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.

Stephen King: 11/22/63

Stephen KingTwo days ago I finished reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63. The story involves time travel, major world events and the consequences of using the former to change the outcome of the latter. It is a BIG book (not only in length more than 700 pages) but also in ideas, combining real history with an imaginative reworking of that history: what would be the outcome if JFK’s assassination could be prevented?

Time travel stories are one of my great fictional loves, weaving different times together so that actions of a protagonist visiting the past can have repercussions in his/her own time, leaving hints of evidence of their journey to the earlier period.

Usually the premise will be that events can’t be changed, at least significantly. There is the clichéd paradox of a time traveller killing his own father before he’s met the mother, thereby preventing the birth of the time traveller who clearly is no longer around to travel to the past to kill the father…

With King’s story the traveller, Jake Epping, visits the past intending to change history by preventing the killing of President Kennedy in Dallas on 22nd November 1963. For me that intention was perhaps the story’s weakness. I couldn’t see Epping having enough personal investment in any potential outcome that he wouldn’t leave well-enough alone. He wasn’t even born when Kennedy died, and his “mission” was more the obsession of an acquaintance than anything more personal.

That acquaintance was Al, the owner of a Diner, and the original discoverer of a “rabbit hole” leading to 1958. Al had personally tried to avert the Kennedy killing, but became too ill to remain in the past to fulfil his goal. Knowing he had so little life remaining, Al passes on to Epping the secret of the “rabbit hole” and his desire to save Kennedy.

Epping makes some exploratory visits to 1958, returning to see how his actions may have changed his own present. No matter how long he spent in the past, when he returned only a few minutes of that present had passed. Any subsequent visit back in time “reset” history and cancelled out the effects of what he’d done on previous trips so if anything drastic had been changed he could reverse it.

And maybe this “resetting” option gave some motivation for him taking up Al’s President-saving mission. If things were disrupted too significantly he could always reset the past and return history to its previous Kennedyless course.

While the attempt to save Kennedy is the major plot point, the heart of the novel is found in the years between Epping’s arrival in 1958 and the events of November 1963. How does a man make a life for himself when he needs to survive for 5 years in a time not his own? How does he do this and retain focus on his end goal? And how will the relationships he makes be affected? It is the strength of this heart that pushed aside the problem I had with the “saving Kennedy” aspect of the story.

I’ve probably written more plot synopsis than usual. I don’t like to give too much away, not wanting to spoil the experience of potential readers of a book I’m “reviewing”, but there’s a lot more to get out of this book than the above introduction touches, and I’ve probably not given away much that wouldn’t be revealed in a book blurb.

King can be an exceptional story teller, and he’s near the top of his game with this book. It was a much more enjoyable and interesting reading experience than the Brian Aldiss book I’d recently battled through. King creates engaging characters to carry the reader through a long journey. Characters we care about and characters that can be feared or loathed. He also creates a convincing late 50s early 60s world, describing its highs (real food, stylish cars, community life) and lows (racial prejudice, segregation and fear of the bomb). There are also some parallels that presumably reflect some of King’s present day concerns, such as the political climate in Kennedy’s time having similarities to today. The strong anti-Obama sentiment expressed by extremes on the political/religious right, is a clear example. (I’ve seen it reported that Obama has had more death threats made against him than any previous American president.)

Returning to the writing itself, I’ll repeat what I’ve written in a review of an earlier King book, that one of King’s major weaknesses as an author is his devotion to random statements of extreme crudity. They crop up now and again in his books, usually with no purpose other than their shock factor and sometimes in situations that seem not to fit the character making the statement. Maybe this habit is one of the downsides of King’s success: protection from the kind of editing that in my opinion could only strengthen his work.


See something I wrote earlier about King and his work: