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Twist of Fate

GHOSTWRITTEN A Novel By David Mitchell; Random House: 430 pp., $24.95

October 08, 2000|REGINA MARLER | Regina Marler is the author of "Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom" and editor of "Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell."

It is possible to read almost all of David Mitchell's deft and engrossing debut without coming to terms with its rich moral subtexts: the writer's preoccupation with power and oppression, the illusion of free will, our interconnectedness with others and the purpose (not to mention the nature) of God. There are hints from the beginning, however, that some sort of exit toll will be exacted from us in its final pages and that even the casual reader will be drawn into debate. How else to underscore the enormous pleasures of Mitchell's fictional world, which depend not only on the usual elements--plots, characters, settings, all keenly and lovingly rendered--but also on Mitchell's breathtaking ambition to pursue the old, great themes, an Ahab scanning a horizon now cluttered with leaky oil freighters, Coast Guard frigates, drug smugglers, Haitian rafts and Disney cruise ships. For Mitchell, the white whale is still out there, plowing the waves beneath the floating garbage.

Published last year in England to critical acclaim, "Ghostwritten" is a novel presented as a series of loosely linked stories that track human vulnerability in the face of technological advancement and dissolving boundaries between nations and cultures. It opens with a religious terrorist checking into an Okinawa hotel under an assumed identity hours after releasing nerve gas in a packed Tokyo subway. Quasar, as he has been dubbed, completes his duty by remaining inconspicuous as the police pursue his fellow "ministers of justice," those who, like him, have cleansed the unclean and saved them years of suffering on this toxic planet. Like many of Mitchell's characters, Quasar is a pawn who believes himself to be an agent of destiny. It would have been easy to depict him as deranged or evil, but here he is rendered as fundamentally misguided--a lonely man, eager for approval--and is eventually allowed to feel remorse, even horror, at the deaths he has caused. Thus is he saved, though only in fiction. Later in the novel, a transient character remarks that we are all ghostwriters, because the act of memory is an act of ghostwriting: "And it's not just our memories. Our actions, too. We all think we're in control of our lives, but really they're pre-ghostwritten by forces around us." Quasar has welcomed those forces; fulfilling the plans of his cult leader has given him a reason to live.

"Ghostwritten" is populated by young and old lovers, the blind (in every sense), the self-absorbed, the greedy, the virtuous, the terminally vain. Character counts, but circumstance is crucial. Most of us, the book argues, are simply pushed into position. There is only one truly evil figure in the novel--a Russian gangster who takes delight in killing--and only one who could be described as heroic--an Irish mathematician and computer scientist named Mo Muntervary--and she is so because, on learning that the aerospace technologies she had developed were being used in the Gulf War, she first protests, then tries to quit her job.

But as her boss quickly informs her, everything that Mo invents or discovers is the property of her employers, a firm of defense contractors, and thus of the American military. She is too valuable to let go. And if she does not work for them, the boss continues, she will surely be coerced into working for a foreign power. Can she picture her son in shackles in some abandoned building in the Middle East? Aware that she is being pursued, Mo manages to escape nonetheless and make her way across Asia and Russia back to her native Ireland, scribbling in a black notebook all the while. Within a few days, her island home is stormed by Marines looking for her, but Mo enacts a brilliant strategy that keeps her in partial control of her future.

As we learn in a later chapter, Mo's furious scribbling leads to a "moral" computer, a thinking, law-abiding, independent entity that eventually names itself the Zookeeper. Able to transfer itself into any satellite or computer system, the Zookeeper takes the nuclear weapons systems of the United States and its antagonists off-line at a crucial moment, neatly averting World War III. But even this seemingly omnipotent machine must learn its limitations. "I believed I could do much," explains the Zookeeper, "I stabilized stock markets; but economic surplus was used to fuel arms races. I provided alternative energy solutions; but the researchers sold them to oil cartels who sit on them. I froze nuclear weapons systems; but war multiplied, waged with machine guns, scythes and pickaxes." Having taken the place typically assigned to God in human cosmology, the Zookeeper now must decide what sort of god it wants to be: the watchmaker or the puppet master.

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