Sunday, March 18, 2012

Book review: number9dream

Three for three with David Mitchell.  (32 = 9!)  Having just finished number9dream, the author's second novel, I am all the more convinced that what we have here, in David Mitchell, is a genius.  But, let's leave that aside in favor of discussing the book.

number9dream is the story of Eiji Miyake, a 19-year-old Japanese farm-boy out to find his unknown father in dazzling, polymorphous Tokyo in the early 21st century.  Eiji comes from the backwater island of Yakushima where he has spent his teen years couch-surfing from one uncle's house to the next.  Eiji's mother  abandoned him and his twin sister, Anju, early in their lives.  Anju's death, when Eiji is eleven, leaves him alone but for his anonymous father somewhere in Tokyo.

That's as much plot as I can, in good conscience, reveal.  But don't be fooled into thinking number9dream is just another "coming of age" story.  It's much more than that.

Eiji's adventures in the big city range from hilarious to horrifying to poignant.  Mitchell uses dream sequences, daydreams, and recursive story-telling (stories within stories) to great effect. (Mitchell expands on this technique in his subsequent novel, Cloud Atlas.)  The novel shifts between dream and reality often. Readers are sometimes uncertain of the distinction between the two.  Nested stories include an absurd tale about a goat that struggles to write (fashioned on Mitchell himself), the diary of a Japanese sailor assigned a suicide mission in World War II, and various dreams and fantasies imagined by Eiji. 

One of the most pleasurable aspects of reading Mitchell is in recognizing and deciphering the many clues and hints ("Easter Eggs," if you will) that he drops into the narrative.  For example, the book's title "Number 9 Dream" is also the name of a song on John Lennon's Walls and Bridges album.  John Lennon is Eiji's hero.  And like Eiji, real-life John Lennon never knew his father and was abandoned by his mother at an early age.  The number 9 also figures prominently throughout the novel.  There are 9 chapters in the book.  The book mentions nine different brands of cigarettes.  A computer virus invented by a brilliant computer hacker perpetuates itself through 99 iterations.  And so on.  (In Cloud Atlas, the magic number is 6).

The novel didn't grab me right away.  By the time I was through the first three chapters, I was convinced that this novel wasn't going to measure up to the other two Mitchell novels I've read.  But then things started coming together. 

Eiji Miyake is Mitchell's most sympathetic protagonist yet.  Eiji comes to Tokyo a dreamer and an escapist, but also a noble, honest and kind-hearted young man.  Mitchell draws Eiji so sincerely that readers can't help but root for him.

As I read the last few pages, I found I was already missing Eiji.  I found I was hoping things would work out for him.  I yearned for him to succeed.  I wished him the best.  It is rare to empathize with a character so strongly.

By all means, read this book!

Bravo, David Mitchell!

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