Well, it’s Nobel season again, and with it the annual ritual of speculating and gambling over who will win the literature prize.
Every year, Haruki Murakami’s name comes up. This year The Guardian reports he’s the 4/1 favorite.
Every year I’m both disappointed and relieved when he doesn’t win.
Disappointed because—well, ethnic pride. He’s Japanese, and I’m sort of Japanese.
Kenzaburo Ōe was the last Japanese literature Nobelist, and that was more than two decades ago. There’s only been one other literature laureate from Japan, the great Yasunari Kawabata, in 1968. Sure, I’m biased, but that seems like an oversight, although certainly not the only such oversight in the prize’s history (cf., only 14 women among 112 laureates, no black African winner since Wole Soyinka in 1986, etc.).
I’m also disappointed because he’s a writer whose work I actually know. I’ve read more Murakami than I have of any of the other writers on these annual lists—probably more than any of the top five to ten also-rans put together. If a writer you know wins, there’s this largely unearned but nevertheless pleasurable feeling of personal validation. Oh yes, you think, I’ve read that writer! I felt that way when Ōe won. And Lessing. And especially Munro. I wouldn’t mind feeling that way again.
And I do admire Murakami’s work. Some of it. I often like his short stories. And the novel excerpts published as short stories in The New Yorker, like “The Zoo Attack” and “Another Way to Die,” two excerpts from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that still haunt me 20 years after I read them. I quite liked after the quake, his collection of short fiction that reflects, in ways direct and indirect, on the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake. My students are reading “U.F.O. in Kushiro” this week, and I can’t wait to talk about it. I appreciate the obsession with disasters both natural and human-made, the latter explored in Underground, his non-fiction book about the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system (also 1995, a bad year in Japan).
So yes, I’m disappointed when Murakami doesn’t win.
But mostly I feel relieved because—okay, don’t hate me, but—I can’t stand the novels.
I know, I know, I know. Heresy! He’s the darling of the literary world! No other Japanese writer in my lifetime is likely to command so much attention in the West! He was really nice that one time I met him in Berkeley, more than 20 years ago, before he became so famous here! His novels are so weird and compelling and cool!
Yes, so weird and compelling and cool. But for me, reading a Murakami novel is a lot like eating a party-sized bag of potato chips by myself in one sitting. The bag is so enticing, and the potato chips look so good. The first one I crunch down is delicious, and the next one is pretty good too, and the next one and the next one. Before I know it, I’ve eaten the entire bag. But now I just feel gross and full of self-loathing. I didn’t even enjoy the last 30 potato chips, which were greasy and salty and nasty. I ate them because they were there. Because I wanted to recapture the taste sensation that was the first chip. Because I thought for some reason there would be a prize at the bottom of the bag. Even though I’ve eaten through many bags of potato chips, and there’s never a prize at the bottom.
So it is with Murakami’s novels. I love the inventive set-ups, the pell-mell zaniness, the quotable zingers. I love the international flavor—the pasta, the jazz, the references to Chekhov and Bashō and Janáček, oh my! If I leaf through my copies of his books, I can see where I’ve penciled “Whoa” and “Creepy” and “Yes!” in the margins. But my comments gradually betray my growing frustration: “Duh” and “I don’t buy this” and “Enough with the brand names already” and “I’m really tired of the plot hinging on someone’s ‘sixth sense’” and “This contradicts p. 165” and “Wait. What?” I love its parts, like the excerpts I mention above. But the whole is always somehow less than the sum of its parts. I devoured The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle when it appeared in English, but was left scratching my head afterward, wondering what I’d missed.
Novel after novel seem perversely to manipulate reasonable reader expectations, deploying plot elements that go nowhere and details that seem to be placed simply for kicks or shock value. All too often the books read like first drafts written straight through from beginning to end with no backward glance, as if the author forgot what he was up to between writing sessions or changed course a few times and didn’t realize it or care. No one else seems to notice these things or mind. I feel like the little boy in the fairytale pointing at the emperor and saying, “But… but… but… he’s naked?”
Or maybe I’m not the only one. In 1Q84 there’s an annoying but wonderfully candid and funny bit about book reviews:
More than a few of the reviewers seemed perplexed by—or simply undecided about—the meaning of the air chrysalis and the Little People. One reviewer concluded his piece, “As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end, but when it comes to the question of what is an air chrysalis, or who are the Little People, we are left in a pool of mysterious question marks. This may well be the author’s intention, but many readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of ‘authorial laziness.’”
Count me among those readers who find drowning in the “pool of mysterious question marks” tiresome. I don’t need storylines to be all tidy. I love writers who resist tidiness and a slavish devotion to clarity, in fact. Lucy Corin, for instance, and Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, and Lydia Davis. Sure, Murakami’s fiction is non-linear and open-ended, but not necessarily in a thoughtful or artful way. It often feels, not misshapen so much—that would interest me—as just unshaped. And callow. And yes, lazy. I’m not impugning the man’s work ethic. It clearly takes many hours of butt-in-writing-chair to produce so much work. And a fiendishly clever imagination to dream up such bizarre and tantalizing scenarios. But fiendish cleverness only goes so far.
Later in the passage I quoted above, the narrator says of the book maligned for “authorial laziness”: “It had fascinated … an amazing number of readers. What more did it have to do?” Well, call me greedy, but I wish it did more. To win my love and not just my grudging admiration, an author can’t just keep lobbing a bunch of colorful balls in the air and let them fall every which way while insisting, “But my balls are so fascinating!”
And speaking of balls, there’s also the matter of the badly written, puerile, sometimes violent and often misogynistic sex scenes. Other people have commented on this, of course (here and here, for instance). I’ll just say that Murakami’s the only writer I’ve ever read whose sex scenes make me think with a shudder, “Ew. I wonder what this guy is like in bed.” One example, far from the worst, will suffice, from Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Year of Pilgrimage:
She straddled him, took hold of his rigid, erect penis, and deftly guided it inside her. His penis found its way with no resistance, as if swallowed up into an airless vacuum. She took a moment, gathering her breath, then began slowly rotating her torso, as if she were drawing a complex diagram in the air, all the while twisting her hips. Her long, straight hair hung above him, sharply, like a whip.
A penis both rigid and erect? The vagina as “airless vacuum”? A woman literally pirouetting around a guy’s cock? Come on, Murakami-san. People are talking about you as the next Nobel laureate. Please write like a grown-up.
At this point you’re probably yelling at the screen, Jesus, if you dislike his work so much, just stop reading it!
This is easier said than done, as it turns out. I’ve tried, really. Every time I read a Murakami novel, I say, Okay, that’s it. No more Murakami. I’m done.
But then another book comes out in translation, and there I am, munching down on those greasy, high-calorie chips as if they’re the best thing ever, then feeling bloated and pissed off afterward.
Partly it’s the whole Japan thing. When people learn I’m part-Japanese or that Japanese was my first language or that I studied Japanese lit in college and grad school or that I’ve written stories about Japan, they always always ask me what I think of Murakami. And then they are treated to an earful, like you are now. I know our current political climate has demonstrated that rants need not have any connection to knowledge or experience, but I prefer to sound reasonably well-informed. So I keep reading.
But mostly I blame Knopf, Murakami’s US publisher. Specifically, their art department. And very specifically, the talented designer Chip Kidd, who talked about designing 1Q84 in this very seductive video, which is wholly responsible for my falling off the no-more-Murakami wagon in 2011 and sinking $30.50 plus sales tax and three days of my life to consume the book.
Kidd is also the enabler behind the irresistible design of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, as “phoned-in” and drafty a novel as I’ve ever read. But just look at this book! The jacket has die-cut windows in it, windows that suggest a hand, and there’s a Japanese transit map underneath, and the page numbers are fun, and even the compact trim size (so holdable!) called out to me. I had to have it. And once purchased, I had to read it.
When Murakami once again doesn’t win the Nobel this year, I’ll experience a brief but distinctly regretful feeling before relief rescues my mood. If he does snag the Nobel this year or the next or the next, I’ll be excited. Really excited. But also rather dismayed. Either way, I’ll apparently keep reading him, gnashing my teeth, scrawling angry comments in the margins of books that I’ve purchased at full retail on their release dates and consumed in one or two sittings. I just can’t quit him. There just has to be a prize in one of these potato chip bags eventually, right?