Books on The Lifeshelf #1: Ghostwritten – David Mitchell

Introducing a new series of reading recommendations from The Lifeshelf.

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Hey, thanks for clicking through. Even if you did it by accident, please stay, although I can promise that if you don’t like what you read you will not be compensated in any way.

If you did click deliberately, and have already read my article on meditation, you’re probably getting the sense that this one is veering into vastly different territory. Worry not; I think it’s going to be ok, because this is the first in a new series! ‘Books on The Lifeshelf’ is all about fiction and non-fiction reading recommendations, and will eventually become a sprawling archive with a consciousness far superior to our own, that goes on to rule the planet. In the meantime, it has to start somewhere. And luckily for you, that somewhere is here.

Why reading recommendations? Because The Lifeshelf is all about learning to live and living to learn, and lots of our learning comes from books. Other articles will focus on travel and meeting people and learning skills out in the ‘real world’, but this space on the shelf is dedicated to the wealth of opportunity that resides in the written word. I should clarify; these aren’t going to be reviews. If they were, they would be extremely predictable and one-sided, as I have neither the time nor the inclination to write 1,000 words on a book that I didn’t love. Only books that have enhanced my life go on my Lifeshelf (it’s a metaphor, go with it), and I’ll only write about those that I think you’d enjoy too.

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So if you’re always on the lookout for books that inspire and educate, you’re probably going to want to hang around. Of course, it’s a two-way street – recommend some to me and I’ll check them out, especially if they’re about psychology, creativity or otters. And if you’re not already an avid bibliophile (that’s someone who loves books, as opposed to someone with a hobbit fetish), I hope that you’ll stay long enough to be swayed by my relentless enthusiasm. Failing that, I’ll bombard you with quotes I found on the internet. Indeed, I do recall that the Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said:

‘Books are the training weights of the mind’.

And his name started with ‘epic’…so make of that what you will. Anyway, if this all sounds like a fair deal, then scroll on past the girl in the hammock and find out which book is first to grace The Lifeshelf. Spoiler alert: it’s in the title.

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Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell.

Now, let’s get one thing straight, straight away. We’re not talking about that David Mitchell. As far as I’m aware, Mark from Peep Show had absolutely zero involvement in this fine work of literature, which let’s face it, is probably a good thing. You’d be forgiven for making the mistake though. At least, I hope you would, because I made it too. Indeed, I’m ashamed to admit that I downloaded Ghostwritten for the following reasons:

  1. I thought it was the debut work of serious fiction from that David Mitchell (now we know), and I wondered whether it would be surprisingly good, or surprisingly bad.
  2. It was on offer for £0.99, so I wasn’t too fussed either way.

Thankfully, with my erroneous download complete, the ‘About the Author’ section was on hand to educate me.

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Buy Ghostwritten here (or get the moral satisfaction of supporting a local business, whatever).

To save you the trouble, here’s a quick rundown:

Ghostwritten is Mitchell’s debut novel, published way back in ’99 when he was teaching English in Japan. He was thirty and received a fistful of awards for being young and talented; certainly, Ghostwritten sets the bar at an inspirational (read: depressing) height for aspiring novelists.

Even if you’ve not heard of him, you may have come across his work – one of his later novels, ‘Cloud Atlas’, was turned into a film starring Tom Hanks and Halle Berry. I’ve yet to read any of his others, but they include ‘number9dream’, ‘Black Swan Green’ and ‘The Bone Clocks’.

Bonus: According to a recent Twitter exchange between this David Mitchell and that David Mitchell, there is also a Cumbrian origamist with the same name, so watch out for that.

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So now we’re all up to speed, what about the actual book? Lets start with something simple, like an overview of the plot…

Actually, let’s not. We’d probably all agree that, traditionally, a key component of a novel’s ‘greatness’ is a great plot. This delicately-woven-yet-unbreakable thread links the very first word to the very last, and keeps us excited and guessing throughout. Eventually, it all ties together and everyone breathes a sigh of relief, then claps profusely. It is by no means a crime to appreciate and expect a solid plot.

However, if you absolutely can’t stand the idea of reading a novel that, to be honest, doesn’t really have one, you should probably give Ghostwritten a miss. The thing is, it’s a ‘novel in nine parts’. In place of the usual format (short-to-medium length chapters, each doing their bit to advance the overall story) we have long chapters, and each tells a different tale, from a different character’s perspective.

Among others, this includes: a teenage jazz buff who works in a Tokyo record store; backpackers on the Trans Siberian Express; the owner of a repeatedly endangered tea shack on the side of China’s Holy Mountain; an art thief in St. Petersburg; and an English businessman struggling with life in Hong Kong. The stories of these nine narrators are inextricably linked to their locations, and much of my enjoyment came from the constant globetrotting between and within each chapter. The descriptions of East Asian locations are particularly vibrant (the author was living in Japan after all), and won’t do anything to suppress your increasingly demanding sense of wanderlust.

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It’s nearly all written in first person, and the writing expertly shifts in voice to reflect each character’s outlook. Honestly, Ghostwritten is so full of neat turns of phrase that picking out any for special mention is an arbitrary task. Some characters are thinkers; others go ahead and do. Some are loud and offensive in their thoughts and actions; others are poetic, even meditative, in their poise. Some, like the tragically-mislead narrator of the opening chapter, have a pretty disgusting view of other people:

‘The subway train in Tokyo was as crammed as a cattle-wagon. Crammed with organs, wrapped in meat, wrapped in clothes.’

Because we’re inside this guy’s head, Mitchell never has to explicitly tell us that he’s a horrible person, it’s readily conveyed in how he sees the world. We inhabit his perspective long enough to judge him, understand him, witness his story and ultimately, empathise with him, and then we move on to someone (and somewhere) else…eight times.

In this sense then, Ghostwritten is more like an anthology of independently conceived short stories than a novel. Except actually, it isn’t. Because there is a thread, it’s just much less solid – and therefore in many ways, that little bit more rewarding – than the one holding together say, a fast-paced thriller like The Girl on the Train, or anything remotely resembling good old Harry Potter and Whatever The Last One Was Called.

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The thread exists in the interweaving of the stories, but not in an obvious ‘nine strangers, one fateful day, all their lives changed forever’ kind of way. In the most overt cases, it causes characters whose stories began worlds apart to bump into each other, and although they rarely interact in anything but the most fleeting of ways, it’s just enough to remind you that this is actually rather well tied-together after all. Generally it’s through tiny non-coincidences that they invade each other’s chapters – an overheard news report, an unassuming mutual acquaintance, a visit to a now-familiar location.

Often these links are subtle, and I’ve doubtless missed many on my first read through. Ghostwritten will have you frequently feeling the stirrings of déjà vu, before realising that an identical sentiment or observation has been expressed elsewhere. In fact, I’m pretty sure there’s a sentence that’s re-used word for word at least twice in subsequent chapters. All this cleverness lends itself to the feeling that there’s some kind of meta-theme to understand and take pride in having understood. Indeed, much of the time you’ll be adamant that what you’re reading is deeply profound and definitely ‘about’ something, even if you can’t quite decide what it actually is.

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Of course, if there is a dominant unifying theme, it might be the one given away in the title. Certainly, one chapter tells the story of a ghostwriter (also part-time drummer and full-time womaniser) in London, and in other chapters, ‘ghostwritten’ takes on different but equally apparent meanings (vague I know, but avoiding spoilers is harder than it looks!).

My own interpretation is that Mitchell is the ghostwriter. He tells stories from his characters’ perspective, selling the words as theirs rather than his own. This is hinted at by lots of little in-jokes about writers, my favourite being:

‘I added writers to my list of people not to trust. They make everything up’.

Indeed they do, but not many that I’ve read do it quite so well as this guy. In fact, I reckon that my own capacity for making things up has greatly benefited from reading his work. Short of supercharging my writing skills through literary osmosis, it’s fuelled my ambition, influenced my approach, and opened my eyes to there being less ‘rules’ than I’d previously thought.

And it’s because of this that I’ll read it again and again; in other words, Ghostwritten is going on The Lifeshelf. For the inspiration and learning, let alone the hours of entertainment, it’s clearly worth far more than the £0.99 that I mistakenly paid for it. Maybe one day I’ll make a real-life Lifeshelf and buy a hard copy to go on it. Or even better, having stuck with my unashamedly gushing testimonial to the bitter end, maybe you’ll be inclined to check it out for yourself? Perhaps you’ll even buy it on purpose…

Now we know.

 

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Thanks for reading –  please leave a comment if you’ve read Ghostwritten, or want to recommend a book for The Lifeshelf! Words by Alexander MJ S. Images from Pexels, Pixabay and Amazon. 

 

 

 

 

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