Tuesday, August 23, 2011

7% of Me, Some 25% of Murakami

I continue to read Haruki Murakami's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I'm a little over 200 pages in right now, and I'd say the first act has ended. The protagonist's wife has disappeared; the protagonist has been told by the missing wife's brother to get a divorce; the protagonist has heard bits of a story possibly involving paranormal activity in Mongolia (including the notion that something mysterious remains buried near a river out there); the protagonist has become involved with a psychic prostitute. The protagonist has come to realize that he's been adrift for the last six years of his life, but he's just stood up to the overbearing brother in law and stated a sort of revolutionary manifesto. Et cetera. So this appears to be a sort of magical-realist mystery story that nods to Kafka, Garcia-Marquez and Camus. I expect it to turn into a hero's quest any page now. I'm not exactly enjoying it.

Oh, it's better than Sputnik Sweetheart, the only other Murakami novel I've read. Sputnik is a badly-written total waste of time, frankly, which confuses obscurity with profundity. There was almost nothing to that novel. My fear is that, when I get to the end of Wind-Up Bird, I'll have that same feeling that all the buildup and running around was there to hide the fact that there really aren't any solid ideas behind the book.

I continue reading, mostly, to see if Murakami can bring the goods. I'm not actually invested in any of the characters or situations. I don't care what happens because I'm pretty sure nothing will happen. Mostly, despite the clunky and repetitious language, it's easy to read on my morning commute. Non-challenging, we'll say. The reader has no work to do because if you didn't understand some subtlety of the narrative, Murakami will restate it for you. A few times. And then once more in case you forgot. No wonder this book is 750 pages long. I don't understand all the hue and cry over Murakami. The blurbs on the book jacket proclaim him a genius, but I don't see it. Someone needs to explain to me the attraction of reading this pretty long pretty nothing of a story.

Meanwhile, I'm 7533 words into my own new novel. 3000 words from now I'll be done with Chapter 2, I think. I still have to write about HIV treatments and children running after goats. The lead female character is going to get a nickname. And then it's back to the lead male character.

I've been trying to decide if reading Murakami is doing anything to my own writing. I don't think it is. I really wanted to love Murakami, especially Wind-Up Bird because so many people I know loved it, but I'm having a hard time seeing past the postmodernist cliches. Murakami is certainly not mainstream fiction, but he's not possessed of the vision of those writers he imitates.

Well, who of us is? The list of writers I admire but am not equal to is as long as my arm. Longer, truth to tell. There's still plenty of time for Haruki to wow me, so I'll keep reading.


  1. Hi Scott! First off, I'll say that I really appreciate you reading Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. As you know, it's one I really liked, and hearing your thoughts on it is valuable to me, whether you like the book or not. I don't remember exactly when I started to like the book. Page 200 seems like it should be close, but it's still possible that what I considered good about it hasn't happened yet. It is a long book.

    Anyway, I better get back to writing my own book. I'm working on a section about HIV treatments and children running after goats.

  2. What's interesting is that I keep complaining about the book but I keep reading it. That must be indicative of something, right? Now I'm about halfway through, on page 260 or so. He's down in the well.

    And..hey, wait. Goats? HIV? Damn you, Malasarn!

  3. Ah. Well, if he's already in a well then you've passed the part that got me hooked. For me, I really liked the soldier's well section with the sunlight. Did that strike you at all?
    Maybe you and M just aren't a match. There are still parts of the book that I think are really good later on, but that is perhaps just me.

  4. The whole narrative of the soldiers in Mongolia was the best part of the book so far. But after that it's not holding my interest as much.

    Murakami frustrates me because there's a lot of "something mysterious was happening, but I can't really tell you what it was because I didn't really understand it myself" language, so huge swaths of the narrative are vague and unfocused. I can see where he's influenced by Kafka in this way, but M really stretches this sort of "something may be happening but I'll keep it really hazy" for page after page and after a while it seemed really static and I wanted to skip ahead. I just get the feeling like I'm wading through a lot of repetitive vagueness. Maybe it's dazzling in Japanese but in English, for me at least, it's just sketchy and feels undeveloped. I'd blame the translator (because so much of the prose feels flat) but the Mongolia section was really focused. Maybe M is trying to make the narrator seem like sort of an idiot?

  5. When I read him I also feel like there's a lot of repetitive vagueness. But I ended up embracing it. This is what Murakami is focused on, in my opinion. This is his art. The way an abstract artist is trying to express something other than clarity is the way I see Murakami functioning. It's almost like I read his stories as instrumental music rather than something with lyrics. I can still feel his emotion even though I am not clear on the story. And, for me, there's some sort of internal logic to his vague happenings that really delights me.

  6. Hmm, interesting idea. Do you know Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time? It's a string quartet (but there are lots of transcriptions for other groups of instruments) that embraces stasis, non-movement, stillness, a real "end of time" and maybe I should try reading this Murakami as if I'm listening to that Messiaen. I'll give that a shot and see how I like it. Reading should be a variety of experience, not just the one we're most used to, right? Including the very process of reading? The point of reading itself?

  7. I just listened to the first three movements. It definitely matches what you describe. The second movement is beautiful.

  8. The second movement is supposed to be the voice of an angel, I think. The eighth movement is amazing.

  9. I only listened to the first four before I had to go to a meeting. I'll listen to the rest! I liked the voice of the angel.