I completely fell in love with David Mitchell while reading his masterpiece Cloud Atlas last year, and resolved to pick up more of his work. I thought it might be interesting to read them in chronological order and see the development of his distinct style, so I started with Ghostwritten, his debut novel.
I'm a little sad to say that I didn't love this one quite as much as Cloud Atlas, but I didn't really expect to. It's probably unfair to compare the two works, but I'm going to anyway, so get ready*. Cloud Atlas (I'm getting tired of linking it) is a really tight and polished novel: while it's a little gimmicky and meanders all over the place, changing perspective and style every 50 pages or so, the structure of it makes perfect sense. The links and connections between characters are clear and the narrative shifts occur at logical places. It's a really easy, enjoyable piece of postmodern literature to read. Ghostwritten also tells the stories of multiple characters in different locations and has shifting narration, but it just doesn't get quite up to the same level as Cloud Atlas. It's interesting to see the connections between the characters here, but it's almost like there are too many of them. I just didn't "get" all of them. Also, as opposed to Cloud Atlas, where the 6 stories are interrupted and nested and then relate back to one another, in Ghostwritten they are complete vignettes just put in order, more like traditional short stories in an anthology of related works.
I found that I liked some stories better than others, so maybe I'd better break them down. Each is titled by the location where the protagonist spends the majority of the story:
Okinawa - Narrated by terrorist hiding out after detonating a gas bomb on a crowded subway in order to purge the "unclean" in the name of His Serendipity, an enigmatic cult leader. I found this one fascinating.
Tokyo - A recent high-school grad obsessed with jazz, who works in a record store while trying to figure out what to do with his life. It follows several weeks of his life as he meets a girl and falls in love with her. Not my favorite.
Hong Kong - A corrupt, divorced, British suit working in the corporate world of Hong Kong and living in a supposedly haunted apartment.
Holy Mountain - I loved this one. It was beautiful and haunting: a bildungsroman following the life of a lonely tea shack proprietor, from when she is raped as a young girl by the Warlord's Son (because he is bored and to show he can) and shamed by her father (who could do nothing to stop it, so channeled his guilt into anger at her for allowing her loss of chastity to ruin the family's reputation) until she dies as an old woman who has seen destruction and war so many times. Her only company is her tree, who she believes is magical and can talk, but we find out more about that in the next part.
Mongolia - This is a strange one, and it took a little while to figure out who's narrating, but I don't really think it's a spoiler to say since all the narrators are listed (in order) in the book description above. The protagonist is a parasitic mental entity that calls itself a "noncorpum" and travels from host mind to host mind to find out more about its own existence. One of my favorites.
Petersburg - Narrated by a museum attendant who is seducing her boss in order to steal priceless paintings from under his nose with her boyfriend (who is an abusive piece of scum), it tells the story of their last heist and how it all went to shit.
London - A flaky, wasted musician and part-time ghostwriter, trying to decide if he should quite his manwhoring and settle down with his baby momma, who seems to be getting along fine without him. Along the way he saves a life and does some gambling.
Clear Island - A brilliant physicist from a small island in Ireland, who has been conscripted to develop new weapons for the U.S. military and is desperately trying to get out.
Night Train - A New York late-night DJ who keeps fielding mysterious on-air calls from someone who calls themselves the Zookeeper. Guess who it is? Meh.
Underground - Kind of a bonus chapter, only a few pages, it's almost a prequel or alternate-universe version of the first part, Okinawa. It's intentionally vague, and I'm still kind of undecided as to whether I liked that kind of no-end-ending or not.
*Another reason it's hard not to compare this book and Cloud Atlas is that there are actually a number of connections that can be found to the later book hidden within the text. Tim Cavendish, of "The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish" (the 4th narrative in Cloud Atlas) makes an appearance in the London section - turns out he's the ghostwriter's boss. His brother, a lawyer, is mentioned a number of times in the Hong Kong story. Luisa Rey, from "Half-Lives" (3rd story in Cloud Atlas) calls into Bat's radio show in Night Train. And there are a couple mentions of characters having comet-shaped birthmarks. These are passing references that a casual reader might not pick up on, but having read both books they really intrigue me. It makes me want to root around in David Mitchell's brain and see what his obsessions are - why the elaborations on these throwaway, bit parts to turn them into main characters for a later work. Or were the two books written around the same time and the allusions were made intentionally as an Easter Egg? In any case, David Mitchell is clever enough to write great, genre-bending literature without being so clever as to be obnoxious, and for that I will continue reading the rest of his oeuvre.