Written by David Mitchell
Merging magical realism with traditional narrative fiction is a tight-rope act above a glass factory. Fortunately David Mitchell brought a balancing pole and a pair of sensible shoes when writing his second novel, “Number9Dream”, allowing him to thread flights of fancy through a more credulous storyline. His trick is to segregate fantasy and reality by introducing trips into the protagonist’s imagination, dreams, and stories randomly found and read. The walls between each shift and crack and disappear so that you’re constantly readjusting what you believe to be true in order to compensate for new developments but this is not a frustrating endeavor. This is an inclusive feat of audience participation which makes for a rich experience from start to finish.
Mitchell builds his book on a reliable foundation: The Quest. Eiji Miyake has just arrived in Tokyo from the hinterlands of Southern Japan to search for the father he’s never known. His only lead is the PanOpticon office building and an aging memory of a lawyer. We’re introduced as he stakes out the front entrance, hoping to catch a glimpse through the throngs of business executives, receptionists, commuters and shoppers to avoid having to take the next step on his own. The pack of Kools on the cafe table disappears one by one into the ashtray as his mind strays from one scheme to the next, trying to work up his nerve.
While he might not be the most proactive guy young Eiji has a tangible interest in everything that surrounds him. As a newcomer to town everything is startling; his eyes bulging as the lights of Shinjuku swallow him alive. As a passive observer everyone is fascinating and can only become more interesting while he attempts to construct their lives, their pasts, their futures. The simple act of walking down the street or riding the subway suddenly has become electrified and the excitement cannot be contained, spilling out from each page almost faster than it can be written.
Through Eiji’s wide-eyes we see a world moving so fast that the seams are ripping apart and each twist and turn coasts through a kaleidoscopic world where the foreign is revealed as familiar and the familiar as foreign; the very understanding of what is real and what is only perceived as such disappears into an explosion of pop-culture, misunderstanding, fantasy and intrigue. Each passage is expertly tailored by Mitchell’s astounding vocabulary and pacing and his sure hand guides us through the brightly lit arcades as lovingly as the grimiest back alleys. The quest to find Eiji’s father is often derailed by deranged bag-ladies at the lost-luggage office of Ueno Station, struggling cockroaches trapped in his coffin room above Shooting Star Video, or randomly finding himself drunk and stoned and in a love hotel; however the driving force for every misstep is always the hope of finally meeting this mysterious man, with a little push from his dearly departed twin sister. The deviations from the hunt aren’t distractions so much as ways of shading Eiji’s motivation behind coming to Tokyo and his place in the world.
A lot of the reviews I’ve read about this and Mitchell’s other books have praised him for his ability to become the foreign– in this case write from the perspective of a Japanese. If the name didn’t tip you off Mitchell’s not a native but a Brit who had lived for eight years in country. His understanding of certain protocol and mannerisms is impressive but in Eiji we have an outsider who doesn’t understand what exactly is going on around him which provides some ground-cover. Essentially a country bumpkin (but not really) our protagonist has every excuse to be puzzled by these urbanites and their slick city ways, just as Mitchell obviously is. This sleight of hand is forgiven mostly because of the strength of the writing and the love the writer invests in his subject. In the end Eiji is a universal character and Japan remains another character altogether, but one as fleshed out and breathing as the people living within.
One of my only real criticisms is the sensory overload that has the book shooting from 0-60 from the first page. Obviously there’s an eagerness to describe every facet possible but the dazzling environs fade under the onslaught of meticulously descriptive writing. Immediately dragging the reader through a delirious fantasy sequence while they’re trying to keep their bearings as vocabulary tumbles down on their heads is almost heartless. The hyper-kinetic choppiness is equivalent to modern British action films ala’ Guy Ritchie’s “Snatch” and at first it seems Mitchell’s a tad smug, trying to show you just what a clever boy he is. Fortunately he quickly calms down and settles into a more sustainable rhythm. My other issue with “Number9Dream” is that I felt like Mitchell took to hiding behind the blurred lines of reality and would flip the switch whenever he had painted himself into a corner, lost the stream of consciousness or was otherwise trapped. This was done very skillfully and doesn’t diminish my sincere appreciation for the book, but in the end I wonder if Mitchell would ever be bold enough to write from his guts as magnificently as he writes from his fertile imagination.
David Mitchell has also written “Ghostwritten” (1999), “Cloud Atlas” (2004) and “Black Swan Green” (2006) with a bun in the oven expected to be published next year. All were published in the states by Random House and are widely available for your perusal.