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Incredibly imaginative, ambitious, unpredictable, full of life, and just plain magical
on August 22, 2016
It hasn't taken long for David Mitchell to establish himself as one of my all-time favorite authors. Heck, within a few minutes of starting Cloud Atlas, I knew I was reading something wholly unlike anything else I'd ever read, and within an hour, I knew this was one of the most astonishing pieces of writing I'd ever experience. And with each new book of his I read, I find myself more and more in awe of his talent. The world-building and history of Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, the intricate plotting of The Bone Clocks, the clever narration swerves of Ghostwritten, and the surprisingly effective horror of Slade House - each one leaves me awed, and immersed in an incredible world, and reluctant to leave, and even more convinced of Mitchell's greatness.
And now, I come to number9dream, convinced I'm finally starting to get a handle on Mitchell...only to be surprised and floored and moved and impressed all over again.
At first glance, it would be easy to feel like this is less ambitious Mitchell. After all, there's only a single narrator this time, a single through plotline, and largely a single setting. This is the story of Eije Miyake, a young Japanese man who has ventured to Tokyo in an effort to discover who his father is. And as the book opens, we start with Eije, about to head into a business he's been watching to uncover the truth...
...and without warning, Mitchell starts letting this book evolve and transform in front of our very eyes. Before we know it, this theoretically simple tale of parentage has become part action movie, part storytelling exercise, part Yakuza gang war tale, part tender romance, part slice of life, part World War II saga, part fantasy saga...and that's not even part of it. And all while he's juggling all of these pieces, Mitchell keeps us moving, letting Eije's journey be the focus of the book, not only narratively but, more importantly, emotionally.
In lesser hands, number9dream would be a mess. It's a picaresque, episodic novel taken to extremes, where every chapter could easily be from a different work entirely. One chapter constantly devolves into daydreams without us noticing, snaps back to reality, and then repeats the cycle; another turns into an insane, over-the-top Yakuza gore film. One chapter may be a painful childhood memory; another becomes a plunge into the world of computer hacking. Sometimes, we're immersed in the life in the back offices of a Tokyo rail station; other times, we see the nightlife that wanders in and out of a video store; still others, we find ourselves in imagined movie theaters, or reading books within our own book. In short, it's much of the metafictional, twisty work that Mitchell loves, but all filtered through a single perspective. But instead of being bewildering or exhausting, it all becomes a joy, giving us a book that's incredibly unpredictable, bursting with life and ideas, evolving in front of our eyes constantly, and all the while spinning a quietly moving saga out of all of these individual events that alone could be whole novels unto themselves.
In short, number9dream is impossible to summarize, and to do so would be to rip away the joys of the book. As with all the best novels, the joy here is the journey, not the destination, and every time I picked back up number9dream, I lost myself in its intricate, rich, imaginative world, whether it was all real, daydreamed, written, imagined, or just observed. I found myself deeply moved and engaged by the sweet, subtle romance at the book's core, one that surprised me as it evolved and developed. I loved the ongoing revelations about Eije's father and mother, which were more grounded than I expected, but no less moving, and maybe even more so. I laughed at Mitchell's audacity as the book spiraled in wild directions, only to drop them later, and the sheer richness of his world, which is packed with more stories, voices, and ideas than some authors can manage in a lifetime, much less one book.
Is it flawless? It's almost flawless - can that count? There's those final few paragraphs, which end the book in such an odd, discordant way, one that left me a bit disappointed at both its abruptness and the unsatisfying way to end it all...and yet, it's a choice Mitchell made, and one that's perhaps underlined by the book's final chapter, which implies nothing if not our own choice as to what happens next. And maybe that's better than anything he could ever write. Or maybe he'll catch up with Eije decades on down the road. Whatever the case, number9dream is a joy, and yet another masterpiece from an author whose works have yet to leave me anything but in awe.