Saturday, January 13, 2007

Dance Dance Dance, Haruki Murakami

I want to try to post some shorter comments on books I read, instead of only writing about those books that I feel I can write about at length. So here goes.

Dance Dance Dance is the first Murakami book I've read. I really wanted to like it. For one thing, it was a holiday present from my father-in-law. I've been interested in trying some Murakami for some time, and he had no way of knowing this, so it was an excellent gift. Alas, I'm afraid I had a number of problems with it.

Murakami is often said to be in the vein of some of the so-called post-modern novelists, such as Don Delillo. Superficial evidence in support of this, I suppose, is that Dance Dance Dance is packed with pop-culture references, mostly Anglo-American, many of which seem to serve no purpose other than as surface noise. There's a mystery, and an element of the supernatural--an old hotel that "lives" inside a modern hotel. (I've noticed Murakami has been tagged with the "magic realism" label, too.) The novel opens with the narrator recounting a dream of this older hotel, which leads him to set off in search of a woman he'd lived with four years prior. This search doesn't seem to mean too much to him, nor does he seem to care all that much when he finds out what probably happened. He is adrift in his life, personally and professionally, and, indeed, he seems to drift from encounter to encounter in the novel, most of which are with a famous movie actor he went to school with, a thirteen-year-old girl and her inattentive parents, and a clerk at the new hotel, with whom he more or less falls in love.

My main problem with the novel was with what I felt was a flabby prose style. Of course, not having any familiarity with Japanese, I have no way of assessing the quality of Alfred Birnbaum's translation. (I am, however, aware of controversy surrounding the various translations of his work; as is so often the case, The Complete Review has a lot of links on this, as well as other Murakami-related items). The English is all I have to go on, and the English generally did not excite me. Often, it was just plain drab, barely functional. There were, yes, numerous isolated stretches in the novel, when it appeared as if the story might be getting somewhere, when the prose was much more crisp, and I found myself enjoying the plot, turning pages quickly, interested. But this rarely lasted long, and on many occasions I got bogged down and had a hard time continuing. The narrator's thoughts on ennui and the modern condition were rendered uninteresting by this flabbiness (I lost count of the number of times the words "advanced capitalism" appeared). There was a certain repetition of detail that could have served to underscore the narrator's position, but which the prose instead made boring. His conversations with the movie star, which often amounted to the actor complaining about how he'd rather have simpler life, were similarly repetitive and even more tedious. It's as if Murakami, as a writer, was more interested, or more skilled, in moving the plot along than in exploring his themes, and this was reflected in the variable quality of the prose.

I'm aware that I'm being vague here and that specific examples would be more convincing. Unfortunately, I have neither the time nor the inclination to go back and scour the book in search of examples of what I'm talking about. So I'll just leave off here (so much for "shorter", eh?).


brandon said...

My response to Murakami has always been that he's much too cute or "quirky". I've only read his short story collection 'The Elephant Vanishes' but there just doesn't seem to be anything "at stake" in Murakami, the way there is in Delillo even when DeLillo is riffing on pop-culture.

Perhaps that is Murakami's point, in that, the Japanese writers I think of or enjoy, Mishima, Endo, Kawabata, are very serious, so it's in contrast to their seriousness? It just doesn't work for me.

Richard said...

Thanks for the comment. You make an interesting point.

What books do you like by the other authors you named? I recently acquired Mishima's Confessions of a Mask.

brandon said...

First, I want to apologize for my weirdly formal yet kinda SPAM-like post where I thanked you for quoting me.
Mishima is probably my favorite author, so I've read a lot of his stuff (except his Tetraology, his most famous thing...), I personally like 'Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea', generally considered a "minor' novel, but in my opinion, better than his more popular works (sort-of like what you said about Roth in a previous post). I also like his short story 'Patriotism' a great deal. 'Confessions of a Mask' is very good although a bit long, it's his first novel I beleive and it kind of reads like a first novel. If that makes any sense...

Shusaku Endo has a short story called 'A Forty-Year-Old-Man' that is so good it kind-of made me afraid to read another thing by him for fear that it wouldn't be as great. Kawabata has a book called 'A Thousand Cranes' that I didn't really like that much, but I was trying to be diplomatic in listing the immediate, post-war Japanese writers...

As I said, I guess Murakami is a post-modernist in that he is in some ways, trying to avoid those authors' post-war seriousness but it's always come off as too cute to me.

Carrie said...

Hmm, I used to be a big fan of Mishima until I read a big chunk of his work and realized that he covers the same ground over and over, and that that ground just isn't interesting to me. His stories exist in a very macho but somehow naive world that feels very flat and passionless. This could be a result of the (much written about) homoerotic subtext that always seems to be present in his work, contraining everything with tense coyness. If you aren't reading for that, it can be ignored, but something always seems to be supressed. I can however recommend Death in Midsummer by him. Each story is a different place, a moment in a world gone by.

As for Murakami, I enjoyed his older stuff, especially the Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, but always wonder about the translation. His books were fun, perhaps in contrast to the literary environment that brandon mentioned, like a mystery novel with no resolution. After a certain point in his career, Murakami just stalled out, I feel, and has been writing the same book with its faceless thirty-something protagonist and a wispy plot. I miss the excitement I felt when I found a used copy of a book of his in the bookstore. Now I just shrug and move on to something else.

Also, hi! Love your blog!

brandon said...

Yeah, you're totally right about Mishima but for some reason I just love it. I should have warned you Richard, 'Patriotism' is great but only if you can read it without any irony. There's literally a part where Mishima describes a scene that he says, "would make even the Gods weep" (or something like that). I sort of love his over-the-top-ness because I think he ends up, paradoxically, addressing a lot of stuff by being so single-minded.

Richard said...

Hi Carrie! Thanks!

Interesting that you're saying something that seems similar, but not identical, about Murakami and Mishima: Murakami "has been writing the same book" and Mishima "covers the same ground over and over". But there does appear to be a distinction. I think, without getting into it too deeply, that I appreciate many authors who cover the same ground throughout their work, but have little interest in those who seem to merely write the same book over and over. Your comments about Murakami certainly gibe with what I've heard from others about him.

Brandon, thanks for the recommendations on the other authors, as well as the clarification on Mishima.

Richard said...

Also, Brandon, there's certainly no need to apologize for thanking me for quoting you. Nothing wrong with being nice.

courtneym said...

so I'm not sure if you've ever read house of leaves but this book some how struck me as slightly reminiscent. While the two books lack similarity in thematic content and structure they some how relate in my mind and i think you might enjoy it!