A Samurai In Sneakers

So why does a 33-year-old Englishman decide to write a slam-bang adventure novel that's also an intricate literary puzzle about a 20-year-old Japanese man searching for his long-lost father in Tokyo? Frankly, because he can. When you're as gifted as David Mitchell, there's no telling what you're liable to attempt. "It didn't really occur to me to be daunted," he admits. "Maybe if it had, I would have been." It really doesn't matter how he got there. What counts is that Mitchell has produced a novel as accomplished as anything being written. Funny, tenderhearted and horrifying, often all at once, it refashions the rudiments of the coming-of-age novel into something completely original.

Mitchell's first novel, "Ghostwritten," was an immediate hit when it was published two years ago. Shortlisted for England's Booker Prize, it drew raves from the likes of novelist A. S. Byatt and The New York Times, which listed it as one of the best books of 2000. The new novel proves that debut was no fluke. "Number9Dream" is always at least as much fun as a good carnival ride--or a good pop tune: the title comes from a John Lennon song. When we first meet Mitchell's protagonist, Eiji Miyake, he is concocting various ways to break into the Tokyo office of his father's lawyer. Some of these fantasies he puts into practice; others are just shopworn mass-produced fantasies of the 007, superhero, videogame variety. Real or fake, Eiji can't make any of them work.

Before the novel ends, Eiji endures plenty of adventure and noteworthy characters, including very real yakuza gangsters who use their enemies' heads as bowling pins, a World War II kamikaze submarine pilot and the love of Eiji's life--a cellist with a perfect neck. Mitchell braids and unbraids these plotlines, confusing his hero, intriguing his readers. The only lifeline he throws us is humor: when a friend takes him to meet two chic women in a bar, Eiji begs off, because he's wearing his work overalls. "We'll say you work as a roadie," says his friend. "I'm not even well-dressed enough to be a roadie." "Then we'll say you work as a roadie for Metallica."

Beneath all the wordplay and sly jokes, "Number9Dream" is anchored by a narrative arc that begins in pop-culture videogame fantasies and ends in--well, more fantasies and dreams, but fantasies and dreams that Eiji himself manufactures. These imaginings are not innocuous. They carry their own risks. But at least he is no longer feeding off the mass-produced fantasies generated by corporate entertainment. There is a moment, near the end, when Eiji sees his girlfriend approaching him in a restaurant; he can't stop staring at her. "If this were a movie and not McDonald's, we would kiss," he says, and we know, from this small, funny moment, that Eiji is starting to think and dream for himself.

Currently living in Hiroshima, his wife's hometown, Mitchell wrote "Number9Dream" "as a crusade to depict an alternative to the irksome cherry blossom/Mount Fuji/kimono Japan that gets marketed all over the world." It is a testament to his talent that you never miss the pallid cliches while embarked on the wild ride Mitchell conducts through the feverish maze of Tokyo. "The energy required to cover 80 meters in London or New York and 300 meters in open country will only get you about 40 meters in Tokyo," Mitchell says. "It's like one of those dreams when something is chasing you over and over and you can't get any traction. There isn't a scrap of green, a coffee is $5 and the air tastes of pencils."

Tired of the cliches about old Japan and equally appalled by the ersatz modernity of the postwar version, Mitchell is nevertheless beguiled by his adopted country. "I've spent all my adult life here," he says. "I am steeped in the place, so although I am a perpetual foreigner in the country, Japan nonetheless feels more real to me than anywhere else." Like his protagonist, Mitchell grew up in the boondocks--in his case the English countryside, where, as the child of two artists, he learned "from a fairly early age that you could make a living from the creative contents of your own mind." He is, also like Eiji--who's modeled on the college kids Mitchell taught conversational English--a child of world culture, conversant with Nintendo and Nabokov.

"Number9Dream" comes packed with little homages to Mitchell's artistic heroes, who range from Lennon to Japanese filmmaker Beat Takeshi to English novelist Malcolm Lowry. But Mitchell never enslaves himself to just one master: "The first time I met my agent, he said writers should keep influences in the corners of their eyes but keep the centers of their eyes clear," he says. "But pretty soon the you-ness of you alters the influence and gives it an original form." It does, that is, if you're as talented as Mitchell.