Alumni Relations Coordinator; MFA alumnus
I love David Mitchell in the same way that I loved Les Claypool and Steve Vai when I first started playing the bass and guitar at 15. The man is a technical genius, and he can show off unlike any other writer I know. For example, he wrote a single book, called Cloud Atlas, that goes from the past to the future and then back again, spanning six different storylines and I don’t even know how many different genres. Did I mention that this was his third book? And he wrote it at 35? And he convinced someone to publish it? It’s like watching those old surfing reels where people catapult twenty feet in the air, or maybe it’s like watching LeBron James or Dwayne Wade play basketball. It’s a feat of technical skill and writerly showmanship, and it is amazing.
In other words, I love David Mitchell, but I also hate him a little bit. And this is why my favorite of his books doesn’t involve as much in the way of literary backflips. My favorite book of his is Ghostwritten, and it was his first.
Sure, Ghostwritten still shows off a little. It is a novel made up of nine stories – with characters ranging from a fundamentalist terrorist to a concubine spy to a night time shock jock to a disembodied spirit—and they are all linked through what seems to be nothing more than random chance. But Ghostwritten has something else, something that all too often can only be found in first novels, something that makes me want to recommend this book to nonwriters and writers alike.
Ghostwritten has – for lack of a better word – an abundance of soul. Reading it, I didn’t feel like I was being hit over the head with humanist themes, like I have in some of his other work, and I wasn’t distracted by the book’s complex-by-all-standards-but-Mitchell’s conceit. Everything that makes David Mitchell David Mitchell is still there, but it wasn’t so loud as to be distracting. It was more Otis Redding than Steve Vai. I don’t remember the writing, the words, but I remember the feeling they created, the sympathy I had for the wandering disembodied spirit and the anger I felt for the lives it ruined. Or the sadness I felt for the shock jock as he kept going while the world nearly ended around him. I wanted them to succeed, or I hated them, or they scared the bejesus out of me, and I still remember each and every one of them to this day. Mitchell’s showmanship volume was muted, and this allowed for me to settle in and enjoy the world he created.
And that, I think, is how you can tell a great writer.
Paris Review interviews David Mitchell: “I wrote Ghostwritten’s earlier stories in backpacker hostels, primarily to relieve my writer’s itch.”