Sunday, January 15, 2012

Number9Dream, by David Mitchell

Although it's the fourth of Mitchell's novels that I've read, it was the second that he wrote. It's become a cliche that many second novels fall on their faces because they're either a re-hash of the first, or too wildly, purposefully different. Number9Dream dodges every wary, 2nd-novel scrutiny that reviewers might give it. It's a world away from Ghostwritten, Mitchell's first heralded book, but every bit as imaginative and solid.

David Mitchell has the same sort of literary cult following as Haruki Murakami, and I'm one of those readers who is a card-carrying member of both. Number9Dream is set in Japan, where Mitchell taught for several years. As I read this book, I sometimes lost sight of which of my two literary idols had written it -- Murakami or Mitchell?

David Mitchell

Haruki Murakami -- Mitchell's long-lost twin brother?

Murakami's love of jazz, quirky Japanese culture, bloodthirsty Yakuza goons with Mongolian sidekicks, eccentric girlfriends and dysfunctional families all show up in this story. Murakami himself makes a wry cameo appearance, when the narrator -- young, naive, bumbling Eiji -- waits for the aforementioned Mongolian to kill him.
My final memories of life are the stupidest things. An unclaimed Haruki Murakami novel I salvaged from lost property, half finished, in my locker at Ueno -- what happened to the man stuck down his dry well with no rope? 
How can you not love a young man who, faced with death, thinks about an unfinished Murakami novel? Oh, he realises it's a nerdy thing, but there you have it. Eiji can only be himself. He freely discloses his flaws and fears to us, stumbling about in Tokyo as only a small-town boy could do, low on pretenses and caution. Eiji has come to Tokyo to discover the identity of his father, but a motley herd of variously sophisticated and nasty people is determined that he should not succeed. He gets by, though, with a little help from his friends, who include his landlord -- a video rental shop-owner who rents Eiji a "capsule" in which to sleep, his aspiring computer hacker co-worker at the Ueno train-station lost & found desk, and a waitress with "the perfect neck" who dreams of studying music in Paris and with whom Eiji slowly, methodically falls in love.

Mitchell embeds a couple of stories within his story. When Eiji makes contact with his paternal grandfather, the old man passes him the diary of his great uncle, who perished at the controls of a kai-ten in the war. Nowadays I hear kai-ten, and I think of the conveyor belts bearing single-serving plates of sushi and sashimi through a restaurant. For this devoted servant of the Emperor, however, it was the vehicle to greater Japanese glory: a manned torpedo. Needless to say, its success meant certain death for its pilot. (Mitchell lets us in on how two such disparate objects can share a noun: "‘Kai’ and ‘Ten’ signify ‘Turn’ and ‘Heaven’:) The great uncle's diary is a hugely moving view of the old-school Japanese warriors who still held dear a code of honour  and did not question the Emperor's divinity.  He describes, though, other sailors who felt that the war was being farcically mismanaged and mourned the tragic and futile waste of lives. In one of the final diary entries, the great uncle leaves a bit of parting, hopeful -- and in retrospect excruciatingly ironic -- advice for his brother, Eiji's grandfather.

It must pain Mother to trade Tsukiyama family treasures for rice, but I know Father and our ancestors understand. War changes rules. It is wise of you to tape Xs over the windows, to guard against bomb blasts. Nagasaki was ever a most fortunate city, and if raids come the enemy will target the shipyards rather than our side of town. All the same, every precaution should be taken.
In another lighter sub-plot, Eiji lays low for a time in a house belonging to his landlord's aunt -- an eccentric writer -- after one of his narrow escapes from Yakuza goons. He begins reading stories that the aunt had written, fantastic tales which afford him a much-needed distraction from his anxieties. The adventures of Goatwriter (yes, he is actually a goat) are full of giddy word-play and wit. It's David Mitchell getting his Irish on. In Japan.

Goatwriter found his pince-nez on a monocle chronicle and peered. The venerable coach had rolled to a cold shoulder of more still moored still moors. ‘Inky landscape, paperpulp sky. I remain in little doubt, Mrs Comb, we are in the margins.’ Hawthorn huddled in well-wallowed hollows...
Goatwriter never finished his sentence because a miraculous maelstrom of birds rose from nowhere and filled the air around the venerable coach – moogurning, phewlitting, macawbering, endizzying birds, many unseen since the days when mythology was common gossip.

On the long journey back to his home-town, Eiji dozes off, and his dreams come in steady succession. In one of them, he chats with his musical idol, John Lennon. Die-hard Beatles fans would know immediately that #9 Dream is one of Lennon's works. (I didn't, but I do now.) Another is Norwegian Wood, a haunting and enigmatic tune that Haruki Murakami used as the title of an equally haunting and enigmatic novel.
‘Truth is,’ John continues, ‘“#9dream” is a descendant of “Norwegian Wood”. Both are ghost stories. “She” in “Norwegian Wood” curses you with loneliness. The “Two spirits dancing so strange” in “#9dream” bless you with harmony. But people prefer loneliness to harmony.’
Eiji's twin sister, his other half, drowned herself when they were teens. His mother had abandoned them years before; his father remained a shadowy unknown. So what is his fate? Cursed with loneliness or blessed with harmony? That's what I relish about the narrators of Mitchell and Murakami novels: They're likable, even lovable. They speak honestly even when it's to their detriment. Like everyone else in the novels, I am attracted to these characters, but I can get only so close.

And that is the central question for Eiji: who is important to him? What do blood ties really mean? With whom does he, can he -- or any of us, really -- achieve harmony?

1 comment:

  1. Haven't read anything new in ages. Shocking, isn't it?

    Gong Xi Fa Cai!
    Wishing you a prosperous, auspicious and joyous Year of the Dragon.


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