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Tuesday, July 20, 1999

A stunning rumination on the interconnectedness of things

GHOSTWRITTEN, by David Mitchell. London: Sceptre/Hodder & Stoughton, 1998, 436 pp. (paper).

Staff writer Contemporary writers love to skate between different genres, styles and settings. And "Ghostwritten," the first novel by Englishman David Mitchell, is filled with such formal trickery. It is a sequence of apparently discrete stories, strung together by the protagonist of one popping up on the fringes of another. It is also a brilliant study of causality and the interconnectedness of things.

The book opens with the crazy musings of a Japanese cultist, Quasar, holed up in Okinawa. His hand still hurts from being trapped in the doors of the Tokyo train he filled with poison gas. And he is shocked and amused by the uninitiated, living in ignorance of the meteor homing in on Earth to bring Armageddon and the reign of the guru, His Serendipity.

Blind faith alters Quasar's sight. He takes his orders from a spider in his hotel lavatory bowl ("The Guru has an impish sense of humor") and the chapter (section? story?) closes with him seeing heaven's approach in the night sky as clouds ink out the stars.

Indeed, almost all of the characters are looking for paradise through one love or another. As Satoru, a young Tokyo jazz buff, asks, "if not love, then what?" He then follows a girl he barely knows to Hong Kong, rejoicing in his innocence.

The heaven of experience is of course not so exciting, but it may be more lasting. Marco, a dissolute Londoner, realizes this, humbly, humorously, when he renounces promiscuity and proposes to his girlfriend. But Margarita, a high-class Russian whore in the very late autumn of her beauty, does not. She deceives herself that heaven is a place: a luxurious Swiss chalet, where she will raise a family with her young pimp of a lover after they have lifted just one more Old Master from the Hermitage. But she is barren, he is a brute, and the heist ends in disaster.

Mo Muntervary was born on an Edenic isle off the coast of Eire called Clear Island, where there is never a cross word and whiskey galore. She leaves home to become a physicist but discovers that her employer, the U.S. government, is using her research in military technology that makes nuclear bombs seem like Molotov cocktails. So, after six months on the run, during which she bumps into half the other characters in the book, she returns home to her blind husband and son.

Inevitably, she is hunted down -- by a Texan in a 10-gallon hat -- and marched off to a top-secret research center. But this time, her husband John, like Milton's Adam, insists on sharing her exile. And though it took her the creation of a potentially cataclysmic Artificial Intelligence to know it, she finds in love the unifying principle that she had sought in science.

But Mitchell's is too sophisticated an imagination to settle for easy moralizing. In his world, every action, every thought, has an incalculable effect, a rippling series of repercussions. Thus, the diabetes of a British lawyer can bring a happy death to an ancient tea seller in southern China; the murder of a British spy turned forger in Moscow can rob Marco of his livelihood.

But does this mean we are riveted into a grand design? Or are we whirling in a chaos of chance? The answer is a matter for faith. And to know it is to recognize the ghostwriter who pens the course of lives. The same ghostwriter whose breath Quasar feels playing on the nape of his neck as he picks himself up from the subway platform, his mission accomplished. He swings around, but sees only "the back of the train, accelerating into the darkness."

Plenty of modern authors, from Flann O'Brien to Martin Amis, have allegorized the process of composition. But not many of them reach the metaphysical heights Mitchell attains in "Mongolia," his most original story. It tells of a transmigrating ghost -- or soul, if you like -- passing from host to host, in search of a memory to explain its origins. It has had no nurture and possesses no nature; its being is a blank page.

It collects stories and impressions from its hosts and, thereby, a set of ethics. As a "nonhuman-humanist" it has not an excessive love for humanity, but rather a fundamental decency. And suddenly omnipotence is no fun anymore. Faced with remaining a "noncorpum," and never growing old, getting sick, fearing death or dying, or choosing to be born, it plumps for life. The ghostwriter becomes ghostwritten.

Unfortunately, in the final chapter, Mo's Artificial Intelligence has no such option. Calling itself the zookeeper -- and the world, says Quasar, is a sick zoo -- it presses a late-night New York DJ for advice on "ethical variables." The problem is that the human visitors it has been programmed to safeguard are wrecking the zoo. Actually, no problem, says the unwitting DJ Bat Segundo, "out with 'em!" And the zookeeper knows what to do, for there is a meteor homing in, not so very far away from Earth.

"Ghostwritten" is a fantastic magpie's nest of a novel. Drawing here from news headlines, there from film, Mitchell weaves myriad voices into concord. Aum Shinrikyo meets "2001: A Space Odyssey." For as Mo made her intelligence, so he makes his art, believing that "nothing exists that can't be synthesized."

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