Big Blue Marble

430 pages; Random House; $24.95

“What’s it about?” a man on a train asks a girl with a book. The man is Danish, the train is speeding across Mongolia, the book is War and Peace, and the conversation takes place about a third of the way through David Mitchell’s remarkably ambitious first novel, which seeks, like War and Peace, to be sprawling and intimate, global and personal, all at the same time. “Why things happen the way they do,” the girl, who’s Australian, blandly replies. “And why do things happen the way they do?” the Dane persists. (He thinks she’s cute.) “I don’t know, yet,” she says. “It’s very long.”

You never do find out whether Sherry finishes her Tolstoy, but if you finish Ghostwritten, which is highly likely because it’s an intricately assembled Fabergé egg of a novel, full of sly and sometimes beautiful surprises, you’ll see the joke: It too is a very long book that’s about why things happen the way they do. Like the girl, the book is probably better at framing questions than answering them: “Things happen because of people wanting,” an (appropriately enough) Russian character says at one point, and it’s as close to an answer as Mitchell offers. But the novel, like the girl, is attractive and absorbing enough so that you don’t really care.

The complex narrative structure of Mitchell’s book tells you a lot about its vast ambitions. What is it about? Ghostwritten consists of a series of ten subtly, often playfully interlinked chapters that circle the globe. It begins in Okinawa, where a young member of a loony doomsday cult has fled after releasing a deadly nerve gas into the Tokyo subway system, and spreads to Tokyo, where the teenage manager of a music store specializing in American jazz develops a crush on a girl who walks in; then to Hong Kong, where a young British lawyer launders money for a Russian mobster; then through Mongolia and St. Petersburg, where an aging beauty who works at the Hermitage helps steal art; and so forth through London, Ireland, and eventually New York. In a brief coda, we are back in Japan with the terrorist again – just at the moment he detonates the nerve bomb. (Moving east to west moves you backward through time, of course.)

The ingenious ways in which Mitchell connects the narratives provide a lot of this book’s pleasures. True, some are more obviously mechanical than others: When the Japanese fugitive desperately calls a secret contact for help in the first chapter, he accidentally gets the jazz-record store in the second. But more often, the links are complex and suggestive. For instance: A womanizing Londoner who’s ghostwriting the autobiography of an artist (who’s an old friend of the Petersburg forger) saves an Irishwoman named Mo from being hit by a car. In the next section, you learn that Mo’s a brilliant physicist who’s invented a “zookeeper” technology that has consciousness of its own and can control all other technologies; she hit on it while riding in the same train compartment as the frisky Dane back in chapter five. (A “middle-aged Irish woman who either gazed out of the window or wrote numbers in a black notebook” is briefly noticed there.) And so on.

The structural cleverness and connectedness aren’t merely decorative; they support a larger central theme, which is how chance and character connect us all, whether we like it or not. (A gentle irony of these stories is that people keep fleeing various kinds of entanglements only to find themselves in new ones: The fugitive terrorist, posing as a vacationing computer expert, is asked to lecture local schoolkids about computers.) Another name for elaborate interactions between accident, personality, and geography is history; a major preoccupation of Mitchell’s novel is the way that history, or at least politics, affects us – particularly, the way ideologies, cults of one sort or another, crush individuals. “Why are men forever marching up the path to destroy my Tea Shack?” an old Chinese woman asks, not without provocation: As a girl she was raped by a warlord’s son, and the Nationalists and then the Communists weren’t much nicer. When you realize her granddaughter is the temptress who cons the crooked, arch-capitalist British lawyer, you want to applaud.

I have to say that as much as I admired Mitchell’s big themes and Swiss-watch-movement structure, the flashbacks to great historical events meant to represent those themes here (Stalin-era show trials, “long-pig” barbecues during the Cultural Revolution) feel predigested – as if he were using them to give historical sweep and meaning to a narrative that is, in the end, as fragmented as the century it critiques. What makes War and Peace great, after all, is the way in which the personal passions allow you to feel and then understand the historical passions; you care about Pierre and Natasha et al., and that, in turn, gives you a grand insight into how personality and desire and timing interact in and through history. For all its ingenuities, Ghostwritten is oddly dispassionate; the brilliant narrative ploys can’t compensate for what any novel on this scale (and with these ambitions) needs, which is characters you care about. I found myself fascinated but never swept up or moved by the novel.

Still, in an era in which much literary fiction is characterized by unearned ironies and glib cynicism, it’s hard not to be impressed by the humanism that animates Mitchell’s book. One of the ways he forces you to consider the phenomenon of interconnectedness is by repeating not only characters but objects (camphor trees, say) and even certain phrases throughout the novel. Among the latter is “High streets are becoming the same all over the world,” something the terrorist and the art curator think, worlds apart. It’s a bitter insight – the only way that people seem to be able to connect these days is through the banalities of global consumerism – but Mitchell, who’s a 31-year-old Englishman, isn’t content to stop and rest with a glib denouncement of “mass culture.” Instead, he counters with deep old wisdom: If we, in “real” life, fail to see how much we have in common, fail to make the kinds of meaningful connections that his novel so ingeniously invites you to detect, we’re doomed.

It’s a bit of forgivable, youthful overkill that Mitchell makes the doom literal. In Ghostwritten’s penultimate chapter, which ventures, intriguingly if a bit oddly, into the territory of sci-fi (well, not too oddly: There are ghosts here, too), we learn that the Zookeeper keeps trying to make the world a better place for mankind – stabilizing economies, developing alternative fuel sources, freezing nuclear arsenals – but decides, in the end, that Homo sapiens isn’t worth the trouble. Readers of this big book will be glad that the author, unlike his creation, does find humanity worth the trouble; whatever its shortcomings, his book is worth a dozen of the morally anorexic first novels that regularly come down the pipe. Ghostwritten may conclude with the end of the world, but I, for one, am hoping for more.

Big Blue Marble