Sunday, January 4, 2015

David Mitchell's "Number9Dream": Book Review

This is my fourth David Mitchell novel, and by now, the pattern's familiar. I enjoy once again Mitchell's fidelity to a young narrator's voice. He evokes in Eiji Miyake, twenty and fresh to Tokyo from an idyllic rural setting where nothing ever happens, the raw shyness and perpetual uneasiness of a fine coming-of-age story. The title, of course, alludes to John Lennon's pastoral, warbling song, and no surprise, Miyake's a big fan. Late in one of the many, many dreams, Lennon tells him: "The ninth dream begins after every ending." Mitchell aspires to re-create the dream patterns in his typically overlapping and interlinked (more or less) narratives, as in "Ghostwritten" and "Cloud Atlas"; it anticipates the troubled teen in "Black Swan Green" and the continuing look into Japan's past, torn between modernity and tradition, which will be "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet."

The challenge is, like dreams themselves, when they comprise so much of the storyline, their appeal dissipates when set down. Reading those inspired by the Goatwriter series is dull. Those sparked by the protagonist's fearful bowling alley and card game run-ins with the Yakuza are more apropos. But, as the novel goes on, inevitably reality and fantasy blur and it's hard to care much.

However, the strength for Mitchell in his second novel remains from "Ghostwritten" as he loves interlinking stories, and the mingling of quiet ones about growing up insecure, and falling in love, and liking music or video games or films, make Miyake one of us. Still, betraying some formulaic moments in the thriller sections, there is a deus ex machina, labeled as such, and a hi-tech revenge that is far too neat. Perhaps these elements borrow from films themselves? Flights of fancy, shown off well in the Panopticon opening sections, shift into films themselves, and it's unclear at a first reading where that storyline stops or resumes later on, a typical fudge factor for the writer here. Such tricks--and no wonder Haruki Murakami is mentioned as a book half-finished that Miyake found in the unclaimed items of his railway job--can weary over the course of a novel. But, the terror of some portions, when Miyake faces cruel fate and moral retribution, and the haunting, powerful subplot of his forebear, on a doomed mission as a human torpedo late in WWII, balance the feel of the hellish pizzeria where Miyake toils at night, in scenes that again feel real. Mitchell uses a very British slang to portray his narrator, and this may seem odd for us, but he tries to evoke the differences in dialect and register, avoiding overtly Japanese imitations of conversation or idiom, probably a wise move.

The tale feels true in much of the everyday sections: "I like the glimpses of commuters in parallel windows--two stories being remembered at the same time" speaks not only for subway travelers but for the shape of the novel itself. The main plot, a boy's search for his father, is classic, and although his mother's laments wore me down as they did her son here, the quest does again seem realistic, and sometimes mundane: "A dirty rag of bleached sky-- the morning forgets it is raining, as suddenly as a child forgetting a sulk she planned to last years." This seems more Mitchell than Miyake, but it shows his ability for fresh phrases.

Ending suddenly, and here recalling Mitchell's first novel in similar evocations of possible doom emanating from an ecologically wrecked, materialistic, paved-over Japanese society with few redeeming aspects, the novel may not please anyone wanting a clearly delineated read. What kept me on was Miyake's winning presence, the power of the WWII subplot and the thrill of the Yakuza scenes, and the natural curiosity sparked by a quest for origins. Out of such elements, Number9Dream mostly succeeds. (See earlier Mitchell reviews linked above; Amazon US 5-18-14)

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