Book #10 (February 21, 2010): Number9Dream by David Mitchell
David Mitchell is a British writer currently living in Ireland after quite a few years as a teacher in Japan. His short story “What You Do Not Know You Want” was my favorite in the Michael Chabon anthology I wrote about a few posts back. He’s written four novels with another coming out later this year. This one is about a young Japanese man in search of his father, who he’s never met. It takes place largely in modern Tokyo and Mitchell’s description of the city and its inhabitants is vivid and occasionally (as the protagonist slips in and out of his ongoing fantasy life) phantasmagorical. Mitchell’s writing style is energetic, frequently snarky, often funny, and if I have a problem with it it’s that he sometimes skips a little lightly over the surface of believability. Case in point: The encounters between the protagonist, Eiji Miyake, and the Yakuza (i.e., the Japanese mob) are so violently and comically over the top that I began to wonder if Mitchell might be secretly hoping that the Coen brothers will buy the film rights. But he manages to pull the story back from the brink of absurdity (a precipice it spends many pages teetering on) and occasionally creates something rather moving, especially in the parts where Miyake reminisces about his dead twin sister. There’s a John Lennon motif threading through the novel; hence the title, after a 1974 Lennon song. The ending is both cryptic and apocalyptic, and I’m still not sure how I feel about it.
Based on the two works I’ve read by him so far I can make the probably unwarranted generalization that Mitchell’s talents, of which he has quite a few, work better at the shorter lengths. Some of my favorite parts of the book are the stories within a story — for instance, the children’s stories about halfway through the book featuring a goat, a hen and a caveman, which Mitchell uses to make some not-at-all-childish points about human behavior. At this point I admire his work more than I love it, but I’m still interested in reading the rest of Mitchell’s novels and I’ll probably read at least one more of them before the year is out. In fact, Cloud Atlas is already sitting on my bookshelf.