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.

3 thoughts on “What I should be doing instead

  1. Smeltzy,

    Great points. I agree that in a literary sense, he's very involved in issues of Japanese culture and history. I do think that your reference to mythic objects as referents to Japanese woodcuts is a bit of a reach.

    I think that the issue of referring to contemporary Japanese culture comes up when you consider how many actual contemporary Japanese influences are in his work.

    I don't think I'd know that much about Japan if all I knew came from Murakami.

  2. “There's almost nothing Japanese about his work.”

    That's interesting that you think that: the novel struck me as resounding very much with what (too little) I know about Japanese culture and art. I thought the voice of the narrator was distinctly Japanese – reserved, cautious, not given to baroque description or violent syntax. Understated and sort of lovely, even if the narrator himself lacked guts. And the incorporation of Western elements – classical music, whiskey, yellow bikinis – all to be expected from one of the wealthiest developed nations on the planet.

    I also think the powerful magical realism of the novel is possible because of the spiritual history of Japan – I think of Shintoism and its small wayside shrines to spirits of woods and mountains, for example. Magic realism is harder to pull off in a culture whose spirituality & religion have struggled with cumbersome doctrinal structure (like the States).

    Even some of the mythic objects in the work – the cat, the bird statue, mysterious women – all strike me as having resonance on Japanese woodcuts from centuries ago.

    I'm curious! Why do you think the novel is not particularly Japanese?

  3. Your last sentence summarized Murakami perfectly. He's one of the few writers I know of who is adept at writing both short stories and novels. Have you read Sputnik Sweetheart? You must. It's..different.

    I haven't read Norwegian Wood completely– read extracts from it in a collection called Vintage Murakami. But that- and the other novels/short stories- convinced me that he was truly exceptional.

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