by Lottie Kent
“I’ve never understood why writers who write on writing get charged with creative onanism” remarks David Mitchell, in an article for The Guardian on the work of Italo Calvino (Mitchell, D. Enter the Maze, published in The Guardian May 22nd 2004. He makes clear both the impact that Calvino has had over him and his own desire to explore aspects of fiction and reality through literature, using devices such as “interrupted narratives”. Certainly, critical comparisons between the two authors are not uncommon, and there are identifiable similarities between the styles, themes and narrative voices they employ. However, Mitchell expresses a keenness to diverge from certain features of Calvino’s work that, for him, “no longer [cut] the metaphysical mustard, somehow.” In fact, though he has been explicit about the impact of If on a winter’s night a traveller over his own Cloud Atlas, it is less easy to label the remainder of his work as bearing this same formative influence. Ghostwritten was Mitchell’s debut novel; it is not inconceivable that he would have sought to avoid particular literary clichés or homages to his forebears, especially those related to his “devout” interest, “The Postmodern Novel”.
This raises a question on how far we can truly assume Ghostwritten to have been influenced by Invisible Cities, or whether, perhaps, the metafictional devices exhibited in both are merely the result of intertextuality.
Intertextuality has been identified as encompassing “unconscious, socially prompted types of text formation (for example, by archetypes or popular culture),” (Clayton, J. and Rothstein, E. Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History). It seems to suggest that to be influenced by something one must be completely aware of it and, furthermore, readily acknowledge it. Intertextuality, on the other hand, does not require this level of recognition from the subject and, moreover, it seems to be inevitable; Julia Kristeva has declared that “every text is from the outset under the jurisdiction of other discourses which impose a universe on it.” (Cited in Culler, J: The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction, 1981). That is to say, nothing can ever truly be original. Context and language affect subjectivity which, in turn, determines how one approaches other literature and the writing process itself. Mitchell might contest that Calvino has had a marked effect on Ghostwritten, yet his framework of literary experience, particularly that concerning the postmodern, cannot be denied. When authors write they are also written, and, in constructing his debut novel, Mitchell has arguably shown himself to have been ‘written’ by Invisible Cities.
Much of the postmodernism in Mitchell’s Ghostwritten is evident in its careful but ever-uncertain balance between meaning and meaningless, the sense of being poised on the verge of finding significance. The first chapter, ‘Okinawa’, and its narrator, Quasar, are particularly instrumental in establishing this theme. Seeking purpose, Quasar is driven to extremism and terrorism in a postmodern world where consumerism and technology have deconstructed many of the traditional sources of meaning. Religion, nature, relationships with others – notions from which people might once have drawn significance – have all seemingly become void. Commenting on a cityscape, Quasar describes “department stores rising like windowless temples, dazzling the unclean into compliance.” (p.4). The irony of a “windowless” place of worship is clear, substantiated in John 1:5: “God is light and there is no darkness at all.” People are still searching for meaning, but in their individualist greed they have blocked out anything of profound and enduring value for the sake of “dazzling” ephemera. Viewed from the outside, the “temples” represent the superficial attractiveness of the commodities that people are drawn to; those that they desire, buy and discard in a cyclical, soul-searching hedonism. But the lack of any “windows” in these “temples” of consumerism that might let in the pure, natural light (a symbol of true meaning) speaks of the dark hollowness of these purchases. It reveals an insubstantiality that will never allow for genuine spirituality, a world in which “all that is solid melts in the air”. (The Communist Manifesto, Marx, K. and Engels, F.).
Quasar alludes to this dark human condition as a loss of purity, as a “festering mess” that has sullied the “virginal state” of Japan pre-consumerism and pre-globalization. He refers to those compliant in the present-day capitalist system as “unclean”, believing them to be dirtied by the material possessions they own. Branding it “money-blinded”, he sees the society he moves through as increasingly ignorant, made so by an impetus that compels people to work for and fund the very system that enslaves them. The purest way for these people to be “cleansed” in Quasar’s eyes is to eradicate them, and for this he is prepared to be a martyr. It is through existing at the fringe of political belief that Quasar finds his purpose in life; the irony, thus, is that his suicide (his ceasing to exist) could beget the ultimate meaninglessness. Though he believes his autonomy to be greater than others’, he, too, is driven to find meaning through committing acts that will eventually leave him powerless and obsolete.
In fact, it has been remarked that quasars or “quasi-stellar objects” appear rare because they are “suicidal”. (Loeb). Extremely distant yet luminous objects, they were initially mistaken for stars, given their intense brightness. Actually, they are abrupt emissions of light energy from the starry region surrounding a supermassive black hole. Thus, their position is the border just between significance, as symbolised by stars, and the ultimate void, the hole. Quasar embodies this fine division between meaning and nothingness, and, moreover, he recognises it: he claims his name was “chosen…prophetically” by “His Serendipity” (the cult’s leader) because it characterised his life’s “role”: to “pulse at the edge of the universe of the faithful, alone in the darkness.” Isolated from the rest of society, Quasar is able to view civilisation from a distance, disengaged and thus disillusioned with the shallowness of contemporary culture. For him, the obsession with appearance and consumption has given rise to semiotic ambiguity, wherein it is unclear which is the signifier and which is the signified, and even which of the two is the more important; in other words, people are not concerned with actually owning anything special or original, but simply appearing to do so. It is no longer necessary to realise one’s aspirations of wealth when popular culture’s alphabet of consumerism allows people to do it symbolically. Why bother getting rich if you can look it cheaply? Mitchell demonstrates, through Quasar, how existing at the margins of society might drive the disenchantment of the modern man. It is this idea of liminality, of viewing things from a dissociated, removed perspective so as to see their ‘true’ nature, i.e. the uncanny, that has provided a foundation for much metafictional experimentation and discussion.
Indeed, Mark Currie has argued for metafiction as “a kind of writing which places itself on the border between fiction and criticism, which takes the border as its subject.” (Currie, M, ed. Metafiction, 1995). The aim is to consider and demonstrate how multiple realities can exist, yet to do so by examining this issue through a discursive lens that is itself fictional, so as to make the argument self-evident. To achieve this, one must take a step back from realism, reinstating the disbelief that is initially suspended in order to read literary fiction. It is a questioning of the perceived boundaries between truth and falsity, image and reality, and one that Calvino evinces subtly throughout Invisible Cities. Like Mitchell, he fosters and plays on our sense of semiotic insecurity, particularly through the use of light imagery. In one of the interspersed passages in the novel, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan sit on “sit on the terraces” of the Sung “after sunset” (p.77). They observe a lake, in which “the reflection of the ancient palace” is described as having “shattered into sparkling glints like floating leaves” (p.78). This image of a monumental structure, one that represents the very heart of the empire, smashing and diminishing into something as ephemeral as “floating leaves” seems to speak of a more extensive, perhaps macrocosmic insubstantiality; it suggests at the fragility of the entire empire. This is an undercurrent that develops as the narrative between Polo and Khan continues, one that John Updike has charted as “a curve of concern” (459), their “continuity, an enlarging skepticism”(p.460, ‘Italo Calvino’ from ‘Hugging the Shore’, Updike, J. 1994). Doubt comes to frame the novel as different aspects of reality come under speculation, and each time it is a more centralised and immediate reality (from the “objective reality” of Polo’s “tales”, to “even these dialogues” themselves) that is questioned.
Water’s mirror is used to provide a motif for this doubt elsewhere, in the descriptions of certain cities. Unlike that in the “lake” next to the Sung, the “reflection” of the city of Valdrada is not so easily distinguished, ontologically, from what we assume to be the real forms of the buildings. The boundaries between image and true form, meaning and meaninglessness, are rendered more ambiguous. Valdrada, too, is built beside a “lake”, so that “the traveller, arriving, sees two cities”: the one erected above the water, and its reflection (p.45). This duality is said to give each action performed by the city’s inhabitants a “special dignity of images”; it means that what happens in the mirror “matters”, sometimes more so than that which is being reflected. Thus, this imitation becomes a conflict: it is unclear whether true significance lies in the image or the real object. Furthermore, the mirror “at times…increases a thing’s value, at times denies it”; Polo is describing a place in which the poles of meaning and meaningless are not fixed to the respective poles of truth and reality. That is to say, just because something is original, this does not make it more significant or relevant. The implication, therefore, is that in reproducing reality, one changes reality. Thus, the relationship between signifier and signified is not merely dualistic, it is multidirectional and ever more unsure. It forces the reader, like Quasar, to retreat back to the margins of subjectivity so that the uncertainty is kept contained within the “universe” of the narrative, a microcosm viewed from afar.
But what if Polo’s description of ‘Valdrada’ did still incite the reader to consider more than just the nature of the city itself? We might question whether a similar multiplicity of meaning exists in our own lives, or how the infinite matrix between symbols and objects could actually affect ‘reality.’ Dr. Gerard Hoffmann has written that “the labyrinth”, and in particular the “multicursal labyrinth”, is “[t]he central metaphor for postmodern fiction” (From Modernism, to Postmodernism: Concepts and Strategies of Postmodern American Fiction. Hoffmann, G, New York, 2005. p.414). It appeals, he argues, to authors such as Calvino because it can be expanded into “infiniteness”; a labyrinth of such “symbolic potential” is “both sequential and simultaneous in its orientation.” In describing Valdrada, Calvino certainly employs the motif of a multicursal labyrinth, describing not merely a two-dimensional reflection but one in which “every point would be reflected in its mirror”. Not only are the “facades” of the buildings reflected but “also the rooms’ interiors…the mirrors of the wardrobes”. There is reflection through multiple planes and dimensions here, such that both “end and endlessness, both limitless invention and intricate and tortuous windings” are mirrored. It is prose like this, rendered almost as series of fractal possibilities, which requires the reader to relinquish passivity and involve herself in the narrative. Roland Barthes has commented that “[t]he more plural the text, the less it is written before I read it” (1974, 10), and, indeed, ‘Valdrada’ does not make sense of itself. The labyrinth that Calvino alludes to is not simply represented by the mirror (i.e. the “lake”) but rather the capacity to mirror, the potential for multiple realities, those that the reader must navigate. Arguably, then, the objective of metafiction, and the mantle that Mitchell assumes in Ghostwritten, is to show the reader that she is lost in this very labyrinth.
This pluralism, one that opens the way for overcoming the dichotomy between reader and text (Hoffmann, 72), is also enabled by intertextuality. Central to both works, it allows the reader a certain autonomy: being aware of both literary conventions and other literature shapes our understanding and expectations of the works we read; that is, our pre-existing experience of literature makes our interpretation of other works unique and pluralised. Mitchell employs the very metaphor of the ghostwriter, with its literary context, so as to reinforce the novel’s overarching sense of paranoia (or insecurity) toward this labyrinth of understanding.
The first sentence of the book introduces this theme: “Who was blowing on the nape of my neck?” The pronoun “my” indicates the first-person perspective and the focus on subjectivity, whilst the locus of the sensation – the “nape” – reveals something about the source of the sensation: that it is out of sight, uncertain, but also in uncomfortably close proximity, enough to provoke obsessive feelings. (‘Metafiction and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten’, Hagen, B. Michigan, 2007). Furthermore, the present participle “blowing” suggests something both active and at the same time ethereal. Thus, the question evokes postmodernism’s familiar pursuit for meaning in ephemera, the search for concrete answers in the transitory. Unanswerable, the question establishes the idea that there might be something invisible (or someone, given the leading pronoun “Who”) that holds silent control over the narrator and his world. A ghostwriter exists to “ventroloquise [his] subjects” (Hagen, 13); he is a puppeteer consciousness, present only “within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork” (A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Joyce, J. 1916).
Yet, the paranoia and the intimation of some subtle heteronomy are also extended to the eight other narratives in Ghostwritten. The ‘London’ section, in particular, gives a particular focus to the writing metaphor in order to draw on this idea: here, we meet Marco, who is in fact a “ghostwriter” for “this old guy Alfred” (Mitchell, 270). Writer-characters (not rare in the work of both Calvino and Mitchell) are important for metafiction because their awareness of their own acts calls the reader’s attention to the writing process itself. This awareness is displayed when Marco is playing roulette in a casino and, as the wheel spins, he asks “what’s the ball like, ghostwriter? Give us a metaphor. Very well. It’s like a genie, spending its fury until nothing is left”(310). Here, he is emphasising the way in which narrative is told, his question anticipating the choice he must make as to the language he will use. (McNally, L. Fiction of Composition in the Novels of David Mitchell, from Dandelion Journal Vol. 2 No. 1, Spring 2011). He is alluding to this process in the present tense, as if he is consciously constructing the narrative of his life in the way he might construct literature: through the practice of writing. Moreover, this is an example of self-reflexive narration; not only is Marco aware of the conditions under which he and other writers work (to make decisions about the texts they write), but he is aware of his role in Ghostwritten itself, a real novel, and his capacity to shape the way the text is read. According to Patricia Waugh, this is a notion that brings the reader up against a “paradoxical realization” (Waugh, P. Metafiction, London 1984). Whilst naturalistic works of fiction (of third-person omniscience) might allow the reader to suppress the knowledge that what they are reading is not ‘true’, dialogue like this does not; it exposes the gap between reality and fiction. Metafiction “splits” the real and the unreal (usually integrated) “apart by commenting not on the content of the story but on the act of narration itself” (Waugh, 131). Moreover, without Marco’s specific occupational context, his question “what’s the ball like, ghostwriter?” could actually be read as a direct address to the reader. It is as if he is inciting the reader to manipulate the narrative herself, as if it is she that is true “ghostwriter”, controlling the novel’s direction and style.
It is worth dwelling on Marco’s role in Ghostwritten a little more, for the correspondence between his profession of ghostwriter and the novel’s title accords him a focal role; he is the apparent author not only of ‘London’ but, indeed, of the entire novel (McNally, 5). Although most of the nine sections of the text appear as independent narratives, they all subtly make reference to each other. This skeleton of allusions is one that allows the novel its intricate cohesion as well as providing evidence for the notion of an overarching ‘ghostwriter’, whose intelligent design has inextricably woven these seemingly distinct lives together. That is to say, the intertextuality present within the subsections of the novel belies the illusion of autonomy and exclusivity that each narrator believes him/herself to possess. Marco’s narrative contains more of these references than any other section. For instance, the Queen Anne chair that arrives in the house of Katy Forbes, where he wakes up at the start of his narrative: this, Katy explains, has been shipped from Hong Kong – an allusion to a discussion of the very same chair that appears in the novel’s earlier ‘Hong Kong’ chapter. Later, he pulls an “Irish…Middle aged” woman out of the way of an oncoming taxi. In the next chapter, ‘Clear Island’, we learn that this was Mo Muntevary, and that the very same “Scot” and “Texan” who were following her in ‘London’ (and whom Marco briefly speaks to) are also following her in her own narrative. Similarly, Marco makes more references to the active construction of his narrative (the writing process) than any other narrator, musing at one point “Roy insists on helping me with my coat, and slings it over the pineapple-shape knob of the banister. I must look up the correct word for that knob” (Mitchell, D 281). His mental note to find the “correct word” ‘accords the ‘pineapple-shaped knob’ phrase a temporary status’ (McNally, 4). It suggests that this text is not yet finished or properly refined, as if its composition is still on going and that the actuality of this composition is aligned with Marco’s personal timeline (and, interestingly, not Mitchell’s).
However, these claims are evidently untrue, for Ghostwritten is completed, refined and published; Marco’s assertion that the novel is still undergoing construction is denied by our knowledge that what we are reading is a tangible, whole book – written by Mitchell. Marco reminds us of the unreality of the fiction; through subverting conventional narrative devices, he turns the moment of composition into a suspect concept. In this way, his section is the heart of what Ghostwritten explores: in an age where concrete meaning is becoming elusive, the onus of storytelling has shifted from the ‘what’ that is being told (the content, the matter) to the ‘how’ (the manner). Furthermore, the very name ‘Marco’ arguably implies a ludic intertextual response to the Marco Polo character – as a real historical figure, as a general metaphor for storytelling and journeying, and, most significantly, as a character present in the specific narrative of Invisible Cities. That the concept of Marco Polo exists both in the reader’s reality and in another fictional reality as well as in Ghostwritten arguably flaunts the foundation of the novel’s ontological instability (Waugh); it represents the deferral of meaning from the microcosm of Ghostwritten outwards to a complete system of experience: there is no one ‘true’ Marco, his definition is infinitely postponed by the different contexts in which he is represented by language. As Jacques Derrida postulates in his ‘web of language’ theory, “there is nothing outside the [con]text of a word’s use and its place in the lexicon.” That is, each reading (and re-reading) of each text produces a different meaning depending on the reader’s understanding of the language of the text, the epoch in which it was written, rhetorical uses of the language, even the corpus of the author (“There is Nothing Outside of the Text”, Bryce, 2011). In fact, this can be illustrated using the chess game that takes place between Polo and Khan in Invisible Cities: observing Polo’s tactics, Khan notices that “certain pieces implied or excluded the vicinity of other pieces and were shifted along certain lines.” It is not necessary for him to remember the specific “shape and form” of each chess piece, because their meanings and roles are not derived from this (a fixed quality), but rather from their ever-changing relationship to each other – a “system of arranging one with respect to the other.” In the same way, there is no absolute, singular basis for understanding the Marco character, and the relationship between signifier (the written word, the name ‘Marco’) and signified (what the name refers to) in both Invisible Cities and Ghostwritten is made more complex and disjointed by the texts’ mutual existence. Mitchell’s response to Calvino’s novel, we might say, has changed the way we re-read Marco Polo’s character and narrative in Invisible Cities; the nature of Calvino’s ‘influence’ over Mitchell’s own work, then, cannot be not merely unidirectional. This relation, this textual insecurity, once more calls into question what influence can really be said to convey, and whether its definition applies here.
There are similarities that arise, furthermore, between the two characters that extend beyond the common name. Just as the voice of the Marco in Ghostwritten prompts an open questioning of how narrative conventions might transform and filter reality for the reader, the Marco in Invisible Cities seems, through dialogue with Khan, to also call the conventional reader-narrative relationship into question. “It is not the voice that commands the story,” Polo remarks, “it is the ear” (Calvino, 123). He is implying the displacement of the author, the “voice”, as absolute authority, and, moreover implies the centralisation of reader’s role in interpreting the “story” and developing meaning from it. Moreover, in the phrase “the listener retains only the words he is expecting” he suggests that the personal, individual context of every single listener or reader affects the way he or she interprets the text. Indeed, his insinuations recall Barthes’ commentary in the The Death of the Author, which locates the reader as the “one place” where the “multiple writing, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue,” that makes up a text “is focused” (Barthes, R. 1967. P.148). Polo, Calvino’s mouthpiece, seeks to empower the reader – the locus of subjectivity – just as Marco appears to in Ghostwritten. This is evident in the phrase “[g]hostwriters, like psychiatrists, have to know when to shut up” (Mitchell, 286), in which Mitchell employs a ‘talking cure’ metaphor, presenting literature as form of therapy whereby the author proffers, like a psychiatrist, a stimulus, but allows himself to become secondary to the reader – the patient – whose multiple feelings and experiences converge and are realised in dialogue. This dialogue with the text, the creative material of the author, is one that the reader takes primacy in interpreting. In this way, both Calvino and Mitchell are looking, via their respective texts, to overturn the notion of a singular narrative and present the reader-author relationship as collaborative and pluralised, becoming more and more so with each individual reader that engages with the text.
What, then, can we say the relationship between these two texts to be? Both evidently explore common themes and employ common devices, but if we understand the term influence in its more basic terms, as “built on dyads of transmission from one unity (author, work or tradition) to another” (Clayton, J and Rothstein, E: Influence and Intertextuality in Literary History, 1991. P.3), then its definition cannot encompass all of the nuanced linkages between Calvino and Mitchell’s respective works. This is an understanding that depends on whether we see the vector of “transmission” as having a direction mediated by the timeline of literature. Preceding Ghostwritten in its publication, it is impossible for Invisible Cities to have been ‘influenced’, in this sense, by its successor. But influence can be understood in a broader sense than this: one might see it as capturing intellectual background (for example postmodern ideology), context (perhaps within the postmodern canon) and literary stylistic convention. In this case, both texts might share a common ground, not necessarily because of the effects of one over the other, but for the similar plane of context upon which both authors operated and drew their influence. Thus, intertextuality could well be interpreted as an expansion upon this familiar notion in order to incorporate the unconscious and unacknowledged modes of shaping texts, such as cultural tropes and genres popular within the author’s paradigmatic frame of reference.
Yet, more significantly, it could be seen as a response to and ousting of the outmoded and somewhat redundant way of thinking about text formation that influence implies. As the art historian Micheal Baxandall has argued, “‘Influence’ is a curse…primarily because of its wrong-headed grammatical prejudice about who is the agent and who the patient” (Baxandall, M: Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures. 1985. P58-9). In other words, if we say that Invisible Cities is the agent, and “did something” to Ghostwritten, we negate the possibility for a much richer and diverse way of thinking about the writing process; it is much more interesting, says Baxandall, to be able to talk using terms like “draw on…appropriate from, have recourse to…engage with…assimilate, align oneself with…” and so on. This sort of approach allows us to see Mitchell as more than just ‘influenced by Calvino’; it allows us to consider – as Marco does – not just the triteness of the ‘what’ that Mitchell might write but also the deftness of the ‘how’ by which he does it. As such, we might open discussion of the ways that Mitchell interprets, alludes to, reinvents, and builds upon the writing – and particularly the metafictional aspects – of Calvino. Importantly, it considers the reader’s role, too: intertextuality provides groundwork for how the meaning of a text can be altered by the subject who interprets it, a notion that is not constrained by the fixed historical timeline of literature, but rather the individual timeline of reading, re-reading and development that the reader undertakes herself. The question first asked – that on the extent of the influence of metafictional devices within Invisible Cities upon Ghostwritten – can be answered as simplistically as the most basic definition of ‘influence’ might merit: yes, there is evidence that Calvino has influenced Mitchell to a great degree. But more than this is certain: the meditation that both Calvino and Mitchell have realised on the nature of reality is undeniably dialogical. As Calvino attempts to split open the illusion of reality, likening our understanding of it to one “little piece of smooth and empty wood” (Calvino, 118) on a chessboard, Mitchell manages to build on this proffer with the suggestion of subjective creation: “disbelieving the reality under your feet”, says Bat Segundo in ‘Night Train’, “gives you a licence to print your own” (Mitchell, 401). In this way, the question would ultimately be bettered if it were deconstructed and re-assembled to consider the notion of intertextuality, such that a different and more progressive mode of conceptualising originality, texts and readership could be articulated.
This essay was awarded the 2015 Ithaka Prize for intellectual enquiry and academic excellence.