The fake mystery as a cheap literary trick

I have been reading David Mitchell’s novel Number9Dream, and I have a number of complaints. These complaints don’t come easily to me, as I am a devoted David Mitchell fan, based on reading, and being swept off my feet by, his amazing Russian Doll novel Cloud Atlas.

But now he has annoyed me, by writing a mystery novel.

Don’t get me wrong! I have no objection to mystery novels when the mystery has some point. When a young chap I was a devotee of Sherlock Holmes and read all the Conan Doyle stories about him twice. I didn’t get into Agatha Christie, but more from a childish feeling that it would be disloyal to Conan Doyle than because of a dislike of Poirot, Miss Marple or their adventures. I greatly admire le Carre, especially the novels containing very deep, complicated, self-referential mysteries, like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. The novel and movie 2001: A Space Odyssey get a significant part of their deep, brooding atmosphere from the pervading mystery of the obelisk. Who made it? Why? When? Many of Dickens’ novels portray the protagonist working towards unmasking the mystery of their origin, with so many delightful twists and turns along the way.

No, the mysteries I object to are what we might call fake mysteries. That is where the novelist deliberately withholds from the reader crucial information that is known by all key characters in the book. A fake mystery is not a story about a mystery, it is a plain story, from which the author has deliberately withheld important information.

Sadly, there are far too many stories of this type in modern literature. Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ conceals from the reader at first the knowledge that the protagonists are all clones being raised to provide organs for their genetic ‘parents’, when they are needed. This crucial fact is entirely understood by the clones, but Ishiguro drip-feeds the information to the reader in tiny steps, creating a silly guessing game in what is, in this reviewer’s opinion, unquestionably the worst novel by a usually brilliant and original novelist.

Arundhati Roy’s ‘The God of Small Things’ seems to be based around gradually revealing traumatic episodes in the early life of the main character, to explain how he has come to be like he is now, even though the character has a clear, unrestricted memory of all these events. That, together with the over-reliance on the shock-value of child sexual abuse – a cheap and shallow tactic far too frequently reached for by modern novelists in an attempt to simulate ‘depth’ and make a bid for a literary prize – was sufficiently irritating to me that I discarded the book after about a hundred pages. If an author has not managed to say anything memorable in the first hundred pages of a novel, it seems to me reasonable to assume that further time spent reading them would be at too high risk of ending up time wasted.

Even very highly esteemed authors are not immune from this disease. I have only read one William Faulkner novel – ‘The Sound and the Fury’. I managed to finish it but found it a mostly unedifying experience. He seemed to deliberately sow confusion about what was happening and to whom. Some might try to justify this on the grounds that part of the novel is seen through the eyes of Quentin, a mentally deficient young man, to whom all of life is confusing. But that cannot excuse Faulkner’s introduction of a woman called Quentin (?!) into the novel and writing in such a way that it is often unclear which Quentin is being referred to. Such confusion could never be experienced by the male Quentin as, however confused he may be about the outside world, he would at least know the difference between himself and another person. No, Faulkner designed that little piece of confusion especially for the reader. It seems like what Daniel Dennett calls a ‘deepity’.

I value literature for the way it gives us insight into what it is like to be someone else. A good novel can give us a better understanding of the diversity of human experience. It can make us more compassionate for others whose experience is very different from ours. And it can comfort us by making us feel less alone, when it shows another having a painful or awkward experience that we have personally suffered.

Mysteries exist in real life. They can be fascinating, enchanting, maddening and exciting. Novels about people confronting mysteries can be wonderful when they reflect these luminous aspects of life. We identify or empathise with the person confronting the mystery. We commiserate with Oliver Twist over his miserable, lonely existence, then rejoice when he is discovered to be the grandchild (or is it a grand-nephew?) of kind, wealthy Mr Brownlow, despite the conspiring of Monks, Fagin and Sykes to keep that fact secret.

But the mysteries in ‘Never Let Me Go’, ‘God of Small Things’ and ‘Sound and the Fury’ are not portrayals of mysteries in real life, or even in the minds of the protagonists. They are just the author playing silly games with us, in order to create an illusion of depth and suspense, to make their novel seem ‘artistic’. They teach us nothing about life or human nature. They impart no wisdom. They do not thrill or entertain (me), they just irritate (me)!

And now, sadly, I find that David Mitchell has fallen prey to this disease. Number9Dream starts well, with a young man Eiji waiting outside a Tokyo office block to confront a lawyer that is hiding information about who Eiji’s real father is. He stages a number of fantasy confrontations in his imagination then, after a feeble attempt to gain entry to the lawyer’s offices, he gives up and retreats with his tail between his legs. That’s all good.

But then in the second chapter, Mitchell starts drip-feeding us information – very, very slowly – about who Eiji is, where he was raised and why it is so important to him to know his father. This is all information that is present in Eiji’s memory from before the beginning of the novel, yet Mitchell creates a fake mystery by withholding it from us. Why?

This cheap trick seems to me unworthy of an author capable of such subtlety and insight as is displayed in Cloud Atlas. It’s shallow, pretentious and irritating! If Eiji’s story isn’t interesting or moving enough when presented clearly, then no amount of silly games with fake mysteries is going to make it any better. Yet from what I’ve read so far, it seems that Eiji’s story may well be interesting and moving, so I wish Mitchell would just get on and tell it.

And another thing!

I said I had a number of complaints. I’ll mention one more. Number9Dream, like many modern novels, is available as an ebook to residents of the USA, and probably also the UK, but not to residents of Australia. Any attempt to buy it from the many on-line ebook sellers ends in failure, usually only at the last step, after significant time has been wasted registering, filling in forms etc.1 Apparently the usual reason for this is that the author, or their agent, could not be bothered negotiating ebook rights with publishers for markets outside the US, because those markets are relatively small.

So, wanting to read this novel, I was faced with waiting however many weeks it would take for a hard copy to arrive from Amazon, even though I’d much rather read it on my e-reader, just because I don’t live in the USA. Well, I’m sorry but that is just too silly for me! I doubt many of the world’s non-US residents take kindly to being treated as second-class citizens solely because of their residency. So I downloaded a pirate copy. It took me a couple of minutes and cost me nothing. I would have liked to pay you, David. But if you don’t want my money, what can I do?

Because I loved Cloud Atlas so much, I will persevere for a while with Number9Dream. Maybe it will improve. I hope so.


It got better. I am glad about that! By about page 70 the fake mysteries have been cleared up, leaving only genuine mysteries, such as the identity of Eiji’s father – the mystery that it appears to be his quest in this novel to solve. Now the novel is becoming quite engaging, and has developed a healthy momentum. But still, why the silly dissembling of the first seventy pages? Why not just tell us that Eiji is the child of a woman who was a hostess at a Tokyo geisha bar, who became pregnant to a powerful, rich client and became his kept mistress in a Tokyo apartment? That she dumped Eiji and his twin sister Anju on her mother in the rural backwater island of Yakushima, because she didn’t like children. That she spiralled down into mental illness and substance abuse and her whereabouts became unknown to Eiji or his grandmother. That Anju disappeared, presumed drowned, when trying to swim to a far-offshore rock in the ocean, in a fit of bravado induced by temporary irritation at her grandmother and Eiji. Why not just tell us that? That wouldn’t have taken long would it?

No, but it wouldn’t have seemed as ‘deep’ and ‘artistic’ either’. It’s a pity that book critics and prize committees seem to require deepities like fake mysteries as ‘evidence’ of artistic integrity. But never mind. The ersatz mysteries are out of the way now, and we can get on with what promises to be a rollicking good read!

Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction

30 September 2012

1In one case (Google Books) I actually managed to pay for it, downloaded the ‘acsm’ file and only found there was a problem when I tried to use the acsm file to import the book into the library on my PC, for transfer to my reader. Google didn’t know what the problem was. I had to find out myself. Then I had to arrange a refund from Google for the purchase price.