Review Post 12 – The Master versus The Apprentice

This week we are off to Tokyo, a sprawling, seamy metropolis of salaryman drone armies on trains by day, and Cadillac-driving Yakuza by night; and it is the night which especially interests us, a night interrupted by neon lights advertising pachinko parlours, karaoke bars and places nice people like you and I would never dream of entering (Starbucks). And who better to guide us through this vision of the future today than not one, but two (TWO!) of our favourite authors?

Ladies and gentlemen: in the Red Corner, the outsider, the challenger, the master of the multiple perspective, all the way from England, let’s hear it for DAVID MITCHELL! And in the Blue Corner, the king of the surreal, the undisputed heavyweight champion of mixing the mundane with the magical, the man with the plan (and usually a cat or two too), from the other side of the barrier, put your hands together for HARUKI MURAKAMI!

But I digress…

*****

Mitchell’s second novel, number9dream, follows nineteen-year-old Kyushu native Eiji Miyake to Tokyo on his quest to find the father he has never met. While this seems to be a more straight-forward narrative after the jumping around of Ghostwritten, it is actually anything but: from the very start, we are thrown around in the whirlpool of Mitchell’s imagination as we experience Eiji’s daydreams and fantasies, as well as diary entries and slightly-strange short stories. In a taste of things to come from Mitchell, the timeline of the book is anything but stable and linear, and, in a style vaguely reminiscent of The God of Small Things, we leap back and forth through Eiji’s life, learning about the fate of his twin sister, Anju, and his strangely absent mother.

While it is Eiji’s search for his father that drives the narrative on, it eventually becomes clear that this is more of a search for himself than his father. Leaving his home environment for the first time, our young hero is forced to come to terms with the real world and step out of the dreams he has been living. A bit like Kafka on the Shore in reverse…

The Murakami influences don’t stop there. It’s difficult to see Eiji and his cat without thinking of Haruki and his love for all things feline while the book Eiji regrets not finishing during one of his surprisingly frequent Yakuza encounters (I mean that while expecting to be bludgeoned to death he was regretting not having finished the book, not that he wanted to read it while being beaten from pillar to post – that would just be weird) features a familiar tale about a man down a well. And where do you think the Mongolian comes from, hmm? Let’s just say that I have my suspicions…

*****

When reading After Dark, it would be quite easy to imagine Eiji Miyake somewhere in the background (probably being dragged into a den of iniquity by Yuzu Daimon), but the atmosphere of this work is a lot slower. Number9dream channels the adrenalin of a city that never sleeps; Murakami shows us the few hours when Tokyo’s pulse is barely ticking over. Over the course of one night, we follow Mari Asai and the friendly musician Takahashi through a choice selection of late-night cafes, jazz bars and love hotels. Meanwhile, back at Mari’s house, her beautiful sister Eri is lost in an unnaturally-long sleep, for all intents and purposes dead to the world. And then the television in the corner starts to flicker…

A lot of people have trouble liking After Dark, and it’s the Eri part which is usually to blame. It is perhaps a little too out-there and forces the reader to search for connections to the other strand, ideas which may or may not have anything to do with Murakami’s true intentions. If, however, we look at Eri’s story more metaphorically than literally, we uncover typical Murakami themes, albeit in a slightly different version. Just as his usual ‘Toru’ characters struggle (in a very relaxed fashion) against the strains and stresses of modern life, Eri is fighting against the role the world has made for her. Groomed to be a model and sex symbol from an early age, she feels trapped and needs a way to escape to a normal life, something Mari has painstakingly created for herself. Admittedly, you don’t get many televisions that work without being plugged in in normal life, but that’s Murakami for you.

Despite the familiar themes, After Dark is a rather experimental work for Murakami. The writing is several degrees more detached than his previous novels, and it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that this was originally meant to be a play, or maybe even a screenplay. Were it not for the danger of alienating the audience with Eri’s slumbering dramas, I would suggest that this is a perfect book to be filmed once Norwegian Wood has come and gone. In fact, if we pitch it at the art-house french-film-loving public, we may just have an idea…

Having read the book for a second time now, I have to confess that it has grown on me. Yes, it’s different from the usual Murakami fare, but it can only be a good thing for authors to experiment, especially Murakami (who really could just phone it in if he couldn’t be bothered – as shown with the hype over the still-not-available-in-English 1Q84, he can sell a million copies without anyone knowing anything about the book). If we enjoy it for what it is, a minor experimental work from a great writer, then nobody will be disappointed – just don’t go expecting Norwegian Wood.

Let us finish by returning to the rather laboured boxing metaphor. If I were the referee, I’d have to give the decision to number9dream (unanimous points verdict). Mind you, I’d probably have been predicting an early KO before the fight. Of course, one caveat I’d introduce is that this was a slight mismatch; After Dark was definitely fighting out of its weight class. Now Cloud Atlas v The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: that would be a genuine clash of the heavyweights. Tickets, anyone?

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13 thoughts on “Review Post 12 – The Master versus The Apprentice

  1. I made a mental note abouot David Mitchell the last time you wrote a review on his book Ghostwritten, and incidentally, I brought home number9dream from the library the other day. So I skimmed the first part of this post.

    I actually really liked After Dark. It was different, yes, but in a way it still had that very Murakami feel to it. And like you said, I think it's the kind of book that just grows on you.

    Glad you thought highly of number9dream. I'm looking forward to reading it myself now.

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  2. I like the idea of Literary Fight Club; I might do that again when relevant 😉

    Of course, the other thing which links these two great writers/fighters is that, for differing reasons, I can't read their latest books yet!

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  3. Hi Tony. Literary Fight Club was an interesting idea!I loved both these books, as I did Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green and Ghostwritten! The “familiar tale about a man down a well.”, I think was a fitting homage to a writer Mitchell is obviously influenced by,and admires. I read Ghostwritten only recently(funnily enough recommended to me on a Murakami discussion!) and think it is stunning as a first novel, I am really looking forward to anything else he writes. I enjoyed After Dark so much more than my recent reading of Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which I really, really didn't enjoy at all!Cloud Atlas v The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? Book me ringside seats. So what are their respective latest works?

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  4. 2 days ago my manager loan me her “Ghostwritten” and then Michelle of SuShu reviewed “Number9Dream” and here it is again you are talking about it. Mitchell really draw my curiosity to the top now, just got to read it to see how I feel about it.

    Great review Tony.

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  5. Danielle – Murakami's latest novel, '1Q84', hasn't been released in English yet (probably next year according to whsipers I've heard). However, Mitchell's fifth novel, 'The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet', is about to be released, and (thanks to the lovely people at the Book Depository) it should be dropping through my letter box some time over the next few weeks!

    Jovenus – I'd urge you to read all of Mitchell's books – he's a very special writer!

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  6. Yay! I had put all my money on Mitchell 😉 But I'm biased because he's my no.1 author anyway and Murakami is 'just' one of my other favs 😉

    Now about those tickets for the next fight… Again the bet's on Mitchell, of course, although I must say I do not find Cloud Atlas is his best work. Still, its greatness is well balanced, where The Wind-up Bird Chronicle has its (s)low points.

    My favourite Mitchell is Ghostwritten but that might have to do with the fact I read it first 😉 I's nice to read all his novels chronologically 😉 And I can't wait for his new book only a month to go! 🙂

    I would like to recommend 2 books — as if you don't have a big enough reading list as of yet LOL.

    1. The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (1928 Pulitzer Prize but that's not the reason for my recommendation as you might have guessed).

    2. Another of my favourites (which you might like because of our similar taste in books 😉 = Mr Sandman by Barbara Gowdy.

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  7. Thanks for the recommendations! However, as you rightly guessed, I have a lot on my shelf to get through first 😉 I think I went through a list of authors in my comment on the 'Ghostwritten' post: far, far too many books to read…

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