SURVIVOR: tree of smoke (denis johnson)*
CHALLENGER: number9dream (david mitchell)

if david mitchell hasn't yet sent james wood a spectacular fruit basket for his recent new yorker profile, he should get on that.
Lavishly talented as both a storyteller and a prose stylist, [David Mitchell] is notable for his skill and his fertility. Without annoying zaniness or exaggeration, he is nevertheless an artist of surplus: he seems to have more stories than he quite knows what to do with, and he ranges across a remarkable variety of genres—conventional historical fiction, dystopian sci-fi, literary farce.


This is the opposite of the weak postmodernism of a writer like Paul Auster, whose moments of metafictional self-consciousness—“Look, it’s all made up!”—are weightless, because the fictions themselves have failed to achieve substance: a diet going on a diet.
"the opposite...of paul auster" is a provocative phrase; by the time i finished the piece and started calling around to secure a copy of mitchell's black swan green (his semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novel), his back catalog was sold out all over the city. the lincoln center barnes and noble** claimed to have a copy of number9dream (the 'dystopian sci-fi' woods mentions), so i scooted uptown on my lunch break and made it mine. i wasn't actively looking for a shimmering summer book to counteract denis johnson's tree of smoke, but i found one.

number9dream is mitchell's version of a murakami novel; the title's a john lennon song (see: norwegian wood), the 'goatwriter' character that appears in a story within the story recalls murakami's sheep man (see: a wild sheep chase and dance dance dance), and an absent woman, food, and a cat are featured players (take your pick; i'm guessing even murakami's grocery lists include absent women and cats). i read this as explicit homage rather than pickpocketing: mitchell actually mentions murakami's wind-up bird chronicle, and at one point his main character, eiji miyake, plans to defend himself from yakuza operatives with "a three-ton, three-volume set of a critical review of the japanese "i" novel." nineteen-year-old eiji has come to tokyo from yakushima to track down his father (a businessman, or maybe a politician or a crime lord, who had an affair with his mother and disappeared), work various colorful low-paying jobs (at the lost-and-found office in ueno, a video store, and an all-night pizza joint), and have fantastic dreams; technicolor paragraphs ensue.
I emerge into a library-study with the highest book-population density I have seen in my life. Book walls, book towers, book avenues, book side-streets. Book spillages, book rubble. Paperback books, hardcover books, atlases, manuals, almanacs. Nine lifetimes of books. Enough books to build an igloo in, and then to hide the igloo. The room is sentient with books. Mirrors double and cube the books. A Great Wall of China quantity of books. Enough books to make me wonder if I am a book too.


Pithecanthropus readied himself to defend his friend, but the hellhounds turned and bounded away over the blank margins until they were but blots on the wizened horizon. "Well!" exclaimed Mrs. Comb. She then recalled that she was nesting in the arms of an extinct biped. "Put me down this very instant, you muckster!"


"People want their comic strips and bedtime stories. Look...a dragonfly. The old poet-monks used to know what week of what month it was, just by the color and sheen of dragonflies'--how'dyacall'em?--fuselages."


I smoke one, two, three. The cloud atlas turns its pages over. Crows dissect a pile of trash. Tokyo is the color of a dirty eraser.
literary ventriloquism has its drawbacks; Writing Like Murakami, even when one does it very, very well, means giving us constant reminders that we're reading fiction. mitchell counteracts that buzzkill by making his characters more forthcoming than murakami's; because eiji's emotions feel real, it matters less that he himself is awfully implausible. number9dream isn't a perfect book, but it's a wonderful one; i finally did get my hands on a copy of black swan green, and i can't wait to get started on it.

VICTOR: mitchell's fancy footwork at the expense of lethal force leaves him vulnerable. tree of smoke thugs on.

imaginary reading group discussion questions

01 has a hot literary profile ever shoved you out the door to hunt an author down?

02 what's your take on murakami?

03 extended dream sequences: refreshing or annoying?

04 have you read anything fantastically summery lately?

*previous battle here.

**while i do most of my shopping at independent bookstores, the local blood bank sent me a b&n gift card; i'm only human.

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