Outfoxing Hangman

Thomas Jones

  • Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
    Sceptre, 371 pp, £16.99, May 2006, ISBN 0 340 82279 1

David Mitchell’s first book, Ghostwritten (1999), which describes itself as ‘a novel in nine parts’, is a collection of loosely interconnected stories. The protagonist of one will have a walk-on role in the next; a minor character from someone else’s story will later reappear as the narrator of their own. The first narrator is a member of a Japanese doomsday cult, the perpetrator of a poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway, now on the run in Okinawa. He makes a phone call to a secret emergency number, believing that this will summon the help of his cult’s secret service. ‘The dog needs to be fed,’ he says. The second narrator is a teenager who works in a secondhand record shop in Tokyo. He’s just about to leave for the day when the phone rings. ‘The dog needs to be fed,’ says a ‘soft, worried’ voice. He assumes it must be a wrong number, and thinks no more about it. But it delays him long enough for him to encounter someone he otherwise wouldn’t have done – and so the chain of unintended, unforeseeable and far-reaching consequences continues.

The action travels westward, moving from Japan to Hong Kong, a ‘Holy Mountain’ in China, Mongolia, St Petersburg, London, an island off the west coast of Ireland, New York, before returning to Tokyo, completing its orbit of the globe in a tenth chapter which must count as belonging to the first of the novel’s nine parts, since it, too, is narrated by the Japanese cult member.

The narrator of the fifth, central story is a ghost or, as he calls himself, a noncorpum, capable of possessing people and manipulating their bodies and minds without their realising. He is on a quest ‘to find the source of the story that was already there, right at the beginning of “I”, sixty years ago. The story began: There are three who think about the fate of the world.’ He transmigrates from one host to another with increasing speed, but he isn’t able to control some of them – including, fatally, a KGB-trained sociopathic assassin – as fully as he’d expected: perhaps if he spent longer with them, he’d have a clearer sense of what they’re like.

In one, rather obvious sense, he represents the spirit of narrative, moving between characters and determining their thoughts and behaviour in the service of a story. In another, narrower sense, he is a metonym for Mitchell’s method in the novel as a whole. And once this thought has taken hold, it can be hard to hear the narrators’ voices as their own rather than as that of the novelist speaking through them. The ventriloquist’s lips are moving most visibly in the case of a physicist who has developed a new kind of artificial intelligence known as ‘quantum cognition’. She sees quantum mechanics less as a way of explaining the behaviour of subatomic particles than as a source of metaphors for describing the macroscopic world.

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