Lost in Tokyo

You know sometimes you read a book, and you get so lost in it that when you look up, the world seems a silly place? Seems less real than where you were? Seems like a dream?

But what if the book itself reads like a dream?

Such is the case with the aptly called number9dream, David Mitchell's sophomore book, and, as far as I'm concerned, his best yet. Admittedly, I have yet to read ghostwritten, but this book has more heart that Cloud Atlas, and much more wow than his latest, Black Swan Green.

Mitchell is a bit of a mystery, because his most distinctive feature seems to be the lack of an own voice. And it's not just because he's such a chameleon, though he is: in Cloud Atlas he adopts 6 different kinds of not just perspectives, but also styles, lexicons, emotional ranges, and even in Black Swan Green, he subtle modulates his style. He doesn't let his own voice come through, but that's not the only thing. If I met Dave Eggers, I think I would know more or less not just how he would talk, but also what his interests are, his obsessions, his sense of humor, I'd know (to an extent) what kind of person he is. David Mitchell? I have no idea. It's a well-known cliche that it's impossible to write anything without revealing much more than you'd like, but Mitchell seems to be an expert at remaining in the shadows.

That is, I think, why I admired Cloud Atlas, but couldn't bring myself to love it: it was a masterful stylistic exercise, but -except for the Frobisher segment- it was cold. As for Black Swan Green, it was affecting, but I felt too acutely how Mitchell tried to be more small scale: his effort showed.

But number9dream....Maybe it's because, apparently, Mitchell lived in Japan himself (and, as I just found out on wikipedia, 5 months in the netherlands for research. Damn. I could have met the guy. Soaked up some writing genius, even.), and maybe that's why his portrayal of Tokyo feels so vibrant, so there, so alive.

Not that he's not up to his usual tricks here, too. Heck, I'd probably lose interest without the tricks, and he's so good at them, too. Every chapter here is part of the same story, but different nonetheless. Take the first chapter. It starts in reality, at some indeterminate point lapses into daydream, then backs up to the point where reality stopped, only revealing then what was dream and what wasn't. Only to jump back into dream a few paragraphs or pages later.

I suppose what humanises Mitchell here is how well-found the daydreams are. Not only do they only gradually stray from the plausible, but they're both imaginative and exactly how daydreams can be (and trust me, I'm enough of a daydreamer myself to judge).

What's more, it sets the tone for the whole novel: it makes us both go along with anything that's said because it might be true, but it also keeps us guessing. This is why you don't tune out when the story takes a turn for the bizarre (and gruesomely funny) in chapter four. And when the author, in the final (well, officially penultimate) chapter tells us about Eiji Miyake's dreams, it's not boring (like other people's dreams usually are), but on the contrary is a fitting way to lead us out of the strange world of the novel.

I suppose what really won me for this novel is the chapter "study of tales". In it, there are fragments of stories about "goatwriter", "Mrs. Comb", and "Pithecanthropus", and these finally show something deeply personal: the author's love of storytelling. And his inventiveness with it.

See, it starts innocent enough. Yes, Mrs Comb might be a chicken, maybe, and it's a little weird and jumpy, and it seems to have nothing to do witht he story at hand, but it's easy to just read through and dismiss as a fairy tale that might be explained later. And then Mitchell shows us what he can do.

First, there's a scene where Mrs. Comb is revealed to be, indeed, a chicken, but it happens in a weirdly realistic warzone, and without apparent consequences. Goatwriter's finds out that his stories were not stolen, but that he's eaten them (and what does that say about story creatures?). But the thing that really threw me, that gave me a jolt of surprise depite my willingness to accept anything at this point, is that when they're confronted with the stereotypical Evil Queen...she's an internet creature bent on digitalizing goatwriter's creativeness.

How do you do that? Take fairy tale creatures that belong in another age, that drink from literal streams of consciousness, and then put modernity in there?

Oh well. I'll stop spoiling the fun and just bow to Mitchell in deep veneration. It's my weakness for all things pomo, definitely, but it's more than that. The man's a genius. And his love of storytelling is infectious.

Just call me goatwriter.


1 comment:

King Julian said...

The couple of sentences spoken between the wordhounds was also hilarious!