Monday, January 15, 2007

Voice of a Generation

I have the Vintage paperback edition of Murakami's Dance Dance Dance, discussed in my last post, and, as is all too normal, the book comes with many review-blurbs touting Murakami and Dance Dance Dance to the skies. I enjoy reading blurbs. Sometimes they're so over-heated that they can't help but make me smile. Then there are the ones that appear on every book by a given author, like Updike's famous blurb on Nabokov, who, of course, "writes prose the only way it should be written, that is, ecstatically." But most blurbs are fairly boring, and in more recent books, which have many, many blurb pages, only serve as additional voices in a chorus praising the book. Others make grandiose claims about the writer (who is invariably the next great whoever, or who combines the wit of x, with the crisp style of y, and the zing of z). The blurbs on the Murakami generally don't say much. He is compared to Philip K. Dick and Mishima. Sex and mystery and rock 'n' roll and sci-fi and "the future" are all invoked.

But there is one blurb I thought I'd share with you. It's right there on the front cover, and it grabbed my attention, in part because I have no idea what it means. From The Washington Post Book World: "A world-class writer who takes big risks. . . . If Murakami is the voice of a generation, then it is the generation of Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo." It's bad enough when a reviewer writes about someone as "the voice of a generation", but it's not clear to me how Murakami, being 12 and 13 years younger, respectively, than Pynchon or Delillo, could be the "voice of [their] generation". If I had to guess, I'd say that the reviewer was trying to invoke Pynchon and DeLillo as comparisons and ended up with this trainwreck of a sentence. Or, by invoking them, the review is saying that Murakami transcends their influence. Murakami is like them, he or she might be saying, only better. Or, the reviewer was trying to say that Murakami is the Pynchon or DeLillo of his own generation. Or that he's the Japanese Pynchon or DeLillo. Not that any of these are of any help, either, mind you, but at least they make a little bit of sense.


Slothrop said...

Two things:
I agree with your critique of the "trainwreck" sentence; though one has little reason to hope anymore for finding meaningful responses to literature in quotidian "reviews" from a contemporary culture all too adrift among the flotsam any "next new thing".
Murakami is a writer who could not have been possible without there having been a Thomas Pynchon or Don DeLillo, basically. Their particular modes of "post-modern" play with narrative, opened the way for several generations of writers, the most recent and successful of which has been that of Murakami and his peers.
Secondly, I would say (having read all of Murakami's work available in translation) that "Dance, Dance, Dance" is perhaps the worst possible place to first encounter his work. Not only is it something of a sequel to an earlier novel ("A Wild Sheep Chase") but it's also not his best work. I liked it quite a bit, but I think I would've felt a little lost, and also disappointed, if I hadn't already read 'Wild Sheep Chase'.
If you're really wanting to see why Murakami is so widely held in high regard, and has garnered an international following of grateful readers, I recommend "Kafka on the Shore", his most recent novel, and I think his best, by a not insignificant margin.
Good luck!

Richard said...

Hi. I agree with what you say about Murakami not having been possible without there having been Pynchon or DeLillo. That was part of what made the blurb so incoherent.

And thanks for the heads-up on Murakami. Oddly, I'd just learned that Dance Dance Dance is a sequel of sorts when I looked up all three authors in Wikipedia to check their ages. Frustrating. Although, as I said in my post about that book, it was the prose that put me off more than anything. Indeed, it did strike me as a poor attempt to do what Pynchon and DeLillo (and apparently Murakami himself) do better. Perhaps I'll take a look at Kafka on the Shore. Thanks again!

Slothrop said...

Thanks, too. I'm sure you'll find the prose of "Kafka on the Shore" more mature, but there's no comparison at all to — well, Pynchon is my favorite American author, period; so I'm very attuned to his prose, which I think unequaled, peerless — and what I wanted to say is that you will not find in Murakami's works, prose of such exhilaration and invention; whether it is elegiac or slapstick, and everything in-between, Pynchon writes an American prose that is, in contemporary terms naturally, quite the equal, I believe, of Shakespeare's in breadth and complexity.
Instead, and I think this is based on Mrakami's "The Windup Bird Chronicles" and "Kafka on the Shore", there's an historical dimension to the content of these novels, reminiscent of Pynchon or DeLillio. Murikami himself has noted that it wasn't until recently that his interest in Japan's history entered and informed his work.

One hardly knows what is meant by saying an author writes "ecstatically". Murakami writes very cleanly though (translated of course, yet I've never been aware of a noticeable difference between his two English translators; Murakami always sounds like Murakami) his prose is lean, quick and firmly rooted in reality, regardless of the very strange goings-on in his work. Just as Kafka is said to have written a prose that was every bit as lean as Hemingway's, Murikami's prose may be fully of this world, but he manages to convey other dimensions of "reality" with a spare, even ordinary, lexicon. That's part of the magic of his work, as with Kafka. Writing a prose that describes fantastical events and strange occurrences with an everyday language that is clear and crisp but never simply common or pedestrian.
Maybe it's been his mastering of this very difficult literary trick that accounts for his, Murakami's, books getting progressively, appreciably, better over time. I'm looking forward to his new novel, "After Dark" (?) due out this year, though published in Japan a year or two ago.
You could be put off by his prose if you were expecting something stylistically inventive, but his prose is very good, perfect really, in so far as it conveys the the strange and odd stories he tells; often, usually, mysterious and mystical in the very best sense.
Yeah, give another book a chance...