Friday, August 18, 2006

The Place That Is No Place

Scattered, inconclusive thoughts on the novels of Haruki Murakami

"Sometimes I wonder what I'm looking for. I have my own mysterious space in myself. It's a dark space. It's a basement and I enter it when I'm writing. It's a very special door for me. The things in that space might be the things I lost along the way. I don't know. It must be a kind of sorrow."
Haruki Murakami

Towards the end of the Japanese contemporary novelist Haruki Murakami’s seminal work from the late 80s’, Norwegian Wood, the embattled protagonist, a young man referred to as Watanabe, calls a girlfriend from a pay phone. He’s reconnecting with her again after a long period of aimless wandering. This young man has been through a lot: several of the people he had been closest with in his short life are now dead, by their own hands. But now she has answered his call and the possibility exists that they will see each other soon. Yet even though he is talking to her in a public location, the young man reflects that, in fact, he has arrived at “no place”. And that “no place” is where his journey – or at least, what we know of it – ends.

I was reading this novel recently and the bleakness of that scene resonated with me for several days. There was something about how when the story ended, the young man obviously still had something to turn to – the young woman he had called – but there was a sense that whatever she had to give him was not going to be what he needed. Even though she was within reach, he would still be lost, and he seemed to know it.

As I was thinking about this, I also happened to be listening a lot to a song by the great folk artist John Gorka from his new record, called Writing in the Margins. The song is called “Broken Place”, and it’s one of the most interesting if quite poignant and pithy examinations of wherever it is that artists – musicians, writers, visual artists – really draw their best work from that I’ve heard in a long time. As Gorka suggests, it may well be from the bleakest empty space inside of them:

“That beautiful broken place
That well of endless sorrow
Forever and a day
Sing like there’s no tomorrow…”

I think whatever this “no place” or “broken place” is, the work – actually, the characters – of Haruki Murakami are haunted by it. And of course, that means that Murakami himself must be haunted by it too – an emptiness inside of him, a void, a “well of endless sorrow”. Look at the above quote from The Guardian newspaper in England in 2003, and you’ll find that he seems to agree.

Is this place the “God-shaped hole” that Christians sometimes refer to as that eternal question lingering inside of every soul that God is the only answer to? It might be. But it would be presumptuous of me to say that what Murakami is looking for is God. He could be, but I cannot say that he is. However, the vacuity of his stories and novels and the characters that embody them bring to mind, for me, the emptiness of life without the possibility of God and without experiencing any kind of connection or relationship to the Almighty.

It’s for this reason that I seem to be flustered with the work of this fascinating figure in world literature, and have had a lot of difficulty fully enjoying the work of his that I have read. I keep thinking that I must be missing something, because Murakami – a very popular novelist throughout the world with an enviable following in Europe, the Far East, and the United States – consistently gets good reviews in major newspapers and is widely considered to be one of the great literary figures of our time. In fact, some articles I have turned up on him have described him as “Japan’s Nobel-laureate in waiting”. If he did win the Nobel Prize in literature some day, he’d be only the third Japanese writer to do so, behind Yasunari Kawabata (1968) and Kenzaburo Oe (1994).

Personally I think it’s a little nuts to put Murakami in this company, at least at this stage of his career, although he has produced numerous books since the early 1980s. I’m not an expert on his work and have only read four of his books, but what I have read doesn’t seem to rise to that level. Although Murakami possesses an extremely fluid and colorful imagination and obviously has the drive and passion to be a great storyteller, producing short stories and novels at an alarming rate, he also has a limited view of the human spirit, and a somewhat pessimistic one. Furthermore he frequently repeats themes and motifs; although the subject matter of his stories differ from one to the next, the tone of them rarely shifts, and certain Murakami hallmarks frequently repeat themselves – everything from cats and cooking pasta to the collision of Western and Eastern culture and an endless, heavy, deadening listlessness that seems to afflict most of his protagonists. Why are his characters so uninspired?

Murakami’s fiction, from what I have seen, is that “no place” – when you enter his world, there are no answers and no explanations, things rarely make sense, and it is even more rare when you will find someone who expects them to. No book demonstrated this to me more clearly than Murakami’s epic novel “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle” (1997) which for me was one of the most disappointing long novels I may have ever read. Although many consider this to be his finest and most impressive work – the writer Jonathan Lethem once gushed in an appearance with Murakami at my alma mater, The New School that it was “breathtaking” – I found it to be rambling, nonsensical and frustrating. It was supposed to be this epic and fantastical journey that delved deeply into Japan’s history with neighboring China while also addressing the complexities of the modern Japanese psyche – but to me, the journey led nowhere, literally stranding the reader over and over again at the bottom of a well with an unlikable, hapless character who hardly knew what he was doing there.

I am astonished that no reviewer of a Murakami novel or story that I have ever seen – and I tried to find as many as I could – has ever touched on the frustrating quality of the aimlessness and the bored indifference of his characters and the diffident way in which they always seem to approach every situation. In one recent short story that appeared in The New Yorker (that is appearing in his new short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman), a strange, talking monkey – not an unusual sight at all in a Murakami short story – asks a young woman if she has ever been jealous before. And she says, after thinking about it for about a minute, that she never has. Ever. Not once. She simply cannot think of any time in her life when she felt jealous of anyone. Nothing anyone else has ever owned, done or said has ever made her feel envious. To me this seemed to seriously strain credibility, but no one else seems to have that reaction.

Again in Norwegian Wood, the young Watanabe has sex with many women for no reason, and towards the end of the book decides to take refuge in sexual congress with a much older woman whose only connection to him is a dead young woman with whom he has also slept. It’s no news that people sleep around, I’m not saying this is a great shock; but the action didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and it seemed to have been prompted by nothing but a lack of something else to do, which is a continuing theme in Murakami’s books. People do things for “no special reason” and make little attempt to understand their actions or their consequence.

About one third of the way through The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, out of frustration, I began marking down in the margins every time I came across some variation of the phrase “I had no idea”, and lost count somewhere around the end of the middle third. The catch-all phrase appeared so many times there didn’t even seem to be any point to continuing to track it – which truly made me feel caught up in Murakami’s “no place”, unpleasantly. I don’t want to be nowhere, and don’t want to be with people necessarily who don’t want to be anywhere either. As I continued to delve into Murakami’s fiction, both older materials and newer stories, I still find the phrase “no idea” recurs incessantly in his work. We all know there are few answers to many of life’s most troubling questions, but this doesn’t mean there are no answers to any questions. Does it?

As a Catholic Christian who believes that life has a purpose and there is a great design to it as well as a Designer, it is frustrating and sometimes even irritating to discover the work of a major writer whose novels and stories are internationally well-regarded only to find that there is such a tone of overall listlessness and something close to despair over the artist’s entire oeuvre. I fear that I may be very ignorant of the Japanese psyche, and am missing a large piece of the puzzle of Haruki Murakami’s work because of it. From what I can glean, modern Japan is very secular and materialistic. This does not mean everyone in Japan is this way, but the overall impression one gets of the country is that this is the case on the whole. I am not making a judgment about Japan, I know nothing about it and have never been there. All I’m saying is that the “place” from which Murakami springs may give clues as to why his art is so spiritually unfulfilling to a Christian reader from the United States.

All I know is that when I read novels I usually hold out some hope that there is an overall purpose to the life being illuminated in their pages, and that the story contained therein will have some kind of resolution that is satisfying in some way, even if it is a frightening or troubling one. One wants to be engaged mentally, and one also hopes to be entertained. Haruki Murakami is a gifted writer in the technical sense and his imagination is truly powerful and impressive. If I got to meet him some day, it would be a happy event for me because he seems humble and friendly enough as a person, and he is a talented artist who has contributed largely to the literature of his time. I respect his accomplishments as an artist and envy his productivity and passion for his work.

But his fiction has been, for me, ultimately unsatisfying. Rarely have I read a writer whose fiction takes so many odd twists and turns and whose characters traverse so many long distances, literally and figuratively, only to reach so few real destinations and make so few discoveries. In Murakami’s strange, somewhat intoxicating mystery tale, A Wild Sheep Chase, a man spends an entire novel in search of a sheep with a star-shaped marking on its coat – we never find the sheep and never learn what caused the marking to be there in the first place. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle a man goes searching for his wife but never finds her and instead becomes obsessed with a flighty young girl and a dark, deep hole in the property near her house. He likes to just climb down it and stay there, staring at nothing and doing nothing. Why? I have no idea.


Aura McKnightly said...

Sounds like:

"Yeah, you got this place you go
it's just a trip before the fall
way past the fevered pitch
but just a spit from the wreckin' ball.

said you woke up this morning
said you woke up under a curse
I've heard the blues are bad
but this is something worse

and the ambulance driver
well, he tips his hat and stares.
and he asks you in a grave voice,
"Can I take you anywhere?"

Yeah the thing we cannot speak of
too painful to behold.
oh, this blister soul.
oh, this blister soul.
oh, this blister soul.

there's a smaller place you go
where there's hardly any sound
where the deals have all gone sour
and where the house of cards comes down.

And the damage is costly
is beyond all dollars and sense.
You can't measure it with graphs and charts
or any instruments.

yeah the thing we cannot speak of,
the secret we all know.
oh, this blister soul (etc...)

yeah from the trumpet blast
I hear the banging drum.
yeah from once upon a time
to the kingdom come.

and the thing that's yours for free
is the thing I need the most.
stifles every boast
stifles every boast.

Lyrics by Bill Mallonee

Duke Altum said...

Actually Aura, you're not too far off making that connection, I think... Mutt even alluded to a similar idea obliquely in his post.

Oustanding post, Mutt. Truly enlightening. You captured just about everything that I think about his work but would never have been able to state so eloquently. I would be surprised if you could not edit or adjust this post and maybe try to send it somewhere... I think it is a very valid take on Murakami that ought to be heard.

Hilarious ending too, BTW... this is the kind of stuff that defines TST at its very best. Insightful, provocative, opinionated, and touching on deep spiritual questions. Bravo.