Saturday, July 14, 2007

Haruki Murakami - After Dark

Just finished Haruki Murakami's latest, After Dark. It's one of those novels where you have to ask 'if it wasn't written by a famous author would it be published?' The answer is probably no. If this was on a publisher's slushpile it would remain there.

Yes, it has all the trademark Murakami touches - enigmatic young female, cool, slightly detached young man; cat (completely pointless and unnecessary here, you just feel the Murakami story generator decided it was time for a cat interlude); alternative realities reached through a television screen; a generalised feeling that 'strangeness is as strangeness does'; disconnection from society: in other words, it's the full gamut of Murakamisms.

It's actually a curiosity in that it melds the two strands of Murakami's writing -the surreal stuff and the ethereal love-story-that-isn't. I guess there's always been a touch of the latter in the former - the girl with beautiful ears in A Wild Sheep Chase, for example, but Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border have a very different texture and tone to the other works. There's something elegiac, end-of-time-ish about them which is beguiling. This new novel doesn't have that tone, exactly, but it's not the meatier, ballsier voice we hear in Wind-Up Bird and Sheep Chase.

So why is this novel so unsatisfying? Basically, it feels like Murakami-by-numbers, like he's going through the motions. It's dull and slow, where Wind-up bird, for example, was exhilarating. The relationship between the two mains felt plastic and predictable where, in Norwegian Wood, for example, the female lead was so heartbreakingly real you wanted to take her in your arms and hold her tight. The novel feels to me like all those 'School of Brueghel' paintings which mimic the master's savagery but look two-dimensional in comparison to the real thing.

For me, the worry is that Murakami is a one-trick pony. I've loved him ever since A Wild Sheep Chase was published in this country and I read an advance copy in my job as a stock buyer for libraries. It was remarkable. It was then followed by Hard Boiled Wonderland and the end of the world, which was like nothing I'd ever read (still is.) Then we had Norwegian Wood which introduced the mellow love-hurts Murakami, and Dance, Dance, Dance, the sequel to Sheep Chase. So far so wonderful. South of the Border felt a bit like Norwegian Wood without the insanity, but then we had the masterwork, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. This is pure Murakami, with everything he does so well. It was staggering, mesmerising. Even the flaws - and there are flaws - didn't seem to matter.

But from then on it's been downhill all the way. Sputnik Sweetheart is South of the Border all over again and Kafka on the shore was a dreary rehash of old Sheep Chase and Wind-up bird strangenesses. In other words, he just keeps doing the same thing over and over.

It's striking that as time goes by the novel I think holds up best is the one that's least like the rest, Hard boiled wonderland. He'll win the Nobel for Wind-up bird, but actually it ought to be for Wonderland. But for now, I think Murakami desperately needs a new direction. My fear is he is going to trot out the same damned thing over and over again, each one more diluted than the last.

And what happens then is that what you once thought was dazzling imagination and daring prose starts to feel a bit like a con-trick. It's much the same as the way you first read Marquez and magic realists and think it is incredible but, increasingly, you come to think 'well that's just a cop-out, anyone can magic up a solution to any problem like this.' And so with After Dark we have another girl who is dragged into a different reality on the other side of a TV screen but this time, unlike Wind-up Bird, the reader thinks 'who cares? Seen it all before.'

Of course, given that his work is Japanese and I am only reading a translation, the quality of the translation may be a factor. However, the translator of After Dark is Murakami's usual collaborator, Jay Rubin. So the responsibility for such turgid dialogue as this must rest squarely with Murakami:

'There's a big difference between playing well and playing really creatively. I think I'm pretty good on my instrument. People say they like my playing, and I enjoy hearing that, but that's as far as I goes. I'm gonna quit the band at the end of the month and basically cut my ties with music.'

'What do you mean, 'playing really creatively'? Can you give me a concrete example?'

'Hmm, let's see... You send the music deep enough into your heart so that it makes your body undergo a kind of physical shift, and simultaneously the listener's body also undergoes the same kind of physical shift. It's giving birth to that kind of shared state. Probably.'

'Sounds hard.'

Honestly, if I'd written that dialogue in a story at Boot Camp I'd have been slaughtered for it. It's utter drivel, but it's increasingly what passes in Murakami for legitimate exchanges. Meanwhile his once lovably odd girls start to sound impossibly rarified and the boys freakish.

Do something different, Haruki, please.

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