number9dream by David Mitchell
This is my fourth Mitchell novel now and I’m getting pretty confident in calling him one of my favourite authors. I don’t quite like number9dream as much as Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but it’s still bloody good.
Eiji Miyake is a young man from the tiny Japanese island of Yukashima trying to find his estranged father in Tokyo. Filled with brash confidence, he soon finds the task to be much more difficult and dangerous than expected as he’s drawn into the brutal power struggles in the Tokyo criminal underworld. The story weaves between reality and fantasy as Eiji works to discover the secrets of his past.
There’s an ethereal dreaminess to this book that makes it quite difficult to work out what is and isn’t happening. There are some events which seem to be real but are so strange and heightened you wonder if they can be and Mitchell delights in pulling out the rug from under you. This is a bildungsroman primarily, being the story of Eiji’s journey to adulthood and it’s fascinating to watch him change. Similarly to with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, number9dream is based in coincidence, but it owns this entirely.
The novel starts out in a somewhat intimidating stream-of-consciousness ramble, but gets more digestible as it goes on. As Eiji grows up, his thinking becomes clearer and we get a better idea about what’s going on. It never quite achieves the gorgeous balance of lyrical and grounded that Mitchell achieves in his later books, but it’s also very different to everything else that he’s written. Eiji is a likeable and believable protagonist, although the most memorable characters are probably the brutal and terrifying figures he encounters in the ranks of the Yakuza. I was already fairly sure that the Yakuza are not a nice bunch and number9dream confirms that rather well. The wider cast don’t stick in the mind as some in his other books, but moreso than any other of his that I’ve read this is a solo character piece, with Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten’s multiple protagonists and lengthy sections of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet shifting away from its titular protagonist. This is a book about Eiji so how Eiji perceives people is far more important than those people themselves.
number9dream is an odd book which I’m still processing. I know I liked it, but it may take a re-read to determine whether I loved it. It lacks the instant punch of genius that his later books show, but it’s still an interesting read and one I’d certainly recommend.