Saturday, August 11, 2012

Murakami Haruki: Pinball 1973 (1980)

The first of Murakami’s bifurcated narratives.  The book alternates irregularly between chapters narrated by “I” (the same “I” as in Hear the Wind Sing), and chapters concerning the Rat, narrated in the third person.  The twain never meet, which distinguishes this book from Hard-Boiled Wonderland, Kafka, and 1Q84, the other major bifurcated narratives in Murakami’s ouevre. 

This is a continuation of the previous book.  The year is (as the title tells us) 1973, and 24-year-old I and 25-year-old Rat are facing their respective early mid-life crises.  Otherwise known as Growing Up.  If Hear the Wind Sing was a kind of seishun (coming-of-age) novel, focusing on love and loss, with an undercurrent of enunciating the meaninglessness of life, this one is a coming-of-age novel where the action is about coming to terms with the meaninglessness of life, with a subtext of love and loss, mostly loss.  In other words, it’s kind of a reversal of the first book.

That is:  “I” is comfortably ensconced in a career and a homelife.  He’s co-owner of a freelance translation business, and he’s doing alright at it;  and at home, he’s living with nubile, nymphomaniac twins.  Twins!  He’s got it made, but feels a tremendous sense of ennui.  He’s emotionally uninvested in the relationship with the twins, who just drifted into his life, and at the end drift out just as mysteriously.  His work, meanwhile – well, twice he protests that he’s never once considered the question of whether or not he enjoys it.  That’s how uninvested he is in it.

It’s the anomie of modern life that’s getting him down.  But I think it’s more than just that, but to get at that you kind of have to read it against the first book.  Early in this one he includes a few flashbacks/ruminations (in what is otherwise a book that moves mostly straight ahead in time) about a girlfriend he’d had in 1969 or 1970 named Naoko who died.  We get almost no details of that relationship or its end;  instead we move on to an account of how, at the end of that year, he’d gotten hooked on pinball.  In the present, of course, this leads to the famous Pinball Quest, where he tracks down the actual machine he’d played back in 1970, and communes with it in a deep dark deathly cold warehouse.

I've always thought that this encounter with the Spaceship is partly an encounter with an image of a dream of life that American culture had offered him in his youth, and I still think that.  But I think there’s also some submerged grief-therapy here, left unenunciated in this book.  In Hear the Wind Sing we know, by the end, that the narrator is coming off a relationship with a girl who killed herself without warning the spring before.  That’s the summer of 1970, and a lot of the narrator’s ennui that summer had to be due to her death.  The pinball addiction comes at the end of 1970, and that’s the period that the narrator flashes back to in 1973:  I think we can surmise that the pinball addiction was a way of dealing with, or escaping, his grief (when he got back to Tokyo, scene of his affair with the now-named Naoko).  But when the game center closed down his coping mechanism abruptly disappeared.  It was like a junkie going cold turkey.  And now, three years later, he’s realizing that, in spite of having moved on in his life, he needs that fix again, needs to commune with whatever it was that he was in touch with then.  His climactic encounter with the machine is narrated almost as if it’s an encounter with the ghost of Naoko, isn’t it?  The very last scene of the book, where he’s sitting in the clear autumn light, suggests that maybe, just maybe, by burrowing down into his old grief, he’s found some peace.  Tentatively. 

So “I”’s story here is about coping with grief, recovering lost dreams, staying in touch with joys that are joyful precisely because they’re pointless.  It’s about the value of escapism, the emotional truth of anything that will help you become mindless.

But it’s all told in the same hardboiled, humorous manner as Hear the Wind Sing.  The twins are, among other things, a really funny plot device.  Like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum in drag.  But they also underscore the narrator’s lost state.  Like, they’re any man’s wet dream, and this guy’s barely moved.

The Rat’s story, meanwhile, is where Murakami gets, as they say in Japanese, wet.  All the melancholy that “I” suppresses comes out here.  The Rat is left all alone in the Town with J, and spends a lot of time drinking in J’s Bar.  He has a desultory affair with a woman who lives by the harbor.  And in the end he decides to blow town.  That’s pretty much all that happens in this half of the story, but it’s immensely affecting.  Like a deeply sad jazz tune.  It’s like Sonny Rollins’s “Body and Soul,” a totally unaccompanied tour through intense emotion, letting it all hang out.  A meditation on melancholy – on a melancholy that, in the Rat’s case, is entirely caused by an indecision in the face of an inescapable sense of the meaninglessness of life.  He’s wallowing in it, while “I” is dealing with it, in his own special way.

That’s the tension that drives this book.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Murakami Haruki: Hear the Wind Sing (1979)

His first book, and still unavailable in English outside of Japan.  Although you can find it if you look.

I’ve always liked this and the sequel a whole lot;  I’ve always ranked them up near the best of his work.  It didn’t let me down this time.  It’s about as accomplished and moving a debut work as I’ve ever encountered.

Now that I’ve read a lot more J-lit, the games he plays with the time structure in this book don’t strike me as out of line with the mainstream, although they’re still fresh from a Western perspective.  He jumps back and forth from a present where the narrator’s about 30 to a past where the narrator is 21, to various points before that ranging from childhood to months before the 21-year-old present.  Most of the scenes take place in August of 1970, though:  the narrator hangs around with his drinking buddy the Rat, meets a girl, almost has a romance with her, visits J’s Bar a lot, and thinks back on past girlfriends and/or traumas.  In the 1979 present he ruminates on the meaning of writing, the meaninglessness of existence and the poignancy of that, and adds childhood anecdotes about taciturnity and loquacity.  All of this is fractured and confused, and interspersed with other passages that take a while to figure out (a DJ’s patter is introduced without explanation, for example).  Again, it’s not so unusual in J-lit – but it’s tremendously effective, all the same. 

It’s a novella (A-Prize-bait length, truth be told), but it’s amazingly packed.  The 1970 scenes function as a seishun novel, sure enough – the fleetingness of summer, sunsets and torrid love affairs, beer and Beach Boys records.  But the love affair is unconsummated (this is about the most delicate evocation of blue balls you’ll ever read), and so’s the Beach Boys record for that matter.  It’s about missed connections, as well as broken ones;  unfulfilled desire, rather than fulfilled.  “You can’t miss what you never had,” Muddy Waters sang;  but Murakami knows otherwise.

The 1979 frame only deepens the story.  Poetry is, Wordsworth sang, emotion recollected in tranquility, and the 1979 frame is all about finding, at long last, the voice to recollect 1970’s emotion in public.  It’s a lot of navel-gazing, frankly, talking about the narrator’s childhood inability to speak, then his rush of speech;  and then of course there’s the Derek Heartfield bit.  This is of course an homage to Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout:  a hack sci-fi writer, forgotten by everybody, but known by the narrator, in a sort of gnostic transmission, to have possessed the keys to knowledge and to communication of it.  Murakami is modestly shrugging off literary ambition here, while at the same time setting himself very high aims indeed:  to speak truth, in a new way.  (And a measure of his art is how he carefully and subtly ties this ambition, this theme of learning how to write, to the 1970 story as well, by having the Rat undergo a literary awakening and decide to try to write a novel.  We think the “I” of 1979 is the “I” of 1970, but what if it’s actually the Rat?)

What is that truth?  It’s pretty simple:  life is meaningless.  All you can do is do what you must do, and you do it well, as Bob Dylan sang;  Voltaire sang it, too.  It’s not an earthshaking truth (although it is, really), certainly not a new one;  and as such it’s not really the most remarkable thing about the book.  Although, if you’re still into such things as thinking about truth, as most of us tend to be at age 21, it can make a big impact on you anyway.  As well it should.

What’s more remarkable about the book is that, even though he comes right out and states this meaning, or something like it, several times, he also effectively demonstrates it, through the narrator.  It’s the voice of the narrator, of course – the narrative persona – that’s so alluring about this book.  His famous “cool,” which involves dismissing its very coolness as a debility, starts here.  Is it a disaffection?  Ennui?  Only to the unperceptive.  There are plenty of hints that the controlled exterior hides an interior full of grief – the narrator is still getting over the unexpected suicide of his girlfriend the spring before – he’s wallowing, but it takes us most of the book to realize it, because he’s so mild-mannered about it.  So matter-of-fact about it.  So determined to know that this kind of bewilderness of pain is the way of the world, not something he can blame on anybody. 

It’s also a very funny book – Murakami has great comic timing, a fantastic ear for dialogue and a classic Hollywood eye for mise-en-scene.  (And Alfred Birnbaum is a great translator.)  It’s just satisfying in so many ways…

It’s good to be back.

Introduction to a series of posts on Murakami Haruki

I've spent the last month rereading all of Murakami Haruki in English in preparation for a course I'll be teaching in the fall.  Now, Murakami Haruki is one of my top two or three favorite writers, and somebody I've been reading loyally for exactly twenty years now, both in Japanese and in translation.  But it just so happens that I haven't been reading him during the last few years since I started this here blog.  Frankly, after Kafka on the Shore I needed a little time apart from Mr. Murakami;  I read his next two (After Dark and Strange Tales from Tokyo), but never got around to 1Q84 until this summer.  And this is why I haven't blogged about him before.  But this time through his (English) oeuvre, I've been making fairly extensive notes, and now I'm going to post them.

Caveat:  As I say, I've been reading Murakami in both Japanese and English for a long time now, but since the class I'm teaching will be relying on translations I wanted to give the translated corpus a concentrated read-through.  That's the basis for the posts that follow.  Accordingly, I won't, with a very few exceptions, be commenting on how the translations differ from the originals.  There's a lot to say on this subject, both on micro level (the stylistic choices of his three English-language translators) and the macro level (the way some of his translated work is also, and without any indication, significantly abridged).  But I won't be saying it here, for the most part.  I will say, with reference to the micro level, that Murakami's writing is of a nature that works better in translation than that of some other writers - i.e., it depends more on plot and imagery than on rhetoric, and what rhetoric it does employ tends to lend itself well to an English rendering - and that on balance Murakami has been exceedingly well served by his three English translators (Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin, and Philip Gabriel).  That's my honest opinion.

Caveat, pt. 2:  Okay, I lied.  There's one point about Murakami's presentation in English that I'm going to be a little particular about, and that's the order and context in which his short stories have been presented.  In Japan, Murakami's short stories appear in a number of smaller collections (usually 6-12 stories);  if you read these in order in Japanese you're more or less getting his short stories in chronological order.  You'd still have to pay attention to the dates in which they were published in magazines, because with a couple of the collections there's some chronological overlap, but by and large, since these things are still in print, they make it easy to track his development in the short story form, and to see where his stories fit into his full-length novel chronology.  In English the best (arguably) of his short stories have been presented in two big anthologies, The Elephant Vanishes (hereinafter EV) and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (hereinafter BW), where they're presented with no indication as to the order in which the stories were written or published, or even what Japanese collection they're taken from.  I can understand why they were presented in big anthologies in English (although I don't understand why the publisher doesn't include the original dates), and EV and BW each has a certain internal consistency that makes them appealing.  But for this project I wanted to read the short stories in order, too, and so that's what I did.  I note after each one the month and year of original (magazine) publication, as well as the English and original Japanese collections it's found in.

Thus, if you read these posts in order, starting with this one, you'll get my humble-yet-arrogant take on Murakami's (almost) Complete Works in English in Chronological Order.