|Publisher||Hodder and Stoughton|
|Publication date||19 August 1999|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
Ghostwritten is the first novel published by the author David Mitchell. Published in 1999, it won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and was widely acclaimed. The story takes place mainly around East Asia, but also moves through Russia, Britain, the USA and Ireland. It is written episodically; each chapter details a different story and central character, although they are all interlinked through seemingly coincidental events. Many of the themes from Ghostwritten continue in Mitchell's subsequent novels, number9dream and Cloud Atlas.
Ghostwritten is the subject of a number of influences, particularly from East Asian culture and superstition, as well as real events remodeled for plot purposes (e.g. The Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway). There are also hints and references to other works, most prominently from Isaac Asimov and the Three Laws of Robotics towards the end of the book, as well as Wild Swans by Jung Chang and The Music of Chance by Paul Auster.
This details the actions of Quasar, a member of a millenarianist doomsday cult, attempting to evade capture after releasing nerve agents into a Tokyo Subway train. He believes himself to be able to converse telepathically with 'His Serendipity', leader of the cult, and regards ordinary people with disgust, waiting for an apocalyptic moment — a comet's prophesied collision with earth — in which they will be destroyed. He is hiding in Okinawa, first in the capital Naha, then in the small island of Kumejima. When he runs out of money, he phones a number that was given to him by the association of the cult and says the secret message "the dog needs to be fed". While he is in Okinawa the police cracks down on the cult and arrests His Serendipity. Quasar is shocked by this, since he believes that His Serendipity has the power to teleport himself and walk through solid walls.
In a seemingly unlinked next chapter, the spotlight lands on Satoru, a young Japanese jazz lover working in a record shop in downtown Tokyo. He plays the tenor saxophone with a pianist friend. His mother was a Filipina prostitute who was deported back to her country and he never met his father. He was raised by the madam of the whore house. When one day a group of girls come to the shop, he finds himself attracted to one of them, Tomoyo, but the girls leave and he thinks he will never see her again. On a later occasion, having just closed up the shop, he hears the phone ringing from within and returns to answer it: it turns out to be a phone call from somebody who says just the words "the dog needs to be fed" before hanging up. His tarrying to receive the call leads to another meeting with Tomoyo. Satoru and Tomoyo strike up a conversation and they start a relationship. She turns out to be half Japanese and half Chinese and lives in Hong Kong. She later asks him to follow her to Hong Kong and the section ends with them discussing what flights he can catch.
The life of financial lawyer Neal Brose starts to unravel as he tries to cope with the money laundering deal he is carrying out, and impending divorce. He lives alone in an apartment that he used to share with his wife, who left him to return to London because they couldn't have children. The apartment is haunted by the ghost of a girl. The owner of the company for which Neal works, Denholme Cavendish, asked him to manage a secret bank account, number 1390931, where a mysterious Andrei Gregorski from Saint Petersburg regularly deposits large sums of money. One day at a restaurant, a couple, evidently in love, sits at the same table with Neal. The girl is Chinese and the boy Japanese and he is carrying a saxophone case. After his wife leaves him, Neal has an affair with the Chinese maid who cleans his apartment. He eventually suffers a break-down: Instead of going to work, he climbs a hill towards a Buddhist temple, along the way throwing away his briefcase. In the grip of a debilitating diabetic condition he drops dead, sending shockwaves through the economy of the world and also causing major impacts on the next storylines. In typical Mitchell fashion, the Neal Brose character is used in the author's fourth novel, Black Swan Green. In this novel, Brose is a young teenager living in Worcester.
This section involves the reminiscences of a woman who runs a Tea Shack on the side of the Holy Mountain in China. She lived through the late feudalism of China through to the surge of new ideas in the twentieth century and the shocking brutality of Communism under Mao Zedong. When she was just a girl the son of the local war lord raped her. She had a daughter who was raised by her aunts and whom she never saw. Through all the turmoil of the last half century of Chinese history, she never moves from the Holy Mountain and her Tea Shack. The solitude of the Holy Mountain and hope for her illegitimate daughter keeps her alive through the defining points of China's turbulent recent history, and allow her to make peace with the world. A great old Tree outside speaks to her and gives her counsel. The representatives of various powers come to the shack in turn: the Japanese, the Nationalists, the Communists. The shack is destroyed several times and always rebuilt by her hand. On occasion she sees ghosts. One day she receives a letter from her daughter, who has fled to Hong Kong. She discovers that she is now a great-grandmother and her granddaughter works as a cleaning lady for a Westerner. She never goes up to the top of the mountain, where the Buddhist temples are, until the end of her life.
Urban and rural Mongolia is seen through the eyes of a disembodied spirit, a 'noncorpum' which survives by inhabiting living hosts. Whilst generally non-malevolent, the spirit uses whatever measures necessary to discover more about its birth and the nature of its existence. The narration starts with Caspar, a Danish backpacker travelling on a train to Mongolia. He meets an Australian girl, Sherry; they start travelling together and they initiate a relationship. The narrator is a noncorpum, a spirit without a body living inside Caspar's mind. It has lost memory of its origin. It can recollect starting inside the mind of a man at the village at the foot of the Holy Mountain in China. This man had been a brigand and a soldier in Mongolia. Its only preceding memory is a story of three animals thinking about the fate of the world. The noncorpum transmigrates from host to host, trying to find its origin by trying to find the origin of the three animals story. For a time, it was inside the mind of the lady of the Tea Shack. The noncorpum came to Mongolia after overhearing a mother tell the animal story to her son while staying as a guest at the Tea Shack. The mother said that the story is an old Mongolian folk tale. While in Mongolia, the noncorpum transmigrates from Caspar to a Mongolian woman and then to several other natives as it tries to find a writer who is collecting traditional Mongolian stories and is said to know the tale of the three animals. When one of its hosts is murdered, the noncorpum gets loose and finds itself in a ger (a traditional Mongolian tent) with many other ghosts, unable to get out. It is eventually reborn, 3 months later, as the newborn child of a young Mongolian woman. The noncorpum transmigrates first to the mother, then her husband, and finally to her grandmother. In the mind of the grandmother the noncorpum finally discovers its origin. It was once a young Buddhist boy from a remote Mongolian village. When the Communists were about to execute the boy, his master, and other monks, his master tried to save his life by transporting his soul into the body of a young girl (who later became the grandmother). The connection, however, was broken and only the memories passed on to the girl. The rest of the boy's soul ended up in a Chinese soldier. The noncorpum decides to transmigrate back to the newborn girl—who would have otherwise died—as her soul.
Involved in a Russian art heist, curator Margarita Latunsky lives out a squalid existence as concubine and sleeper agent in the Hermitage Museum. As repercussions from the business crash in Hong Kong and events in Mongolia ripple towards Russia, her life and the lies she has forced herself to believe are torn apart. In Soviet times she was the lover of a powerful politician and an admiral. Now she is the mistress of the museum chief curator and works for a band of art thieves. Her boyfriend Rudi is the mastermind of the band, while the English painter Jerome produces fake paintings that they replace for the stolen ones. The band obeys the Russian crime boss Gregorski, who procures buyers for the stolen artifacts and pockets most of the proceedings. She dreams of leaving Russia and going to live in Switzerland with Rudi on the money they have made by stealing the art. Their latest plan is to steal the painting Eve and the Serpent by Delacroix. The buyer sent by Gregorski is the Mongolian hitman Suhbataar, whose real task is to test the fidelity of Rudi. Rudi had been in charge of laundering money through a Hong Kong bank account. When the person in charge of that account dies, Gregorski suspects Rudi. The band is seized by panic, Jerome kills Rudi and Margarita kills Jerome. Suhbataar takes the stolen painting and leaves Margarita in the hands of the police, in a state of shock and denial.
In the first direct reference to the title of the novel, the action jumps to London and the exploits of Marco, a ghostwriter-cum-drummer, scraping out a living whilst barely avoiding the darker seductions of the capital. Complex plotlines involving the science of chance and destabilization of the world, sparked off in earlier chapters, begin to pick up speed.
Marco is a womanizer. He wakes up one morning in the bed of Katy Forbes. She sends him away when the postman delivers an antique chair sent to her by her husband from Hong Kong before he died of diabetes. On his way out, Marco saves a woman who was about to be hit by a taxi. She is in a hurry and takes the taxi to Gatwick airport. Afterwards three men in suits interrogate Marco about her and he lies about where she went.
Marco plays in a rock band called The Music of Chance. This whole part is about the interplay between chance and destiny. He has an almost stable relation with Poppy, who already has a daughter, India. But he cannot abandon his random life to commit completely to her.
Marco is also a ghostwriter, writing the autobiography of Alfred, an old radical homosexual of Hungarian Jewish origin. On this day, Alfred tells Marco about that time in 1947 when he saw his own alter ego. The narration is interrupted by Roy, Alfred's lover, with the news that their friend Jerome has been murdered in Russia. Later, Marco visits the publishing house he works for. The director is Tim Cavendish, brother of Denholme, who finances the company but is running into financial trouble because his law firm in Hong Kong is being investigated.
In the evening, the rich cousin of Marco's friend Gibreel makes a bet with an Iranian acquaintance: they give some money to Marco and Gibreel, go to the casino, and bet on which of the two will win more. Marco cheats and a fight breaks out.
Eventually Marco takes the decision to put an end to the way he is living and marry Poppy.
Mo Muntervary is a physicist studying quantum cognition or quancog. She has returned to Clear Island, her birthplace in the south of Ireland, after being on the run from the American government. She was employed in a research facility in Switzerland when she discovered that her results where being used by the US military to build intelligent weapons. Her resignation for moral objections was rejected and an American general calling himself Mr. Stolz tries to force her to go and work in Texas. She runs away and finds temporary shelter in Hong Kong with her old friend Huw Llewellyn. When unknown people almost catch her, she has to be on the move again. On the run, she develops a revolutionary new theory of quantum cognition, which she writes down in a little black book.
She returns to Clear Island to stay with her blind husband John and her eighteen-year old son Liam. Eventually the Americans catch up with her. The whole island is prepared to defend her, but she decides to surrender. Before being caught, she feeds the little black book to her goat Feynman, so the Americans must rely on her for the theory and she can set her own conditions. One condition is for John to follow her to Texas.
She has a plan to make her research turn to the cause of peace.
Night Train is a late night radio show in New York. Its host is Bat Segundo. Several eccentric people phone in the show. An entity calling itself "the Zookeeper" phones one night. The Zookeeper is a non-corporeal artificial intelligence that broke loose from its creators, who intended it for military use. It inhabits communication and military satellites through which it monitors the state of the "Zoo", that is, the Earth. The Zookeeper follows four rules of behaviour, which are never given in full but only hinted at. The first rule says that it must be accountable for its actions, which is why it phones the show to reveal its existence and undertakings. There is a war going on between the US and an alliance of North-African Islamic states. Reciprocal nuclear annihilation is imminent, but the Zookeeper blocks all the launching devices, averting the end of the world.
One year later, another entity phones the show. It reveals that it is a non-corporeal being that can transfer from one body to another. It has been inside Mo Muntervary, the developer of the Zookeeper. It offers the Zookeeper a pact to dominate the world, but the Zookeeper refuses, identifies the entity and disables it (we don't know whether temporarily or permanently).
The Zookeeper reveals to Bat its moral dilemma: Conventional wars are breaking out everywhere on Earth. Innocent people are killed and the Zookeeper can't prevent it because one of its laws dictates that it cannot kill. But by not intervening more people will die. After an ethical discussion with Bat, the Zookeeper reveals that it has made up its mind but doesn't reveal its plans. The implication is that the Zookeeper may choose to mislead the UN about the comet's trajectory and allow it to impact Earth rather than stopping it. Bat unwittingly resolves the conflict of the two laws with the example of damaging a bridge that a group of African mercenaries would be crossing and allowing the bridge to destroy them, instead of the Zookeeper doing it directly.
The conclusion of the novel brings us back to the Tokyo underground and the terrorist attack perpetrated by Quasar. He almost gets stuck in the train car after unlocking the timer that will release the deadly gas. As he struggles to get out, people and objects with strong references to the other stories occur to him. Strands from all of the other chapters of the book are introduced via his hallucinations. He is left on a station platform, pondering what is real.
The stories are connected by many references and touch each other in several points; however, in line with the book's theme of randomness and chance, many of the connections are implied rather than overtly stated.
In the first part, Quasar phones a secret number to get more money from the treasury of the cult. He says the phrase: "the dog needs to be fed". The call is answered by Satoru in the second part.
In the third part, Neal sits in a restaurant when a couple asks to sit at the same table. The couple are not named, but the age, general description and the fact the boy carries a saxophone case would suggest that they are Satoru and his girlfriend Tomoyo from the second part.
The secret bank account number 1390931 that Neal is in charge of, belongs to the Russian mobster Gregorski, boss of the band of art thieves in part 6.
The maid who cleans Neal's apartment and has a sexual relationship with him in the third part may be the granddaughter of the Tea Shack lady from the fourth part. Whilst the maid is never named, she claims her employer died and left her money in his will. "The intuition of an old woman dying" says the granddaughter is not telling the whole truth. This would be consistent with part 3, in which Neal withdraws three quarters of the money in his account and hides it in a shoebox beneath his wife's dressing table, intending to conceal it better later to prevent the maid stealing it (he dies before he can do so).
The noncorpum who is the protagonist of the fifth part inhabits for a time the mind of the Tea Shack lady from the fourth part. She thinks that he is the spirit of the tree outside the shack.
The Mongolian KGB agent Suhbataar from part 5 shows up in part six to facilitate the sale of the stolen painting.
In Part 7, Marco wakes up in the bed of Katy Forbes, ex-wife of Neal from part two. Marco's publisher, Tim Cavendish, is the brother of Denholme Cavendish, the owner of the Hong Kong law firm that Neal works for. When Marco visits Alfred, the news of the death of artist/former secret agent Jerome (from part 6) arrives; Jerome was an old friend of Alfred. Tim Cavendish has stacks of unsold books by a certain "Serendipity", the cult-leader of Quasar in part one. Marco flirts with a woman in a bar called Nancy Yoakham who is reading a book by Dwight Silverwind, about 'transcending the limits of the corporeal body'. This Dwight figures in a radio-recording that Zookeeper plays to Bat Segundo in part 9.
The lady who is saved from being run down by a taxi by Marco in part 7 is Mo Muntervary, protagonist of part 8. When Mo is on the run in Hong Kong, she finds refuge at the house of Huw Llewellyn, who, in part 3, is investigating the company for which Neal works. Mo also makes a major breakthrough in her work after talking to Sherry Connolly. Sherry is travelling in the same carriage as Caspar and the noncorpum in part 5.
General Stolz, who in part 9 is in charge of the nuclear attack that may destroy the Earth, is the American chasing Mo in part 8. In part 9, one of the pieces of music broadcasted by Bat is by the Japanese sax player Satoru Sonada, the protagonist of part 2. One of the callers to the radio shows is Quasar from part 1, who claims that the Zookeeper is the reincarnation of His Serendipity.
There are many other themes and words that occur through several of the stories: jazz, Buddhisms, marmots, gers, Genghis Khan, green pens, dinosaur references, people named Brain... and ghosts. In both part 3 and part 7, a mishap occurs with a coffee percolator as a result of placing two filters in it. The supernatural theme is seen in several parts with superstitious omens, most clearly in part 3 with Neal's apartment number and parts 3 and 6 with account 1390931 which is a palindrome beginning with 13 whose first four numbers, and consequently last four, add up to 13.
There are also forward references to Mitchell's later books Cloud Atlas, number9dream and Black Swan Green: the publisher Tim Cavendish of part 7 is also a narrator and protagonist of one story from Cloud Atlas; one of the callers to the Bat Segundo radio show in part 9 is Luisa Rey, another narrator-protagonist from Cloud Atlas. A Mongolian named Suhbataar appears in part four ("Reclaimed Land") of number9dream. Neal Brose, from part 3, features as a schoolboy in Black Swan Green.