David Michell's (b. 1969) sophomore slump
, written 2001 while he was still in his eight-year stint teaching English to technical students in Hiroshima, a step down from the 1999 debut 'Ghostwritten' and definitely weaker than the charmed 'Cloud Atlas,' number9dream sounds better in concept than in reality: a "dream-like montage of modern Tokyo set against a boy's search for his father." Unfortunately, while that sounds good in idea, the actual execution suffers from the irredemable flaw of "dream novels;" the non-linearity, the supposed "profound" switches between reality and daydream that amount to egotistical excess, if you really have to face it.
Redeemed by brilliant lines:
"Reflected airplanes climb over mirrored buildings."
*exactly captures Shinjuku
"'You straight citizens of Japan are living in a movie set, Miyake. You are unpaid extras.'"
*1001 expats make similar comments when drunk
"Inside, a man flies through the air, and through a mirror on the far side of the room. The mirror breaks into applause."
and so on.
described as England's Haruki Murakami, Mitchell's work here suffers because while Kafka of Kafka on the Shore has a distinct problem and fleeing home is a childhood dream for many, "the search for one's birth father" is a bit abstract and not really universal. Mitchell's fantastic ability to characterize modern young Japanese lives, conversations, settings, activities (the reverse, after all, a Japanese author talking about young English is a bit rare) is off-set to some degree by the relative unimportance of this topic. Which will win a Nobel? book about Red revolutionary farmers in Shandong with rape, murder, incest or Hitomi Inada, age 24, a part-time record clerk in Shibuya, Tokyo? obviously the former, and hence the continuing snobbery of China-studiers to Japan-studiers.
number9dream is not a one-star or two-star because of the technical merit in writing about foreigners, and because certain stylistic sequences; some of the dream-like fantasies, and the interplay with "letters from the past; parables recited by an author" do have some merit and power. glad to own it; glad for a several hour-vacation to tokyo, so to speak, but lacking overwhelming emotional impact
19 April 2013 follow-up
the problem with this book is that it has all the elements of the Haruki Murakami crowd-pleaser, the Tokyo setting, the surreality, the historical flashback, the lone male protagonist searching for an answer, but the combination is itself is not Haruki Murakami. actually, with regrets to the great reader crowd surrounding this work, I'm not sure I would have had this book published if I were a literary agent. (but then again, after Ghostwritten, usually second books get a more tolerant reception)