses to a Japanese teen with a complicated family background who works in a record store. Satoru is a first-person narrator straight out of a Murakami Haruki novel. Since Mitchell's novel is an homage to the master throughout (the philosophizing, the characters, the interconnectedness of the world -- it's all very much like what Murakami does, except that Ghostwritten is perhaps more international in its settings), this is too close for comfort. He could have at least let the kid not sell jazz records. And, while it is a cute inside joke to give Satoru "a new Murakami translation of Fitzgerald's short stories", Mitchell might not have wanted to draw so much attention to the fact that he is basically copying the Japanese master.
       From Tokyo the novel jumps to Hong Kong, to an expat Englishman working in financial services who has gotten himself into a lot of trouble. At this point there still seem few connections between the episodes, but characters from this chapter reappear later, and the troubles at the company also have ripple effects later on.
       Other chapters describe an elaborate art theft conspiracy at the Hermitage, train trips across China and Mongolia, and a quantum physicist with secrets that many people are very eager to get their hands on. The novel builds nicely to a climax -- but not before slogging through a deep trough. While the Japanese and Hong Kong adventures are quite well-written and hold the reader's interest, Mitchell almost loses all the good-will and patience he has built up with the fourth episode, set in China. There were already some supernatural shadows and shades in the Hong Kong episode, but it gets worse in the chapter set at "Holy Mountain". Here Mitchell has his narrator recount her entire life story, which is basically the story of China in the 20th century, with all the suffering endured and horrors perpetrated related in painful detail. Mitchell means well but this concise, simplified, fictionalized historicizing is not his strong point. Mawkish, tendentious, righteous -- the chapter is almost unreadable.
       The next episode is barely better. The writing improves, and the story is a bit more interesting, but the narrator is a spirit than can (and does) move from body to body. (The spirit-thing even claims once to have inhabited Jorge Luis Borges' mind/body -- another unnecessary and not especially clever homage.) It is seeking a story, trying to learn who and what it is. The episode is set in Mongolia, which is vaguely interesting. The story itself is full of supernatural blather, the ending hopelessly sentimental. The episode could stand on its own, as a complete story, and does not entirely comfortably fit with the rest -- though Mitchell does quite cleverly tie parts of it in with the rest of the novel.
       Other episodes -- the art theft in the Hermitage, the quantum scientist, a London musician and (ghost)writer, and a dialogue between a radio DJ and an unusual caller -- can also stand on their own, but as the novel progresses the connections between the episodes become clearer, and Mitchell's grand vision comes into place. The sum is far greater than the parts (none of the episodes are good enough to be considered successful short stories), and it is what makes the novel worthwhile.

       The quality of the writing varies greatly. Mitchell keeps up a good pace -- the book moves fast, through many countries, peoples, and events -- but stylistically it is hit and miss. "Reason entered, brandishing its warrant", Mitchell writes. On the same page: "Fear was handcuffed, but it could still yell at the top of its lungs." And so on.
       Elsewhere -- when he is not trying too hard -- he strikes the right note. A CD collection is described as "very Princess Diana: Elton John, Pavarotti, the Four Seasons." Or Marco, describing his first ghostwriting project, "the autobiography of a pace bowler (...) who played cricket for England a few times in the mid-eighties, when it rained a lot."
       Ghostwritten has deeper ambitions too, and Mitchell does a fairly good job here. Marco the ghostwriter is perhaps too obvious a character (and his band, The Music of Chance, way too obvious a clue (named "after a novel by that New York bloke" -- yet another unnecessary and irritating literary homage, though maybe Mr. Auster feels honoured)), the supernatural efforts can be annoying, and the quantum physics might seem over the top, but somehow Mitchell's melange is winning.
       Frustrating and very uneven Mitchell accomplishes enough in Ghostwritten to hold one's interest and to entertain. The adventures are wild and varied enough, and the faults more readily forgotten given the grand picture he is aiming for. The individual episodes tend to be too sentimental, but along the way Mitchell shows flashes of considerable talent. Ghostwritten is far from being a complete success, but there is enough here to make it worthwhile.

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Ghostwritten: Reviews: David Mitchell: Other books by David Mitchell under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • Murakami Haruki's account of the Tokyo gas attacks in Underground, and other books by him
  • See also the Index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       English author David Mitchell was born in 1969. He currently lives in Ireland.

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© 2000-2011 the complete review

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