Review: Number 9 Dream by David Mitchell

“Dreams are shores where the ocean of spirit meets the land of matter. Dreams are beaches where the yet-to-be, the once-were, the will-never-be may walk awhile with the still are.” 

Rating: 5/5 stars

I’ve just finished reading the novel ‘number9dream’ by David Mitchell, acclaimed author of ‘Cloud Atlas’ which was recently made into a film. It’s his second book and was shortlisted for a Booker prize (though in my opinion it should’ve won one.) Though it must be clear by the rating I gave it, I was thoroughly impressed with this novel. It’s the sort of book that makes you question your own sanity, as well as the author’s, but that’s what I loved about it. By the time I’d finished reading it I was beginning to wonder if I was in a dream or not as well.

I was given this book as a present from a friend who said it ‘reminded her of Haruki Murakami’ (who I absolutely adore). She couldn’t have been more right: not only is ‘number9dream’ in the same vein as this Japanese cult author, it is actually inspired by it and freely acknowledges ‘Norwegian Woods’ as its inspiration within the text. There are certainly many aspects shared by both books: the writing style, the surreal image of Tokyo and the characterisation of the two female protagonists (Ai Imago and Midori) have clear similarities. It seems the Beatles are a very popular muse in literature nowadays.
‘Number9dream’ is a coming of age story at heart. Much like Norwegian Woods, it’s about coming to terms with identity, finding love and dealing with loss. Eiji Miyake, the protagonist of the novel, travels to Tokyo with the goal of finding the father he’s never met. However along the way he gets side-tracked, falls in love and gets in trouble with the Yakuza. I guess that’s the simple summary of the story. Except the narrative structure is far more complicated, as it contrasts the parallel universes of reality and dreams, to the point where you’re no longer sure what’s real and what isn’t. So basically, it’s a 418 page existential crisis in bound print.
Eiji’s story is the over-arching backbone of the novel, and everything else within is perceived through his point of view, including his fantasies. Each chapter, or ‘dream’, features another of these ‘illusions’ that Eiji uses to escape from reality, sometimes through video games, or books, or film. In fact one of these ‘illusions’ has recently been made into a short film: it’s called ‘The Voorman problem.’ Fun fact: my screenwriting professor this year helped produce it! Another of my favourites was the chapter ‘Kai Ten’ in which Eiji reads the journal of his great uncle, who was a Kai-Ten torpedo pilot during the 2nd world war. Through these illusions, the author manages to showcase a number of different narratives and ways of story-telling, creating a compelling blend of voices.
One of the things I love most about this novel is its blatant pretentiousness. I know that sounds a bit strange, but it takes a lot of skill to pull off something so experimental. Though there are a lot of detailed, banal and very realistic descriptions of Tokyo, it’s clear the author is not confining his writing to the category of ‘believable.’ In fact a lot of the dialogue is precocious, quirky and witty in a way that real people just aren’t. But that’s okay, because it’s good dialogue and even though it’s a bit cheesy, sometimes cheesy can be good when done in the right way. The author doesn’t just make his meaning obvious, he goes a step further and has his characters actually discuss it. Oh, the irony and meta-drama.
One very apparent example of this is the chapter ‘Study of Tales’, which is a collection of children’s stories that Eiji reads. They are more like thinly-veiled allegories for the writing trade and publishing business, each story dealing with a different aspect including the search for originality and the effect of the internet revolution on publishing.
Overall, I love this book because despite the magic realism side, the heart of the narrative contains genuine granules of human truth. Eiji tries to escape from reality to deal with the loss of his sister, but in the end he has to face his past in order to heal. One of my favourite quotes from the book is this: “maybe the meaning of life lies in looking for it”. A valuable piece of advice, it’s the reminder that meanings are not a fixed point to strive for but something that can change and evolve with us.

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