Saturday, August 16, 2008

Against Murakami

I feel like I first heard of Haruki Murakami in 1990 or 1991. He was a former jazz club owner who translated writers I loved like Raymond Carver and Richard Ford into Japanese, and his first novel to be translated into English, A Wild Sheep Chase, was being talked up as a Chandler-influenced exploration, something a bit lighter and stranger than a traditional hard-boiled mystery, an absurdist noir.

I tried the novel, and early on it didn’t do much for me, so I set it aside. I knew any time a novel doesn’t work that it may be the reader’s fault as much as the writer’s, and the mythology of Murakami was so engaging that he stayed on my radar for years even as I didn’t read him. A couple years ago, it seemed like I was hearing amazing things about his new novel, Kafka on the Shore, everywhere I turned. It seemed like it was time to give him another try. The only question was whether to read Kafka or his other big book, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. People seemed split on which of them was better, and the gist of most conversations was that I wouldn’t go wrong with either one.

Kafka on the Shore blew my mind. I had never read anything like it. The closest analogy I can come up with is my experience watching Being John Malkovich. All the rules and conventions I had counted on as a viewer or reader had been twisted around. I recognized things, but they no longer made sense in the same way. On the familiar drive home from watching John Malkovich, I took a wrong turn. I was that disoriented. Kafka did the same thing to my equilibrium, but whereas Malkovich was mostly funny, Kafka resonated with history, loss, tragedy, and a poignant inability for characters to connect. I talked the book up to everyone, gave it as a Christmas present, and looked forward to the ever-lengthening shelf of Murakami titles I would eagerly work my way through.

But a funny thing happened on my way to Murakami-induced bliss: I got bored. I turned first to his other epic work, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and every trope sounded familiar. It was like reading another version of Kafka, but what had been magical now seemed habitual. The narrator-protagonist had a sense of alienation from everything (work, love, geography) that was strikingly similar to Kafka Tamura’s. There were mysterious alienated disappearing potential impossible love interests. There was the same sense of menace and fate, marked by massive good luck and coincidence as well as inexplicable dangers, mysteries, and disappearances. It felt like names and places had been changed, but otherwise the tone and content of both books were remarkable similar. Life is too short to read long books that aren’t moving you, so I set it aside, but I kept in mind the possibility mentioned earlier that perhaps I had failed the book, and in bookstores I would often find myself in the Murakami section contemplating a different angle of attack.

At the end of this school year, I plucked the thin volume, Norwegian Wood, off the shelf. On my internal buzzmeter, it was the next most discussed book of his. I managed to read the whole thing, and though I quoted a brief passage earlier on this blog, it was a desultory experience at best. Other than the passive tone (again), the aimless protagonist/narrator (again!), and the inability of any character to really connect with another (again!!!), I couldn’t fully manage to put my finger on what I found so dispiriting about it—until I read Geoff Dyer’s recent review of Murakami’s latest book, a nonfiction account of his life as a runner. (I should love this guy!—he runs marathons, writes novels, loves pop culture, and he has translated writers who are important to me.) Dyer pointed out to me that it wasn’t just the characters and their situations that left me uninspired, but the tics of language, the prose style that describes those characters and situations. The things that bothered Dyer about Murakami’s nonfiction were traits I immediately recalled from his fiction, and the voice that Dyer was hearing was the same one that wasn’t working for me.

It’s always a pleasure to come across a skilled, articulate reader. Dyer has been on my radar for a number of years. It may be time to move one of his titles on to my “Books to Read” list.

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