Writing and Other Afflictions

"If it was easy, everyone would do it." –Jimmy Dugan, "A League of Their Own"

Monthly Archives: August 2009

Revew: Ghostwritten

Ghostwritten, by David Mitchell
9/10, a sprawling lovely tapestry that presages “Cloud Atlas

I’ve made little secret of my admiration for “Cloud Atlas,” Mitchell’s award-winning novel. “Ghostwritten” was his first, and in it you can see the elements he later wove more successfully into “Cloud Atlas”: the global setting with specific and eloquently described locations; distinct and wonderful character voices; a unifying theme rather than an overarching plot; a rather dramatic conclusion.

But “Ghostwritten” is not as complete a book as “Cloud Atlas,” lacking depth in many of its component parts. It spans the globe rather than time, traveling from Okinawa to Tokyo, Hong Kong, China, Mongolia, St. Petersburg, London, Ireland, and New York. In “Cloud Atlas,” the stories were linked with sometimes-thin devices; here, too, the linking feels forced at times, the more so because it’s not always clear what the stories have to do with each other. They all share a theme of power and brutality, like the stories in “Cloud Atlas,” but here Mitchell takes the theme in a decidedly different direction.

In some cases, the protagonists of the stories are the ones with power; in other cases they believe they have power; in some cases they are merely victims. But in all cases, Mitchell displays the marvelous gift for voice and description that made “Cloud Atlas” stand out to me, and even if some segments dragged a little, I never felt bored, never wanted to put the book down.

It’s not a quick read, but it’s a worthwhile one. As I’ve said in the past, if you want to learn about character voice, there are few people you could pick up lessons from better qualified than David Mitchell. So far, none of his books have disappointed, and if you’ve finished “Cloud Atlas” and are looking for something to remind you of it (complete with recurring characters such as Luisa Rey), pick up “Ghostwritten.”

Review: Un Lun Dun

Un Lun Dun, by China Mieville
10/10, a brilliant, engaging “otherworld” adventure

My only previous exposure to China Mieville had been a short story read in our fabulist class, about a pile of garbage that comes to life through the devices of a shaman, and staring at the spine of “Perdido Street Station” in our bookshelf for five years. “Un Lun Dun” had gotten some good buzz, and when I picked it up in the bookstore and saw that the first chapter was titled, “The Respectful Fox,” well, it was like Mr. Mieville was reaching into my pocket and taking out nine dollars.

And you know what? I don’t mind at all. The fox only appears in the first chapter and then is gone, but I didn’t care. He bows to Zanna, the latest in a series of odd incidents that have occurred to the young British girl, and soon she and her friend Deeba are in Un Lun Dun–from “Un-London,” one of a multitude of “abcities,” where all the refuse and unwanted things from the real cities end up, along with some people and animals, and some things in between.

Zanna, it turns out, is the “Shwazzy,” destined to save Un Lun Dun from the horrible Smog. The quest she and Deeba set out on takes them to a town of ghosts, a large market where they meet a man who sews clothes from books, a ride on an old double-decker bus, to a bridge that has no fixed location, but joins any two places you can think of. That’s where they meet the Propheseers and the Book, which contains all information known about the world, and is happy to share it smugly. They also meet the master of un-brellas (broken umbrellas) and a cadre of ninja-like garbage bins.

And from there, things get weird.

I can’t share any more about the plot, because discovering it is part of the joy of the book. But there are so many other joys: the beautiful writing that manages to be both cinematic and literary (one of the side jokes I loved was in the Library of Un Lun Dun, where they keep all the books that haven’t been written, one of the Librarians mentions going on a search for “Oh, All Right Then: Bartleby Returns”), the imaginative characters Mieville invents, the personalities and problems they all have, the illustrations (provided by the author), the humorous moments…

This book reminds me of curling up in bed at the age of ten with a fantasy novel. The way all fantasy feels to you at that age is the way this novel feels to me now. I cannot recommend it highly enough. It owes a lot to Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere,” but it is lighter than Gaiman, brighter without being less sound. I enjoyed “Neverwhere.” I loved “Un Lun Dun.”