10 March 2001

All the nines

by David Mitchell

David Mitchell’s first novel, Ghostwritten, was one of the most highly praised fictional debuts of recent times, and with unusual justice. It was impressive mainly for its imaginative range — a globetrotting series of first-person narratives that included a Japanese Aum cult member on the run after the Tokyo subway nerve-gas attack, an old woman living high up a mountain, an Irish nuclear physicist, and a disembodied consciousness searching for its birth-story in Mongolia. Despite its enormous ambition, however, it left some people wondering just how much of a novel it was. Each section was linked to its fellows only by fleeting, marginal appearances of characters from other sections, so that the effect was one not of any overarching narrative structure, but of spectral patterns interleaved, of ripples interpenetrating in a pond. The reader was eventually given leave to suppose, among other interpretations, that the entire novel had been compiled by the sky-surfing, satellite-hopping electronic consciousness of its penultimate chapter. True to its title, Ghostwritten was a dazzling performance of authorial absence.

number9dream is at first glance more traditional in its architecture, sticking mainly with one narrator through the course of its 400-odd pages. He is a 20-year-old Japanese student, Eiji Miyake, newly arrived in Tokyo to search for his missing father. Absent fathers are traditional bait for metaphysical quests, and Eiji’s real quest, it turns out, is to come to terms with a tragedy buried in the past. Intercut throughout the novel are scenes from his childhood: idyllic rural days spent climbing trees with his sister Anju, for whose death Eiji feels responsible.

Eiji rents a capsule room above a video shop, falls in love with a pianist’s perfect neck, and gets mixed up in the deliciously creative violence of Yakuza turf wars. Veering between the modes of sadistic action movie, detective story, cyberpunk thriller and gentle romance, the external action of Mitchell’s novel is always engaging. But such is Mitchell’s beautifully precise style that he can make inaction just as pleasurable, as Eiji lies alone on his capsule bed, smoking cigarettes and watching the neon clock across the street count down the hours until dawn. Mitchell’s prose bespeaks a kind of observational rapture, that offers the smell of Tokyo streets or even the movements of a cockroach as tiny, cherishable shards.

Mitchell also adores larger-scale formal tricks, which are not always convincingly integrated with his subject-matter. The book opens with a faintly irritating section entitled “Panopticon”, named for the Tokyo law firm where Eiji believes he will find the first clues to his father’s identity. The reader is wrong-footed numerous times, as each elaborate attempt on the Panopticon fortress is revealed to be a figment of Eiji’s nerve-shredded imagination. The third section, meanwhile, is entitled “Video Games”, but it makes only a rudimentary attempt to mime the sensual action of the electronic arts in its opening scene, and quickly comes to resemble a seedy teen-buddy movie in its romp through Yazuka-owned hostess clubs.

It is the fifth section, however, that grates most. Entitled “Study of Tales”, it sees Eiji hiding out in a writer’s house and reading the fables she has left behind on her desk. With their hero Goatwriter, who is obsessed with finding the “truly untold tale”, together with his friends Mrs Comb the hen and Pithecanthropus the primitive man, they are written in an insufferably fey, sing-song rhyming prose. It becomes painfully apparent, among the superfluity of pages devoted to this arch nonsense, that we are witnessing a fable about fiction itself. “A hoochy-koochy hooker honked. ‘Stories never filled my belly!’” Such wastebasket-fodder is symptomatic of Mitchell’s greatest fault: he explains too much. Just as Ghostwritten did not need a section narrated by someone who actually worked as a ghostwriter, number9dream’s beautiful, oneiric textures seem mocked and polluted by this clunking defence of making stuff up.

Far more successful, because less overt, are Mitchell’s enjoyably arrogant dabs of intertextuality: one character and one secret facility from Ghostwritten wink tangentially into life here, too, and contribute their pianissimo counterpoint to this novelist’s leitmotif. Mitchell’s guiding thesis is in fact a comfortingly simple one: everything is somehow interconnected, even if we don’t know why. This theme is most obviously celebrated in number9dream’s obsessive numerology. As though it were intended as a cyborg updating of the medieval dream poem “Pearl”, the novel is everywhere infected with nines. An access code has nine digits; a student lives on the ninth floor; a club requires nominations from nine members; a central event takes place on the ninth day of the ninth month. An incoming phone call is always announced thus: “The telephone riiiiiiiiings” (that’s nine “i”s). At length, partly because of this suspicious arithmetic, it becomes possible to suppose that the entire action of the novel may have been a dream, and Mitchell’s greatest feat is to suggest this without making the reader feel cheated.

It is at the climax that we are also reminded of Mitchell’s great literary debt. Eiji dreams he meets John Lennon, who wrote a song called #9dream. “‘#9dream’ is a descendant of ‘Norwegian Wood’,” Lennon tells Eiji. Similarly, Mitchell’s number9dream is heavily influenced by Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, whose most famous book (in Japan) is Norwegian Wood. As in Norwegian Wood, a woman very close to the narrator writes letters to him from a mental institution. And just as Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (which it is hinted Eiji has half-read) includes a harrowing nested narration of events during the second world war, so Mitchell’s number9dream offers pages from the diary of a Japanese torpedo pilot on a suicide mission to sink American shipping.

It may be, however, that Murakami is a dangerous model, in the same way that Nabokov has claimed so many lesser talents as victims. Mitchell’s attempt to borrow historical pathos by way of the torpedo pilot misfires, where Murakami’s similar strategy was unforgettable. Mitchell simulates the gossamer naïveté of Murakami’s characters — especially in his curiously asexual central romance — without ever quite managing, as Murakami does, to make them resonate. The Japanese novelist conjures a tone of great poetic melancholy out of deceptively simple materials. It is a tone that Mitchell has not quite matched here, but he is clearly a writer of such rare imaginative energy that in future he will doubtless create a world entirely his own.