David Mitchell’s number9dream concerns the life of Eiji Miyake, recently arrived in Tokyo from the backwoods of Yakushima, a remote island, possibly the most southern in Japan. He feels the shame of his provincial accent, and has come to the city to find his father, a married man who abandoned his pregnant mistress. The book is the story of that search, and of how Eiji also finds himself. In that sense it’s a conventional tale of an adolescent’s search for identity, an interesting and universal, though fairly common theme.
The story describes Eiji’s struggle to adjust to city life, and to survive in Tokyo. It introduces themes of love, loss and family, and explores the idea of moral integrity in ways that unite a Japanese and Western world view. Eiji learns more about his family, and we see if he can be reconciled with the life he has been given – can he find his father, accept his mother’s treatment of him, and live with the death of his twin sister, for which he feels irrational guilt?
Mitchell of course doesn’t just leave the novel there: these are conventional tropes and ideas, which he handles really well, but the book goes beyond the conventional in ways that are really quite entertaining if at times a little perplexing. Eiji inhabits the modern world of video games, living out his fantasies about his father and his future in sections of crazy descriptions where fact and fantasy fuse. He becomes involved with the Yakuza, a world of sex and violence that for most of us belongs in films rather than reality: these sections involve ATM machines that communicate and characters named Lizard, Leatherjacket, Popsicle and Frankenstein. Elsewhere, hidden in a library, sections of narrative are interwoven with an almost surreal children’s story that Eiji has found in a hidden room.
Having just finished number9dream I would say it’s my favourite David Mitchell novel – just nudging out Black Swan Green. Both of these have the sort of narrative coherence that is missing from Ghostwritten – link below to my review – but contain the same energy and imagination:
The contemporary setting of number9dream is also more interesting for me than the historical setting of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, reviewed here:
All in all a very strong recommendation, if you can stomach the violence in the story, and the violence Mitchell does to some of the conventions of narrative fiction.