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was magic in the air?

October 18, 2005

David Mitchell’s number9dream was unputdownable: the first book that I didn’t have to struggle through in a long time (I had to endure the slow first pages of The Plot Against America before it became wonderful). From start to end, Mitchell creates a beautifully textured piece whose plot is nailmasticatingly exciting (plot! what an overused word! and exciting! how dare plots be exciting, now that we are in the world of modern literature, where nothing is supposed to happen, ever!) and whose quality of language is amazing.

number9dream is about the quest of a young Japanese man’s quest to find his father. Twenty year-old Eiji Miyake was abandoned on an outlying Japanese island, with his twin sister Anju, by their unstable alcoholic mother, who begot them in an affair with a married man. In the background of the quest is Tokyo, megapolis and megalomaniacal capital of Japan, whose streets pulse with their own life. Along the way he manages to fall in love, meet the world’s best hacker, get caught in yakuza gang-battle.

All the while Mitchell impresses with his linguistic pyrotechnics. Morphing nouns into verbs (‘I cockroach back to my seat’) and stringing together sentences of terrific vitality and imagination, Mitchell paints a sordid and beautiful picture of Tokyo, gargantuan and soulless (‘there are no distances and everything is above your head’), and creates a narrative voice that is at once distinctly Japanese and wholly believable.

And while the action of the novel may seem too farfetched for most, and the coincidences too startling, even for fiction (for example, the numerology involving 9), Mitchell issues a challenge to the reader (à la Brecht’s distancing effect) to consider that life may in fact be a confluence of coincidences. Or perhaps not: perhaps we make the coincidences up; we give life meaning. But just like Eiji’s meaning of life up to this point – to search for his father – ends in bathos (the dad turns out to be a womanising, cursing, anti-paternal figure) and his grand-uncle’s meaning of life – to search and destroy the Americans in his kaiten missile, a sort of underwater version of the kamikaze pilots – ends tragically in death by suffocation (the TNT detonator fails, and the whole affair ends not with a bang but with a whimper), Mitchell points rather nihilistically to the fact that what we seek, what we pursue, what we define ourselves by rarely turns out to be just exactly what we expect it to be – ‘I feel sad that I found what I searched for, but no longer want what I found’ says Eiji, towards the close of the novel after having found his father. In this sense the book conforms to the stock notion of the quest-novel: the quested is revealed to be less important than the quest itself. It is fitting, therefore, that Eiji loses a father (or his idea of it) but gains a mother (or a strange approximation, as their meeting at the end reveals the mother-son relationship to be strained and more of a friend-friend relationship) and perhaps a wife (in the form of Ai, who has the most perfect neck in the whole of creation, and who is somewhat unsubtly named after the Japanese word for love). His closure to the past leads on into the future.

Interesting also is Mitchell’s portrayal of modern Japan. Tokyo’s inhabitants are ‘drones’, bureaucratic to the nth degree. Tokyo’s youth are videogaming fanatics who exist in their virtual reality. ‘These are days,’ says Eiji, ‘when computers humanise and humans computerise.’ The thunder-god of rural Yakushima has faded from the minds of the Tokyoites, and is fast fading away from the minds of the islanders. Against this postmodern age of disbelief and soullessness, Eiji and Ai try to imbue meaning into their lives and find something to cling to. Says Ai, who is of exceptional wisdom (and humour), ‘Maybe the truest difference between people is exactly this: how they see why they are here.’ And that is why, despite Eiji’s bastard origin and chainsmoking and his at times impossibly wet comportment (just say you like her already!), and his grand-uncle’s misled belief in sacrificing himself for the emperor’s victory in World War II, they are still far more sympathetically portrayed than his father, who’s goal in life is to make millions and have sex with as many women as he can afford.

The novel has its failings of course, especially when Mitchell becomes too preachy. ‘Why,’ Mrs Comb (the talking hen [yes, talking hen] from the story within the story) wonders, ‘did humans despise what was beautiful and good? Why did they destroy the things they needed the most?’ Or, of course, when his prose becomes too futuristic and acquires a gimmicky tone: when rings become ‘riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing’ or ‘ringinginginginging’, when strange symbols are used to denote swear words, when the font changes to show that an email has been sent, when bang! is used as punctuation during the video game sequence, when the number nine becomes irritatingly repetitive and annoying. Or the endless red-herrings thrown about in the course of the novel – Mitchell becomes almost as annoying as the biker-pizzaboy-aspiring magician Doi, who keeps tricking Eiji with his party pranks, cutting off this thumb, poking out his eyeball, tomato juice as blood, coffee-creamer as eyeball goo.

Mitchell’s prose is good enough not to have to rely on this tricksiness to keep us amused. number9dream is a wonderful read, crafted wtih superb imagination. Like Tokyo itself, the book is a sensory overload which begs to be enjoyed.

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