'A row of screaming Russian dolls': escaping the panopticon in David Mitchell's number9dream

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David Mitchell’s second novel, number9dream (2001), opens with a triple-tiered panopticon, establishing a preoccupation with containment and escape that resurfaces throughout the text. Entitled ‘Panopticon’, the opening chapter introduces the ‘zirconium gothic skyscraper’ of the PanOpticon building, which guards the secret of the protagonist Eiji’s father’s identity, and becomes a symbol of corporate Tokyo itself (3). A further panopticon in Eiji’s fantasy provides both the title and subject of a film, playing as a surreal counterpoint to his imagined meeting with his father.

The effect of these multi-layered panopticons is one of overload. Yet the lack of a tangible, physical prison in an opening chapter besotted with the panopticon establishes a narrative preoccupied with a specific aspect of the panoptic paradigm – that of a virtual and internalised imprisonment, perpetuated through a self-replicating panoptic virality. This paper explores the ways in which the film’s poster art, a ‘row of screaming Russian dolls’, becomes a twisted metaphor for Eiji’s mental containment throughout this coming-of-age novel, as panoptic replications are interrogated on both intra- and extra-diegetic narrative levels. While each layer of the first chapter’s panopticons becomes a metafictional device that reflects Eiji’s wider quest to wrestle agency among his fantasies, Mitchell simultaneously problematises his own panoptic authority over the novel with Eiji’s Calvino-esque narrative deviations, which threaten to subsume the plot entirely.

Starting with a discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s eighteenth-century prison designs and principles for psychological control, and Foucault’s reworking of these towards a wider panoptic paradigm, this paper explores number9dream’s multiple panopticons as a representation of Eiji’s fragmented mental state. Building on Foucault’s recognition of an increasing presence of panoptic principles in everyday social structures, this paper investigates Eiji’s experience of a self-perpetuating panoptic model through both legitimised and illegitimate structures of social control, as both Tokyo’s mainstream corporate culture and its violent yakuza counterculture are exposed as competing frameworks from which Eiji must ultimately escape.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages16
Publication statusPublished - 2014
EventCurrent Research in Speculative Fiction (CRSF) - University of Liverpool, Liverpool, United Kingdom
Duration: 20 Jun 2014 → …


ConferenceCurrent Research in Speculative Fiction (CRSF)
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Period20/06/14 → …


  • David Mitchell
  • Number9dream
  • Panopticon
  • Foucault
  • Michel Foucault
  • Panopticism
  • Jeremy Bentham
  • Literature
  • Contemporary fiction
  • Literary theory
  • Narratology
  • Metafiction
  • Postmodernism
  • Italo Calvino
  • Borges


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