Monday, April 11, 2005

Literature Korner!

Anyway. The new (newish, at any rate) Murakami novel, Kafka on the Shore. Have I mentioned this? Well, in any case, I am now. It's actually...well, kinda bad. It's written from two different perspectives, one of which is in the third-person--a first for a Murakami novel. Unfortunately, this kinda ruins my hypothesis, developed after reading his short story collection After the Quake, that Big M is at his best on those rare occasions when he breaks out of his usual comfortable first-person mode. I actually haven't finished the book; for the most part, the previous M novels that I've read were so addictive (not necessarily great works of art, but [or possibly 'therefore'] compulsively readable) that I would get through them almost instantaneously. And that includes South of the Border, West of the Sun, which, on reflection, I thought was pretty awful. But this one...sheesh. It's easy enough reading when I can be bothered, but I can happily go any length of time without. I suppose it's entirely possible that I'm just so familiar with the man's style that I'm burned out on him, but really. If a writer's novels are all largely indistinguishable...that's a pretty major criticism in itself. But I don't think that's it: I think this one is genuinely worse than most of what's come before. He makes an effort to shake things up a bit by having his narrator be--shock!--a fifteen-year-old kid, rather than the usual late-twenties/early-thirties everyman. This is less successful than one would hope. In general, he still sounds pretty much like the usual narrator, only Murakami feels obliged to give him occasional thoughts/turns of phrase meant to remind us that he is in fact a teenager, all of which are cringe-inducing. "Got to have my music," he declares near the beginning as he's deciding what to bring along on his trip, sounding like a guy in an ipod commercial.

You know the cringe-inducing part in that one Sopranoes episode (somehow I feel a sense of déjà vu here--stop me if you think you've heard this one before) where Dr. Melfi casually slips in a Proust reference so Tony can go, what? and then she can explain it to the viewers at home? Right. Well, this book has it's share of moments like that. Here's some dialogue:
"Kind of an ominous prophesy."
"Like Cassandra."
"Cassandra?" I ask.
"The Greek tragedy. Cassandra was blah blah blah blah et cetera. Cursed."
"What kind of curse was it?"
"The curse on Cassandra?"
I nod.
"The curse blah blah blah prophesies true no one believes her. Koros."
"Koros? What's that?"
"Chorus in Greek tragedy, blah blah blah..."

And like that. Could anything possibly be more ham-handed? And beyond that, given what we know about the character, it's totally implausible. He is presented as being a voracious reader, massively erudite for his age. Okay, sure, I can believe he hasn't read Aeschylus. But that he's totally unfamiliar with the story to the point of not even dimly recognizing the name "Cassandra?" Not so much.

And then there are the sex scenes. To my dismay. Attention, Haruki Murakami: STOP WRITING SEX SCENES. Thank you.

This book also has the honor of containing the worst thing Murakami has ever fucking written. It's this scene in the library where the protagonist, having run away from home, is hiding out. With Suave Enigmatic Librarian Man, who has taken him under his wing. And then--I really can't believe I'm writing this--these two grotesque caricatures of uptight, humorless feminists come in and start making ludicrous condemnations of the library on the grounds that it's insufficiently equipped for women's needs, including the following choice bit, which I am absolutely not making up (page 164 in the Knopf hardcover):

"The tall woman looks at the short one, who looks back up at her and opens her mouth for the first time. 'You've been evading the point, mouthing empty arguments about taking responsibility,' she says in a really high-pitched voice. 'In reality, to use the term for the sake of convenience, what you're doing is an easygoing attempt at self-justification. You are a totally pathetic, historical example of the phallocentric, to put it mildly."

Christ. Anyway, SELM makes a mockery out of their arguments, and they leave thoroughly flustered. Ha! He sure showed those ball-busting, feminazi bitches! Seriously, dude, I had to check to make sure I hadn't been mistakenly reading a copy of National Review. Allegedly, this whole scene is to make a larger point about "intolerance," but really, who's fooling whom here? You don't just pick an illustrative example like this by random chance.

Oh yeah, the third-person bits. Well, they're less annoying than the first-person ones, that's for sure. In fact, at first they were actually really, really gripping, as our protagonist--sixty-something, simple-minded, can talk to cats--searches for a lost cat, in the process of which he encounters some sort of spirit thing that's killing cats and harvesting their souls. But...then it sort of goes downhill. The protagonist seems quite appealing at first, but before too long you realize that he's really nothing more than a very broadly-drawn holy fool, and the whole thing just collapses into self-parody. Shame.

I don't know; I've probably made this book sound a lot worse than it actually is. It's not incompetently written (with the above-noted exceptions); it's just...not very exciting. Murakami, who had been spinning his wheels for quite some time, has made a major misfire here. I used to think it was only a matter of time before he really got his shit together and published a really kickass novel that would validate the claims of genius that his fans frequently attribute to I'm not so sure. Anyway, and for the record, here is how I would rank his books, from best to worst (have I done this before, or did only contemplate doing it before?).

After the Quake--Third-Person. Really, really good.

Norwegian Wood--I remember having serious problems with this as I read it, but I mostly forget what they were now. Admittedly, pretty haunting.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland--Unrealized sci-fi premise, but the "End of the World" sections are really atmospheric, and it has the strongest ending by far of any M novel.

Dance Dance Dance--Sort of the standard Murakami novel. The actor guy is a well-drawn character. Since it's stated nowhere on the book, I should note that it's the sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, although there's literally only one sentence that you won't get if you haven't read the previous entry.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle--First one I read. I found it enthralling, but that may not mean much. Self-indulgent at parts, but overall, I thought, interesting, and the "Zoo Massacre" stories are great.

A Wild Sheep Chase--Maybe I was a little burned-out, but I had to force myself to finish this.

The Elephant Vanishes--Stories, a few good, most kind of annoying.

Sputnik Sweetheart--Potential to be a good character-based story mostly unrealized. Pretty bland.

Hear the Wind Sing--Not totally worthless, but probably out-of-print for a reason.

Pinball 1973--Ditto. This used to be available in totus online, but not, apparently, anymore. Certainly not worth the thousand+ dollars you'd drop on it on ebay.

Kafka on the Shore--See above.

South of the Border--ARGH. The main character is a psychopath. I believe I covered this in my amazon review.

Whoa. That's all. I'se tired.


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