In which the Crocodile Snout-Butts the Glass

James Francken

  • number9dream by David Mitchell
    Sceptre, 418 pp, £10.99, March 2001, ISBN 0 340 73976 2

There are three false starts in David Mitchell’s slippery new novel. At the beginning of number9dream the narrator sits in a chaotic Tokyo café staring into an empty coffee cup. Eiji Miyake is a mousy young man who has come to the city to find his father, but he lacks the wherewithal to contact the lawyer who knows his address. When he finally gets up from his table to meet the lawyer there seems to be a twist; Eiji is determined to discover his father’s identity and is hot-headed in the lawyer’s office, brandishing a gun after he has been denied access to confidential files. But the story is stopped short: it turns out to be a fantasy that Eiji has conjured from his seat in the café. He stays in the café until the tag end of the opening section and has two more tangled dreams. The story appears to move forward when the café is flooded and Eiji helps a waitress to safety but this is another fantasy: Eiji is still in his seat. His search gets nowhere – he seems to walk to a nearby cinema and come face to face with his father but this is the final misleading daydream which Mitchell includes to wrong-foot the reader.

These shifts between different layers of reality are frustrating. Mitchell sets out to evoke the fluid, improvised nature of dreaming. The title he borrows is a give-away: in John Lennon’s bland song about a disappointed love affair there is an uncertainty about what has been made up: ‘was it just a dream . . . seemed so very real’. But the long stretches in which Eiji makes things up are often inconsequential and slow down the early pages of the book. In his dream about a flood, small details loom unnecessarily large: ‘Objects swirl by that have no business being water-borne . . . A crocodile cruises up to the window and snout-butts the glass. Nobody screams. I wish somebody would.’ Mitchell may be more interested in producing dreamlike effects than in providing a spur to the plot; Eiji’s hazy fantasy of losing his way in a cinema is an attempt to render the spiralling confusion of dreams: ‘Each flight of stairs I expect to be the last, but it never is. In the event of fire, the audience is kindly requested to blacken quietly. Is it getting warmer? Suddenly I have got to the bottom. I smell bitter almonds.’ But the result is obscure; blurring the real and the imaginary to emphasise the fictive quality of the ordinary world downplays the story of Eiji’s search for his father and cheats the novel of suspense.

Mitchell’s first novel was a hit. Ghostwritten: A Novel in Nine Parts is technically adventurous and it was praised for its elaborate construction. Critics were impressed by the scope of the book: daring and colourful, it uses different genres and various exotic destinations to create a glossy narrative surface. Mitchell lives in Japan and seems keen to offer flavours of faraway places. In Ghostwritten there are chapters set in Tokyo, Hong Kong and St Petersburg and each of them works independently, rounded like a short story. Characters are introduced briskly and situations are soon blocked in, whether the chapter unfolds in the style of an SF story, a thriller or a romance. The third chapter, ‘Hong Kong’, tells a ghost story. Neal Brose is a careless lawyer but a fastidious narrator, working in a city that he hates: ‘I spend half my life walking around feeling like a steamed dumpling.’ A big-money Hong Kong law firm lured him away from England and at first he enjoyed life out in the ‘ex-colonies’ – he was a dynamo in the office and could keep up with round-the-clock demands. But it’s dull work and Brose feels hemmed in, so he constructs a shadowy deal that will earn him a six-figure bonus and help him to get out. His plan begins to come apart; colleagues grow suspicious and Brose has troubles at home. His wife has noticed that objects have been going missing around their apartment, that cupboards have been left open, curtains mysteriously opened and air-conditioners switched on. Brose is preoccupied and gives these changes little thought until he sees a strange figure in the flat and is convinced there’s someone there:

She didn’t come in the dramatic way they do in the movies. Nothing was hurled across the room, no ghosts in the machine, no silly messages typed on my computer or spelt out with the fridge magnet letters. Nothing like Poltergeist or The Exorcist . . . Little things: hidden objects. The honey left on top of the wardrobe. Books turning up in the dishwasher. That kind of thing. Keys. She had a penchant for keys. No, she’s never been an in-your-face house-guest.

It is difficult to second-guess the movements of the little girl who haunts his home. An unlucky number is the cause of the problem; according to local superstition, the number of his apartment – 144 – has marked him out: ‘“Not good,” Mrs Feng had said. “‘Four’ in Chinese means ‘Death’.”’ Brose is persuaded by this: the ghost becomes an overwhelming obsession; he lets the rest of his life slide and it is not long before he is estranged from his wife and the intrigue at work is exposed. Brose’s narrative is a melancholy attempt to understand his comedown and exorcise the past. But the ghostly figure is only ever seen from his point of view; Mitchell never tells us whether the ghost is real or a fantasy of Brose’s making.

The smooth, interlocking chapters of Ghostwritten depend on coincidence to sustain the novel’s themes. Mitchell’s sleight of hand ensures that circumstantial characters from one chapter reappear in another. Brose, for example, shares a table with two nervous teenagers who are obviously in the early stages of a relationship – ‘sex twitched in the air between them, which made me think that they hadn’t done it yet’ – and wishes that he was in the boy’s place, even if he is, as Brose sputters, a ‘nipkid’. The kid is Satoru, the narrator of the ‘Tokyo’ chapter; he is an idealistic sales assistant in a small Tokyo record shop trying not to sell himself short and become another salaryman caught up in the city’s grind. The scale of the city is oppressive – ‘things are always moving below you, and above your head. All these people, flyovers, cars, walkways, subways, offices, tower blocks, power cables, pipes, apartments, it all adds up to a lot of weight. You have to do something to stop yourself caving in’ – and Satoru protects himself by retreating into a world of imagination: ‘in Tokyo you have to make your place inside your head.’

He has pipe dreams of meeting his real mother, a Philippine hostess who was deported soon after he was born. The owner of the bar she worked in had seen to it that Satoru had a protected upbringing, but now that he is 18 and lost at the edge of the grown-up world he has a strange need to retie the apron-strings: ‘I can’t help but wonder, just sometimes, who she is, what she’s doing, and whether she ever thinks about me.’ And he harbours a hope that he may run into the wealthy father he knows only through hearsay. There is a chance that they may have met in the record shop: Satoru has a memory of a middle-aged man in desert boots and a dark suede jacket who seemed familiar. But even in this novel of shameless coincidence, the encounter is impossible: ‘I tried calculating what the odds against a random meeting like that were in a city the size of Tokyo, but the calculator ran out of decimal places.’

Satoru finds a different way to evade reality when he falls for a customer in the shop. Too green to ask her for a date, he lets her leave without revealing her name; Satoru’s story of unlikely first love – geeky boy meets blossoming girl – broods on this setback: ‘I’d thought about the girl everyday since. Twenty or thirty or forty times a day. I’d find myself thinking of her and then not want to stop, like not wanting to get out of a hot shower on a winter morning . . . Could she ever feel the same way back?’ His silly question is answered two weeks later when Tomoyo returns to the shop; Satoru is flattered and, feeling confident, he gives sweet talk a go. The romance founders when Tomoyo leaves Tokyo to finish her studies at the international school in Hong Kong, but Satoru chooses to make a new life with her there – which is where the couple enter the ghost story.

The plot of number9dream, such as it is, is little more than a spin-off from Satoru’s chapter in Ghostwritten; but it is ten times as long and Mitchell’s new novel risks being seen as a bloated and sprawling short story. The narrative they share is full of echoes of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood, a novel in which a Beatles song prompts memories of the lost innocence of another lovelorn 18-year-old, a young man who also works part-time in a Tokyo record shop. In number9dream, Eiji Miyake – a Beatles nut – is following the tracks of his absent father; he toys with the idea of a meeting with his mother who left him as boy and he panders hopelessly to the whims of an unattainable waitress, Ai Imajo. But the styles of the two novels are different; number9dream lacks the tidy design and temperate prose of Norwegian Wood. It’s full of double time schemes, the jumbled letters written by Eiji’s mother, the wartime journal of his grandfather – a Japanese pilot – and the impenetrable manuscript which Eiji finds hidden in an old-fashioned bureau. It’s an unwieldy framework, which dwarfs the action.

The recurrences which pulled the different strands of Ghostwritten together are absent in number9dream. Instead, the reappearance of the number nine is expected to fill in the cracks. The device doesn’t work. In John Lennon’s song, the number had some meaning; numerology bolstered Lennon’s sense of order: he was born on 9 October 1940, met Yoko Ono on 9 November 1966 and predicted that he would die on the ninth of the month. (He died in New York on 8 December 1980, but this was only a small nuisance: the five-hour time lag meant that in Liverpool it was already the morning of the ninth.) There are many references to the number nine in Mitchell’s novel: Eiji draws the nine of diamonds in a game of cards; he visits Xanadu, a theme park with a nine-screen mutiplex; a bouncer picks out a prostitute from a brothel’s list: ‘number nine is beyond the grasp of ordinary mortals.’ These connections seem arbitrary. Perhaps it isn’t important: realism is not the novel’s dominant mode. But it requires a semblance of realism in order to work: in the later stages, tension is only maintained by curiosity about the love story and how it will pan out. For much of the time, Eiji’s love for Ai is disguised as friendship. It’s only when Ai leaves Tokyo that it becomes clear that this was an opportunity that he had missed. It’s a pity that in their final farewell at the railway station, after the couple have argued over Eiji’s smoking, Mitchell sets up a scene that is merely whimsical when it needs to be dramatic:

I feel miserable. ‘Uh . . . Ai . . .’ I begin, but Ai interrupts me with an irritated shake of her head. ‘I’ll call you’ . . . Perfect ambiguity from the Paris Conservatoire scholarship student. The train comes, she gets on, sits down, folds her arms and crosses her legs. Without thinking about it I wave goodbye with one hand, and with my other hand pull my Parliaments from my shirt pocket and lob them down the gap between the train and the platform. But Ai has already closed her eyes. The train pulls away.

Eiji’s encounter with his father is even flatter. He manages to trace him to his office and stands outside the door, where he can hear him talking on the phone – his father sounds unpleasant – and when they speak, Eiji says nothing about their relationship. The novel runs down to a predictable conclusion. Mitchell fudges Eiji’s final moment of self-awareness, almost as if he has lost interest in the ending himself: ‘I feel sad that I found what I searched for, but no longer want what I found. I wait, and cross back over Omekaido Avenue. I feel release. I complete one, two, three circuits. I can go now.’ It is an unremarkable epiphany that seems to have been written by numbers.