The Literary Show-Off


The literary world reserves a special place for the show-off. You can spot him from miles away: Telltale signs include take-no-prisoners vocabulary, rampant cross-textual referencing, and flashy attempts at experimentation. When it’s done well (think David Foster Wallace), you feel the writer has bravely carved out new territory in your brain; when done poorly (think Douglas Coupland), it feels more like someone’s done a silly jig. The line between the two is often dangerously thin.

A few years ago, David Grand and David Mitchell both dazzled the critics with Louse and Ghostwritten, debut novels that were classic examples of the phenomenon: conspicuous, hyper-inventive fiction that wears ambition and talent on its blurb-studded sleeve. Grand’s Louse was a broad satire of corporate America featuring Herman Q. Louse, the manservant to a billionaire whose labor pool consists of enslaved amnesiac gamblers. Technically impressive, Louse lacked emotional depth, as if its dystopian setting had sapped the narrative itself. But in his new book, The Disappearing Body, Grand channels his exhibitionist tendencies into a thriller suffused in the same fug of melancholy and loneliness as the best examples of noir. It’s a self-conscious homage that somehow manages to avoid slavish nostalgia: Dashiell Hammett mingles with Weegee, Chinatown nips against Reservoir Dogs, all in subliminal doses.

The action in The Disappearing Body churns around the docks and dives of a 1930s metropolis closely resembling Manhattan and its outskirts. All the classic pulp figures—the crooked politician, the lovelorn cynic, the droopy-hearted moll—take their places in this ensemble piece with dozens of interlocking tales. But where most detective fiction features a gumshoe who sooner or later sets things right, The Disappearing Body thrives on perpetual confusion. In fact, the book is constructed like a Russian matrioshka nesting doll, with one puzzle secreted inside another. Grand has the mind of an architectural genius, though mere mortals may have a hard time keeping so many plot twists straight.

The book opens with the first of many miniature mysteries: Victor Ribe is abruptly released from jail, where he is unjustly serving a 25-year sentence for killing his former World War I buddy and dope dealer. He learns that his father, a union agitator at the local Fief Munitions factory, has been killed. The union is threatening to take over the plant, and State Narcotics Commissioner Harry Shortz is brought in to mediate. His nemesis is Chief Investigator Tines, a red-baiter who wants to destroy Shortz; more importantly, Tines intends to wipe out the union, and ruthlessly sets off a maelstrom of violence that envelops everyone in the novel.

In The Disappearing Body, characters helplessly play their tiny part in the tale without a glimmer of the misery that swirls around them. Freddy Stillman, a woebegone dispatcher at the factory, is the most fully drawn figure in a book packed with vivid characters. He sets his own downfall in motion by following the mob’s instructions: He tells the police he witnessed a murder through his office window, though when the cops arrive the body has disappeared. Freddy himself is something of an invisible man, an alienated speck of humanity swallowed up by the urban masses riding the subway, and Grand conveys this in prose that is surprisingly poignant despite its detached tone: “Hovering above the platform, was a tile mosaic of nondescript bodies packed ten rows deep. . . . In the slate gray window, he watched faces morbidly reflecting back at him, without detail, without feeling. He being the dimmest of all. He was without eyes or mouth . . . his image trailing against the steel arteries running parallel to the train’s path.”

Isolation and corruption infest this novel like a killer mold. Whereas Louse clumsily billboarded its themes (Conspiracy and Corporate Paranoia Sold Here!), The Disappearing Body finds Grand rejecting gimmicks in favor of frenetic, idiosyncratic storytelling. Although it lacks the brilliance of a blatantly metafictional detective novel like Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, The Disappearing Body cleverly renovates a genre that has come to represent the sharpest, most anxious expression of American malaise.

David Mitchell’s cartoonish new novel, Number9Dream, also plays with genre and has a sinister edge. Imagine a Philip K. Dick tale interpreted by a coked-up Salman Rushdie impersonator. It’s show-offy fiction on a bad hair day.

Mitchell, a British writer who has lived in Japan for many years, sets Number9Dream in Tokyo, which he depicts as an exciting blur of neon, automatons, and lovesick drones. Into this hyperactive landscape wanders Eiji Miyaki, a country hick with a mission: to track down his powerful father, a man he’s never met. Only 20, Eiji lives in a world clouded by visions of video games and action heroes, and his tenuous grasp on reality invades the novel at every level. The first chapter opens with Eiji breaking into the futuristic PanOpticon building, hoping to glean information on Dad; he ends up in a chase worthy of Bruce Willis. Later, he witnesses his pops being kidnapped (“I dare not risk a shot at his kidnappers at this range. A mighty chokmakopter eclipses the sun, and zombie spawn abseil to earth.” ) These are all goofs on the reader, who realizes a few pages after Eiji does that he’s only dreaming or playing a video game. His search does eventually entangle him in the genuinely brutal world of yakuza gangsters.

The sprawling plot is overrun with postmodern fancy footwork: the WW II diary of Eiji’s great-uncle, letters from Eiji’s institutionalized mom, a dream sequence in which he meets Yoko Ono and John Lennon. Lennon wrote a song called “#9 Dream,” and Mitchell takes great pains to map the connection between “#9 Dream” and “Norwegian Wood.” The latter is a Beatles tune, but it’s also the title of a book by Haruki Murakami, the Japanese writer of labyrinthine fiction, to whom Mitchell is extremely indebted. What could’ve been an amusing tip of the hat to his heroes instead turns into a sophomoric exercise, complete with stoner humor.

Number9Dream is a muddle of missed opportunities and loose ends; it toys with a love story, a childhood trauma, and metaphysical meanderings on life and country without fully playing out any of them. But the novel is also a wild explosion of color and energy, amped up on action-packed set pieces and astute observations of contemporary Japanese society. Like a lot of flamboyant fictionalists, Mitchell’s problem isn’t a lack of imagination or intelligence, but an inability to curb his excesses.

Also in This Week’s Books Section:

Jesse Berrett on The Cold War And The Color Line: American Race Relations In The Global Arena by Thomas Borstelmann

Abigail Zitin on Jerusalem Calling: A Homeless Conscience in a Post-Everything World by Joel Schalit