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December 5, 2010 7:58 PM   Subscribe

Haruki Murakami talks about fiction in the 21st century. Part of the International Herald Tribune Magazine's year-end issue, 2011: Global Agenda.

Previously: 1 2 3
posted by azarbayejani (36 comments total) 53 users marked this as a favorite

 
"Let’s call the world we actually have now Reality A and the world that we might have had if 9/11 had never happened Reality B. Then we can’t help but notice that the world of Reality B appears to be realer and more rational than the world of Reality A. To put it in different terms, we are living a world that has an even lower level of reality than the unreal world."

Typically fascinating Murakami line of thought.

This somehow captures the sense I've had over the last ten years that information technology has stripped away the comforting facade of comprehensibility from the world. The chaotic sea of phenomena is flooding into our homes through liquid crystal windows.
posted by jet_manifesto at 8:17 PM on December 5, 2010 [16 favorites]


It is worth emphasizing that the NYT piece was translated by Jay Rubin, who has translated many of Murakami's best-known works.

Here's an interesting exchange about translating Murakami into English, involving Rubin and others.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 8:21 PM on December 5, 2010 [7 favorites]


More important is for us to determine whether, inside us, the variable elements and the traditional elements are moving forward in harmony with each other, to determine whether individual stories and the communal stories inside us are joined at the root.
....
To transform the things and events around us into the metaphor of the story form and to suggest the true nature of the situation in the dynamism of that substitution: that is story’s most important function.


That oft quoted phrase about art being lies that point at a greater truth is very well elaborated here - he's talking about the issue of the role of the storyteller in helping people interpret and navigate their world for themselves, by finding the right way to ask questions through story.

In a larger sense, this is the issue of worldwide culture wars right now- people trying to repeat old propaganda to hold onto passing eras, people trying to indoctrinate others into their chosen old stories and displace the ones they had, and then the people just trying to make new stories altogether.

I guess the question will be where people accept the repackaged old stories or go for the genuinely new ones along the way. ("New" can also be complete re-interpretations of old ones, as well...)
posted by yeloson at 9:01 PM on December 5, 2010


I've been looking into Murakami for a little while now and this just makes me want to read his books even more- but I'm not sure which one to read first. What do you guys suggest?
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 9:26 PM on December 5, 2010


"Until now, my novels could be seen in 20th-century terms, that is, to be entering their minds through such doorways as “post-modernism” or “magic realism” or “Orientalism”; but from around the time that people welcomed the new century, they gradually began to remove the framework of such “isms” and accept the worlds of my stories more nearly as-is.
[...]
An acute difficulty brought about by such a comprehensive process of realignment is the loss — if only temporarily — of coordinate axes with which to form standards of evaluation. Such axes were there until now, functioning as reliable bases on which to measure the value of things. They sat at the head of the table as the paterfamilias of values, deciding what conformed and what did not. Now we wake up to find that not only the head of the household but the table itself has vanished. All around us, it appears, things have been — or are being — swallowed up by chaos.
[...]
In that sense, at the same time that fiction (story) is presently undergoing a severe test, it possesses an unprecedented opportunity. Of course fiction has always been assigned responsibility and questions to deal with in every age, but surely the responsibility and questions are especially great now. Story has a function that it alone can perform, and that is to “turn everything into a story.” To transform the things and events around us into the metaphor of the story form and to suggest the true nature of the situation in the dynamism of that substitution: that is story’s most important function."

I love Murakami to pieces and am no fan of the "isms", but far from being a manifesto for a new realignment, much of this reads a bit like something Woolf or Pound could have written in 1928. Even more than "post-modernism," it sounds like straight "modernism": it's hard to think of a major modernist novel that wasn't about "the loss ... of coordinate axes", the overthrow of the "paterfamilias," and the encroachment of "chaos." The last paragraph I quoted tends a bit more in the post-modern direction, but those two isms are arguably not very different anyway. I don't have much stake in whether he's doing something fundamentally new or not in his stories -- I love them nevertheless -- but it's interesting to see that even the smartest and most independent artists have a hard time getting away from, if not the ism-terminology, then the mental frameworks they offer.

But I sure am looking forward to IQ84 now, "which in Japanese is pronounced the same as 1984."
posted by chortly at 9:31 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


What do you guys suggest?

Actually, if you like a well-written story about an introverted man whose wife leaves him under mysterious circumstances, who then makes a dinner of pasta and drinks one can of beer while watching television, and then makes friends with a teenage girl, and has a meeting with his wife's creepy brother, then you could read any of his books.
posted by ovvl at 9:48 PM on December 5, 2010 [37 favorites]


The Elephant Vanishes, BuddhaInABucket.
posted by clockzero at 10:01 PM on December 5, 2010


I wonder if some of the difference in Western vs. Asian readers' approach to Murakami's work is just a by-product of his books being published in translation. In goodnewsfortheinsane's link Jay Rubin says that before he read any Murakami, he knew about him in Japan "as some kind of pop writer, mounds of whose stuff were to be seen filling up the front counters in the bookstores." In the US, Murakami just isn't "pop culture" in that kind of way. In fact, I think that any novel in translation is automatically viewed as more "literary" than the average non-translated novel.* Thus you're getting readers who are primed to use the "-ism" lens, perhaps more than in Japan.



*A particularly memorable case for me is Carlos Ruiz Zafon--I read the first chapter of "The Shadow of the Wind" in Spanish, and didn't find it anything special, so I put it down. It was later translated into English and marketed as amazing, although in Argentina it just felt like the standard really hyped up novel of the moment.
posted by matematichica at 10:02 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


What do you guys suggest?

Murakami has a lot of work that varies in form and subject, so it's hard to pick a single work that is representative, but I'll offer a few:

Kafka by the Shore is a relatively accessible, philosophical tale of a journey and a man who can talk to cats.

Norwegian Wood is a nostalgic tale of love and music in 1960s Japan.

and Underground offers a fascinating view of contemporary cults, as a collection of interviews with both the perpetrators and the victims of the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo metro by members of Aum Shinrikyo.

My personal favorite, though, is still Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which is a mind-bending metaphysical work involving interlocking realities and a Tokyo underground teeming with sinister kappa.
posted by jet_manifesto at 10:18 PM on December 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


jet_manifesto- I went to click 'best answer' and realized this is not, in fact, my AskMe thread. Thanks!
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 10:22 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yeah, it's not the best answer, though, because this is the best answer: you should read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle first. It's like not quite anything else.
posted by mr_roboto at 10:37 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


I second mr_roboto's recommendation. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was the first Murakami book I read, and it remains my very favorite.
posted by marlys at 10:44 PM on December 5, 2010 [6 favorites]


the wind up bird chronicle is sort of like bohemian rhapsody by queen - if someone said "what's this queen band all about" - you'd show them bohemian rhapsody. it might not be the best, but it's the one most instantly related to queen and everything they were known for.

so, yes, i enjoyed both hardboiled and kafka by the shore more, but i'd still suggest you read the wind-up bird chronicle first.

(and, if you're like me - you'll read it after a horrific breakup while living in your best friend's apartment, drinking a suitcase of shitty beer every night, smoking weed, and reading for hours at a time. it helps to be ever so slightly crazy when being introducted to murakami)
posted by nadawi at 10:46 PM on December 5, 2010 [4 favorites]


I think, at least in translation, Murakami's language has not built itself the proper dwelling to house his thoughts, and by using old materials his new home for literature will appear similar.

When he discusses the juxtapositions of reality he seems closest to disclosing his meaning, but he doesn't help himself (or his translator doesn't) when he gives an overly academic and prolix definition of literature:

To transform the things and events around us into the metaphor of the story form and to suggest the true nature of the situation in the dynamism of that substitution

Storytelling gives (a humanizing) narrative (or interpretation) to "reality". Perhaps my simplification misstates his thought, but his sentence is far from clear. Part of the entire pieces perspective is the long weary look at anything as reality yet acceptance that there is this and not that and yet this can be framed so many ways as to be nearly that. See, language fails me too.

This small article isn't a groundbreaking manifesto but I think it is another little piece of raw thought which will eventually be rendered into the new century's literature.
posted by Shit Parade at 10:50 PM on December 5, 2010


Second the wind-up bird chronicles, and by coincidence i was also going through a shitty break up, drinking beer on a road trip with my best friend/cockolder. Yeah, rough-beautiful times inside a central Mexico hot-spring cave looking through a peephole at the full moon.
posted by Shit Parade at 10:56 PM on December 5, 2010


It's like not quite anything else.

Lol, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, is, indeed like something else; namely every frigging book Murakami has written since.

Buddha, imho his earlier work is stronger than his later work, which tends to be more a retread. But then again, I suspect a person's favourite book by Murakami will always be the one they read first. The experience of my friends and I is that further readings of Murakami don't stack so well.

For what it's worth, my favourites are The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Sputnick Sweetheart, Underground, and Hardboiled Wonderland and The End of the World.

If you want a short read to get a taste of his stuff The Elephant Vanishes or Sputnick Sweetheart are both good, short, examples.

ovvl, you forgot the handjobs. It's not a Murakami book without the handjobs.
posted by smoke at 10:57 PM on December 5, 2010 [2 favorites]


At some point I stopped liking Murakami - then I realised the older books are translated by Birnbaum and the newer ones by Rubin. I wish he hadn't switched.
posted by dickasso at 1:26 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I wonder if some of the difference in Western vs. Asian readers' approach to Murakami's work is just a by-product of his books being published in translation. In goodnewsfortheinsane's link Jay Rubin says that before he read any Murakami, he knew about him in Japan "as some kind of pop writer, mounds of whose stuff were to be seen filling up the front counters in the bookstores." In the US, Murakami just isn't "pop culture" in that kind of way. In fact, I think that any novel in translation is automatically viewed as more "literary" than the average non-translated novel.* Thus you're getting readers who are primed to use the "-ism" lens, perhaps more than in Japan.

This is insightful and I agree with it, basically, but it is a little off. The attitude towards Murakami in Japan isn't like the attitude towards, say, Stephen King in the US. It's more like... ooh... Jonathan Safran Foer or Mark Lethem, or even Bret Easton Ellis. By which I mean, his fans don't feel the need to mount an aggressive defense along the lines of "It's just a story, forget your book-learnin' and pull up a seat by the campfire!", and even his serious critics don't accuse him of not writing literature qua literature. Instead, his critics accuse him of writing shallow literature, literature that doesn't bear close examination and relies too heavily on surface and Zeitgeist to be truly long-lasting. That his fascination with consumerism doesn't mask, or for that matter reveal, anything other than the fact of consumerism. That his characters' passivity may help his work evoke the swirling malaise of the age, but it doesn't invoke them as people in the mind of the reader.

It's also important that in Japan he does a lot of high-profile translation projects (Carver, Fitzgerald, Salinger) and that this definitely separates him from an airport thriller writer as well.

My personal feeling is that his greatest work will indeed stand the test of time... but you have to go back more than 20 years to find anything I would put in the "greatest" or even "great" category.
posted by No-sword at 2:04 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Apparently someone's made Norwegian Wood into a film.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:24 AM on December 6, 2010


mr_roboto: Yeah, it's not the best answer, though, because this is the best answer: you should read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle first. It's like not quite anything else.

Oh no, you definitely should not read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle first. You should start with one of his shorter works. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is a kind of Japanese national epic and it's crazy and weird and really needs the reader to have trust in the author or else it's easy to get lost.

The books I recommend usually when people ask me depends on who asks. If the person's generally into realistic fiction, I recommend Norwegian Wood. If they're more into the fantastic, the magical realist, I suggest The Wild Sheep Chase, and if they come from a science-fiction background I point them towards Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

After reading one of those, reading Wind-up Bird makes a lot more sense.

For what it's worth, I started off reading Wild Sheep Chase, and even though I probably would've recommended Hardboiled Wonderland based on my then reading habits, I really loved Wild Sheep Chase. I then read Wind-up Bird. There were moments where my trust for Murakami as a writer kept me from throwing my hands up in the air. Wind-up Bird is a masterpiece, but it makes heavy demands on its reader.
posted by Kattullus at 3:46 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


>Whether this was a change for the good or a less welcome change, I am in no position to judge.

This vein of "non-commiticism" is somewhat more attractive when in comes from a Murakami narrator, IMO, rather than Murakami himself. Go ahead and judge, f'r crying out loud. You're Murakami now, not a sheepish protagonist like Toru Okada.

Despite this criticism, with "1Q84"--the first volume of which is to be released in English next year--Murakami seems to be closing in on his apex as a novelist. Stylistically, it's brilliant. It's also epic in length (in Japanese)--three 500 page volumes, with future volumes presumably waiting in the wings. It's full of classic Murakami themes, too (possibly off-putting to readers hoping for new territory).

It's a seven-year effort, composed during the author's training regimen of 6-mile-per-day runs, swims, and bike rides, not to mention numerous marathons and triathalons. The arduous athleticism of the 61-year-old Murakami is little-known outside of Japan, but it's an integral part of his life.

English-reading fans of Murakami are going to be thrilled when "1Q84" is out.
posted by Gordion Knott at 4:04 AM on December 6, 2010


I like The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and Sputnik Sweetheart. I also like After Dark. I really hated the end of Hard-Boiled Wonderland, but I think endings are Murakami's weakest area, so that may just be me.
posted by GenjiandProust at 6:55 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Mark Lethem?
posted by shakespeherian at 7:16 AM on December 6, 2010


I agree with GenjiandProust: I always felt Murakami embodies the "it's the journey, not the destination" kind of writing. Murakami novels don't neatly wrap up, they kind of just halt. I think Norwegian Wood is the only one of his books I've read that I felt closed perfectly, but with the others, I enjoyed the journey too much to be seriously annoyed at the ending.
posted by simen at 7:31 AM on December 6, 2010


The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle remains my favorite book in the history of books. And I've read a lot of books.

I generally enjoy Murakami, but after Wind-Up Bird, Kafka on the Shore felt "meh" to me and After Dark was just a colossal disappointment. Hardboiled Wonderland didn't disappoint and was an amazingly epic mindfuck. Loved it. I read Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase before Wind-Up Bird and I'm not sure how they would hold up in my own post-Wind-Up mentality. Have yet to find out.
posted by sonika at 7:32 AM on December 6, 2010


...composed during the author's training regimen of 6-mile-per-day runs, swims, and bike rides, not to mention numerous marathons and triathalons. The arduous athleticism of the 61-year-old Murakami is little-known outside of Japan, but it's an integral part of his life.

Wow, crazy. So that's what he talks about when he talks about running.
posted by meandthebean at 7:41 AM on December 6, 2010


The Wind up Bird Chronicles is like a David Lynch movie without the gruesomeness. It feels like a dream that you almost can understand but ultimately can't. Appropriately, I had the same response to his essay. But I suspect I'm not as smart as he is.
posted by angrycat at 8:13 AM on December 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Here's a question I've been wondering for a while: is Murakami Japan's Douglas Coupland?
posted by ErikaB at 10:04 AM on December 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Do you mean as in 'Canada's Douglas Coupland' Douglas Coupland or 'America's Douglas Coupland' Douglas Coupland? Or would he be a 'Douglas Coupland's Douglas Coupland' Douglas Coupland?
posted by Kattullus at 10:37 AM on December 6, 2010


Well, Canada's Douglas Coupland, of course, unless he's moved to the States and I didn't notice?
posted by ErikaB at 12:01 PM on December 6, 2010




Here's a question I've been wondering for a while: is Murakami Japan's Douglas Coupland?


Ugh. But Murakami isn't a self-absorbed hack still riding his late 80s/early 90s success, and writing to a wave of CBC listening thirty-somethings so caught up in their ipods and dinner table conversations about post-consumer-life that they've forgotten what the real world looks like, or that it's even out there.
posted by Stagger Lee at 2:31 PM on December 6, 2010


Wow, crazy. So that's what he talks about when he talks about running.

Just in case any non-Murakami fans missed the reference.

Like several others on this thread Hardboiled Wonderland was my fist Murakami book, but jet_manifesto basically summed up my recommendations - definitely start with something a bit shorter than Wind Up Bird.
posted by robertc at 2:59 PM on December 6, 2010


In fact, I think that any novel in translation is automatically viewed as more "literary" than the average non-translated novel.*

I think this also depends on the number of books that are translated. Three percent of the total in the U.S. makes for a very different perception than the one created by the 44% of translated books in Greece.

As for Zafon, I had the same impression for The Angel's Game when I was in Spain. There were plenty of literary references in the book, which I guess accounted for the way it was received by reviewers, but his "cinematic way" of writing feels at times to be lacking depth. At least he gives interesting interviews.
posted by ersatz at 3:24 AM on December 7, 2010


angrycat: "The Wind up Bird Chronicles is like a David Lynch movie without the gruesomeness"

Perhaps you skipped that section set in Manchuria.
posted by Cogito at 2:10 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh yeah there was that part about Manchuria.
But in the present day stuff there's this feeling of gloom and dread that is very Lynchian, but it doesn't really pay off in a sort of (fuck me what was that gross holy shit) David Lynch sense.
posted by angrycat at 8:03 PM on December 7, 2010


Just in case any non-Murakami fans missed the reference.

And just in case anyone tempted by his fiction wants to read it: seriously, don't bother. What's he's describing is impressive (he runs a lot; his discipline is admirable and his philosophy on running is inspiring), but the prose itself--at least in English--comes off as "hey, my publisher needed another book and I had these diaries that had words in them, I guess."
posted by kittyprecious at 7:23 PM on December 12, 2010


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