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I’ve just read David Mitchell’s second novel (Sceptre, 2001). And having now caught up with his entire oeuvre it looks, on current form, like I’ve got to wait a couple of years at least, dammit, before the next book comes along. I’m going to be impatient simply because there is such a wild talent here that I am anxious to see what he does next.

Of his three books to date, this is the closest to a conventional narrative, at least to the extent that it has one continuing narrator, Eiji Miyake, who remains central and on the same quest throughout the entire book. There are a couple other tales that entwine with his – a charming and very odd little fable about a goat who is an author and the hen and Neanderthal who are his companions; and the diary of a kamikaze Japanese mini-submarine pilot during the last days of the Second World War – but essentially this is Miyake’s story from beginning to end. But that does not mean it is a conventional narrative. Miyake is a naive country boy haunted by the death, years before, of his twin sister, who turns up in Tokyo just before his twentieth birthday to discover the identity of his father. His mother, an alcoholic who has played no part in his upbringing, gave birth as the result of a brief fling with someone who appears to have been quite powerful on the edges of Japanese society, and though Miyake simply wants to discover his identity many of those he encounters on this quest believe there are other motives, which sets off much of the extraordinary drama of the story.

We begin with Miyake sitting in a cafe lusting after a waitress and trying to steel himself to cross the road and confront the powerful lawyer who might be able to give him the information he needs. This scene is punctuated with a series of fantasies – in one his confrontation with the lawyer turns into a Matrix-like battle of computer wizardry and incredible futuristic weapons, in another Tokyo is flooded and he rescues the waitress, both of which presage what is apparently going to happen in the real narrative – but in the end he is simply turned away by the lawyer’s receptionist. The dreams in this opening sequence seem to suggest that what follows is real, but at the same time they cue us to read events as dreams, and this curiously delicate ambiguity between fantasy and reality is the line that Mitchell treads with remarkable confidence through the rest of the novel. Miyake’s quest brings him into contact with the Yakuza, and he finds himself in the middle of turf wars between rival gangsters, a war carried out with surreal violence that could be dreamlike or could be terrifyingly real. Shattering incidents happen, then have no apparent consequences, or rather their consequences are not mentioned so we have no idea if they were real or not. A stray cat that wanders into Miyake’s tiny apartment is apparently run over early in the book, but remains his companion for the rest of the novel. Characters drift into the story and out again, but never seem to leave. The waitress becomes his girlfriend; a bored rich boy who picks him up one evening and sweeps him away for a curious night in a private high-class brothel reappears as the victim of Yakuza violence; a voice on the telephone who calls him in the middle of the night to order a peculiar pizza turns out later to be his father. Mitchell does drama (and melodrama) with great assurance, so you always keep reading because you need to know what is going to happen next, how can he top the last extraordinary incident, but all the time you’re not sure how much you’re supposed to believe. Is any of this real; is any of it not real? Then Mitchell ends the novel with the most heart-touching, nerve-shattering cliffhanger I have read for many years, and you realise you want it all to have been real because otherwise this climax would not have the poignancy it does, and at the same time you want to take Mitchell by the throat and shake him until he tells you what happened next.

If I’m sitting back and being clinical about this, I’d say that number9dream is perhaps not quite as good as Ghostwritten and certainly not the stunning achievement of Cloud Atlas (a term that is casually dropped into number9dream), but this is a matter of nuance, of hair-splitting. If I’d read nothing else by Mitchell this novel would have sent me out in desperate search of his other books, because it is a novel you just know is going to haunt you.

First published at Livejournal, 9 October 2004.

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