Summer Reading Part 1: Haruki Murakami

Well, summer seems to have departed this part of the world and it is doubtful we’ll see it again this year. The rain is falling heavily and decidedly outside the windows (and a good thing it is, too, that it is staying outside…) and it is good bye to summer evenings and leisurely revelry in its pleasures, scarce as they might be. It is time, then, to take stock, in short, and in a round about way, to look back on what my summer reading consisted of this year. I’ll need a couple of posts to finish this…

There are not many surprises for those who have read earlier list of my vacation literature. And mind, vacation doesn’t mean anything more than the fact that I have more time than normally to read. It’s not like I choose books that I think will be particularly suited for the season.

I admit to being on a bit of a Haruki Murakami-kick since I read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle last summer. In June and July I finished five books of the author, but none of them was quite as good as my first experience with Murakami. They all share, to some degree, the weaknesses of The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, but not all have its strengths. The foremost weakness with all the Murakami books I have read is that it is so clear that this is not an author who spends a lot of time plotting his books. Rather, he writes, I suspect, quite fast and lets his imagination have free reign, allowing each new idea a place in his books, even though they would have been better served on the cutting room floor, so to speak. When he – and the reader – reaches the end, few things are wrapped up and the dénouement seems vague and not really very meaningful, at times trite.

What makes the books worthwhile – and almost always very enjoyable – is paradoxically also connected to these short comings. Murakami has imagination and he has the words and control of language to make his ideas attractive and even seem more interesting than in hindsight they really are, I think. As a consequence, his books are extremely readable and easy to follow, even though they take detours into the whimsical and borderline surrealist at times. Murakami is probably at his weakest when it comes to real feelings and he isn’t always able to make us take the situations seriously enough to vest any emotional interest in them. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing, but neither does Murakami strike my as a deep thinker, rather, his ideas are cutesy and just irreverent enough to draw in the arty crowd, which always revels in terms like surrealism and seldom look behind surfaces.

Still, I have read five books of the man this summer, and I expect to read his remaining oeuvre in the year to come, so there must be something that draws me back. As mentioned, the books are extremely readable and they are almost very good as well. I think part of the attraction is the hope that maybe this time he will make it; he will be able to finish the book in a coherent way, the disparate parts will turn out to fit after all, there will finally be proof of a plan somewhere.

Of the five I read, the two books that came closest to being successes were Kafka on the Shore and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Especially the latter, in which there were actually two stories mutually illuminating each other. This, at least, led me to think there was some authorial purpose and plan behind the book. Kafka on the Shore is long and for the most part a satisfying reading experience, were it not for Murakami’s habit of forgetting or losing interest in his own plot lines and characters. There is a schizophrenia sub-plot in the book, for example, that never really goes anywhere, even though the novel starts with introducing it. It’s as if the author is hoping he’ll manage to come back to this in a meaningful way, but for the most part he forgets about it and finally it seems he just can’t be bothered with it at all.

The documentary book Underground; The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, is of course different than his novels in that Murakami’s usual flights of fancy can’t be expected. The subtitle pretty much says what the book is about, and Murakami presents the case quite clearly, and for the most part doesn’t intrude too much in the stories of the interviewees. In the last part, when he talks with the members of the Aum cult responsible for the metro gas attack, he for some reason finds it necessary to serve as the sensible voice of an enlightened public, debating with the cult members and presenting his own views in a more inquisitorial manner. Perhaps this was a mistake.

What I Talk About When I talk About Running steals the title, of course, from Raymond Carver, but little else. I was irritated by this. Apart from capitalizing upon a known and damn good title, what Murakami writes about in the book has absolutely nothing to do with Carver’s short stories, neither in style nor subject matter, and as a result it would be like if, say, Eminem released a record called Dark Side of the Loon, which, upon reflection, is not that bad a title. Not that I compare Carver to Pink Floyd… Anyhow, just because Murakami has translated Carver to Japanese, doesn’t give him the right to Bogart the connotations to Carver’s tightly constructed and very precise short stories in his own literary output.

Murakami’s book itself is no great shakes. The type of book which would probably never be released unless you already have a name. It is a collection of essays already published in slightly changed forms in different magazines, and put together in this book as a kind of runners diary and attempt at autobiography. Like most of Murakami’s books, it is enjoyable, but this one was forgotten as soon as I finished the last page. It’s an easy read, though, perfect for having in your pocket to be read while waiting on the bus or any occasion where the alternative is to stand up and down glaring into nothingness. It’s the equivalent of an extremely light lager, something to sip while staring lazily at the sea.

South of the Border, West of the Sun is among Murakami’s shortest books. It is also seemingly a very simple, almost intimate story. Therefore I had reason to believe that the author would be able to have sufficient control of his characters and their situations to give us a satisfying ending. (Note: I don’t mean a happy or sad ending, not even a logical ending, just something to make the reader think that it is important that he pays attention). Nope. Again, the ending is so vague that it is irritating. I don’t even need resolutions to the plot, I‘ll accept that human experience is too complicated and that resolutions can be artificial. Just give me a sign that the author has paid attention to the narrative possibilities and threads he has put out there!
The book is rather erotic and as always it is well written. But the eroticism doesn’t seem to suggest anything more than itself and the fine prose is left hanging with nowhere to go.

Still, I don’t mean to sound too negative. There is much to like about Murakami, it’s just so frustrating that he never seems able to quite deliver that last genius phrase or resolution or meaning or whatever the hell you want to call it. He is like a Maradona with no goal scoring abilities, and should he score, it is almost certainly with the hand of God, never a result of an honest well executed play. This is the joy and frustration of reading Haruki Murakami.

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