Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What Makes Murakami Addicting?

I was in a weird mood the other night, and so didn't want to continue reading You Don't Love Me Yet (Lethem's excellent rock and art and love novel), so, in anticipation of IQ84, I blew the dust off of Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and lost myself in the first two chapters. I mean, seriously lost myself: I stayed up way too late because I got lost in that Murakami groove.

This morning, I pondered: what is it about his writing that is so mesmerizing? I mean, it's not like his prose is anything unique; on the contrary, some of the descriptions are so bland that they verge on cliche. For instance:
"An old, brown, withered Christmas tree stood in the corner of one garden. Another had become the dumping ground for every toy known to man, the apparent leavings of several childhoods. There were tricycles and toss rings and plastic swords and rubber dolls and tortoise dolls and little baseball bats. One garden had a basketball hoop, and another had fine lawn chairs surrounding a ceramic table." p.13
There are portions of his novels that just go on and on like this. In fact, to me his uninspiring novels (I'm looking at you, Dance Dance Dance) border on boring for this very reason. What I think it is is that this familiarity of prose (can't think of a better way to put it) really puts you in the mindset of his typical protagonist, a "boring" male in his 30s who is a bit of a stranger to himself, into routines, etc. This sucks you into a certain ordered mindset, and the bizarre events start occurring - and they do! - the juxtaposition is that much more jarring. You see this in great effect in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, where the "normal" chapters are interspersed with the "fantasy" chapters and while they tell completely different stories, the manner of telling is exactly the same.

This is a long way of saying that to me, it's really the plot of his novels that is so engaging. Bizarre occurrences and complete normality live side by side with no real explanation and after a while just start to make sense in a strange way. Think "Johnny Walker" and "Colonel Sanders" in Kafka on the Shore and how they fit into the novel. Critics writing about Murakami bandy about labels like "dream-like" and "magical realism" (which always makes me think of "Latin" authors (think Gabriel García Márquez) but I think what Murakami is trying to do is different - it's more subtle, subconscious, and ironic. And I just can't get enough of it!

In just the first chapter of TWUBC, the narrator is called multiple times by someone who wants to talk dirty to him and exclaims that "Ten minutes... is all we need to understand each other." He makes spaghetti and listens to Rossini and tells us about his lost cat and boring job. He falls asleep in the yard of a 16-year old girl who puts him to sleep by whispering about "the lump of death... something round and squishy, like a softball, with a hard little core of dead nerves. I want to take it out of a dead person and cut it open and look inside. I always wonder what it's like." p. 20

This type of writing combines the boring and cliche with the bizarre and unlikely, and presents it all equivalently. Most of his writing is ambiguous, as if the author himself wasn't entirely sure what it all means. To foax like me, who loves to try and fill in the blanks, it's a heady brew.

Cross Posted at Reading, Running and Red Sox.

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