Friday, February 17, 2006

I read this last week

and loved it, but wasn't near a computer to link at the time: so belatedly, if you haven't read it already, let me commend to your attention a really lovely story about names and love and monkeys, Haruki Murakami's "A Shinagawa Monkey" in the New Yorker.


  1. I always find people's love of murakami somewhat strange, and their reverence for him as a consummate japanese master even stranger. His aesthetic and writing style is tpp minimalist for my tastes, being a Nabokov lover. I like ellipticalness, ellison, grandiosity, and all that bell-letterst delectation and decadence of style, word-play and indirection. Copious circumlocuation and pollysylabbic paraphraiss all the way. I'm wonefing though --- there must be somethig about his simpliciyt that people find appealilng. HEsse is a writer with an Easten influence who comes to mind whose style seems to be a happpy medium between the verbal pryotehnics of Nabokov and the lingusitic retrenchments and modesty of Murakami. What do you think?

  2. I don't think my reverence for Murakami is as a "consummate japanese master"; what I like is how American-hardboiled-but-tinted-with-the-magical his books are. I associate him a bit with a writer like Jonathan Carroll, or as if you could cross Neil Gaiman with Raymond Chandler and get this great steeped-in-rock-and-roll urban mysterious thing. I tend fairly minimalist, though, in my prose-style taste; and I think that the writers we end up reading a lot of in translation here in the U.S. do also tend minimalist because it translates better/more easily (look at these recent popular European crime fiction imports like Fred Vargas or Henning Mankell). Victor Pelevin is a writer I love--OMON RA seems to me spectacularly good, and I like his others too--and yet precisely because he is a more verbal pyrotechnic-type writer I think he is never going to have the huge following that someone like Murakami has. However this is all pure speculation (and Pelevin is surely the best-known of that whole generation of Russian writers, so I am not suggesting that he hasn't made his mark in other languages than Russian).

    Oh, and I'm fond of Nabokov, not so fond of Hesse (I see a kind of intellectual grandiosity in Hesse I don't warm to; but then again it's a long time since I read him, so I shouldn't make pronouncements).

  3. As I know of only Chandler, I can't comment on the range of suggested comparisons you make. All I do know is that of the Japanese writers who have come out in the last 50 years, the only one with the philosophical depth, the fatality, the doom-saying and prophesizing portent that I associate with a great apocalyptic intensity is Mishima. There was a rigorous, militant, razon-like aesthetic purifying every word of his and charging his writing as it progressed from diffident adolescence to self-proclaimed redeemer of his people, with less thoughtfulness, less triviality, and replaced instead with a self-reproachfulness and near hatefulness for whimsy, a zeal to bring about change, to cut all childishness out of his way of thinking, all laziness, laxity, even humanism was exempt from his newfound doctrine of self-denial and scourging of the unimportant. In contrast, Murakami has a kind of sundry, domestic air hovering over everything he says, it's cute, it's coy, it's observant and watchful of the small and the odd: it comes in trickles, not in torrents. His stories are about essentially normal people, with problems, yes, but there is never psychosis, there isn't the underbelly or the dark-side, no body is seething with wrath, people aren't mutilating each other, there isn't perversity, at least in the strictest sense, or pathology or sickness --- there isn't a sense that a revolution is going to come, a real upsurge or piling up of dramatic conceit. As someone who adores Joyce Carol Oates, Dostoyveski, the psychological realists and the apocolyptic visionaries, Murakami never seems to me to be ambitious enough. Norman Mailer is another writer who's mystical, one might even say magical in his sexual mythos which he uses to explain general truths about reality, but he does so in an aggressive, polemical, messianic way: god and devils,evil and good, he doesn't hide the fact that he aims to make his books playgrounds for cosmic tumult. Someone who wants to squeeze the world into a book --- Balzacian, Melvillian : that's what I don't sense in Murakami, which makes his fiction seem more serviceable to everyday needs, to everyday problems, and pleasant reading, but I've attempted one of his novels, and coming out of it I didn't feel the catharsis or felt like I saw God or gained wisdom or grew another intellectual foot. You seem a lot more open-minded than me and maybe don't expect every aesthetic or literary experience to be epiphanic, but I do. It's my drug and needs to be euphorically powerful, in a purgative way, to wash away grossness, ill-will, dark-feelings or vague emotional paranoia, to give me some way to channel all my own problems and explode them outward in a contained, private way. Murkami doesn't seem to offer that upheaval-ing (permit me the invention) electricity. However, I will admit that as long as it is satire, gross, overblown, almost baffoonish or caricaturish satire, with a gigantism of conceit, with absurd, cock-eyed,bewildering plots (Amis for example who vacillates between a Nabokovian compulsiveness towards overrefined elegance as per the British humoristic tendancy and short, sardonic, dismissiveness, motivated by this kind of bizarre self-conconsciousness and need to cut back the hyperintellectual throttle, is equally expert at both), then the use of dead-pan, staccato rhythms and a kind of British terseness or sharp brevity, seems to work: this is minimalism somewhat denatured. As for saying you regarded Murakami as a consummate master, I'm sorry for the hyperbole - but so much of what you write comes out in superlatives when you like something, that it's very difficult for me to discriminate between mere high praise, a sudden effusion or flush of enthusiasm, etc. and just pure idolatry. You seem to have dozens of writers you love and think are amazing and great and who write fantastic things. That's wonderful. I really do wish I had your kind of starry-eyedness and fan-like giddiness when you come across a great read. Again, it's more my problem than anything, because clearly I came off as presumptuous!!! Nevertheless, I wasn't intending to be contentious.

    ps I guess at this point you can see why I love Hesse!

  4. Yes, I do see!

    I'm not sure why I fall so easily into hyperbolic language when I talk about books, except that it does seem to be the best way of evoking the intense but also rather eclectic pleasure of reading. I think I am drawn to Murakami's modesty (I don't know that I would put myself in the camp of his idolaters, he is definitely a writer with a really passionate following and I am not in the hard-core group), though I have found certain books of his revelatory (I love "A Wild Sheep Chase" for instance, that's the first one I read and still definitely my favorite). I think I am less inclined than you sound to seek epiphany or life-changing revelation in my reading, though, and one of the things I find myself more & more aware of is the appeal of experiencing or indeed evaluating each book I read by the criteria it seems to set for itself, so that the beautifully constructed small-scale noir novel will likely elicit from me a very similar reaction to the (oh, what's a good example) far more intense and Balzacian/Melvillian read like Jonathan Lethem's "The Fortress of Solitude," which I thought was a remarkable book of a different order than the novels I daily find (oh dear, I must revamp my terminology) lovely or delightful or whatever it is. Hmmm... food for thought... but I suppose in the end I am an evangelist for the pleasures of reading more than for any particular author or kind of book.