number9dream, published in 2001, is David Mitchell’s second novel. Unlike Cloud Atlas, the famous book/movie that followed it, this story stays focused on a single protagonist, Eiji Miyake. Eiji is a young man from a small island, searching for a father he has never met in Tokyo’s vast urban jungle. In the process, he loses himself in his own fantasies, gets caught up in a Yakuza gang war, falls in love, and has to figure out what exactly he’s hoping to get out of his quest.
We don’t always know for sure what is real and what is imagined, a point driven home by a departure into writings Eiji discovers during his quest: the anthropomorphic animal stories of a woman at whose house he is staying; an old World War II journal of a relative. And it’s of course no coincidence that we encounter a character from Mitchell’s first novel, the Mongolian hit man Subhataar, who plays a dangerous game with the Yakuza.
The novel as a whole succeeds in conveying the dreamlike quality that its title (inspired by John Lennon’s “#9 Dream”) promises; its strength is in its power to transport and surprise the reader, its weakness in the flatness of its characters and the limited payoff of its story arc. If you’re new to Mitchell’s work, I wouldn’t recommend reading this one first (I’d suggest starting with Cloud Atlas and Black Swan Green instead). And a fair warning—while this isn’t a horror story, there are some violent scenes that may induce nightmares.