Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Revolution Nine

number9dream is an excellent book. It's also a bit of a twofer: it's a great book by David Mitchell, and reading it often feels like reading a lost book by Haruki Murakami. That's about the best compliment I can pay any author. Mitchell achieves this in part through his setting, a first-person story told through the perspective of a young Japanese man newly arrived in Tokyo, but also by managing to strike many of the same notes that Murakami makes in his own book: dreamlike logic, the unusual butting up against the realist, searches for meaning that seem hopeless. He also echoes some of the grace notes that Murakami writes, including a keen appreciation for fine music (John Lennon and Claude Debussy play notable roles), the elegant shape of a woman's neck, and the delicious taste of a ripe persimmon. Even Colonel Sanders makes a cameo (beating his appearance in Kafka on the Shore by a full year.) Late in the book, the narrator is talking about John Lennon's music, and is told "#9dream is a descendant of 'Norwegian Wood.'" That sounds like an audacious statement - Norwegian Wood remains one of Murakami's best-selling novels in Japan, and arguably his most famous book, so claiming descent from it is a bold statement. It's also a slightly odd statement, as Norwegian Wood is probably the Murakami novel that this book least resembles; Norwegian Wood is a mostly-realistic and historically grounded book without the fantastical elements that define most of his other stories.

I should hasten to point out that number9dream doesn't come across as a ripoff or a parody; at most it's an homage, and possibly it's coincidental. Mitchell's personal biography puts him in a unique position to write this book: as an Englishman who lived and taught in Japan for years, and married a Japanese wife, he is uniquely attuned to the minutiae of Japanese life in a way I associate with Japanese natives. I love how effortlessly he writes in this style as well: someone will address the narrator as Eiji-kun, and Eiji doesn't bother to describe to Western readers why he would visit a police box to locate a business. The book feels weirdly authentic, so much so that I wouldn't automatically associate it with the other two books of his I've read (Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas).

Incidentally, there are some really cool and very subtle links between his previous books and books not yet written. A seemingly tossed-away line says "The cloud atlas turns its pages over"; I wouldn't have thought twice about that statement if he didn't later turn it into the title of his masterpiece. And one character vocalizes a key statement of the later book, "The weak are meat, the strong eat." I love how loosely Mitchell ties together his disparate books: they aren't sequels, and don't even share similar styles, but you can follow these faint threads that bind together his moral concerns.


Structurally, this book is quite different than the others I've read. Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas were both somewhat formalist books. Ghostwritten initially seems like a collection of short stories, but one where each succeeding story shares a faint connection with its preceding story. Cloud Atlas famously works like a set of nesting Russian dolls, with each story contained within the story that follows it. number9dream is harder to categorize. It's kind of one story, and also a multiplicity of stories, and part of the joy and wonder of reading it is not being able to discern exactly where the boundaries between the stories lie.

Dreams are a major theme of the book, and possibly the most important aspect. At the very start of the novel, it seems like Mitchell has written another science fiction story, like the middle portions of Cloud Atlas. More than that, it's an exciting, action-packed tale, like something from a Hollywood summer blockbuster: passwords, guns, karate, explosions, bio-borgs, Zax Omega, Zizzi Hikaru, data discs.

And then, the story ends, and is retold. But things are different this time. We seemingly repeat the same scenario a half-dozen times, with drastic changes throughout. The first was filled with alarms and gunplay. The second features a massive flood that destroys Tokyo. Another takes the form of a noir detective story, and internally includes a secondary story, a surrealist horror movie.

By discarding the unique elements, and only retaining the ideas that remain consistent from one version to the next, we can piece together a rough idea of what's happening. Eiji Miyake has come to Tokyo. He wishes to meet his father, a man he has never met. His only lead is Akiko Kato, his father's lawyer, who works for the law form of Osugi and Bosugi in the Panopticon building. Eiji is nervous about the meeting, and passes the time drinking coffee at the Jupiter Cafe across the street from Panopticon, and falls softly in love with one of the workers there. He doesn't learn who his father is.

The book never explicitly explains all the contradictory and frankly unbelievable stories we get. I was left with the impression that we were witnessing Eiji's daydreams: I pictured him sitting in Juno, rehearsing different possible scenarios, allowing his mind to play through different conversations he might have, and indulging in some flights of fantasy. From this perspective, things like the science-fiction setting start to make sense: he sees an older man playing a video game that involves fighting bio-borgs, and so incorporates actual bio-borgs into one of his scenarios. I can kind of believe that the final story in this group, that ends with him tongue-tied and humiliated in the lobby, is probably what "actually" happened… but, given that Mitchell never explicitly endorsed or rejected any of these versions, even that realistic story carries a whiff of possibility about it.

That sense of only tenuously grasping reality carried forward through the rest of the book. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, to learn that the stuff I had just read was a dream. Often, though, stuff won't be explicitly refuted, and after a prior event is referenced enough times later in the text, I started to uneasily accept that it might be "real" (where "real" refers to a property found within a fictional novel I am reading). The encounter with Daimon starts off as seeming plausible, then veers off into bizarre territory, finally entering a nightmarish (yet enticing) denouement. I was ready for Eiji to wake up (again) and return to his boring life in the train station… and yet, when he runs into Miriam at the park later, I was filled with doubt. Maybe it actually happened? And… if it did happen, could the encounter in the park have been a further fantasy of Eiji's?

The biggest example of all, of course, is the hellish night he spends in Morino's company. This seems like a perfect example of a fabricated nightmare: he takes elements from yakuza movies that he saw at Buntaro's video rental store, combines that with elements from the dangerous night he spent with Daimon (which, by now, I am accepting as reality), and then weaves that into a twisted fantasy about how far he will go to learn what he craves. And, conveniently, by the end he still doesn't have what he wants, and nobody in the real world hears anything about the climactic events of the evening.

And yet, even those events do finally seem to be true. The picture he claimed seems to be real - at the least, it plays a role in a late event of the book. Further suffering is visited upon Eiji in retaliation for the events of the night. What's going on? Is his life proving to be even weirder than his dreams? Or is Eiji living a separate dream reality, one that's impossible but is also fully realized and internally consistent?

Dream logic and actual dreams seem to drive much of the strange eddies of the book, but there's another odd and wonderful component that fills many of the middle pages. It's a book within the book, or rather, a draft within the book: some loose pages that Eiji finds and reads while recuperating from his travails. This isn't really like the story-within-a-story from Cloud Atlas, where each layer seems to have as much reality as any other. This story is highly abstract, filled with archetypes and signifiers and possessing the qualities of a fable or myth. A small band of vibrantly drawn characters fill the tale: Goatwriter, who is, um, a goat who is also an author (and thus writing a book within the book within the book); Pithecanthropus, a prehistoric human who means well but is hampered by limited speech and constantly tracks dirt indoors; and Mrs. Comb, a wonderful bustling hen who cooks, cleans, and sells her own eggs at the market. They go on adventures, and solve mysteries, and fight pun-tastic adversaries. This section often seems even more surreal than the rest of the book, and includes a passage that may be my favorite thing I've read all year. I usually hesitate to quote too much in my write-ups, but this is just too good to abbreviate:

God readjusted his halo. ‘Would if I could, ma’am, but once the military decides to bomb the living bejesus out of a country . . . well.’ He shrugged. ‘Time was, we had a divine veto on wars, but our executive powers got whittled away, bit by bit, and now nobody even bothers consulting us.’

‘Fancy . . . just what does it take to stop a war, may I ask?’

God made a ‘search me’ face. ‘Tell you the truth, ma’am, I never wanted to be no God. My daddy insisted, it running in the family and all. I flunked the Ivy League divinity colleges, and wound up in California.’ God grew nostalgic. ‘Surf was high, the sand was gold, and the babes! The babes . . . Divine intervention was compulsory on the syllabus, but I skipped most of the lectures for the breakers on Big Sur! Stopping wars? One sticky spittoon of guacamole, ma’am. So, I graduated, third-class dishonours, and the only thing I learned was the water-to-wine scam. Daddy tried to pull strings, but heaven, ma’am’ – God lowered his voice – ‘is another word for nepotism. Golden City makes the freemasons look meritocratic. Ain’t what you know – it’s who you know and where you know ’em from. The cronies of the Almighty get given the stable democracies, and us nobodies get the war zones and peacekeeping missions. Ma’am, do you have the time?’

Mrs Comb checked her wristwatch. ‘Five and twenty to eleven.’

‘Bonymaronie! I gotta get my videos back to the shop or they’ll fine me again!’

I just love that. I don't even know what to say about it. It's just perfect.

Also worthy of love: the fantastic relationship between Eiji and Ai Imago. And more specifically, I just adore Eiji's tongue-tied awkwardness and the way Ai responds to it: she's frank and blunt and wry, nicely mixing together exasperation with some subtle affection. She seems to be precisely who Eiji needs, and their dialog is always wonderful to read.

I'm at a loss to say exactly what the book is about. Cloud Atlas had a pretty clear and beautiful moral message that elegantly unfolded throughout the story. I get a general moral sense from this book, but it seems much more implicit. We sympathize with Eiji, and cringe in horror at the dark side of humanity displayed by Morino and Daimon and Mama-san. I don't know if Mitchell is suggesting that we emulate Eiji; despite his focused mission to find his father, he often comes across as a Murakami-style protagonist, who simply reacts to the bizarre things that occur to him. Eiji is a good person in relation to most other characters, but he doesn't seem to possess very active virtues, and certain aspects of his personality (shyness, guilt) come across as minor negatives.

So, if this isn't primarily a moral story, then perhaps it is "just" a creative, inventive book. It's thoroughly enjoyable to read, and its lingering sense of unreality nicely colors every part of the story.

Or maybe the book actually is "about" dreams. The beginning and and of the book seem to most directly involve dreams, while the middle section is colored by dreams. When Eiji travels near the end, he regularly falls asleep and slips into dreams, which he then relates to others or reflects on himself. They feel very believable, the kind of things you or I would dream if we had lived through Eiji's childhood: familiar people encountered in unfamiliar locations, a sense of guilt for actions you took or did not take long ago, transference between one person and another (the Ai/Anju link is very prominent in these dreams), and so on. There's another wonderful quote near the end of the book: "Dreams are shores where the ocean of spirit meets the land of matter." The more I think about that statement, the more I like it. Dreams are a kind of threshold, a place where two different universes touch: the real, the physical, the verifiable world of matter that we live in; and the supernatural, the religious, the realm of visions and prophecy and imagination and creativity. Maybe that's part of what Mitchell is getting at here... dreaming and writing fiction both involve seeing things that aren't real, and creating stories about them.

The one part of the book that felt a little weak to me was the ending. It wasn't bad, but it did feel like a rather abrupt and arbitrary ending, without the graceful denouement  and catharsis that Mitchell delivered in Cloud Atlas. Here again, though, Mitchell seems to be following in the admirable footsteps of great writers like Murakami, who rarely tie everything up neatly at the end.


My admiration for Mitchell continues to grow with every book of his I've read. I still think that Cloud Atlas is my favorite book of his, but number9dream helps show a clear progression in his work from the already-terrific Ghostwritten. It shows that he continued to work in interesting formalist structures that give his books a postmodernist appearance, while marrying that with a deep and transcendent humanism that explores the best and worst of man. I'm looking forward to continuing to explore his books, and already dreading the day when I'll run out of new material from him.

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