Wednesday, November 19, 2008

On My Third Murakami

I've been keeping this reader's blog since December 2006, not very long ago: I was surprised to realize that I read Haruki Murakami's 1994 masterpiece The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle before then. The novel seemed so fresh in my mind that it was hard to believe that it's been over two years since I read it. Yesterday I finished with After Dark, a lesser work from 2004, so now it's finally time to post about Murakami.

My first experience with Murakami was A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), which I subsequently learned was part of a larger series of novels. A big part of the experience of a North American reader with Murakami is the devotional and slightly obsessive treatment of American popular culture and of the place cultural America occupies in the Japanese social identity (I gather that for his Japanese readers as well he is memorable partially for this reason). Here is a young Japanese writer doing parody/homage to Raymond Chandler and the campiest conventions of noir, by way of leading us across a Pynchonesque townscape of vaguely realized paranoia. Here are young Japanese characters who grew up on Elvis Presley, Motown and The Beatles, but who are hip enough to prefer Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. The extent of exposure to and assimilation of American culture is surprising and raises questions. What sort of statement is Murakami making with this striking leitmotif that runs through all of his work? How does he relate to, say, French philosophers such as Bernard Henri Levy who stir things up by being openly pro-American, or European writers like Gunter Grass or Harold Pinter who exploit an anti-American shibboleth? Intuitively he seems to be expressing both his real affection for a popular culture of which he is indeed a full-fledged member, and the striking degree to which modern Japanese popular culture reflects the consequences of losing the wars of empire, now receding to oblivion in popular memory.

But as to A Wild Sheep Chase itself, I appreciated the improbable and slightly surreal plot about something in an old photograph that draws Big Labowskian attention, and Murakami's fascination with physical isolation, here represented as remote, snow-blanketed mountain towns. The penultimate image of the man in the sheep costume mysteriously moving about in the snow, although slightly Avengersish and Walruslike, finally struck me as a bit twee: pushed it a bit far.

Still I liked the book enough that I thought I'd give a whirl to what was generally reported to be his masterpiece, the 611-page, 1994 novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In that I was not disappointed. If I had only read A Wild Sheep Chase I would have thought of Murakami as a campy satirist with a penchant for upsetting preconceptions. With The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle this writer takes his achievement to another level.
Unemployed and floating away from his working professional wife (maybe being floated away, after all), our hero lives in his uncle's modest but comfortable house in the suburbs, on a quiet (running to silent), sun-bleached cul-du-sac. He is looking for his cat and gets a bit caught up in this landscape that is both fenced in and empty. He starts to explore and meets the only other inhabitant of this particular asteroid, a teenaged girl named May.

There is a recurring theme in Murakami of young women as diffident oracles, seemingly random confidants of slightly older and more floundering men. In W-UBC there are all sorts of women characters, including women possessed of magic powers. The women, maybe, are there to draw something out of the men. The men have lost touch with themselves and with their lives. This brings us back around to the war. There are really good, ambitious passages about a Japanese officer's adventures crossing the disputed Mongolian-Manchurian border in the middle of the desert (another place without people) during the war, and the atrocities that he witnessed there. Eventually this memory of war is too strong to be communally repressed and the young man must seek out an old veteran, on the pretext of one of Murakami's endless maguffins.

But my favorite part of W-UBC is definitely the well. Around the side of one of these close-to-deserted suburban houses is an old dry well, basically a very deep hole under a cover. May shows him the well, and the rope that is used to lower oneself in. It's not just the evocation of withdrawing and containing in order to escape. The subtler experience of the dreamy child, around the back of the garage, staring at that one little space where nobody ever goes, that sense that time stands still so long as we can linger in this microcosm, that is the moment when the quotidian meets the surreal, and Murakami works with the atmospherics of that moment of consciousness. The sense is of a unique effect achieved by art. Such a still surface to be roiled by memories of conquest, torture and war.

Alright, this week I've finished my third Murakami, After Dark (2004). It's the least of the three that I've read, but still worth reading. It does not go in for some of the campy, "postmodern" high-jinks of the earlier Murakami, but it is not without surreal elements. Mari is the smart young woman sitting in a Denny's (a 7-Eleven store is also a setting, and the Alphaville "love hotel"), who sets off on an adventure with a passing acquaintance, Takahashi. Takahashi knows Mari's older sister Eri. Eri is the "pretty one," Mari is the "smart one." But Eri has decided to sleep. She's not in a coma or anything, she seems to have simply made a decision to stay asleep (I thought of Oskar in The Tin Drum). Meanwhile a small number of characters wind in and out of each others' lives during the course of a night. I wrote that the book is slight (191 pages), but it is ultimately a meditation on the repression of young women and I don't think that I've seen the bottom of it. Murakami has a way of evoking a difficult truth under the surface; the use of vagueness is one of his most interesting techniques.

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