Tuesday, August 20, 2002

Title: Ghostwritten
Author: David Mitchell
Publisher: Sceptre

Ghostwritten is the first novel by David Mitchell, his second novel number9dream having been reviewed here recently. There are many similarities in Mitchell's approach to these two books, the fact that both are in "nine parts" for example, though overall I tend to feel that Ghostwritten is more consistent and coherent than number9dream. In each chapter Mitchell would have some secondary narrative going on, which acted either as an alternative interpretation of the primary or as a contrasting passage. While Ghostwritten is written in such away that it could essentially be described as 9 short stories, each is delivered in a block which is consistent and doesn't suffer from excessive tangents. Though at times the idea that these nine stories are intended to be a novel sometimes becomes frustrating, each really being separate from the others, so that in real terms it is a collection. The only thing which binds it in the end is the sense of travel and of coincidental connectivity.

Ghostwritten is a journey, starting in Japan where Mitchell resides and then travelling from the east to the west one location at a time and one character at a time. As each story progresses there will be a connection to the previous story and to the next story, which occur as various degrees of coincidence. Indeed there is a certain level of amusement to be had from trying to keep up with Mitchell and spot the clues that link things together as you go. Particularly as we reach the last couple of stories we perhaps have as vague a sense of a bigger picture as you are going to get, but along with that so many more connections start to come together linking several of the stories together to shadow subconsciously one of the characters who has travelled the same journey as the reader to some degree.

Starting in Okinawa, Japan, we have the story of a cult member who has released nerve gas on the Tokyo underground - following him as he goes into hiding. Returning to Tokyo we have two young people who meet in a record shop specialising in jazz, both half Japanese and both attracted to each other. From Tokyo to Hong Kong and a trading banker from the UK loses millions and reflects on the break down of his marriage. Into China we spend 70 years on the holy mountain, the life of a tea shop and the journey from girl to old woman, via all the political shifts in china over the years. over the border into Mongolia we follow a fairy tale in search of a fairy tale; interestingly rather than a city with this section we have a country, reflecting the more nomadic nature of Mongolians. The journey continues to Petersburg in Russia, where a woman steals paintings from a gallery, hoping that they will fund a new life in Switzerland. The trip jumps then, arriving in London as a bypass of most of Europe - where we meet a ghost writer contemplating his life and where it is going. Then it is another short hop, to the most remote part of Ireland and a homecoming, a woman returning to her people haunted by what she has been involved in and knowing that it will catch up with her. The ninth story is different from the others, the holy mountain and Mongolia covered time in a way the others didn't, but they dealt with the past and still worked into the continuity of Ghostwritten, with "night train" we cover a period of years starting off from the time period everything else has happened in. technically set in New York, but perhaps more detached from space than that as this story deals with a DJ on a late night talk radio show and the conversations he has with a caller who calls at the same time every year.

There are certain themes which crop up through the stories. Each seeming to be at a crucial period of the characters life, or death. The ideas of spirituality come up several times, as do the ideas of ghosts and intelligences beyond flesh. Then there are ideas, which find a certain continuance with number9dream - the central character could almost be an extension of the Tokyo story: the record shop become video shop, the search for a father become more prominent, the idea that the girl will depart rather than return. Along with that Eiji in N9D lived on the remotest of Japanese islands, which mirrors Mo and her remotest of Irish islands, while the thunder god on the island and Eiji's relation to it encapsulates several of the more spiritual ideas of Ghostwritten.

Ghostwritten is very much contemporary writing, the ideas of terrorism and financial collapse straight from the headlines, the idea of a DJ as cultural figure, the ideas of technology and the steps that they are taking riding that edge between being current and being speculative. All together making Ghostwritten an exciting work that compels even as the reader travels through these stories, led by an overriding sense of connection and focus.

August 2002

Monday, August 19, 2002

Title: Junk DNA
Author: Tania Glyde
Publisher: Codex

Junk DNA is not as much of a hectic collision as Glyde's story in Disco 2000 was, the work that most people who are aware of Glyde are likely to be aware of. At its core the mapping of the human genome and the ideas of what the results of that kind of knowledge could be, particularly the sense that everyone will be able to pinpoint who they are from their DNA.

The central character is Reg, a faux-therapist who has played on people's problems for years. With the mapping of the genome she feels that she will become redundant, so is looking to change her profession, preferably becoming a performance artist - hitting on the use of animals and genetic engineering as her artistic tool of choice. Along the way she becomes involved in the dispersal of a new drug, the side effect of which is that women become allergic to children and chaos breaks out through out the country.

Overall the Britain that Glyde creates is a twisting of the contemporary so that it is not entirely recognisable - taking some of the worst aspects of the social/political environment in this country in the last 30 or so years and exacerbating them in a manner that is mildly horrifying. Coupled with the action of the narrative the Britain that Glyde projects is certainly one that you wouldn't want to see coming about.

The downside of Junk DNA is that it is perhaps a little detached, more of a sense of things going on peripherally than actually happening, the drive not being as dynamic as Glyde can be. Apart from which it is an interesting and on balance enjoyable book, despite being woefully short.

August 2002

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