Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki

Haruki Murakami Bingo

The website Dissertation Reviews recently invited me to review the dissertation of Tiffany Hong, who is currently an Assistant Professor of East Asian Literature at Nazarbayev University. Hong’s dissertation, titled Teleology of the Self: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki, is an investigation of the postmodern aspects of Murakami’s storytelling framed by a discussion of the transnational publishing market that has launched the author into literary stardom.

Here is a short except from my review:

Tiffany Hong’s dissertation is primarily concerned with the developments in the narrative strategies of the internationally acclaimed and bestselling novelist Murakami Haruki, especially as these strategies respond to the relationship between the individual and the history of the Japanese state. While many scholars have examined the meaning of plot and symbolism in Murakami’s stories, Hong’s readings of four of his most well-known novels contribute a valuable perspective on the intersections between the author’s personal politics and his use of self-narrativization through diegetic and metadiegetic elements often associated with magical realism. Hong captures what makes Murakami’s novels so successful in engaging the reader by tying his work into larger discussions regarding the transformative potential of fiction.

You can read the full review on Dissertation Reviews.

( The header image is by Grant Snider, the artist of Incidental Comics. )

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Tsukuru Tazaki

Title: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Japanese Title: 色彩を持たない多崎つくると、彼の巡礼の年
(Shikisai o motanai Tazaki Tsukuru to kare no junrei no toshi)
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Publisher: Bungei Shunjū
Publication Year: 2013
Pages: 370

From July to January of his second year of college, Tazaki Tsukuru was absorbed by thoughts of death. His four best friends from high school suddenly stopped talking to him, and he had no idea why. Sixteen years later, the 36-year-old Tsukuru is employed a railroad company, where he works on the design and construction of train stations. He’s single, but he has kindled a romance with a businesswoman named Sara, of whom he is quite enamored. Sara reciprocates Tsukuru’s affections, but she senses that something is holding him back from being in a fully committed relationship. She thus gives Tsukuru an ultimatum: Get rid of your emotional baggage, or I will never sleep with you again. Sara’s Lysistrata-like threat compels Tsukuru to embark on a pilgrimage that takes him across and beyond Japan to track down his friends from high school in order to figure out what happened between them and what went wrong.

Tsukuru’s friends are an interesting group, and each of them goes by a color-based nickname. Oumi Yoshio, or Ao (Blue), has an outgoing personality, and he was the captain of his rugby team in high school. As an adult, he works as a salesman at a Lexus dealership. Akamatsu Kei, or Aka (Red), is fiercely intelligent and analytical, and everyone thought he would become a university professor after he graduated from college. Instead he entered the corporate world and quickly dropped out in order to launch a consulting firm that holds management training seminars. Kurono Eri, or Kuro (Black), is quick-witted and clever and was known for her sarcastic sense humor in high school. Kuro became a potter and fell in love with a foreign student who had come to Japan to study pottery, and she now lives with him and their two daughters in Finland. Shire Yuzuki, or Shiro (White), looked like a model and had gorgeous long black hair, but she hated attention and found joy in playing piano. Unfortunately, she failed to become a concert pianist and so ended up as a private piano teacher, but her ultimate fate was even more tragic. The easygoing and unflaggingly polite Tsukuru acted as the “colorless” background against which these four could shine, and he was the invisible glue that held the group together.

The forward momentum of the first 150 pages of the novel is driven by the mystery of why Tsukuru got dumped by his friends. The first member of the former group that Tsukuru tracks down, Ao, reveals the bare facts of the answer, but this answer creates even more questions, since Tsukuru has no memory of what he was accused of doing. Moreover, what Tsukuru was accused of doing is extremely upsetting, not only to him and the other characters in the novel but to the reader as well. The accusation, as well as Tsukuru’s responsibility in the matter and the obligation his friends felt in responding to the situation, are heart-breaking and profound, and the practical and emotional complications are quite distressing. I’m sure that, when the novel is translated into English, Murakami is going to catch a lot of flak for writing such a scenario, but what he describes is extraordinarily relevant to contemporary societal debates, and the sensitivity with which his third-person narrator describes the fallout of what happened from multiple perspectives is one of the novel’s best features.

Another interesting component of the novel is the wealth of detail given to the description of each character and the interior spaces he or she occupies. The personality of each character is conveyed by his or her words, of course; but, since the narrator’s point of view is fairly limited to Tsukuru, the reader only knows what Tsukuru is doing or thinking at any given moment. The reader is thus encouraged to tease out the finer details of character through the narrator’s meticulous descriptions of clothing, hairstyle, accessories, and interior decoration. Tanaka Yasuo was strongly criticized for his endless litanies of product brand names in his novel Nantonaku, Crystal, and I imagine that it’s possible to levy the same sort of complaint against Tsukuru Tazaki, as the writing comes off as more than a bit Nantonaku-ish at times. That being said, Murakami’s method of character analysis through the intense reflection on taste and setting strikes me as less vapid and materialistic than it does as vaguely Homeric. How does the reader know that Achilles is a badass? By reading detailed descriptions of his armor. How does the reader know that Aka is a badass? By reading detailed descriptions of how he has set up his corporate office.

Aside from the brilliance of its characters, the novel also has some genuinely creepy moments to offer the reader. Many of these moments are encapsulated by Tsukuru’s relationship with his college friend Haida (whose name contains the character for “ash,” or “grey”). Haida tells Tsukuru a story about how his father once met a jazz musician named Midorigawa (whose name contains the word “green”) while working at an isolated inn in the mountains, and how Midorigawa possessed a strange ability that he may have passed on to Haida’s father. It’s a weird story, and Haida’s intentions in telling it to Tsukuru are unclear, but shortly thereafter Haida does something bizarre in an uncomfortable scene involving sleep paralysis before disappearing from Tsukuru’s life without a trace. Such scenes and stories-within-stories are not “softly haunting,” or “elegiac,” or anything fancy like that; they are genuinely creepy and upsetting. Furthermore, Haida is not the only source of surreal urban folklore in the novel – the story a subway station employee tells Tsukuru about something he found in one of the station’s bathrooms is particularly delightful.

As is the case with most Murakami novels, the deeper psychological and supernatural elements of the plot are never fully explained, but I found Tsukuru’s journey to be rewarding in and of itself, and I enjoyed reading the novel. Tsukuru Tazaki is evocative of the pains of youth and what it’s like to reconnect with people years after you’ve graduated from high school. In many ways, Murakami’s latest book feels like an answer to Norwegian Wood, the 1987 novel that first boosted the author into international literary stardom. Whereas Norwegian Wood is permeated by a nostalgic longing for the perceived potential for individual dignity made possible by a vanished youth in a vanished era, Tsukuru Tazaki is concerned with a more pragmatic strain of existentialism that seeks to justify the manner in which the passing years inevitably drain color from one’s life. If Tsukuru is indeed on a pilgrimage, it’s less of a pilgrimage to find his friends or to figure out the truth but rather an experiential process of recreating the story of his adolescence as a narrative that can properly function as a suitable prequel to a middle-aged adult life that is less of an anticlimactic ending and more of a canvas that is still waiting to be filled with color.

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition

Title: The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature, Abridged Edition
Editors: J. Thomas Rimer and Van C. Gessel
Poetry Editors: Amy Vladeck Heinrich, Leith Morton, and Hiroaki Sato
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Columbia University Press
Pages: 960

The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese is the most comprehensive anthology of Japanese literature since the mid-nineteenth century; but, with two enormous (and expensive) volumes, it’s a bit daunting for all but the most stalwart of readers. I was therefore excited to learn that an abridged softcover version of the text has been released. At almost a thousand pages, the anthology still isn’t for the casually interested. As it provides a much wider selection of writers and genres than every other anthology of modern and contemporary Japanese literature on the market, however, The Columbia Anthology is an invaluable resource not only for students of Japanese literature but also for anyone interested in Japan in any capacity.

The anthology is divided into six sections spanning from the beginning of the Meiji period in 1868 to the end of the twentieth century. The two sections devoted to the Meiji era include work by naturalists and playwrights such as Mori Ōgai, Shimazaki Tōson, Kunikada Doppo, and Nagai Kafū, as well as essays by Natsume Sōseki, including “The Civilization of Modern-Day Japan.” The anthology then proceeds into the interwar period, which includes the work of authors such as Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Edogawa Rampo, Kawabata Yasunari, and Tanizaki Junichirō. The section titled “The War Years” is mercifully short but includes stories by Dazai Osamu, Ishikawa Tatsuzō, and Ōoka Shōhei.

The “Early Postwar Years: 1945-1970” section is the longest in the anthology and reads like a hit parade of famous postwar writers such as Abe Kōbō, Enchi Fumiko, and Mishima Yukio. Many well-known postwar joryū bungaku (“women’s literature”) writers, such as Hayashi Fumiko and Kōno Taeko, are represented as well. The last section collects contemporary literature from the seventies, eighties, and nineties by both internationally famous authors such as Murakami Haruki and Ogawa Yōko and writers who are prolific and well known in Japan, such as Hoshi Shinichi and Furui Yoshikichi.

What is wonderful about this anthology is that, unlike other anthologies of modern and contemporary Japanese literature, it includes lengthy selections of Japanese poetry, both in “traditional” forms (such tanka and haiku) and in more modern forms (such as free verse). Although I am not a connoisseur of poetry in translation and thus can’t vouch for the quality of The Columbia Anthology‘s selections, I am thankful that so many works of modern and contemporary Japanese poetry have been brought together in a single volume. The majority of the original publications in which these translations appeared have long since gone out of print, so The Columbia Anthology is perhaps the best way to familiarize oneself with a rich yet underappreciated body of literature. The anthology also includes dramatic scripts by playwrights and screenwriters such as Inoue Hasashi and Kara Jūrō, texts which are also difficult to find elsewhere.

My enthusiasm for The Columbia Anthology is genuine, but some of the editors’ comments in the Preface shed light on some of the more conservative politics of literary anthologization. For example, to justify the entry of their project into a field in which many anthologies already exist, Rimer and Gessel state:

One difference between this volume and some of the earlier collections is related to the evolving view of both Japanese and foreign scholars as to what constitutes “literature.” Many of the earlier collections sought, consciously or unconsciously, to privilege the long and elegant aesthetic traditions of Japan as they were transformed and manifested anew in modern works. […] But many other kinds of writing, ranging from detective stories to personal accounts – always valued by Japanese readers but neglected by translators in the early postwar decades – can now be sampled here.

Expanding the scope of what is considered literature through diversity in anthologization is always good, of course, but two paragraphs earlier, the editors also made this strange comment:

Whatever the level of young people’s interest in manga (comics) and video games may be, literature, as opposed to simple entertainment, often remains the best way to grapple with the problems, and ironies, of the present generation of Japan.

On reading this sentence, I somehow managed to raise an eyebrow and roll my eyes at the same time. The context of this statement was a defense of the strength of contemporary literature in the face of a weighty literary tradition, but I wonder why the editors needed to make the distinction between “literature” and “entertainment” at all. Some types of print culture (such as dramatic scripts) are literature, but others (such as the text portions of visual novels) are not? Edogawa Rampo’s grotesque short stories are literature, but Otsuichi’s horror fiction is not? Haiku are literature, but tweets are not? And – most importantly – manga is not literature? Seriously?

Despite the editors’ stated desire to expand the scope of what is considered literature, their literary politics are, as I stated earlier, quite conservative. Popular fiction by writers like Murakami Haruki and Yoshimoto Banana is included in the anthology, but the work of such writers has been so resolutely canonized by scholarly articles and inclusion in course syllabi that its anthologization comes as no surprise. It’s good to have “outsider” writers like Tawada Yōko and Shima Tsuyoshi included in the anthology, but all of the volume’s stories more or less fit neatly into the category of “literary fiction.” You will not find the cerebral science fiction of Kurahashi Yumiko, or the historical revisionings of Miyabe Miyuki, or the fantastical explorations of Asian-esque mythology of Uehashi Nahoko, or the socially conscious mystery stories of Kirino Natsuo in The Columbia Anthology. You also won’t find any prewar popular fiction, such as the short stories of Yoshiya Nobuko.

This leads me to another criticism I have concerning the anthology, which is that it is remarkably dude-centric. Until the last two sections of the text (“Early Postwar Literature” and “Toward a Contemporary Literature”), there are no female writers represented (save for Yosano Akiko, who has a few poems about flowers and vaginas); not even one of Higuchi Ichiyō’s short stories is included. In the anthology’s defense, many of the women writing before and during the Pacific War, such as Enchi Fumiko and Hirabayashi Taiko, are included in the “Early Postwar” section. Unfortunately, this means that their more overtly political work has been passed over for stories that focus more on “traditional” women’s issues like female sexuality and the family. Furthermore, even though I applaud the editors for including literary essays in their anthology, it frustrates me that not a single one these essays was written by a woman, despite the fact that many female authors – including those represented in this anthology – are extraordinarily well known for their essays. What the editors has done is the equivalent of collecting the most influential essays on literature in North America and leaving out something as important and groundbreaking as Margaret Atwood’s On Being A Woman Writer.

In the end, though, I stand by my assessment of the abridged edition of The Columbia Anthology of Modern Japanese Literature as an essential resource to students of Japan. The volume contains many excellent stories, poems, essays, and dramatic scripts that are difficult to find elsewhere, and the editors keep their introductions of writers and literary epochs brief and to the point. As long as this text is supplemented to bridge over its gaps and omissions, I can imagine it becoming the backbone of a respectable introductory course on modern and contemporary Japanese literature, as well as a source of out-of-print translations of the work of less widely taught authors.

Review copy provided by Columbia University Press.

1Q84

Title: 1Q84
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Translators: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 2009-2010 (Japan)
Publisher: Knopf
Pages: 944

This review contains mild spoilers. Some might argue that warning for spoilers is missing the point, but I think that gradually figuring out what’s going on in this novel is one of the main pleasures of reading it. With that in mind, allow me to summarize the conclusion of my review for anyone trying to decide whether or not to start reading: 1Q84 is an engrossing book, and you more than likely won’t be able to separate yourself from it once you begin. It might be a good idea to save it for when you anticipate having lots of time on your hands. However, if you’ve read Murakami’s work before and don’t particularly like it, this book won’t turn you into a fan. The novel contains several graphic depictions of rape and child abuse. If you imagine that such descriptions might function as triggers, consider yourself warned for both the novel and this review.

IQ84 is about Kawana Tengo, a would-be writer who pays the bills by working as a math teacher at a cram school, and Aomame Masami, a semi-professional assassin who pays the bills by working as a personal trainer at a private gym. Tengo’s story kicks off when his literary agent, an eccentric editor named Komatsu Yuji, drafts him into rewriting a fantasy novella called “Air Chrysalis” written by a seventeen-year-old named Fukada Eriko. Fuka-Eri, as she calls herself, is a beautiful yet incommunicative girl who claims to have actually experienced the things she’s written about. When Tengo meets Fuka-Eri’s guardian, a retired academic named Ebisuno, the man explains that the girl’s biological father had founded a politically radical farming commune called Sakigake that has since reshaped itself into a religious compound closed to the outside world. Unfortunately for Tengo, when Fuka-Eri’s novella is published and becomes a bestseller, Sakigake takes notice. Meanwhile, Aomame works with an older woman referred to as “the Dowager,” who runs a battered women’s shelter called The Willow House. When no other recourse can free the women who take refuge there, the Dowager calls on Aomame to assassinate the men who have made their lives hell. The Dowager ends up rescuing a girl who has been horribly abused by the leader of Sakigake, and she requests that Aomame perform a job so dangerous that it may well be her last – the assassination of this powerful religious figure.

Alternate chapters are told from Aomame and Tengo’s perspectives, and their stories gradually become interwoven even though they never meet or interact with each other. They knew each other briefly as children, however, and it turns out that their bond runs deeper than mere casual coincidence. As the novel progresses, other characters with connections to Aomane and Tengo are introduced, such as Tengo’s strict and conservative father, Aomame’s gentle but romantically unlucky childhood friend Yasuda Kyoko, the Dowager’s personal bodyguard Tamaru Kenichi, an under-the-law private investigator named Ushikawa Toshiharu, and a diabolically relentless NHK fee collector. All of these secondary characters are interesting enough to be the protagonists of their own novels, and their stories and conflicts and motivations are just as engaging as those of Tengo and Aomame.

The novel is divided into three books, which are each characterized by distinctive plot developments and themes.

In the first book, Tengo meets Fuka-Eri. As he edits her novella, he learns more about and is drawn into the strange world she represents. Meanwhile, Aomame accidentally travels from 1984 into an alternate reality (in which two moons hang in the sky) that she calls 1Q84. As she attempts to figure out what happened to her, the reader learns about her daily life and her relationship with the Dowager. This first book is overtly political in its attitude concerning such issues as protest movements, new religions, publicly sanctioned sexism, and the business of literary publishing.

In the second book, both Tengo and Aomame are plunged headlong into the strange business with the Sakigake group. Even as the two characters are thrust forward into an uncertain future, the reader learns more about their pasts and the experiences they had as children. The second book seems primarily concerned with the unknowability of large swaths of reality and the challenges facing moral judgment and action in the face of absurdity. In my mind, this was the most “Murakami-esque” section of the book in that it revisited many of the themes and narrative devices present in the writer’s earlier work.

The third book concerns the aftermath of Aomame’s involvement in the Sakigake affair. Aomame has gone into hiding, and Tengo leaves Tokyo to tend to his catatonic father. Despite their adverse circumstances, the two have begun searching for each other. A chillingly aggressive NHK fee collector threatens Tengo’s neighborhood, and the private investigator Ushikawa stakes out Tengo’s apartment as Fuka-Eri comes and goes. The themes of the third book are fate and love or, more appropriately, the denial of coincidence and the belief that even the most tenuous bonds between people can be extraordinarily powerful. Because of its sentimentality, and because of the way in which the multiple pieces of the complicated plot all begin to fit together, I almost felt as if I were reading a Stephen King novel at certain points towards the end of 1Q84.

“Reading a Stephen King” novel is not necessarily a bad thing, however. One of the aspects of King’s writing that I admire most is his ability to get into the heads of even the most loathsome characters, and one of the most surprising and interesting developments of the third book is that the reader is now offered chapters from Ushikawa’s perspective. While Tengo and Aomame are being irrationally idealistic and swooning over their memories of each other, Ushikawa adds humor, realism, and a sense of tragedy to the novel’s conclusion. As he describes himself:

Maybe I am just an ugly, middle-aged, outdated man, Ushikawa thought. Nope, no maybes about it. I am, without a doubt, one ugly, middle-aged, outdated man. But I do have a couple of talents nobody else has. And as long as I have these talents, no matter what weird world I find myself in, I’ll survive.

But will he really survive if the happiness of the protagonists depends on him not surviving? Ushikawa keeps the novel from becoming too cut-and-dry towards its inevitable conclusion, and I felt that his sections allowed the reader to see the world of 1Q84 from the perspective of a true outsider.

Although 1Q84 is set in a time when most people went about their lives without knowing that computers existed, the novel clearly reflects the concerns of the digital age. Like George Orwell’s 1984, 1Q84 handles issues of identity formation and information control in a world that is unstable and confusing under its placid surface. Cult leaders, lines of power, rapidly shifting worldviews, and the creation and co-existence of multiple histories all factor into the novel, which ultimately questions what sort of agency an individual can have in an environment silently controlled by invisible systems. The subjective viewpoints of Aomame, Tengo, and Ushikawa allow the reader to approach this problem from different angles, and Murakami himself never seems to align his novel with any one political or philosophical perspective. Like Orwell, Murakami also exploits the dark humor implicit in any dystopian situation. For example, the NHK fee collector, who might be seen as a direct allegorical representative of Japanese postwar social control, is just as comic as he is frightening. When he positions himself outside of a victim’s door and starts ranting, his diatribes are gleefully malicious:

“Miss Takai, let’s not play hide and seek anymore, okay? I’m not doing this because I like to. Even I have a busy schedule. Miss Takai, I know you watch TV. And everyone who watches TV, without exception, has to pay the NHK subscription fee. You may not like it, but that’s the law. Not paying the fee is the same as stealing, Miss Takai, you don’t want to be treated as a thief because of something as petty as this, do you? This is a fancy building you live in, and I don’t think you will have any trouble paying the fee. Right? Hearing me proclaim this to the world can’t be much fun for you.”

And so on, and so on and so on, for pages. This character frightens and upsets the characters whenever he appears; but, as a reader, I couldn’t wait for him to show up again. Since he appears so often and at such length, I get the feeling that Murakami enjoyed writing the character as much as I enjoyed reading him.

Like most Murakami novels, 1Q84 is fairly dude-centric. The Aomame chapters alleviate the dudeliness to a certain extent; but, as Aomame is almost continually thinking about how in love with Tengo she is, the sex she wants to have with random men, and the sex she has had with other women, it’s difficult to completely separate her from her role as a female sex object and the object of Tengo’s sexual energy. Aomame may be a hard-boiled ninja assassin, but the reader is constantly reminded that she has a vagina. Then again, we hear a great deal about Tengo’s penis and scrotum, so the repeated descriptions of Aomame’s breasts and public hair may simply be par for the course in 1Q84. This is not to say that Aomame isn’t a fascinating character, but the way the author treats her is markedly different than the way he treats the Dowager (who is old, and thus not a sexual being) and Tamaru (who is gay, and thus not a sexual being).

1Q84 contains descriptions of underage rape and incest, which the text pardons and eroticizes. When Aomame is alone with the Leader of Sakigake, who is clearly guilty of child abuse, it turns out that he is not such a bad guy after all. Furthermore, he explains that, due to the workings of mysterious otherworldly beings known as “the Little People,” his body is sometimes completely paralyzed, at which point the pre-pubescent girls who attend him have sex with him. He can’t move or speak during these times; he can only ejaculate. The sexual activity is spiritual, and it is initiated by the girls. When he penetrated his ten-year-old daughter, the same thing happened: she had sex with him, and the bodies of both parties were controlled by the Little People. The reader finds out several chapters later that he is not lying, as an event occurs in which Tengo finds himself physically paralyzed and, as part of some ritual, mounted by Fuka-Eri (who at seventeen has never had her period and never developed sexually or mentally).

I’m not upset by the deviant sexual lives of fictional characters, and this is one of the more interesting and original plot devices I’ve encountered in serious literary fiction (although I can’t claim to have never seen it before in fan fiction). Still, I found the erotic descriptions of the young girls in question to be off-putting. For example, Tengo thinks Fuka-Eri’s hairless vagina is so beautiful and her lovely ears look just like her vagina and, as he thinks about the flat-chested ten-year-old Aomame while having sex with the childlike Fuka-Eri, he comes so hard and feels so good. It’s kind of gross.

There is a fair amount of sex and sexuality in 1Q84, and these themes are narrated from a perspective that is subtly yet undeniably male. To draw a parallel with a series I happened to be reading at the same time as 1Q84, in A Song of Fire and Ice, the narrative tone changes when the author switches between the perspectives of different characters. In 1Q84, it absolutely does not. The limited third-person narrator of the novel is definitely a heterosexual man, and this does not change when he narrates the story from the perspective of a female character or describes the rape of a young girl. However, I don’t think this type of narration ruins the story, and it’s quite interesting when accepted for what it is.

Issues of sex and gender aside, there’s a lot going on in this novel. The descriptions of Tokyo are wonderful. The descriptions of the suburbs and countryside surrounding Tokyo are also wonderful. The secondary characters are sympathetic and vividly portrayed. I loved Komatsu, and Ushikawa, and Professor Ebisuno, and Aomame’s friends Tamaki and Ayumi. The Dowager and Tamaru are a novel unto themselves. The allusions and parallels to political revolutionaries and religious cults in postwar and contemporary Japan are striking. The novel’s challenge to conventional notions of reality are intriguing. The connections between Murakami’s 1Q84 and Orwell’s 1984 (and in particular the transformation of “Big Brother” into “the Little People”) are fascinating.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, if you’re not a fan of Murakami’s writing, 1Q84 won’t change your opinion. The Murakami tropes established by his earlier novels – disappearing women, unsolvable mysteries, perpetually loose plot threads, passive protagonists, close descriptions of genitalia, endless references to jazz records, men cooking alone in sad bachelor kitchens – all appear in force in this novel, which is more of the same, except further up and further in.

If you haven’t read 1Q84 yet, then you definitely have something to look forward to. It’s an incredible novel that will give you the sort of reading experience that the word “spellbound” was created for. This a book that will make you wish your two-hour jog on the treadmill, your fourteen-hour plane ride, or your week-long illness were actually longer. Since 1Q84 will consume your life until you’re done with it, it might be good to save it for an occasion when you can take some time off so that real life doesn’t get in the way of this book.

By the way, the cover image I used for this review was designed by Cory Schmitz.

Hear the Wind Sing

Title: Hear the Wind Sing
Japanese Title: 風の歌を聴け (Kaze no uta o kike)
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Translator: Alfred Birnbaum
Publication Year: 1979 (in Japanese); 1987 (in translation)
Publisher: Kodansha English Library (講談社英語文庫)
Pages: 130 (plus 15 pages of translation notes)

I love A Wild Sheep Chase. The narrator’s daily life in Tokyo, the narrator’s sojourn in Hokkaido, the mystery of the sheep, and the philosophical musings on genius and individuality all come together into an interesting and compelling story. There’s this one weird bit, though, after the narrator leaves Tokyo but before he reaches Sapporo. This is the chapter describing the narrator’s visit to a place called J’s Bar. He doesn’t visit J’s Bar in real time; rather, he remembers having visited it in the past. J’s Bar, we learn, is where he and a character called “the Rat” used to drink when they were younger. I always felt that there was something about the narrator’s relationship to the Rat and J’s Bar that Murakami wasn’t telling us. As a result, this short, atemporal section connecting Tokyo and Hokkaido felt disjointed and out of place. Perhaps the reason it felt this way to me is because I had never read Murakami’s earlier novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973. A Wild Sheep Chase is part of a tetralogy (which is concluded by Dance Dance Dance), so it only makes sense that I would be missing something by having started in the middle.

Hear the Wind Sing is a short I-novel in the style of Shiga Naoya, by which I mean that it involves a young man who wanders around aimlessly while thinking about how pointless his life is. I don’t mean to imply that the novel isn’t worth reading, because it certainly is. There just isn’t much of a plot. The narrator, who is a college student majoring in biology, has returned from Tokyo to his hometown by the sea for the summer. He spends his days chilling out and his nights drinking in a small, run-down pub called J’s Bar. J is a middle-aged Chinese man who has befriended the narrator and his drinking buddy, a young college dropout nicknamed the Rat (“Nezumi”). One night, the narrator goes to the bathroom in J’s Bar and finds a young woman passed out on the floor. He gets her address from her purse, takes her home, puts her to bed, and then falls asleep in her apartment. The novel meanders between the sporadic interactions between the narrator and this woman, about whom neither the narrator nor the reader ever learns much before she disappears forever. Between these interactions, the narrator briefly reflects on his past romantic relationships and thinks about writing and literature, which he discusses with the Rat. The story is bookended at its beginning and end by sustained discussions of Derek Heartfield, a (fictitious) early twentieth-century writer of speculative fiction whose life and work, the narrator concludes, showed promise but ultimately went nowhere.

Hear the Wind Sing is a short novel, and it feels even shorter because of its frequent chapter breaks (about once every four or five pages) and frequent page breaks within chapters. There’s no real pattern to the narration, which includes conversations, reminiscences, literary speculation, song lyrics, and a bit of linear storytelling. Despite this lack of cohesion, everything flows together nicely, and the way that the main themes of the novel (such as the inability of any one person to really know any other person) are elliptically approached is fairly effective. The narrative voice contains far more humor than self-pity and keeps the reader moving easily through the novel. This narrative voice is broken a few times by the insertion of the voice of a radio rock station DJ, who has some of the best passages in the whole book. Such a fragmented narrative style effectively captures the experience of being a college student at home for the summer, moving through the days without a clear sense of purpose and half-heartedly wondering what the future will bring. There’s no grand mystery of the sort that forms the core of A Wild Sheep Chase, but the narrator is same amiable personality who sees the world through a perceptive yet detached perspective. If you can get your hands on this book (which is fairly easy to do at major Japanese bookstores or through Amazon.co.jp), it’s a quick and enjoyable read, especially for fans of Murakami’s writing style. Birnbaum’s translation notes at the end of the book are also a nice treat for people who are interested in that sort of thing.

Nemuri

Title: ねむり (Nemuri)
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Illustrations: Kat Menschik
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: Shinchōsha
Pages: 95

Every once in awhile, someone will ask me for advice on how to start reading literature in Japanese.

…Okay, I’m just kidding. No one has ever asked me that.

But I wish someone would, because then I could tell them about how Murakami Haruki is one of the easiest Japanese writers to read in the original Japanese language. His critics have said of him that reading his writing is like reading American English translated into Japanese. I think that’s supposed to be a bad thing; but, if you’re a reader of American English without a lot of experience reading Japanese, that sort of “translated” style is a godsend. Murakami’s sentences are relatively short and don’t have an unmanageable number of clauses, his paragraphs begin and end in reasonable places, the reader can easily differentiate between subject and object, his usage of idiom is generally familiar to someone who speaks English, and – best of all – he doesn’t use all sorts of crazy, high-level kanji.

This is not to say that Murakami’s style or stories are childish and simplistic. Rather, Murakami has a unique style, and that style is very accessible to people used to reading American English. Murakami’s system of allusive references should also be familiar to anyone who has grown up outside of Japan and has a passing familiarity with cultural figures from John Lennon to John Irving. I don’t mean to suggest that Murakami’s writing is some sort of hodgepodge amalgamation of Western culture, though, as his imagery and analogies and narrative structures are definitely his own.

Another nice thing about Murakami Haruki is that he has written a ton of short stories. These short stories have been collected into small, inexpensive books like Barn Burning and The Second Bakery Attack, but single stories are occasionally published individually in larger hardcover editions. “Nemuri” (translated as “Sleep” in The Elephant Vanishes) is one of those stories. It was originally published in 1989 in the collection TV People; but, when the German publisher DuMont issued an edition of the story with illustrations by Kat Menschik, Murakami edited and updated the story so that a similar art book quality edition could be published in Japan. Such an edition was published, obviously, and it’s gorgeous.

The story itself is interesting as well. The female first-person narrator once experienced a bout of insomnia in college, but she got over it and went on to marry a dentist and become a housewife. After having a kid and living with her family for several years, the protagonist’s life has fallen into a pattern of comfortable routine. One night, however, she experiences a terrifying case of sleep paralysis and wakes up to find that she is no longer has any physical urge to sleep. She tries to go back to bed, but she is simply not tired. She therefore pours herself a glass of brandy and begins reading Anna Karenina. The next night, she’s still not tired, so she continues not to sleep while staying up all night reading. Two nights turn into two weeks, and the narrator’s thoughts range from her daily life to the value of literature to how sleep works to the nature of life itself. Eventually, her musings on life turn into musings on death, and the narrative tension mounts until the story reaches and strange and disturbing conclusion.

Despite its unaffected language and seemingly flat surface, Nemuri possesses a very literary flavor and rewards slow and careful reading. Kat Menschik’s surreal and striking illustrations, which are loosely based on the text, offer another layer of possible meaning and interpretation. If you’re looking for a good place to start reading Japanese literature, then, I would venture that Nemuri is as good of a place to start as any. The Japanese characters are clear and sharp and large enough to read easily, the textual layout isn’t too dense on the page, and there are enough chapter breaks and illustrations so that even the slowest reader will feel as if she is making good progress through the book. The meta-textual elements implicit in the discussions of Anna Karenina are oddly motivating for the reader as a reader, and the story itself is fantastic and compelling. The whole package is just about perfect. Even if you’ve already read the story in TV People, it’s still worth picking up a copy of Nemuri if you see it on your next trip to a Japanese bookstore.

Digital Geishas and Talking Frogs

Title: Digitial Geishas and Talking Frogs:
The Best 21st Century Short Stories from Japan
Editor: Helen Mitsios
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Cheng & Tsui
Pages: 240

Digitial Geishas starts off slow. Pico Iyer’s introduction to the collection is breezy (“When guidance comes in this anthology, it comes only from a six-foot tall frog; many characters in these tales are weirdly passive, just killing time until a tsunami, a pregnancy or two dangerously seductive girls appear on the horizon to shake them out of their stupor”) and even more disconnected and fragmented than the travel writer’s usual style. The opening piece, “The Floating Forest,” is boring, even though it’s written by Kirino Natsuo, a writer of psychological thrillers whose work is usually anything but boring. I suppose Kirino’s story about a daughter of a famous writer is meant to establish a theme of breaking away from the past and emerging into a new century, but it’s still rambling and tedious. The next story, Toshiyuki Horie’s “The Bonfire,” is like one last look back over our shoulders at “old Japan” and the remnants of its traditions of “pure” literature.

And then things start to get interesting.

“Ikebukuro West Gate Park” is a selection from Ishida Ira’s series of novels by the same name (which have been translated into French), and it’s awesome. The story is reminiscent of the anime series Durarara!! in its colorful urban setting, its cast of interesting and multifaceted characters, and its use of social networking and bizarre crime as plot devices. This story has everything – youth culture, counter-culture, underground culture, and literary culture – and its English translation is worth the price of the entire book just by itself.

The stories that follow it are equally fascinating. Murakami Haruki’s “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo” is a perfect example of the author’s trademark magical realism, Shimada Masahiko’s “The Diary of a Mummy” chronicles suicide through starvation from a first-person perspective, Ogawa Yōko’s “The Sea” is all sorts of strange and creepy and touching and brilliant, and Tsujihara Noboru’s “My Slightly Crooked Brooch,” in which a woman consents to her husband’s affair, is a lovely tale of obsession with the perfect twist ending.

Overall, I really enjoyed reading the stories in Digital Geishas, which showcases a fairly wide range of authors, who are all (with the possible exception of Kirino) flattered by the editor’s choice of their work. Although the subject matter of the stories contained within this volume is broad, the general tone of the anthology is far more literary than its title suggests. Finally, Helen Mitsios has done an excellent job not only with the selection of stories but also with the way they flow from one to another, and the individual translations have been edited to maintain a cohesive yet unobtrusive “house style” that still manages to show off the individual writing style of each author. In short, Digital Geishas contains a good batch of stories that have benefited from solid editing. This book is a wonderful follow-up to Mitsio’s earlier compilation, New Japanese Voices.

Review copy provided by Cheng & Tsui.