I changed my mind

Sort of. I just wanted to write about Murakami some more. I finished “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World” today and I highly recommend it. I think it’s his best novel. It combines noir, speculative science fiction, and mythology, managing to transcend all of them. It also manages to tell two entirely different stories in one book, alternating chapters set between the Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World.

The premise is rather interesting: in the Hard-Boiled Wonderland chapters, a nameless narrator who shuffles data with his mind is embroiled in a war of information between the System and the Factory. There’s a brilliant scientist, subterranean laboratories, INKlings (creatures who live in the sewers underneath Tokyo), and a librarian.

In The End of the World chapters, a nameless narrator is living in a walled Town from which no one ever leaves. He is charged with reading the dreams of skulls in an old library. He is also forced to cut off his shadow, which lives outside the town as it plans an escape. There is a librarian here as well, and unicorns.

I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that this novel is once again concerned with reality, identity, and the dreamscape. It is more concretely philosophical while being entirely gripping through its employ of science fiction.

I want to say that the ending is a wonderful subversion of Western literary standards. The novel is also, of course, concerned with Western culture and references everything from JG Ballard and Casablanca to Bob Dylan. It reminds me of “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” and “Midnight’s Children” through its use of oblique references, half of which the average reader (and I, even as an Americanized reader) didn’t quite catch.

I haven’t felt such strong emotions since reading Disgrace, and while I don’t wish to compare the two, I feel like Murakami has achieved something equally forceful here, albeit by a different route.

The most important question posed by Murakami is the idea of the self and the function of the mind in the creation of that self. In a small way, the novel is also about the idea of free will, and the choice to live a life of self-awareness.

What I should be doing instead

I should be responding to lovely emails from people I’ve never met. I should be writing a short story for the Esquire fall fiction contest. I should be writing something to get me through the next month, to submit to journals across the nation. But all I’m doing is sitting here, eating ice cream with strawberries and drinking milk. I’m thinking about Murakami and the novels I’ve read so far.

If I could recommend one Murakami novel I’d recommend “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” “Norwegian Wood” would be a close second, but it’s only the beginning of his mythology and his motifs. At the same time, “Norwegian Wood” has a concrete narrative, something “Wind-Up” decisively lacks.

I’m frustrated by his tendency to constantly reuse thematic material. The winding of the spring and the well motif are used in both “Norwegian Wood” and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” In “Norwegian Wood,” both are underdeveloped, as if Murakami was experimenting with a new idea. In “Chronicle,” they are extrapolated to their full potential. The bird statue is used in both “Chronicle” and “A Wild Sheep Chase.”

All three novels feature loss, dreams, the difference between consciousness and unconsciousness, a search, women who are more interesting than the male narrator, an underachieving male narrator, women who leave or are lost, an escape from “civilized/normal society,” and lest I forget, jokes at the expense of the reader, mostly in the form of allusions and references to Western society which go over the head of the average reader. There are also fragmented narratives, sexual episodes described in graphic detail, nostalgic references, references to Japanese history, and examples of surrealism and magical realism.

If you want Murakami at his most developed, read “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” While it leaves many basic questions unanswered, it is the most complete compendium of his stylistic devices and motifs. Or maybe you could read him in chronological order to find out how the motifs develop, because that’s a very interesting way to read an author.

I wouldn’t recommend reading backwards from “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” In fact, I would say read “Norwegian Wood” and then read “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” to see an expansion on the thematic material presented in “Norwegian Wood.”

Do not read Murakami as a representation of contemporary Japanese culture. There’s almost nothing Japanese about his work, besides the fact that most of it is set in Japan and Manchuria.

Norwegian Wood

Started reading Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” yesterday. It’s just the type of book I need to read right now. Basically, it’s a novel about unrequited love. For some reason, I love these types of novels.

Murakami Redux

I finished Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” a couple of days ago. I have to say that it got a lot better after page 140. I like his inclusion of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria – that plotline was the best part of the entire novel. I do feel as though the ending left me needing something more. I want to reread the whole novel but I know it will be a let down. There’s some great symbolism and dream sequences, but some of the plot components are left to their own devices and not united to form something better. There are a lot of loose threads left at the end of the novel, which annoys me a lot. Murakami could have done a lot better. Not that it was a bad novel, because it wasn’t. It just wasn’t as good as expected.

There are a lot of allusions as to the evil nature of the wind-up bird, but they don’t get played out. What’s with the buried heart and Cinnamon’s doppelganger? They don’t even mean anything, and once you read past them in the novel, they disappear. They’re not used for any sort of plot development, and this gives them the function of creating a mood. Granted, Murakami does a good job of setting the mood, but ultimately we need more than a mood. We need some sort of resolution, something more than mental conflict. Why the hell is May Kasahara even a part of the novel? I know she’s the opposite of Toru, but the whole sequence of letters from the wig factory could have been taken out.

It isn’t a bad novel, it just isn’t satisfying in the end.

Murakami continued

I got to page 113 in “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” today. That’s 78 more pages read. There’s a bit more exposition within these 78 pages: we finally find out the significance of the wind-up bird, Toru Okada (the protagonist) finds his long-lost polka dot tie, talks to the Lolita-esque girl who is his neighbor, documents stages of baldness on the Tokyo subway, and has a wet dream. He also meets another mysterious woman.

I’m not too excited by the book at this stage. Frankly, it is quite boring. After 113 pages, absolutely nothing has happened. Literally. He’s still looking for his cat, only now some complications are introduced. I wish something interesting would happen. I want to see more subplot with May Kasahara (his Lolita-esque neighbor). That is the most interesting character at this point.

I’m kind of disappointed right now, but I’ll keep reading since I’m already one sixth of the way through the novel.

Murakami

I began reading “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami this afternoon at Borders. I got through about 45 pages or so before I had to leave. Even in translation, the novel is amazing, but more on the translation later.

What I find most interesting even after only 45 pages of the novel is the sense of dread and menace that is prevalent throughout. After all, the novel is essentially about a lost cat. The protagonist is a man who has quit his job at a law office to live at home, while his wife (who may or may not be having an affair) works as a graphic designer. There’s an interesting Lolita-esque moment when the protagonist meets a 16 year old girl who has been thrown from the back of a motorcycle, and falls asleep in her yard while searching for the lost cat. Then there’s a mysterious phone call from an anonymous woman. I’m not giving very much away.

Murakami creates a very dream-like state. Nothing is really concretely described. I got confused by the spatial description of the “alley that is not an alley” and the houses surrounding it. Particularly impressive are the chapter headings, which have a main title, and two or three sub-headings. For some reason, this works really well, because throughout the chapter, all the titles are elucidated or glanced over. This gives the feel of uncertainty and some ambiguity.

The title of the novel in particular is curious. “Chronicle” implies some sort of detective story or noir. The wind-up bird does make an appearance in the first chapter, but it’s just a set piece, and isn’t of any importance for awhile, at least from my reading. I mean, it’s definitely thematically important, but it isn’t obvious, if you know what I mean.

The translation is good, but apparently the translator, Jay Rubin, who translated the “only official translation,” reduced the original novel by 15-20%, source: Amazon user review. The wikipedia article about the novel states, “Two chapters from the third volume of the original three-volume Japanese paperback edition were not included in the English translation. In addition, one of the chapters near the excluded two was moved ahead of another chapter, taking it out of the context of the original order,” sourced from this 2000 roundtable between Philip Gabriel, Rubin, and Gary Fiskjeton (Knopf editor).

How can you reduce a work by 2 chapters, when Murakami’s chapters are at least 20 pages long, and not consider how much of a change in pace and thematic control you’re creating? I’d rather read the Russian translation, which is apparently the full version. It’s true that the novel is now, in its abridged version (which is implied by the copyright page as being “adapted by Jay Rubin”), at 642 pages. It’s also true that abridging a work is a slap in the face to readers who want uncompromising quality. Why would you want an abridged version of anything? “The Brothers Karamazov” was recently (1990 being relatively recent) translated again, and there is no abridgement. By the way, that translation comes out to around 740 pages, so even if Murakami’s original text were translated, it would still be shorter than Dostoyevky’s masterpiece.

2 chapters matter, even in a 640+ page work. Simple as that. I hate reading works in translation anyway, as it just contributes to the belief that English is the most important language in the world. This also brings me to the issue of canon, but more on that in a later post. Even though I don’t speak Japanese, I speak Russian, so I can read that translation.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to Borders and finish the novel, and then maybe I’ll start on “Infinite Jest” or something.