Number9dream by David Mitchell (2001) 418 p.
I like the idea that an author’s personal travels are reflected in their writing. You can know nothing about Hemingway’s life and still know, from reading his stories, that he travelled to continental Europe, East Africa, the Caribbean and the upper Midwest – and apparently nowhere else. Similarly, David Mitchell’s novels are largely focused on East Asia, as he spent nearly a decade working in Japan as an English teacher. On the other end of the spectrum is Stephen King, who sets virtually everything in his home state. I hope that my own works one day reveal a rich history of globetrotting.
Number9dream, Mitchell’s second novel, takes place entirely in Japan as 19-year old Eiji Miyake travels from his sleepy island home to seek out his long-lost father in Tokyo. This is one of those time-honoured stories about a young man hitting the road with nothing but a guitar case and ten bucks in his pocket, taking a series of crummy jobs and sleeping in a tiny rented room, gradually networking his way through the grand adventure that is life, making friends and falling in love. These stories are always overly romanticised, which is why I tried to write a more realistic one, but I’m a young man myself and I’d be lying if I said they don’t appeal to me.
This novel is something more than that, fortunately, because it is written by David Mitchell, a god among men. Number9dream takes us on a beautifully evocative tour of the gigantic, incomprehensible sweep of Tokyo, the subways and teahouses and love hotels and construction sites, the hackers and gangsters and lawyers and pizza delivery boys. Not only that, but this is a book about dreams and fantasies, the power of the imagination, and Mitchell mixes this in to make a dazzling, fantastic narrative where what is real and what is not are not always distinct.
There are other stories mixed in as Eiji navigates his way through Tokyo. Memories of his childhood on an idyllic island, which reminded me strongly of both a Miyazaki film and Final Fantasy X (with a sports team taking a ferry to another island for a tournament, come on). Bizarre and poetic stories featuring a fairytale character called Goatwriter, perused by Eiji as he sits in an attic. The journal of his great-uncle, a kaiten pilot in World War II. It’s not as pronounced as in Ghostwritten or Cloud Atlas, but Mitchell’s talent for voices emerges once again. There are also, as always, some nice links with his other works, in this case a character and a secret government facility from Ghostwritten.
The only problem I had with this book was the story thread in which Eiji falls in with the Yakuza, which I thought was unrealistic, even for a Mitchell novel. Mitchell likes to push all our buttons at once. He wants to write profound literary fiction dripping with beautiful prose, he wants to write about slice-of-life journeys of discovery, and he wants to write about Yakuza gunfights and satellite weapons and post-apocalyptic wastelands. In novels like Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, consisting of distinct narratives where these conflicting urges can be safely filed away in separate drawers, this works a charm. In Number9dream, not so much. Eiji goes from spending an evening with a Yakuza grandmaster, watching men get gunned down and cars explode as though he’s a character in Grand Theft Auto, to sitting in his apartment on a hot summer night ruminating on the mysteries of life with his girlfriend. The Yakuza chapters are brilliant, they just don’t fit with the rest of the book at all. Similarly, I found the Goatwriter stories to be tedious, and the great-uncle’s WWII journal to be surprisingly mediocre for such a rich opportunity.
On the whole, Number9dream was better than Ghostwritten, but not quite as good as Cloud Atlas or Black Swan Green. It’s still an amazing, awesome trip through a fascinating world with a gifted author as a guide, always readable, always intriguing, every page covered with beautiful sentences and paragraphs. I discovered David Mitchell at the beginning of this year, reading Cloud Atlas in Japan; now, on the last day of the year, I’ve finished reading his collected works and he has become my favourite author. How appropriately cyclical. Happy New Year!
P.S. Reading a few other reviews I’ve come across the notion that Mitchell is “looting” from Haruki Murakami. While this book clearly owes a debt to the tone and themes of Murakami’s works, David Mitchell is one of the greatest writers of his generation, whereas Haruki Murakami is one of the worst. Point, match, Britain.