Day 1095: Number9Dream

Cover for Number9DreamI usually enjoy, on one level or another, everything David Mitchell writes, and I consider a couple of his novels to be really excellent. I wasn’t as fond of Number9Dream, however.

Eiji Miyake has traveled from his home on a southern island of Japan to Tokyo to find his father. He and his twin sister were the product of an illicit relationship that their father abruptly broke off, and Eiji and Anju have never known his identity. They were raised by their grandmother with only infrequent visits from their mother.

When Eiji was eleven, his sister drowned. We are supposed to believe that he ran away on that day and lived in the mountains by himself.

The book begins with a series of unlikely daydreams that Eiji has about meeting his father as he sits in a cafe looking at the building where a lawyer representing his father has an office. When he finally meets the lawyer, she refuses to give him any information about his father or even to give his father a message.

Eiji begins a series of attempts to find his father, involving some unlikely and almost surrealistic adventures. He journeys to the city’s underworld, visits brothels, gets involved with the Yakuza, and has other adventures, all while working a series of low-wage jobs.

This novel is Mitchell’s second, and it seems more juvenile than the others. I don’t think I’m giving away too much, considering the quotes on the jacket cover, when I say that it’s difficult to tell at times whether the protagonist is dreaming or not or whether the entire novel is a dream. There are varying opinions about whether using dreams in novels is effective, or whether they simply stall the plot. I am usually bored by them.

Like some of Mitchell’s other novels, this one also involves several voices. One chapter interjects a series of children’s tales in between sections of the main story, and I found these frankly tedious and unlikely to amuse children. In another section, Eiji receives a diary of his uncle’s life during World War II. This manuscript is interesting inasmuch as it tells about a Japanese program to send manned torpedoes against the American fleet, a suicidal mission that proved more costly to the Japanese than it did to their enemies. This section had some appeal but didn’t seem to have anything to do with the rest of the novel.

So, this novel was not to my taste. I felt it was disjointed and occasionally uninteresting. Although it uses techniques that Mitchell employs in other books, it doesn’t use them as skillfully. It was shortlisted for the Booker prize, though, so I guess I’m in the minority.

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Cloud Atlas

Day 1068: Cloud Atlas

Cover for Cloud AtlasBest Book of the Week!
Cloud Atlas is a reread for me, and I think when I first read it, it was my first postmodern fiction. I found it, and still find it, astonishingly inventive and compelling.

Like its namesake, “Cloud Atlas Sextext,” the musical composition that recurs throughout the book, Cloud Atlas is composed of six stories, but with various themes and motifs linking them. Each story is set farther into the future. A story begins and is cut off at a climactic moment until we get to the sixth, which is complete. Then, going back toward the past, the stories are completed.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is the journal of a man traveling in the Pacific in the 19th century. On his travels he observes the shameful treatment of the natives by missionaries, rescues a native from slavery, and encounters a series of scalawags. A quack befriends him and begins treating him for a supposed worm.

In “Letters from Zedelghem,” Robert Frobisher writes his dear friend Rufus Sixsmith about his adventures. Frobisher is a gifted composer but impoverished and a bit of a scalawag himself. In 1931 Belgium, he talks his way into a position of amanuensis for a great composer. While there, he begins writing the haunting “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” But he finds he is not the only con artist in the house.

“Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is a manuscript mystery novel about a reporter who finds out about safety hazards in a nearby nuclear power facility. Her informant is Rufus Sixsmith, now in his sixties, a Nobel winning scientist. After Sixsmith is murdered by the corporation that employs him, Luisa begins trying to get a copy of the report he wrote, which is being suppressed.

“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is a movie set in the present or near future. In it, a publisher in debt is being threatened by thuggish clients. When he goes for his brother’s help, he is tricked into committing himself to a home for the aged.

“An Orison of Sonmi-451” is an oral history dictated by a fabricant from prison, some time in the future. She relates how she became enlightened and got involved with a revolutionary movement against the corprocacy  that controls the 12 cities still habitable on the planet.

“Sloosha’s Croosin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” is a story told to listeners in the far future. By now, most of the world is living as primitive tribes, and Zachry’s tribe lives in Hawaii as farmers and goat herders. But a Prescient named Meronym comes to live in the village. These people are the only ones who have kept the scientific knowledge of the time before. Zachry suspects her of motives for being there that she has not told them.

Each of these stories is written in a different style reflecting its time period and with language evolving in the future. The stories share thematic threads and invoke each other’s characters, mixing together the “fictional” characters with the “real” ones. Luisa meets Sixsmith, Robert Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s journal, Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi as a god, Sonmi watches the movie about Cavendish. Intricately plotted and fitted together like puzzles, these stories comprise an amazing novel.

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Day 984: A Tale for the Time Being

Cover for A Tale for the Time BeingMonths after the Japanese tsunami, Ruth, of Japanese descent, finds a barnacle-covered package on the beach of the island in British Columbia where she lives. The package contains a Hello Kitty box with the diary of a young Japanese girl.

Ruth gets involved in reading this diary. The girl, Nao, tells a difficult story of having been raised in Sunnyvale, California, until her father lost his job at a technology company. The family was forced to return to Japan, where her father has been unable to find work and is suicidal. Nao, seen as an outsider by her classmates, is viciously bullied. Nao, too, is considering suicide.

The only bright spot in the girl’s life seems to be Jiko, her 104-year-old great grandmother, a Zen Buddhist nun. Jiko has taught Nao a few of the fundamentals of Zen Buddhism, which help support her. Nao has stated an intention of writing about Jiko’s life, but she actually writes about whatever occurs to her, including the story of her uncle, a World War II kamikaze pilot.

This story is punctuated with scenes from Ruth’s quiet life on a small island with her husband Oliver, a biologist. Both stories dip into philosophy, Buddhist beliefs, and even a little magical realism. Ruth and Oliver become involved in Nao’s story and wonder if she committed suicide, if she survived the tsunami, and where she is.

At first I resisted this novel a bit. I probably wouldn’t have read it if it was not on my Man Booker Prize list. I wasn’t completely convinced by Nao’s voice, and I felt that the story was a way to sneak in lessons about Buddhist teachings. Eventually, though, I got sucked in and became just as interested in Nao’s fate as Ruth was.

However, in tackling its many subjects—suicide, bullying, the trash in the ocean, the nature of time, the tsunami, World War II, just to name a few—I sometimes felt this novel was all over the place. It is entertaining but kind of mind boggling.

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Day 559: Snow Country

Cover for Snow CountryPerhaps I did not spend enough time considering Snow Country, because I kept feeling as if I was missing something. I couldn’t figure out if this problem was cultural or more an issue with the misogyny of the 1950’s, when it was written.

The novel follows the affair of Shimamura, an effete and sophisticated intellectual, with Komako, a simple country girl who during the novel becomes a geisha. Part of my initial problem had to do with understanding the implications of being a geisha. After all my prior reading lead me to believe that a geisha is different and in fact higher in status than a prostitute, I had to read the introduction to understand that in these hot springs villages, at least in the time the novel is set, a geisha was essentially a prostitute.

Nevertheless, when Shimamura meets Komako, she is a geisha in training, so clearly not a prostitute. Shimamura has come down from traveling in the mountains and immediately asks the hotel clerk for a geisha. None are available, so she sends him Komako. Shimamura spends the night talking to Komako but then asks her to send him a geisha. It is clear what he wants, but he seems to think he deserves some kind of credit for “behaving well” with her, whereas I, and Komako as well, understood his request as insulting. I do not think we’re supposed to like Shimamura, and I didn’t.

We know far more about Shimamura than we do about Komako. We first encounter him on a train on the way back to Komako’s village after the affair is already started. He is struck by Yoko, a girl who is tending to a sick man. Throughout, though, he is far more interested in his fantasies around Yoko than in actually getting to know her. The essence of Shimamura’s personality comes clear when we learn that he is an expert on occidental ballet even though he has never seen a ballet performed—and prefers not to.

For her part, Komako throws herself into the affair with Shimamura even though it is clearly doomed. Although Shimamura’s behavior remains consistent and it is clear that he is incapable of love, Komako is erratic. Toward the end of the relationship she says one thing and does another, she arrives roaring drunk, and she seems to have an inexplicable love/hate relationship with Yoko, as Yoko does with her.

Of course, the future for Komako is not bright, and she becomes more dissipated as the novel progresses. Although I feel we are supposed to sympathize with her, I found her exasperating. The love affair seems sterile, and I don’t see the point of it.

But this novel is set in the cold and gray snow country. Although part of the affair takes place in other seasons, the most important scenes are in the beginning of winter, and the affair ends in the fall. A sense of isolation permeates the novel.

The writing is beautifully spare, as Kawabata is a poet. I feel it is dense in meaning, but if so, I probably missed a lot of it.

Day 301: 1Q84

Cover for 1Q841Q84 is an extremely unusual novel. I notice that the blurbs about it don’t reveal much about the plot, but I have chosen to describe the incidents in the beginning of the book because I found it difficult to decide whether to read it (I prefer book covers that give some indication of the plot or subject matter instead of just quotes) and probably wouldn’t have were it not for all the buzz.

1Q84 was originally published in Japan as three books, so it is very long. It is sort of a combination of a fantasy novel, a romance, and a mystery, but it is not by any means a genre novel.

In 1984 Tokyo, Aomame is on her way to an important meeting with a client when traffic becomes gridlocked on an elevated expressway. The taxi driver, who has Janáček’s Sinfonietta playing on the radio (which Aomame is surprised that she can recognize), tells her that there is an emergency staircase nearby that will allow her to exit the expressway and catch the train. He mysteriously reminds her that there is only one reality. Aomame climbs down the stairway–and enters a world on a slightly different track from her own.

Aomame is a physical therapist who works occasionally as an assassin, murdering men who have repeatedly abused women. Her appointment is with a victim, whom she murders. When she emerges from his hotel, she notices there are two moons in the sky and realizes she has entered a slightly different world, which she decides to name 1Q84.

In a parallel story also set in 1984 Tokyo, Tengo is a part-time math instructor who wants to be a writer and happens to like Janáček’s Sinfonietta. He is approached by Komatsu, a publishing company editor who is familiar with his work, to rewrite a novel that has been submitted to a competition. The story is unusual and imaginative, he says, but poorly written, and Komatsu believes that with help it can become a sensation. This suggestion is highly unethical for a submission to a literary competition, and Tengo is reluctant, but once he begins working with the material, he can’t resist it.

Tengo finds that the novel, named The Air Chrysalis, was written by a teenage girl named Fuka-Eri, who is a fugitive from an idealistic commune that has become a secretive religious sect. The novel is about Little People who weave a chrysalis out of the air and live in a world with two moons. Fuka-Eri tells Tengo that the Little People exist.

I was driven to finish the first book to try to figure out the connection between the stories of Aomame and Tengo. There are many echoes between the two stories, but the two characters seem to be living in different worlds, as tracked by the number of moons.

In the second book, the connections become clearer. By the third, I was reading to see if Aomame and Tengo are finally able to meet and emerge from danger.

Reviews of this novel are mixed, and I find that I feel the same way. I have seen 1Q84 compared to Ulysses, which is absurd, and on the other end of the spectrum, completely dissed. Certainly, Murakami has written a story that compels you to finish, but I found the mystery of the Little People to be lacking any internal logic and even a bit silly. I also have a sneaking suspicion that if The Air Chrysalis was really published, it would not be a publishing sensation but more likely a publishing joke. And don’t get me started on Cat Town.

Moreover, although Tengo as a character seems attractive and convincing, I found Aomame much less likely. To mention one detail, yes, many women are unsatisfied with their own appearance, including their breast size, but they don’t think about it constantly. After about the twentieth mention of Aomame’s breasts, this repetition becomes tiresome.

Tengo also has an obsessive memory of his mother’s breasts. In fact, the sexual context of the novel is definitely peculiar, with lots of odd descriptions of pubic hair and references to intimate body parts. The physical focus is just one facet of Murakami’s use of repetition as a thematic technique.

My prediction is that if you choose to read this novel you will want to finish it, but you may find parts of it absurd.

Day Five: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Cover for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De ZoetTie for Best Book of Week 1!

I have read two books by David Mitchell and they were completely different. The first that I read, Cloud Atlas, was a stunningly unusual science fiction novel divided into sections, where each section was much farther in the future and was narrated by a character speaking in a patois of English that got a little harder to understand. Eventually, the sections all fitted together like a puzzle. It was fascinating. Others apparently thought so, too, because it was short-listed for six awards, including the Man Booker Prize.

But this review is for The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a historical novel about late 18th Century Japan. Jacob is a clerk for the Dutch East Indies company who arrives in Japan in 1799. An honest, hard-working young man, he has signed on for a six-year term so that he can earn enough money to go home and marry his sweetheart, Anna.

Jacob finds that foreigners are only allowed to live on an island called Dejima in the Nagasaki Harbor and they cannot set foot on the Japanese mainland. Only certain Japanese, some interpreters and court officials, are allowed on Dejima. But the Japanese students of a Swedish physician are allowed, and one of them is the midwife Orito Aibagawa. Jacob is fascinated by her and ends up falling in love with her.

Jacob’s boss claims to intend to clean up the rampant corruption in the company, so he sets Jacob the task of reconciling the books from the previous years, which makes him some enemies. When Jacob refuses to sign a bogus manifest, he is left on the island with only his enemies as his boss departs.

Orito’s father dies, and her stepmother sells her off to a mountaintop shrine where sinister rites are being performed.

The story was full of interesting descriptions of the customs and laws of 18th Century Japan. And this reminds me that I need to pick up another David Mitchell book soon and read it.