Saturday, December 8, 2012

Murakami Haruki: 1Q84 (revisited)

My earlier thoughts on the book are here.

Now, after having read the work again, I’m prepared to revise my earlier judgment on it somewhat.  The skinny is that I still didn’t enjoy the third part very much, but I do see how he was probably planning it to go in that direction from the start.

That is, reading the first two parts with knowledge of what’s in store in the third part, it was easy to see how he was laying the groundwork for the Aomame-Tengo love story right from the start.  Indeed, it was possible (I’m assured by my wife) to see that coming a mile away – what other reason would there be for paralleling a single man and a single woman of the same age like that?  Of course they’re going to get together.  To which my response is, well, Kafka and Nakata didn’t “get together” in Kafka on the Shore, and I and the Rat didn’t in Pinball, 1973, so I think (protecting my ego) that there was good reason, grounded in a careful reading of Murakami’s oeuvre, not to assume that this was going to end up as a love story.

But in fact it did, and hey:  rereading it, I can see him telegraphing it pretty clearly.  From the beginning, this was always going to be that kind of novel.  And this telegraphing comes on the subtextual level as well as in terms of the plot.  It was that kind of novel all along not just because structurally it had to end with the two storylines being united, the two would-be lovers consummating it, but because one of the deep themes of the book is solipsism and its discontents.  As the Homeric taxi driver warns Aomame at the outset, there’s only one reality, despite appearances – this isn’t a parallel worlds novel – but at the same time, we know that not everybody perceives the world the same.  For some people, it’s a world with two moons;  for others, it’s not.  Each of us lives in our own world, intentionally or not, and we can never know completely how much that world is “real,” that is, how much it overlaps with the individualized worlds those around us are living in.  There may only be one reality, but who can access it, and how can they know if they do?  The 9/Q business is setting this up for us:  but the movement of the novel is inexorably toward the merging of Tengo’s and Aomame’s separate worlds.  I can see that now.  The climax of the thing was always going to be two people (two separate worlds) agreeing to commit to each other (to merge their worlds into one).  I get that.  I can appreciate that he’s doing that.

And I can see how that fits in cleanly with the rest of his career.  Withdrawal into one’s own private world vs. getting out and engaging with everybody else’s world.  Solitude vs. commitment to a relationship.  Self vs. non-self.  This is his big theme, and he’s revisiting it here.  Okay. 

None of that new appreciation fundamentally changes how I feel about the book, though.  The love story he chose to tell is still a retelling of the Hajime-Shimamoto story, only this time Hajime is right to be saving himself for his mostly-imaginary childhood crush.  And so is Aomame.  Granted that this works better on the fantasy level on which this story takes place, still it’s a retreat from the mature, realistic, even cynical take on adult relationships that has characterized his work so far.  Gone is the messiness of actually trying to make a relationship work (and usually failing), gone is the tension between real-life relationships and fantasy perfect lovers.  Here the triumphal commitment is to the ideal lover of memory and imagination.  In 1992 Murakami knew that this could not actually bring resolution or happiness.  Hajime was doomed the moment he embraced Shimamoto, because she wasn’t real.  Here we’re supposed to rejoice over Aomame and Tengo getting together after twenty years, never yet having had a real conversation, but already committing to starting a family together…  It just doesn’t work for me.  It’s a fantasy, and maybe if you can find it beautiful on a fantasy level it works for you, but that particular fantasy doesn’t really appeal to me.  So.  There.

There have been hints and rumors about a fourth book.  I’ll believe it when I see it.  I can imagine a fourth book that would redeem the series somewhat.  Volume 3 is still, aside from all of the above points, a dull read, and nothing can change that.  But a fourth book could return to the blithely-abandoned Little People/Sakigake storyline and wrap things up in a more satisfying manner.  After all, the end of Vol. 3 drops strong hints that Aomame and Tengo’s little one is more than just the signifier of their true love, it’s somehow the new Sakigake prophet, or more.  And Sakigake is after it.  Maybe in Vol. 4 Fukaeri and Komatsu and Buzzcut and the Little People all come back and it all builds to a rousing climax that follows through on the social critiques begun in the first two volumes.  Maybe.  But at the moment, that hasn’t happened in this reality.  We’re left with Vol. 3 as the final word on this fictional world.  And it feels pretty final, if not satisfying.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Anne Rice: Interview with the Vampire (1976)

"You don't even understand the meaning of your own story, what it means to a human being like me."  So says the unnamed interviewer at the end of the book, after Louis has finished telling his story.  Rice risks being too on-the-nose with this, but it's a risk worth taking, I think, because - especially after decades of sequels and fanhoods - the meaning of this story is always and forever in peril of being misunderstood.

What the interviewer thinks Louis's story means is this:  immortality, and with it immortal passions.  As he says on the previous page, "The love of Claudia, the feeling, even the feeling for Lestat! It didn't have to end, not in this, not in despair!"  All the desperate boy interlocutor can see in Louis's state is transcendence of mortal limitations.

But what Louis means him to understand - what Louis has learned - is that immortality (for the vampire) is just life without relief.  If life presents frustration, disappointment, unfulfilled desire, and finally the waning of desire, capped by the futility of death, immortality simply presents frustration, disappointment, unfulfilled desire, and finally the waning of desire, with no end.  The immortal is doomed to be bored, to achieve Olympian heights of ennui, because if life is meaningless, then eternal life is an eternity spent in contemplation of meaninglessness.

It is a romantic book.  The heightened sensitivities that Louis experiences upon first becoming a vampire are enough to recast the whole myth as a species of post-Aquarian opening of the doors of perception, but I think it's a different generation entirely that she's thinking of.  Louis is Prometheus, claiming for man what the gods have withheld, a full appreciation of the marvels of the physical world.  Rice has chosen her setting carefully to make Louis a product of the incipient Romantic Age and of the New World its most precious project and of New Orleans, the most romantic part of the New World - that's a lot of different kinds of romance tossed in, but it all works.  And at the end what she's achieved is another kind of Romanticism altogether, the Romantic despair of the great poets.

I read it knowing it was the first of a series, and fully intending to let myself get hooked.  But it's that rare first book that makes you not want to read any further.  Judging by how long it took her to get around to writing a sequel, one assumes that she never meant this to be a series:  indeed, it's hard to imagine how she could have.  If we take Louis at his word, this is inevitably the story of every vampire - immortality must do this to everybody.  The only way she could make a sequel is to make Louis a liar or a fool - someone who doesn't even understand the meaning of his own story.  And this book is so powerful, its final vision of despair is so majestic and persuasive, that I'm going to have a hard time believing anything she writes to contradict it.

(But I'm halfway through The Vampire Lestat now.  I'm ready to be proven wrong.)

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Grateful Dead: Dave's Picks Vol. 4

I'm a Deadhead.  The contours of my Deadheaddom are these.  I got on the bus in 1987-1988, but only figuratively:  I only saw three shows, and never followed the band.  Becoming a fan when I did, I'll forgive you for thinking I was turned on to the band by "Touch of Grey."  It's true, that song was everywhere in 1987, and I heard it and liked it as much as most rock radio listeners did.  But I think my getting turned on to the Dead when I did had more to do with the simple fact that I went away to college in the fall of '87.  And my college was full of Deadheads, and I was already a hippie wannabe, so:  it was gonna happen anyway.

As I say, I only saw three shows (I was in Japan for most of the time between my second show and my third).  And I never even got seriously into tape collecting.  Only when Everything went up on the Internet Archive did I start listening to unreleased Dead in a big way.  On the other hand, I've bought every vault release since they started releasing 'em with One From The Vault in 1991.  In case you're not counting, that's dozens and dozens of multidisc sets in the last twenty years.  At the moment there are only three I'm missing.  And I'll get around to them, too, don't worry. 

I'm obsessed with completism and with anthologizing, so I judge any new Dead vault release by slightly different criteria than most Deadheads do.  At least, that's the impression I've formed over the last dozen years or so of perusing Deadhead discussion fora.  I want to have nothing less than a representative canon of live Dead, one that touches on all significant performances from throughout their career.  I want this canon to exist, in some kind of definitive form, so that a hundred years from now, my great-grandnieces can explore the Dead in some kind of systematic fashion, rather than the haphazard, random way I've done it.

(Although, yes, it's true, I've enjoyed that haphazardness a great deal, and probably would have lost interest if the Dead had ever made it totally easy for me...  That's the nature of the trip, always has been, and perhaps it's for the best.  But, still.)

So I look at any new release with an eye to the gaps it fills, both in my collection and in the canon (as constituted by official releases).  Only after that do I think about things like show quality, sound quality, etc. 

I have here before me the most recent Dead release, Dave's Picks Volume 4.  It consists of the complete 9/24/76 show at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.  It's a subscription-only, limited-edition, sold-out set (my copy is no. 3835 of 12000), so if you don't have it, I guess you're SOL.  (I kind of hate the limited-edition concept - it seems unjust to people who haven't become Deadheads yet but one day will - but whatever.)

It's been clear for most of the last couple of decades that most 'heads who buy these things prefer '70s shows.  For a while I was keeping a running count of what proportion of releases were from that decade;  I lost count, can't be bothered to figure it out now, but it's pretty damn high.  Over 50%, surely.  A mere third of the band's career comprises the lion's share of the canonical output.  That bothers me, and not just because I'm a completist.  I'm one of those dodos (a rare and, perhaps, foolish bird) who likes '80s and '90s Dead, too.  There are gems in every year, even at the depth of Jerry's addictions.

On that score, DaP4 is more of the same.  In fact, the series so far has been four '70s shows, with a fifth promised as the first release of 2013.  So that's a little disappointing.  Still, there's '70s and there's '70s.  Within that decade, the lion's share of the lion's share come from just four years:  1972, 1973, 1974, and 1977.  '70, '71, '75, '76, '78, and '79 are not unrepresented, to be sure, but they've been a lot slower to reach something like representative coverage. 

I'm about at the point where I feel 1976 is done.  This is the fifth full show to be released so far from the autumn tour, in addition to a few scraps that have slipped out here.  I'm sure there are great moments left to be compiled (my personal Fall '76 anthology includes a couple of tracks from 9/30 and 10/15 that haven't been released yet), but as tours go, this one is now quite well represented.  Especially considering that there are entire years in the '80s and '90s with no releases at all.  Not to mention the gobsmacking fact that we have yet to get a '67 show.  Summer of Love and all that? 

So for canon-fleshing-out purposes, this is useful but perhaps at the limits of usefulness.  But what about the music?

My God, but I love the Grateful Dead.  I go through months at a time where I don't listen to them, but then I'll put on a disc and I'm right back in that Deadhead space, and I don't want to listen to anything else.  At this point it's safe to say that there's no artist, no body of work (not even Dylan or Yes, who I've loved longer and deeper than the Dead), that does it for me like the Dead do. 

And Fall '76 is good Dead.  I am glad that they've reached such a good level of coverage for this tour, because I love it.  Yes, they're still figuring out what they can and can't do with two drummers, and yes, they're still working out the kinks in the new repertoire they invented for themselves with their return to touring in summer '76 (after a nearly two year hiatus).  And yes, things would only get better from here - smoother, more inventive.  But I do like the sense of discovery and risk you get with these fall '76 shows.  By spring of '77 (which is far more extensively covered than this tour, and with good reason), they'd once again be playing like gods;  here they're just beginning to feel that they could get there again. 

At the moment I think my favorite passage from this show is the extended, drum-bifurcated "Slipknot!" deep in the second set.  Keith is the one leading the band here, playing off the drummers without using Jerry as a mediator - as tasty as his licks are in this segment, he's basically irrelevant.  There were lots of gnarlier "Slipknot!"s to come, but few this supple, this close to actual jazz.  It's the Dead at the limits of their style, ready to become something else.

And to balance that, I would direct your attention to "Big River," which also sees Keith and the Mickey/Billy team running the show.  This version prances, skips, marches, and frogsteps its way down the big muddy - all on water, of course.

This band could do anything.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Dave Brubeck RIP

Here's one of many little things that turned me on to jazz.  It's a Saturday afternoon, late summer, 1994, and I'm walking down Omotesandō, meandering through crowds, promenading in and out of alleys, checking out sidewalk vendors with old books or chic junk on velvet blankets, enjoying feeling surrounded by fashionable people although I myself am just a poor college student.  There are the Dojunkai apartments, before they got boutiqued:  ivy and old concrete in a district of glass and steel.  There's the Marlboro guy towering over the end of the street.  I'm 24 and alone in Tokyo, but I have a date for that evening.  It turned out that the date would go badly - rejection of a months-long crush - but at the moment, that afternoon, life is sweet.

I stop in front of a music store.  They have real good speakers set up on the sidewalk, and they're playing Dave Brubeck's Take Five album at high volume.  I know just enough to recognize it, but I never got it until then.  The title track:  that coolly purposeful piano, that light lyrical sax, that deep bass like a whisper of solemnity underwriting the festivity.  And then that drum solo.  Played loud.  Recorded loud.  Played back loud.  It's visceral playing.  I felt it in my gut.  There was drama, expression, feeling in that drum solo.  I just stood there on the sidewalk, no doubt with some goofy look of near ecstasy on my face, because the music was just so damn rich and full and real and right. 

The good shit lasts.  It reaches who it needs to reach.  Thank you Dave Brubeck.

Monday, December 3, 2012

He ain't dead, he's just asleep

Not long after my last post, Obama was reelected.  I try not to write much about politics here, at least outside of the cultural topics I started this blog as a place to write about.  But anybody who reads this has noticed by now that I'm an unabashed liberal, and that I've been growing more and more depressed with the state of my country for the last few years.  My whole adult life, really, things have been getting worse.  Anyway.  I honestly didn't think Obama would get reelected.  But he did.  And for a while the gravity of that, the grace of it, made my various little blogging ideas seem pretty paltry in comparison.  So I just shut up.  Not a bad thing to do now and then.

Then the busy time of the term hit me, and it was just too exhausting to think about posting.  And now it's been an even month since I posted.  Which is a couple of blog-lifetimes in Internet time.  I'm aware I may have killed it.

But whatever.  I don't feel like pulling the plug yet.  I started this blog so I'd have a place to write about the things I don't write about in my day job, because I enjoy writing.  Nothing more.  And I still feel that way, so here goes.


Probably not a good idea to let the first post back be so negative, but.  I'm a loyal reader of Andrew Sullivan.  But, like most liberals who read him (and really:  mostly only liberals read him), he annoys me about as often as he enlightens me.  And lately one of the things that's been annoying me most is the crap he posts about literature on weekends.  (Actually, of course, it's his blogserfs who post it, not him.  But it's his sensibility, he assures us, so it's him I call senseless.)

Like this.  I mean, the idea is iffy to begin with - a kind of pretentious that only The New Yorker can really aspire to - I find it snarky at worst and unhelpful at best to assert, with no hint of uncertainty, that the endings of all these great novels are "inartistic."  (And what about the uninterrogated assumptions behind that insidious em-dash separating "inartistic" from "a betrayal" - is the equivalence there so self-evident?)  There's the germ of an interesting theme there, the question of endings, but what's interesting about it can't be gotten at through self-satisfied judgments like "lame" or "shockingly bad."  It might be get-at-able through actual literary analysis - what was the author trying to do?  What did her audiences/editors/critics expect?  What assumptions do my reactions proceed from, and might they not be faulty?

Like I say, the article Sullivan is linking to is bad enough.  But there's something naggingly annoying in how Sullivan ('s gnomes) blithely link to it, nutting the pithiest grafs, with no comment, no reaction.  I mean, I guess that's the aggregator principle:  like the Daily Beast's brain-dead motto has it, "read this skip that," just sluice the words through your brain with "no attempt," as Dylan put it, "to shovel the glimpse into the ditch of what each one means."