Observer review: number9dream by David Mitchell

David Mitchell lets his imagination run riot in number9dream, but can he control the results?

David Mitchell
Sceptre £10, pp419
Buy it at a discount at BOL

There was a recent cinema advertisement for a mobile phone company in which every object in an urban landscape was represented only by the letters of its name. The world is nothing more than text, the ad implied; 'everything' is information. This is more or less the post-structuralist vision of David Mitchell's second novel, set in a Tokyo in which, as one character reflects: 'Reality is the page. Life is the word.'

The filmic opening sequences of number9dream plunge us into a Blade Runner-ish world of bioborgs and exotic firearms. Eijie Miyake walks out of a Tokyo café and first blags, then shoots his way into a lawyer's office to abstract a dossier on his father. Fifteen high-octane pages into the book, the prose is broken by a Microsoft 'open file' icon, and suddenly we're back in the café, where Eijie is now watching the city being submerged by a surreal deluge of biblical proportions. Six pages further on comes another rerun of the same scene, in another style and with an alternative ending.

This rather irritating tricksiness sets the tone for the first half of the novel, in which the writing segues without explanation between alternate plot lines, and narrative doors open unexpectedly into other stories. Only gradually does it become clear that the various scenarios are the result of Eijie's hair-trigger imagination; they are nothing more than different screens in his multiplex consciousness. This is the mind of postmodern youth, Mitchell seems to be saying, weaned on computer games, movies, online multiverses and habituated to an incorrigible plurality of realities. Make up your mind, one is inclined to reply, tell the story.

Nevertheless, the plot does proceed, and by degrees Eijie's character and his past emerge from the flux. He is just 20 and has come to Tokyo to find his father. Attitudinous and pustular on the outside, attractively vulnerable on the inside, Eijie sleeps in a capsule-room, picks up odd jobs and lives a strange, retroactive life of memories. His main real-time activity is searching for his father, a quest which takes him on a picaresque tour of Tokyo. Over the course of the book, we realise that Eijie's search is a metaphor for a wider Japanese malaise - the desire to have something to believe in, some way to give reliable meaning to life in a postmodern, late-capitalist wilderness of mirrors.

The most engaging character of number9dream is the city itself, a zirconium-gothic Weberian nightmare, a metal-and-glass superbeast of energy and automation. The worker drones of Tokyo swirl through the prose in their faceless millions, migrating ceaselessly between work and home. The city goes continuously about its business, grinding out its complementary products of capital and pleasure, and crushing humanity in the process. 'These are days when computers humanise and humans computerise,' thinks Eijie.

Mitchell catches the multicoloured atmosphere of the city brilliantly - from its lubricious demi-monde of pink love-hotels and sex emporia, to the boardrooms where high-level yakuza plan murderous operations around mahogany tables. Along the way, he creates a cast of gloriously odd bit-part characters, including a saki-swilling hairdresser and a posturing rentier son who has a litre of blood drained from him by a disgruntled gangster.

Mitchell writes a bravura, reckless prose which takes its cues from William Gibson and Jack Kerouac, and which takes aim at jejune realism. He is a wonderfully amphibious writer, happy in all manner of elements, and seems able to produce an endless parade of interesting characters. number9dream resounds to the same marvellous chatter of different voices that marked out Ghostwritten, his outstanding first novel.

But while Ghostwritten was a tightly controlled, intricately structured work of fiction, number9dream is a sprawling, wanton affair. For all its attractions, the book suffers from an imaginative hyper-fecundity. What with the alternative realities, the narrative byways and cul-de-sacs, there is just too much information coming at you.

Robert MacFarlane

The GuardianTramp

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