Featured suicide girl, Haruki Murakami, up for nobel

by on Oct.10, 2012

Since goth week always seem to correspond with Nobel week, and since Haruki Murakami is a bit of a front runner in both categories, I’m going to try to write a little about 1Q84, his massive three-part novel that I read this summer (the first two parts in Swedish, the last in English, strangely fitting, somehow, seeing as it is a novel of parallels worlds that remain quite similar.)

One thing that interests me about his writing is how, when I read most of his stuff a couple of years ago, it made me feel again like a teenager swallowing books. Not reading books as much as moving into books and living there for a while. And why that might be. It seems not incidental that his writing resonates with a lot of young people. In fact, I don’t think I’ve read a book of this size since I was 16 burning in the Spanish sun with a copy of The Brothers Karamazov (or maybe it was Stephen King’s IT).

One appealing aspect of his work, I think, and a potential answer, is its failure, its incompleteness, its fragmentation  For instance, there seems to always be sections in his longer novels where nothing happens. Where a character is just stuck and waiting it out. Not to give anything away, but one of the three books that make up 1Q84 is pretty much just one long wait. Then there is that exhausting part in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle where the main character descends into a well.

(Another failure of a sort: when I first read him (in English) I thought, wow, you don’t need a big vocabulary, it’s possible to write in English even if English is not your first language!)

Murakami has said that he doesn’t plan what to write, and write, when he writes a novel, every morning, whether he wants to or not. Which would explain these passages where nothing really happens. He can’t figure out what to do next, but he has to write something. It’s like a strange triangle: writer, character, reader, all hanging out in this zone of waiting. The plot of the novel stagnates and perhaps it is this stagnation, this lack of moving forward, which makes it possible to “move in”. In his Paris review interview he says:

“I like details very much. Tolstoy wanted to write the total description; my description is focused on a very small area. When you describe the details of small things, your focus gets closer and closer, and the opposite of Tolstoy happens—it gets more unrealistic. That’s what I want to do.”

That touches on what annoys me about realism, that realism is not really about realism, but a certain kind of bird-view realism, realism by virtue of being smack in the middle of any extremes, moderated, concentrated, careful distance, that it be real, in a way, by not standing out. That there be no dead space, passive or useless. That it is not realism at all, but a concealed moral hierarchy, of moving forward, of reinforcing the same old tedious dramatic growth-curve of overcoming, realizing potency and release.

Murakami, in 1Q84, interrupting the story to quote Isak Dinesen (as well as some obscure Chekhov anthropology work) at length or getting distracted describing some plant, suspends that hierarchy. Basic subject-object relations and dramatic developments are confused. Prophecies don’t come true and guns, introduced, might not fire. Important characters disappear, without much warning, while other, seemingly minor characters, grow in importance.

Several times, especially toward the end, you get the clear sense the writer is struggling with how to pull this off. 600-800 pages in (depending on your language), a new character’s point of view is introduced, awkwardly, it seems with the only intent that the story might be able to tie together most of its loose ends. At one point the narrator blatantly barges in to remind the reader of some vital information, completely bursting the “dream” bubble that fiction yarns.

But this awkward is what I like about his writing. That the writer is not severed from the work, that it may float away on a cloud of perfect pixie dust, but remains, stubbornly, bothering the text. A kind of deformity, or the ego that’s suppose to be axed from the text. Most of his novels appear to stem from his short stories allowed to completely overgrow (for 1Q84, two short stories, “TV People” and “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” comes to mind). One striking and central image of 1Q84 is a decomposing goat, out of whose mouth little people emerge, to weave a chrysalis out of air.

Also, in the PR interview, very interestingly, I think, he compares his writing to video games, though he himself has no interest playing them:

“Yes. I don’t like playing video games myself, but I feel the similarity. Sometimes while I’m writing I feel I’m the designer of a video game, and at the same time, a player. I made up the program, and now I’m in the middle of it; the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. It’s a kind of detachment. A feeling of a split.”

While reading 1Q84, simultaneously, I was playing Zelda with my daughter, and it makes sense to me. Rather than being guided through the novel, the novel reveals rooms, riddles, people, that, while reading, you feel like you can walk around in, interact with, get stuck in, inhabit.

Another thing. The characters are all the same archetypes repeated in novel after novel: the passive male lead who clings to his independence and always at some point seem to find himself with an uncontrollably hard (and large) erection, there’s the the quirky-aloof girl-woman he befriends, some mysterious evil (but not quite evil) force, perhaps in the form of Colonel Sanders. And cats.  Critics get annoyed with this tendency, I suppose, because variation allows you to point out that variation. Variation a sign of vitality? Showing “complex” human emotions. I don’t know, but I never liked Norwegian Woods, his “mainstream” and “realist” experiment, all that much.

Instead I like this literary waste, this unproductive waiting, this stagnation that always occurs, especially toward the end. The ends always fizzle, slowly, out. In the last sentence of 1Q84 there is not a moon, but a “paper moon”. Again from the interview:

“I don’t want to persuade the reader that it’s a real thing; I want to show it as it is. In a sense, I’m telling those readers that it’s just a story—it’s fake. But when you experience the fake as real, it can be real. It’s not easy to explain.”

2 comments for this entry:
  1. James Pate

    Murakami is amazing. I still can’t believe he would win the Nobel Prize though. In the past few years, even decades, the Nobel tends to prize a certain kind of supposed high-seriousness. Pynchon, for example, would never have a chance. And I can’t help but see Murakami, despite all the rumors, in the same light. His work is so quirky and funny and for so many of the reason you point out!

    The Wind-up Bird is probably still my favorite. The character of May is especially intriguing. Half-demon, half-innocent. I know some people even think she’s not real, but a figure in the character’s imagination. In fact, as Murakami has the narrator point out a few times, even he’s not real, he’s simply floating along in the book…As in your quote from Murakami: “But when you experience the fake as real, it can be real. It’s not easy to explain.”


  2. Kim

    Thanks James. His Kafka influence is also interesting, I think. Re-reading “The Burrow” recently I was reminded of your post on him and the corrupt analogy (or maybe that was Johannes term), and I love how in the beginning of that story its tempting to read the burrow as something else, like the dark place Kafka goes to write or something, but how by sheer obsession (the exhausting account of how he’s going to store his food, guarding the entrance of the burrow etc.) the analogy (the fake?) becomes something real. But not quite real. Somewhere in between, ghosty. 1Q84 is full of these dualisms that are more similar than different. Why Kafka’s animal characters are always so hard to imagine, perhaps, they’re not one or the other, but simultaneously both, irrevocably blurred. Murakami tread the same types of waters, I think.

    They’re both also, as you point out, funny as hell. And appeal to young readers. And rehash the same character over and over that might or might not be the ‘writer’…