I’m wondering if you can tell a lot about a person by which of these stories she likes best. I approached the book as I do a collection of short stories, more interested in Mitchell’s way with words and characters than whether or not the book turned out to be a novel.
Each chapter is named for the location in which a first-person narrator is attempting to understand the particulars of his or her life and situation, despite all the attendant variables and possibilities. What each chapter or character has to do with the others is a mystery that reading the book is supposed to solve, though one thing is clear from the start: the future of humanity and the survival of the planet are quite likely at stake.
Ghostwritten is called a novel, the blurb telling me I’m in for lives converging with fearful symmetry and coming full circle. Sounds good, but I read regardless, enjoying each chapter as a story unto itself, some more than others. My favorites are Clear Island, Holy Mountain, and Night Train, in that order.
Along about Petersburg, my least favorite, the editor in me kicked in, the one who used to do a lot of content analysis and revision. I’d get documents in need of sorting out, like puzzles put together not quite right, lacking logic or coherence or pieces; the authors knew their parts, but not necessarily how best to make a whole. Until I got tired of it, helping them figure things out was a game for me and fun.
Along about Petersburg, I had connected some dots leading to the whole of Ghostwritten that was supposed to be a novel, enough to see that the stories were indeed puzzle pieces, though the dots were few and far between. Was I missing something, I wondered, or was it just a matter of time, of working through the full circle. I remembered how fun content analysis could be, and found myself wanting to finish the book so I could go back and analyze it, to examine how Mitchell crafted the work, to see if he seemed to really know what he was doing (and what I could learn from that) or if he was half-assed or just winging it or what.
I still think it’d be fun to do, but in the end I found the individual chapters so satisfying I didn’t mind the novel remaining amorphous, and suspected that was the point. The novel seems the world in a way, each chapter a stop on a tour that amounts to no more than glimpses of the big picture. It seems clear to me that Mitchell’s primary concerns are the nature of storytelling and the meaning of life, and he’s exploring them through dynamics of scale, a kind of literary game of “I spy”: the individual and isolated as spied within the universal and contiguous.
Clear Island, Holy Mountain, and Night Train are my favorite chapters not because everything in them converges, but because the details that converge and the details that don’t are, as I read them, comparably essential and make the best stories.
Clear Island is my very favorite because of how brilliantly physics and place and relationships work as metaphors. The narrator is an Irish physicist who’s abandoned her American post and gone home (to Clear Island) because of America’s militaristic plans for her scientific finds. She genuinely fears for the future of humanity should the American government get its way. In the process of fleeing the powers that be and reuniting with her family, she attempts to understand the particulars of her life within the larger physical and metaphysical contexts.
Why am I who I am? Because of the double helix of atoms coiled along my DNA. What is DNA’s engine of change? Subatomic particles colliding with its molecules. These particles are raining onto the Earth now, resulting in mutations that have evolved the oldest single-celled life-forms through jellyfish to gorillas and us, Chairman Mao, Jesus, Nelson Mandela, His Serendipity, Hitler, you and me. Evolution and history are the bagatelle of particle waves.” (p. 360)
I love that, but if asked to pick a favorite paragraph from the book, it would probably be this:
What happens to all the seconds tipped into the bin of the past? And what happens to the other universes where electrons follow other paths, where thoughts and mutations and actions differ? Where I was captured in Huw’s apartment? Where my father is still alive and my mother bright as the button she always was, where John never went blind, where my precocity and ambition were those of a farmer’s wife, where nuclear weapons were invented by 1914, where Homo erectus went the same fossilized way as australopithecines, where DNA never zipped itself up, where stars were never born to die in a shroud of carbon and heavier elements, where the big bang crunched back under the weight of its own mass a few jiffies after it banged? Or are all these universes hung out, side by side, to drip dry?” (p. 368)
And the most daunting and hopeful and telling bit is probably this, though it is not how the book ends:
The ground became land, the land an island, and Clear Island just another island among the larger ones and smaller ones . . . Finally, I understand how the electrons, protons, neutrons, photons, neutrinos, positrons, muons, pions, gluons and quarks that make up the universe, and the forces that hold them together, are one.” (p. 371)
Even had I not enjoyed the stories so much, I’d consider the book worth reading for the fascinating things it did to my perspective of time and place and the significance of connections made or missed along the way. Somewhere and always it is Friday in Santa Monica.