Blue Marble

Following nine narrators from London to Mongolia, David Mitchell makes a literary game out of spinning the globe

Satoru's place is jazz. Prone to counter-top philosophizing for lack of company or clientele, the Japanese shop boy muses that the colors and feelings of his inner world "come not from the eye but from sounds." That's why he works in a music store, he says, adding paradoxically, "not that I could ever put that into words." This odd disconnect between what Satoru believes he can articulate and the fact that it is eloquently articulated for the reader in Satoru's voice is typical of all nine narrators in David Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten. It's as if the character's soul or unconscious self were speaking, not his self-conscious, earthbound body. With similar detachment does Neal Brose, a Hong Kong trader, describe his own fatal collapse: "My liver squirmed impatiently. My heart was going through its options."

In addition to channeling the souls of an adolescent jazz fan and a dying banker, David Mitchell speaks through the mouth of the murderous Quasar, a member of a Japanese doomsday cult. Quasar poisons a carriageful of people on the Tokyo subway and escapes to small-town Okinawa, where he has nothing but contempt for its kindly inhabitants. Mitchell also poses as an aging Russian beauty in a Petersburg museum while she plans an art theft with her violent lover. The author's literary ventriloquism extends from here to an ancient woman in China, a middle-aged Irish physicist, a British ghostwriter, and, consistent with the disembodied nature of all Mitchell's narrators, a ghostly spirit--a "noncorpa" that leaps from body to body in remote Mongolia as it searches for its own origins.

Whether male or female, young or old, in Mongolia or London, these characters share much more than they (or we, initially) realize. At first, Ghostwritten reads like a loose collection of interconnected short stories. As in a Hitchcock cameo, each character appears fleetingly in the world of the character that follows. Quasar phones Satoru's music shop--wrong number. Neal Brose eats in the same restaurant as Satoru and his girlfriend, cynically observing their young love. And as the book develops, the connecting threads become stronger and weave forward and back. We find that the disembodied spirit in Mongolia was the "talking tree" in the old Chinese lady's Holy Mountain, and the investigator on the trail of Neal Brose in Hong Kong turns up as physicist Mo Muntervary's temporary savior in the eighth chapter.

Even though Mitchell's characters always respond to their immediate circumstances--leaping across the road to push a stranger from the path of a taxi or scrambling for money to fill their empty pockets--there is a higher order of observation that connects these characters as well, a kind of collective unconscious that transcends the odd crossing of paths. Although worlds apart, Satoru in Japan and Mo Muntervary in Ireland both notice the delicate "fuselage" of a mosquito. Similarly, the old Chinese woman adds "writers" to her "list of people not to trust," and the noncorpa talks of "mystics, lunatics and writers" as a single group.

As these physical and mental connections reverberate and the overarching web of cause and effect thickens, each character nonetheless remains isolated from one another, and from him- or herself. All they have in the end is their place, as Satoru observes, or their lack of it. This search for place creates a great sense of urgency and an exciting lack of control in all the characters' lives. And Mitchell, it turns out, is not just the conductor of these individual journeys, but the master plotter of a chance universe, a travel agent of the metaphysical.

 
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