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Paging Dream Number Nine

by Scott Ehrig-Burgess, Assistant Catapult Operator
It’s David Mitchell month here at the Book Catapult – when isn’t it David Mitchell month at the Book Catapult some of you might ask – so I thought I better ingratiate myself with the founder by tying up my David Mitchell loose ends before diving into my second read-through of Cloud Atlas. This meant I needed to tackle Number9Dream, David Mitchell’s second novel, published in 2001, three years before Cloud Atlas, and, like that novel, short-listed for the Booker. That Number9Dream eventually lost out to Peter Carey’s excellent The True History of the Kelly Gang seems more forgivable than Cloud Atlas losing out to Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, though Colm Toibin fans may feel the same way.

I had read Ghostwritten, David Mitchell’s debut novel, several years ago and have yet to read a stronger ‘First Novel’. The complexities of styles, genres and narratives – essentially a set of nine short stories linked together by chance, coincidence, or fate, depending on your worldview – made me view Ghostwritten as a sort of ‘dress rehearsal’ for Cloud Atlas, which is more or less six novellas stretched across not only space, as in Ghostwritten, but time, in a structure even more experimental and ambitious than Ghostwritten. Having just finished Number9Dream, however, I’ve revised my thoughts and have to say now that I agree with Seth’s basic thesis that David Mitchell is in fact writing one big, terrifyingly awesome novel. Or, as Mitchell writes in Number9Dream: “The Cloud Atlas turns its pages over.” (p.352)

Mr. Mitchell, We Approve.

As Number9Dream reconfirms, Mr. Mitchell is a master of literary ventriloquism. Rarely has a writer who writes almost exclusively in first person shown such range. Mitchell is constantly experimenting, constantly trying his hand at different genres and narrative tricks, a la Georges Perec or his fellow Oulipian, Italo Calvino, all with the linguistic energy and freshness of Nabokov. What is most admirable as a writer is that David Mitchell is never afraid to fail and rather than following the old maxim of ‘Cut Your Darlings’ he simply adds more darlings until nothing feels dear and not a word, whether tragic, brutal, sentimental, camp, comic, or beautiful, seems out of place. He gets away with any number of clever lines a lesser writer would drown in, such as describing the passage of time as: “The minutes jog up the down escalator.” I don’t know a writing workshop that would have escaped from.

Number9Dream, on its surface, appears to be a troubled young man’s quest to find his father. At each turn of events the reader is forced to ask whether what is happening is reality or dream, truth or deception and by chapter three the Holden Caulfield-like narrator (including the propensity to chain smoke) finds himself trapped in a vast underworld conspiracy part Don Delillo’s Underworld (the epigraph here is in fact from Underworld) part surreal Haruki Murakami novel. Murakami, of course, factors anytime a writer does anything mind-bending set in modern Japan, but Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is mentioned in Number9Dream and David Mitchell has stated that “there’s a naughty link between Number9Dream and Norwegian Wood.  Norwegian Wood also borrowed its title from a John Lennon song, though for the life of me I’m not sure what Mitchell’s naughty link is. Maybe a Murakami fan can enlighten me.

Doi-San, Please Don’t Blend Me.

As with any Mitchell novel, so playful and confident you almost take his daring inventiveness for granted, the text is full of meta-fictional asides, homages to other works and writers and forays into other genres and mediums of expression. John Lennon lyrics abound, either outrightly quoted or embedded subtly in the text, and the number nine makes appearances as frequently as the number six does in Cloud Atlas. Among the forms and genres Mitchell takes on are video games, film, dreams and hallucinations, pulp fiction, a children’s fantasy novel, and a particularly compelling diary kept by a World War Two pilot of a Kamikaze torpedo, that, as with a lot of Mitchell’s work I swear I have read before, but simply cannot place, in a deja-vu sort of way. The novel also, to its credit, features a magician accidentally ingesting a parakeet, as if to say that even magic can clank one off the crossbar every now and then. The children’s fantasy novel, featuring a writer named Goatwriter who travels in a mystical campervan with a chicken and an extinct ape man was one such clanker for this reader, but even that section was entertaining in its absurd daringness, taking on the meaning of narrative itself.

And of course, besides the myriad dreams and fantasies of the novel, there is the violent descent into the underbelly of a Tokyo controlled by all-knowing all-powerful rival Yakuza factions. What’s fiendishly clever about this subplot, which throughout the novel seems to be of central importance, is that it isn’t about anything at all. By the end you suspect it was one vast, two-hundred-and-fifty page (roughly) red herring, but it was so entertaining you don’t care. The real core of the novel is about something much more simple and elegant than the vague all-encompassing power of shadowy organizations controlling our destinies, it is about the narrator’s power to control the few precious things in the world he can, whether it’s properly grieving the death of his sister, properly falling in love, or properly reconciling the mother he does have, rather than being swallowed up in the pointless quest to find the father he does not, because, by the end of the novel it is brutally clear how little one can control of the vast Cloud Atlas and that the truth lies in those little details even as we all too often spend our lives punching at giants and tilting at windmills, nothing more than careless dreams.

Number9Dream is less rigid in its structure than Ghostwritten and Cloud Atlas, but like the best moments of the weirdest dreams, it is an all over the map shambolic joy to read. On to Cloud Atlas!

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4 comments on “Paging Dream Number Nine

  1. Christine
    October 14, 2012

    I love Number9Dream- I'm hoping more people will read it with all the Mitchell hype.

  2. Wade
    October 15, 2012

    I still want to re-read Black Swan Green.

  3. Scott Ehrig-Burgess
    October 16, 2012

    Wade, once the Cloud Atlas dust settles I think Black Swan Green will be a must. Christine, I'm also hoping people will be drawn to Ghostwritten as well, given it is a natural extension of the Cloud Atlas. Still thinking of the 'noncorpum' from Ghostwritten six years after I read it. . .

  4. Pingback: Slade House | The Book Catapult

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