Haruki Murakami: Hear the Wind Sing

November 24, 2006

One of my Loyal Readers, knowing of my penchant for all things Murakami, was able to procure an English copy of Hear the Wind Sing from a drugstore in Tokyo. The novella is perfectly pocket-sized, at four by six inches, and extremely slim, with 127 pages – a format I would like to see more in the States as a way to encourage portable reading. Hear the Wind Sing, along with Pinball 1973, are two early Murakami novels that aren’t available in English, so I consider myself lucky to have a copy of one of them (and if anyone wants to send me Pinball 1973, I will reciprocate with all the publicity love I can muster).

When given the novella, I was looking forward to seeing what Murakami themes were present at a nascent stage of his writing career. Since so many of his other novels have shared themes (classical music, cats, coincidence that is actually fate), I wondered if many of these were already formed when he was just beginning to publish, or whether he had progressively developed them as he’d grown as a writer.

One aspect of Murakami that has certainly not changed over the years – although he certainly has refined it – is his tendency to use animals in his stories. The animal that appears most frequently is a cat – in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a search for a missing cat launches the protagonist on a neighborhood odyssey, while in Kafka on the Shore, a character is cat-telepathic. That’s not to say that other animals don’t drop into the story, just that a single animal often plays a pivotal role in the narrative and it’s often a cat. Even his book titles reflect the preoccupation with animals, with mentions of birds, sheep, and elephants.

When Murakami wrote Hear the Wind Sing, it seemed he had latched onto the notion that animals were key for his fiction, because he gave us a virtual menagerie, but hadn’t quite decided that for narrative reasons it might be better to give a single animal a key and recurrent role. So this story moves through someone writing about elephants, a car crashing near a monkey cage, lyrics about giraffes, a story of a man-eating leopard, a psychologist’s parable about a rabbit and a billy goat, a cow painted on a car hood, a character named The Rat, and the biologist protagonist who dissects cats. Those are just the main references, and all in 127 very small pages.

There are also a number of similarities with Murakami’s later work that don’t need excessive explanation: The protagonist is identical to most of Murakami’s later protagonists – male, rather isolated, laconic, operating on cruise control, and jobless. The girl that becomes the protagonist’s girlfriend has a twin – a familiar motif to the doppelganger-happy Murakami. There is even a couple-page bit on Martian wells on that transport you through time, which will be familiar to readers of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.

One of the things absent from Hear the Wind Sing, though not the most remarkable thing, is plot. If you’re wondering why I didn’t give the plot up far sooner – such as in the third paragraph – it was because there wasn’t much of a summary to give. The book is about eighteen days in a boy’s life before he returns to college, and although events occur, they don’t seem very significant (although they are interesting). Each passage in the book is broken by trios of asterisks or a numbered heading, and each passage seems like an anecdote that follows the last chronologically but not in terms of escalating conflict. There are mysteries that are never solved, such as a high school girlfriend that he borrowed an Elvis record from and never returned, and relationships that don’t do anything. His relationships with The Rat, his friend, and the love affair with the nine-fingered girl, are not so much resolved as they are abruptly broken off as he resumes his schooling.

The lack of plot felt odd because Murakami novels and short stories usually have a fairly strong plot, even if in some of his longer books like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle he will venture off to a side-story for a while. Kafka on the Shore is plotted precisely and tightly. Even Dance, Dance, Dance and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World give the protagonist a single problem, a quest to solve that problem, and a solution at the end. Which tells me that at an early stage of his career Murakami had an excellent grasp on characterization, prose, and relationships, but his talents for structuring a storyline came later.

The most striking absence in the story is the magical realism for which Murakami is so well known. He remains, without much genre-blurring, in the concrete real of bars and bedrooms, cars and restaurants, and doesn’t step outside to mess with character’s shadow selves or discover parallel universes. In fact, the only hint of something outside "realism" is when the protagonist feels his "body overflowing with some strange energy" after sleeping on the beach with the Rat. Yet this energy is never brought up again. The lack of magical realism, interlaced with a number of familiar themes, makes the novella seem simultaneously Murakami-esque and Un-Murakami.

It is worth a read, especially you’re a die-hard Murakami fan, but your only chance to land it might be inter-library loans in the US (and that’s a long shot). As far as details to help you on your quest, it was translated by Alfred Birnbaum and published by the Kodansha English Library (originally designed to teach the Japanese how to read in English – which is why the last forty pages have an English/Japanese translation key). It was originally published 1979, but translated in 1987. Good Luck finding it, although Murakami doesn’t believe in luck, only fate – so here’s hoping you’re destined.

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Books I’m Thankful For

November 23, 2006

In the spirit of thanksgiving, I’ll make a quick list of books I’m thankful for. First of all, the red book of poetry my grandfather wrote – it was a book that let me know writing was in my blood; an inspiration, so to speak. Also, Vito Aiuto’s collection of poems Self-Portrait as Jerry Quarry, because he was the first friend of mine who published a book, and the poems were funny, irreverent and just plain good. Also, for the book that originally got me writing: Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It gave me the measure of how much beauty could be created by arranging words on a page.

Remember the beauty in your life this thanksgiving, and give thanks.


Pynchon: Against the Day

November 21, 2006

If you haven’t yet been seduced by Pynchon mania (or even if you have been unaware of the blogosphere intensity), you should go to the The Elegant Variation and check out all the links and commentary on old Pynchon, New Pynchon and all of the infinite conections.

There. I’ve thrown you into the pit. Enjoy or die.

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Richard Ford’s enduring voice

November 21, 2006

Richard Ford has been well covered in the blogosphere recently, with the third installment of Frank Bascombe in The Lay of the Land, and that’s not territory I can one-up, so I’ll cover slightly different ground.

Reading Ford alongside Raymond Carver, as I’ve been doing the last few months, has been a lesson in the power of minimalism. How the sparse word is potent. But what has stuck in my head from Ford (among many things of course, but some things really stick, you know what I mean), has been the pronouncement he made when announcing the winner of the Story Quarterly contest (I know, rather odd). This was back in 2003, issue 39, and the contest was the Robie Macauley award for fiction. Sylvia Sellers-Garcia won for A Correspondence. This was what he wrote:

A Correspondence’ is excellent and is my selection. This story is sustained and serious, and the complex fictive world it reveals is entirely persuasive and pleasingly under the writer’s authority. Importantly too, it is a very interesting story to read.

I must have read it twice, perhaps by accident, and it kept with me through the next few days. Those passive verbs! Five in three sentences. By using so many he inverted their usual weakness into a strength. And the trio of adverbs – what a mistake . . . that works.

It has to be a testament to the power of his voice that even a paragraph announcing a contest winner remained with me, haunted me, and echoed about in my head until I gave in to its cadences.

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Literary Mix Tape #5: Words

November 21, 2006

The devotchka sort of hesitated and then said: “Wait.” Then she went off, and my three droogs had got out of the auto quiet and crept up horrorshow stealthy, putting their maskies on now, then I put mine on, then it was only a matter of me putting in the old rooker and undoing the chain, me having softened up this devotchka with my gent’s goloss, so that she hadn’t shut the door like she should have done, us being strangers of the night. The four of us then went roaring in, old Dim playing the shoot as usual with his jumping up and down and singing out dirty slovos, and it was a nice malenky cottage, I’ll say that. We all went smecking into the room with a light on, and there was this devotchka sort of cowering, a young pretty bit of sharp with real horrorshow groodies on her, and with her was this chelloveck who was her moodge, youngish too with horn-rimmed otchkies on him, and on a table was a typewriter and all papers scattered everywhere, but there was one little pile of paper like that must have been what he’d already typed, so here was another intelligent type bookman type like that we’d fillied with some hours back, but this one was a writer not a reader.

Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange

My legal name is Alexander Perchov. But all of my many friends dub me Alex, because that is a more flaccid-to-utter version of my legal name. Mother dubs me Alexi-stop-spleening-me!, because I am always spleening her. If you want to know why I am always spleening her, it is because I am always elsewhere with friends, and disseminating so much currency, and performing so many things that can spleen a mother. Father used to dub me Shapka, for the fur hat I would don even in the summer month. He ceased dubbing me that because I ordered him to cease dubbing me that. It sounded boyish to me, and I have always thought of myself as very potent and generative.

Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated

Right ‘bove my head some’un whisped, Name y’self, boy, is it Zachry the Brave or Zachry the Cowardy? Up I looked an’ sure ‘nuff there was Old Georgie crossleggin’ on a rottin’ ironwood tree, a slywise grinnin’ in his hungry eyes. ¶ ‘I ain’t ‘fraid o’ you!’ I telled him, tho’ tell-it-true my voice was jus’ a duck-fart in a hurrycane. Quakin’ inside I was when Old Georgie jumped off his branch an’ then what happened? He dis’peared in a blurry flurryin’, yay, b’hind me. Nothin’ there . . . ‘cept for a plump lardbird snufflyin’ for grubs, jus’ askin’ for a plunkin’n’a spit! Well, I reck’ned Zachry the Brave’d faced down Old Georgie, yay, he’d gone off huntin’ cowardier vic’tries’n me. I wanted to tell Pa’n’Adam ‘bout my eery adventurin’ but a yarnin’ is more delish with broke-de-mouth grinds, so hushly-hushly up I hoicked my leggin’s an’ I crept up on that meatsome feathery buggah . . . an’ I dived.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas

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NYTBR Podcast Highlights w/ Sam Tanenhaus

November 18, 2006

Sam Tanenhaus on the efficacy of the New York Times Book Review:
“Welcome to our podcast, with the caveat that this sick crew long ago abandoned the illusion that we have any insight to offer or even have a clue what we’re talking about.”

The distorted-guitar quasi-punk theme song opening that tries so hard to be cool (lyrics: “I’m reading for the New York Times Book Review.” No, seriously.)

Rachael Donadio, on the sordid love affairs between writers at writers’ colonies:
“Yaddo is better for sex, but MacDowells is better for work.”

The “jokes” that are so obviously read from a script (perhaps some timing or emphasis might help?)

Rachael Donadio, on how former writers didn’t have writers’ colonies to motivate them:
“Doestoesky had the firing squad, not the writer’s camp.”

Edward Champion offers this advice: “Had I been the producer, I would have demanded that all the on air talent have a good glass of wine. Or perhaps I’d pass around a bong.”

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Unbearable Lightness of Being out in Czech!

November 15, 2006

I thought our patience was tried by having to wait two years for the translation of The Curtain, but it took the Czechs twenty-two years of waiting to get the Unbearable Lightness of Being translated.

(Via The Elegant Variation)

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