Number9Dream by David Mitchell – Review

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A Japanese teenager named Eiji Miyake is searching Tokyo for his father, the man that abandoned him at birth. Eiji thinks he’s cursed, has no money, no street smarts, and no clear plan to follow for either this quest or his life. The city he’s moved to changes from sunny business area to Yakuza infested red-light district—drenched in neon, alcohol, and shadow—at the turn of a street corner. He thinks his father might be a scum-bag. His apartment has cockroaches.

Things are not going well.

Fortunately, he has the help of a cat, a girl with a perfect neck, a crude landlord, and a slimy hacker to keep him sane, amidst intrigue, vivid dreams, and crushing guilt from his childhood that he can push down but never really ignore.

Number9dream is the kind of book that, if it connects with you, you will fall inside it and get happily lost there. The heat of Tokyo, the heartbreak of losing a twin, the desperation to find a parent: you feel these things in your chest rather than your head, the mark of a well-crafted story.

The writing is gorgeous but dense in a way that Mitchell shies away from in much of his other work. I don’t mean dense in terms of difficulty; Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet are more challenging from a stylistic point of view. The density is due to how many of Eiji Miyake’s thoughts Mitchell packs into only one book; you may come away with the impression that you’ve lived a full nineteen-years in someone else’s head. There are tangents and diversions, but ultimately this novel is about what makes this young boy tick.

Number9Dream meanders through strange and difficult experiences, and the writing has page-long paragraphs that immerse you by switching between topics in an instant and ensuring you way attention and stay invested. The absurd and mundane are stirred together, as are reality and dreams: you don’t know when one ends and the other begins, but you’re sure to be surprised when you figure it out.

There’s a desperate search for identity and meaning, and a very twenty-first century rejection of easy answers to difficult questions. Miyake tries to be pro-active and dictate his fate, but the city of Tokyo has other plans for him, and throws him into one bizarre and dangerous situation after another. He doesn’t have an ounce of control, something many might find frustrating in a protagonist—but not me; this kept me interested to see what this novel’s universe, rather than characters, had in store.

According to Wikipedia (an always reliable source), this book draws heavily from Haruki Makumari. I’ve tried Makumari before and found him—specifically his novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World—dry and frustratingly vague. The comparisons of Number9Dream to his work, though, have made me think that I overlooked something special, and so I’ll be picking up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle soon. I don’t want to miss out if I could be reading another novel like this one.

Slade House by David Mitchell

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“Tonight feels like a board game co-designed by M. C. Escher on a bender and Stephen King in a fever.”

Slade House is a lovely looking home. People come from all over to visit, and it has two wonderful hosts. There’s a catch, though: it shouldn’t exist, and the people who enter never leave.

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If you feel like you’ve heard that summary before, that’s the point.

It’s safe to say haunted houses are firmly established as the great places for creepiness in stories. They’re the go-to for ghosts. With Slade House, though, Mitchell veers closer to the fantasy of Lev Grossman than, say, the difficult to comprehend horrors of House of Leaves, which may surprise readers due to the setting.

This isn’t a frightening novel; it’s not really trying to be. It wants to excite, and does so with spellbinding ease. The pages practically turn by themselves. Originally posted to Twitter, it’s tightly-plotted and fast-paced, with some great twists and carefully developed characters.

Mitchell’s eye for convincing details from modern England is sharp, and he smoothly draws you into well-trod ground by taking conventions you think you know and twisting them just enough that your expectations are subverted.

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The prose is less ornate than in previous Mitchell works, but still lively and occasionally profound.

The characters are engaging, of various classes and temperaments, and feel fresh, as they are far outside of the traditional haunted-house-protagonists template. It’s gratifying to watch as these characters navigate Slade House thanks to this uniqueness, as you just don’t know how they will react

For example, an autistic teenage boy on Valium finds his nightmares coming to life. How could that not be fascinating?

So why is it so unsatisfying?

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Despite its strengths, Slade House is unambitious when it comes to anything outside of of trying to excite the reader. It’s like fast food when you were expecting a three-course meal: still tasty, but lacking in nutrition, and unsatisfying if you were licking your lips in anticipation of prime-rib steak. The narrative and thematic weight which anchors Mitchell’s other books just isn’t here.

It’s difficult to examine why I was left so unsatisfied without going into the ending, so consider this a warning for spoilers.

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Having your supernatural menace be defeated stopped by a never-before-seen hero entirely unknown to the reader is far too close to a Deus Ex Machina for my tastes. Marinus’ appearance may not be surprising to readers who have already finished The Bone clocks, but it’s tonally inconsistent and jargon-loaded.

With such an incredibly powerful protagonist to end with, events which lead up to the character Marinus’ become comparatively pointless. He’s a psychic demi-god, basically; we aren’t relieved when he defeats evil because he expect it.

Normal people don’t matter to the climax of this book. Prior attempts to save themselves without magical assistance were made to seem important, like the dropping of a character’s hairpin, but compared to Marinus’ overwhelming superpowers they simply weren’t.

Any clever solution is shoved aside in favour of psycho-voltage explosions.

The Grayers were particularly fearsome antagonists because their methods were mystical, but their desire for immortality was  understandable. Extraordinary people with selfish motivations being defeated everyday people with extraordinary motivations (i.e. love, peace, and all that jazz) would have been thematically and narratively satisfying.

Instead, we get a psychic showdown. Exciting, but not particularly rewarding.

This ending, put simply, lets out all the novel’s carefully built tension and makes it flop like a deflated balloon.

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

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“Beware of asking people to question what’s real and what isn’t. They may reach conclusions you didn’t see coming.”

The Bone Clocks is a decade-spanning fantasy novel about the lies and justifications that result in evil. It has psychics, dimension hopping, and immortal soul-suckers, but everything turns back to the question of why people hurt each other.

Age and its numerous horrors haunt a large cast of characters, and constant time-jumps means their rapid declines become a worry for the reader too. Years fall away like leaves from a dying tree until, before you know it, the people Mitchell is making you care about are rotting in the ground. This gives the previously mentioned immortal soul-suckers some nice thematic resonance.

The characters are, as should be expected with Mitchell, the sturdiest part of this novel’s foundations aside from the handsome prose. Mitchell can make someone flawed but empathetic, and in this the case, the nastier they are the more fun they seem to be to read. More than once I thought, “How have I grown to love this character? They’re a bastard.” They’re rarely unrepentant bastards, though. Combine this internal intrigue with Mitchell’s sharp sense of humour and it’s easy to stay interested.

Your expectations for each section are adjusted as the stories go on. For example, a war reporter was the narrator in one of strongest parts of the novel, but not because of firefights or battle scenes. His struggles back in rural England were about parenthood, and addressed the fear of losing a child in a way that was visceral. I felt my stomach tense over and over again, and this all informed the rest of the novel (which explores a number of strained parental relationships) in interesting ways.

There’s a seriousness about the fantasy narrative that make moments comic relief welcome. The rude, self-obsessed author was an on-the-nose parody of Martin Amis (Mitchell has denied this… but I don’t believe him), and his desperation and self-pity reminded me of Timothy Cavendish’s farcical appearance in Cloud Atlas; the former’s story was more poignant than the latter, though, due to the sad transformation we watched Hershey go through as he aged.

There’s not a lack of personality on display here, then. The problems come back to the plot and pacing.

The structure is less controlled than in Mitchell’s other works. Only the fifth section delves into this War, which is more disconnected from everyday life than the rest of the novel (even the sixth part’s dystopian future), although Mitchell wisely keeps the stakes in this supernatural conflict low scale, at least relative to most fantasy. There are, fortunately, no feeble references to magical macguffins which might destroy the world: a Capital-W-War is ongoing over the right of a small group of powerful people to prey on the weak for sustenance, and this ties back to the way death looms above human lives. It’s interesting, but rushed. The descriptions are less grounded. Instead of just pushing people away with their minds, or something equally simple (if hokey), “[Horologists] pour psychovoltage into a neurobolas and kinetic it [their] assailants”. It feels as though you’ve been blasted into a parody of the earlier, far more restrained musings on the supernatural.

I’m all for ambitious fantasy, but there has to be a balance which The Bone Clocks never manages. The quotidian and the supernatural are firmly kept apart until the later sections, where they merge unsatisfactorily. This is particularly frustrating as Mitchell excelled at combining the genres in other novels. Still, I don’t think a writer who melded the supernatural and mundane as well as the writer of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet would make a change so obviously jarring without specific intentions in mind. The over-the-top elements could even be read as a challenge to “traditional literature” readers who might normally dismiss a novel solely because of its genre. Mitchell would have known all of these elements would alienate people, even if he was hoping they would meld more smoothly than they did.

When it doesn’t work it really doesn’t work, but for the majority of its pages I was enthralled. It’s flawed, but not much more so than Ghostwritten—Mitchell’s first novel, often cited as his second-best—as that novel had a jarring sci-fi element, which paralleled my problems with this book. This is a roundabout way of saying I’d rather dive into a very flawed but ambitious novel by Mitchell than a more consistent work by 90% of the living authors I’ve read.

Ghostwritten by David Mitchell

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“I am going to tell you a secret. Everything is about wanting. Everything. Things happen because of people wanting. Watch closely, and you’ll see what I mean.”

Ghostwritten is a globe-spanning novel with ten main characters who are connected by some very strange coincidences. Things start with a gas attack in Tokyo, but over the next four hundred pages things take some very strange turns. If you want a novel that’s unpredictable and varied, this is it.

As always, Mitchell’s writing is just plain gorgeous. He could describe a man waiting in line at the post-office and I’d be hooked. His sentences are funny and expressive with light and easy rhythm. Observations which other writers could make sound trite never come across as simple because of their place in such an unusual narrative and thanks to his flair on a sentence by sentence level.

“We drift, often on a whim, searching for something to search for.”

The sections in Asia often have mythical and spiritual touches, contrasting with the more sci-fi and conspiracy influenced Western stories, which move across St Petersburg, London, and New York. You will be left wondering what the fuck is going on. I mean this in a good way.I can’t talk about many of the locations’ veracity here, but as per usual Mitchell represents modern England more authentically than any other modern novelist I’ve read (barring maybe Zadie Smith). This let me feel in safe hands when I was placed in cultures I’m not familiar with. Ghostwritten’s cities and villages ooze authenticity. The ten narrators feel real, with distinct motivations and personal ticks; a yearning for a secure place in the world connects them all, but their unique perspectives never come across as contrived. A teenager in Tokyo, for example, observes how cultures other than his own have changed his way of thinking:

“Then one of them asked why Japanese kids try to ape American kids? The clothes, the rap music, the skateboards, the hair. I wanted to say that it’s not America they’re aping, it’s the Japan of their parents that they’re rejecting. And since there’s no home-grown counter culture, they just take hold of the nearest one to hand, which happens to be American. But it’s not American culture exploiting us. It’s us exploiting it.”

Some of the most fascinating stuff takes place in Mongolia, where an incorporeal being of some sort is floating from host to host, struggling to understand where it came from. That such a strange idea works so easily is a testament to the way Mitchell can, when he is careful, take you in directions you had never thought of while still satisfying traditional story needs.

Stories slide from realistic to fantastical on a whim, with Mitchell disregarding traditional notions of genre. Despite the disjointed tone and themes, things stay feeling grounded even when events are plain impossible.

Unfortunately, while the final quarter is still powerful on a moment-to-moment level, there are simply too many disparate threads for the novel to satisfyingly tie everything together. Unlike Cloud Atlas, which felt like a very cohesive whole, all the sections of Ghostwritten felt more like fascinating short stories which happened to have connections with each other, rather than as different parts of a cohesive whole. The world-ending plotline felt tacked on to let things end with a bang and add a sense of grandeur instead of giving thematic weight. None of this is helped by Mo Muntervary getting introduced near the end. She has a vital story when it comes to the overarching narrative, but is also the least convincing character. Her chapter came across as an excuse for Mitchell to talk in physics metaphors and exposition in a hasty attempt to set up the finale.

I’m still glad I read this though. Ghostwritten is an imperfect gem, with fascinating character work and prose. It’s just a shame it never quite blends together as a full novel.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

“One fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul. For the human species, selfishness is extinction. […] Is this the doom written within our nature?”

Near the beginning of Cloud Atlas, taking place around one-hundred and fifty years ago, a priest recounts how pacifist ‘savages’ were slaughtered by nearby Maori tribes. “What moral to draw?” our first narrator, a white American gentleman, muses. “Peace […] is a cardinal virtue only if your neighbours share your conscience.”

This is a novel split into six: six sections, six protagonists, six time periods, six genres. 19th century New Zealand among tribes who are being colonised; pre-World War 2 Belgium; California in the midst of the 70s counter-culture; North-East provincial England; a dystopic Korea in the 22nd century (I think) where capitalism has been taken to alarming extremes; back to tribalism in a far flung future. The stories stop in their middle, only to start again after you have seen how the future has been influenced by these tales: in some cases this was significantly, in others not.

This might seem like a gimmick, which is something the novel is conscious of. It wants you to know you’ll be rewarded if you stick with it, that any efforts to pay close attention will not be brushed aside in some sort of irritating postmodern game, such as in Italo Calvino’s ‘If on a winter’s night a traveller‘ (which I found infurating). Little self-conscious prods mid-way through keep the reader assured that Mitchell will not leave threads untied, such as when Robert Frobisher, a young, selfish and gifted composer, muses about his new work:

“In the first set, each solo is interrupted by its successor; in the second, each interruption is recontinued, in order. Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late.”

Mitchell slips in and out of different characters and situations with astonishing ease, and what should feel—due to its scattered narratives and sheet ambition—cluttered, confusing and unfocused is held together by very wonderful but careful writing, and themes which emphasize humanity’s interconnected nature. Symbols, plot-points and characters occasionally connect the six stories, but these threads are never overemphasized to make a narrative point or to seem clever. In other words, they stay fun to spot. Each story shows someone trying to overcome oppression, but you could read each of them in isolation and still enjoy them.

At its core, Cloud Atlas is occupied with humanity’s history of violence and opression, and where that history may lead us. That’s why it stays interesting despite being so ridiculously busy in terms of story. In each of the sections, arrogance, entitlement and greed mean that characters are unfairly treated and hurt. I expected something optimistic here, as I had watched the Wachowski’s film version, which changes some of the endings (most notably the tribal future’s) so they’re more uplifting. I think the novel is more honest about where our current course could take us if we aren’t very, very careful, and as such is a more honest plea for empathy.

Many novels this ambitious falter because, in the search of grand philosophical themes and strange structures, they forget character and storytelling. Cloud Atlas, thanks in part to its beautifully crafted first-person style (except in California, where it becomes an intruiging third-person thriller) feels extremely personal, and so succeeds where most other books of this sort would fail.

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready’.”

A desperate need to make sense of the world occupies a young boy in provincial England, and we watch as his future shifts in ways out of his control while he navigates his third year at secondary school.

If there is one area of writing where David Mitchell excels, it’s voices. In two or three sentences, he can make a character crawl out from the book pages and say, “Hello, I’m several people from across your life unified in one person. Remember me?” It’s almost eerie how fast he can make a character feel complex and interesting.

There’s a fine line when writing about teenagers, as trying to capture the self-centred nature inherent to most can be irritating to older readers, but if you go too far the other way the characters feel almost inhuman, like they’re lifeless cypher a being used by the author to make a point about their own childhood. The main character here has a naivety which is relatable, but never crosses into frustrating. That is just hard to pull off.

Mitchell is great at understanding the unspoken rules of teenage boys, the way word-choices, nicknames, and even the place you sit on the bus can act as a way the rest of the world can use to judge you, place you.

Black Swan Green captures the claustrophobia inherent to adolescence, the constriction many feel every time the uncomfortable realities of adult life creep closer towards them. He understands but never glorifies youth. He accepts that growing up can be extraordinarily painful and boring, but it can change you in ways you would never give up for the world.