“‘Truth is,’ John Lennon continues, ‘”#9dream” is a descendant of “Norwegian Wood”. Both are ghost stories. “She” in “Norwegian Wood” curses you with loneliness. The “two spirits dancing so strange” in “#9 dream” bless you with harmony. But people prefer loneliness to harmony.'”
Hint for novelists: If you don’t want reviewers to make Haruki Murakami comparisons, you probably don’t want to pepper your Tokyo-set surrealist sci-fi noir with references to John Lennon and The Beatles, and maybe don’t show your hero reading “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” and definitely avoid titling the whole thing “Number9Dream.”
Or you can disregard the advice, as David Mitchell does in his second novel. He simply submits to Murakami’s influence, acknowledges that he’s perilously close to pastiche, and has John Lennon’s dream ghost spell it all out at the novel’s climax. “Number9Dream” is the direct descendant of Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” – a younger, even more immature version of a modern classic that does not count maturity among its many charms.
It’s a canny move that anticipates and deflects criticism. After all, everyone is influenced by someone, usually many someones, so who cares? Some would say: “Fine, but make sure your influences are buried, either literally, in a graveyard – or metaphorically, in your text.”
In any case, there’s plenty of other things to criticize, because “Number9Dream” is a frustrating Frankenstein of a novel, as thrilling in some parts it is galling in others. It’s divided into 8 chapters of wildly varying dreaminess and interest, (that ninth “dream” chapter is blank, which is either poetic or an admission that even the author lost interest in fulfilling his organizational conceit.) The (very good) bulk of it mainly concerns Eiji Miyaake, a young man looking for the father who abandoned him and his now-defunct sister as children, and the quest that takes him deep into the ultra-violent Yakuza underworld, where traitors and transgressors are expected to lose first their little fingers and then other increasingly more vital body parts. These sections are indebted to “Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World,” but that was a good book, so what could go wrong?
What goes wrong is that Mitchell once more suffers from the mode-shifting anxieties that marked his debut, “Ghostwritten”. It’s as if he worries that Eiji’s tale isn’t compelling enough, or that the reader’s ADD must be appeased, or that a straight-forward story isn’t really going to wow the fickle critics. So he incorporates two other lengthy narratives into the tale. For impractical, unconvincing reasons, Miyake stops the flow of things to read a) a children’s story and b) a World War II diary from his Kaiten-pilot ancestor. Different readers will react differently to those. Do you enjoy forced “whimsy”? Then you’ll enjoy the faux-Lewis-Carroll fairy tale. Do you enjoy History Channel documentaries? Then you’ll enjoy learning about Kaiten submarines and the proud, suicidal nationalism that drives men to give all for Emperor and Country.
I hated both stories.
I hated them in direct proportion to how much I LOVED the main story – the REAL story, as far as I was concerned. They’re not complements to Eiji’s quest: they are digressions that scream “Look at me, Man-Booker-Prize! Ain’t I versatile!” They can easily be excised from the novel without any loss to the main body. They’re fancy tumors.
This is why “Number9Dream” elicits a very conflicted reaction from me. There was so much I enjoyed, (I want to follow Mitchell’s career from here on out), that I didn’t know what to do with the parts that didn’t do anything for me. I found the WW2 diary to be simply a dull test of patience. By contrast, the Goat Writer segments are embarrassingly bad: but embarrassment is at least an emotion. These are pretentious stories about the “nature of creativity,” and involve the anthropomorphic “Goat Writer,” “Mrs. Comb,” ( a servant and hen) and their hairy handyman, “Pithecanthropus.” They’re supposed to be written in Japanese, but they’re full of barf-inducing, English-language alliterations so nearly non-sensical that if any pauperish parochial pupil were punished into the perusal of their pages, it would propel the poor person into any propitiatory, popping-hot pyre propped up in the proximity.
Another writerly hint: Murakami already had a Sheep Man character; so don’t have a Goat Man character.
RATING: 4/9 COOL! 3/9 GOOD ENOUGH 2/9 UGH