"A commonplace book is what a provident poet cannot subsist without, for this proverbial reason, that “great wits have short memories:” and whereas, on the other hand, poets, being liars by profession, ought to have good memories; to reconcile these, a book of this sort, is in the nature of a supplemental memory, or a record of what occurs remarkable in every day’s reading or conversation." - Jonathan Swift, "A Letter of Advice to a Young Poet"

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Review: Number9Dream

And once again my love for David Mitchell is renewed. Kind of like with Virginia Woolf, I forget how great he is, and then I pick up another of his books and it overwhelms me all over again. Initially (having read Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green), I admired him for his versatility and how well he handled such diverse stories, settings, characters, genres. Now (having added The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and Number9Dream), I'm starting to get really interested in the recurrences in his writing rather than the divergences. Anyway, there's plenty to like in each individual book, too, and this one is no exception. Number9Dream is Mitchell's second of five novels, and I'll be reading his first, Ghostwritten, next, but for now, I'm going to try to explain my reaction to this crazy, crazy, charming book.

At its core, this is a very simple quest story about how 20-year-old Eiji Miyake goes to Tokyo to find his father. He's been brought up on a rural island, estranged from his mother and without ever knowing his father, so he sets out to discover this mysterious man. The only problem is, he doesn't even know his father's name, and Tokyo is a big place.

Actually, as Eiji pursues various schemes to find his father, it doesn't seem like such a big place after all. Almost everyone he meets seems to be connected in some way or another, and false trails lead him in an intricate but tightly woven network of people and organizations. One great thing about this book is how it portrays the city and the daily realities of city living - the extraordinary chance encounters, the deep sense of alienation, the changing rhythms, the peculiar mix of anonymity and total lack of privacy. By taking Eiji back to the same places throughout the book, Mitchell helps you really visualize Tokyo (even if, like me, you've never even been to Japan), and you really feel you're accompanying Eiji in discovering the place's secrets.

Some of these secrets are very nasty and quite incredible. But the entire book lingers on the edge between the mundane and the absurd - sort of like in a dream. The book opens with Eiji indulging in daydreams about reuniting with his father and ends with a thoroughly dreamy sequence where all of his experiences blend and transform themselves whenever he closes his eyes. Each of the eight long chapters, in fact, has a theme and a particular structure, and Mitchell is brilliant at weaving different sorts of narration, different times, different versions of reality together.

But - and this is what I love about Mitchell's novels - stringing all the dreamy, literary tricks together is a real, strong, human story. At one point in the book, when Eiji following up one of the many trails that seem to lead toward his father, I noticed that my heart was literally pounding, I was so caught up in his quest. Eiji tells his story in first-person, with a lot of honesty and charm, so that I completely identified with him from the first chapter to the last. He's like the best kind of hero in young adult novels (although I wouldn't categorize this as one, because it gets incredibly and disturbingly violent in a few places), who struggles with very human, ordinary problems like an inaccessible crush and the annoyances of a boring job between bouts of tracking down mysterious persons and escaping death. A bit like a non-spider-powered Peter Parker, Eiji alternates between normal life and crazy adventures and does it with both the flair we wish we had and the real emotional and physical vulnerability that we all do have.

This book makes you feel and think in equal measure, and, best of all, the two feel totally integrated. The literary experiments don't feel tacked on to the story at all. Mitchell is, as usual, completely in control of everything he does, knowing just how much your nerves can stretch, just how much you need to hear of a certain conversation, or just how much you need to jog your memory of a plot point from five chapters ago. It's a bit of a crazy ride, but he's got it under just the right amount of control. I had so much fun reading this book, and it's a definite five star recommendation.

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