It has taken me quite some time to come to terms with this book – largely due to the book itself and only somewhat due to my general apathy with regard to trying to contain the uncontainable!
David Mitchell. What a book. What a journey. What an out of body reading experience – Adam Lively of The Guardian describes it as a “firework display”. Startling that an author can compose something so disjointed using language that I know how to use, can use myself, yet, I cannot, for the life of me, formulate a method of capturing this text in literal terms. It seems too fluid, too filled with tiny pockets of distracted air to be harnessed into something concrete and firm. This is a book in ten parts, ten vignettes, ten mini narratives which are all united in their quest to explore the inexplicable. The links between these stories are so tenuous and scant that I found myself actively searching for them, waiting with bated breath for the next one to appear. I highlighted my text to oblivion, trying to calculate where things were joined and where disconnect reigned.
The book starts: “Who was blowing on the nape of my neck?” – a chapter called Okinawa about “the New Earth sweeping this festering mess away like a mighty broom, returning the land to its virginal state” when “the Fellowship will create something we deserve, which the survivors will cherish for eternity.” It is flummoxing, the subject matter of this first part of the novel. A cult supporter out to commit the ultimate declaration of his support for the cult and its grand master. “My role was to pulse at the edge of the universe of the faithful, alone in the darkness. An outrider. A herald.” Our narrator, Quasar (either a reference to the fictional superheroes in comic books or meaning a quasi stellar radio source, a very energetic and distant active galactic nucleus), is driven by his awareness that there is “so much sadness in this twisted world”, ironic since he is so much a part of the twisting. As an outsider, our narrator is dead – “Before His Serendipity lit my life I was defenceless” and invisible. “This is a war against the unclean myriad, and in this war acts of courage do not go unacknowledged, nor unrewarded.” The poor reader is totally baffled at this point, unable to resolve the head or tail of this narrative as we travel through the chaos of this twisted world. We are relieved when the chapter ends and “clouds began to ink out the stars, one by one.”
Ghostwritten’s next chapter, Tokyo, is about a “city (that) never stops rewriting itself… 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 … 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.” It is this type of sensitive description of places which I think lies at the heart of Mitchell’s brilliance: “in Tokyo you have to make your place inside your head.” The vividness makes this novel palpitate or even, perhaps, to sweat.
“The last of the cherry blossom. On the tree, it turns ever more perfect. And when it’s perfect, it falls. And then of course once it hits the ground it gets all mushed up. So it’s only absolutely perfect when it’s falling through the air, this way and that, for the briefest time … I think that only we Japanese can really understand that, don’t you?”
In this curious way, the novel breathes on its readers, recalling that first breath on the nape of Quasar’s neck which opened the initial narrative strand. And so the fragments are gathered, reminding me of Ondaatje’s narrative sharing: “The powerful matriarch removed her large coat from which animal pelts dangled and she passed it, along with her strength, to one of the minor characters . . . Each person had their moment when they assumed the skins of wild animals, when they took responsibility for the story.”(Skin of a Lion)
And then to Hong Kong and the tone of the text shifts again: “There’s a mechanism in my alarm clock connected to a switch in my head that sends a message to my arm which extends itself and commands my thumb to punch the OFF button a moment before the thing beeps me awake.” The dramatic shift in tone makes this chapter extremely disturbing and even more confusing than the ones preceding it. Our backdrop has changed, money is in the air, markets are crashing and there is something underfoot. What remains constant is Mitchell’s affinity for place: “There are so many cities in every single city” and here place is a palimpsest of proximal experiences and histories:
“Red roses grew wild up the brick wall crumbling back to sand. A roped-up dog went hysterical as I walked past. A flurry of fangs and barks. It thought I was a ghost. Futons, airing. A Chinese pop song. God-awful and tinny. Two old people in a room devoid of furniture, steam rising from their teacups. They were motionless and expressionless. Waiting for something. I wish I could go into their room and sit down with them. I’d give them my Rolex for that. I wish they would smile, and pour me a cup of jasmine tea. I wish the world was like that.”
Such is the reader’s sensory experience of this place and such is this character, Neal, “Here and not here”, able to compartmentalise things into sections, departments, apartments. So fractured is this man that he is in fact invisible, falling “into a snowstorm of silent light”.
Holy Mountain was one of my favourite chapters where “all the yesterdays and tomorrows spin around again sooner or later.” I loved the rawness of this part of the narrative, the fantastic elements, Autumn breathing “dying colours into the shabby greens.” Here more connections are hinted at – a foreigner appearing, Mongolia, is this the daughter or the maid in the previous chapter? Readers are left wondering as the chapter ends as a “ribbon of smoke uncoils as it disappears, up, up, and up.”
And so the story unfolds, leaf by leaf. We read of Mongolia, Petersburg, London and Clear Island. We travel the Night Train and at each point we search for who is in control of this narrative, repeatedly we are reminded that control is an illusion, a fabrication: “We all think we’re in control of our own lives, but really they’re pre-ghostwritten by forces around us.”
Finally, we have to ask: “What is real and what is not? Who is blowing on the nape of my neck?”
A truly wonderful, if not unsettling journey.