Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

ghostwrittenI have strong but mixed feelings about David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten.

I love his style and the way he structures this collection of inter-related stories, but some of the content of those stories is jarringly crude.

It’s a similar issue I’ve found with a lot of Stephen King’s books, but unlike King, Mitchell’s occasional use of crudity doesn’t come across as gratuitous but plays a consistent part in revealing character. It’s not to my taste, but I can see the purpose it serves.

Apart from that issue, I found more than enough to enjoy in Ghostwritten. While at times individual stories seemed unfinished, there are clues in following (and even preceding) stories that provided some resolution: incidental characters in one story reappear as major players in another; ripples from events here can become significant there.

Part of the pleasure of the book is re-meeting people who it seemed had been left behind in an earlier part of the book, even if their re-introduction is fleeting and they merely pass through a scene with apparently no effect. They bring an interconnectedness that highlights the roles that chance and choice play in lives of protagonists. Coincidental connections, brief meetings can be insignificant to one, but life changing (even lifesaving) to the other, setting the path for important events to come.

There are some similarities in style to Mitchell’s later book Cloud Atlas, another novel constructed from a collection of intersecting shorter stories in which the shadows of characters’ lives are cast beyond their individual stories. Some characters from Ghostwritten also reappear in Cloud Atlas and other Mitchell books, extending character inter-relationships beyond an individual novel. It’s an aspect of Mitchell’s work that I love, and it’s something I’d previously seen in Tim Winton’s work. I find it creates a sense of authenticity to their fictional worlds, where the lives of people can carry on beyond the experiences that made their own stories worth telling, and how they can play some part in the stories of others.

It’s the kind of thing I think I would have tried myself if I’d been more diligent and persistent with my hope of being a writer, if I’d been disciplined enough to push myself to write despite the lack of deadlines and the need to complete obligatory assignments: those things that forced me to be productive in my university years.

Books (and writers) like those mentioned above excite me – but also stir a sense of regret. They are reminders of why I wanted to be a writer, but also of the opportunities I let slip by.

Another reason for mixed feelings.

2 thoughts on “Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

  1. I listened to an Alaskan writers’ mutual interview today (on your site, I’m sure you’ll know what I’m talking about); it was two ladies. One of them talked about traveling to the places where she chose her settings. To me, she sounded like this kept her quite busy getting ready always for another book… except it also sounded like she was preparing not to need to keep writing books (as she decided to get a degree after being a successful writer, so she could feel ready to teach writing). But the other lady had written a very successful book and wasn’t sure she would do it again. Either way, it was clear that there is or can be much time and life between or around publishing such that you need not count yourself out. The second lady largely works in a bookstore.

    Now, I don’t know if that’s encouraging. I know there are times people tell me I can still be an artist. Their words don’t make me feel empowered, necessarily. I do think about it from time to time, though, like I might do something about it. Instead, usually I feel regret and mixed feelings. Well, anyway, I ended up saying what came to my mind second first; now I’ll say what was first. The format you described here does sound interesting (not that I know anything about Steven King except that I avoid anything he does), the weaving of characters through various stories. I also like that you can read things that aren’t your style or cup of tea (some of the inclusions) and not get caught up in it. There are things I can do like that too while knowing many people can’t.

    1. Thanks Marleen

      I read a lot ABOUT Stephen King while I was at university, and I read several of his books and short stories both then and a few years later. I’ve also read two in recent years.
      He can be a very good writer at times, but maybe his extremely prolific publishing output makes sure that the quality of his writing isn’t consistent. While he might write some popular books, in my opinion they are rarely GOOD books. This week I tried to start another of his, one of King’s own favourites, but couldn’t get past the first couple of chapters. I put it aside, contravening the decision I made several years ago when I determined to stick with every book I started until I’d finished it. Over those years I’ve abandoned only three or four books.

      It’s been a very long time since I wrote any fiction. The last story I wrote was in 1993 – my last year of university. I know its something I CAN do, but only when I put everything else aside and stick to the story until it is finished. At university there were external factors to motivate me to do that: the need to complete assignments to avoid failure of the course. Knowing that I’m capable of doing it at least gives me hope that one day I will.

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