Haruki Murakami, After Dark

df124716-cfdb-58c5-a5f5-390bed2fa7ed.preview-300Six or seven years ago a good friend, also a reader, gave me two Murakami books for my birthday: Norwegian Wood and After the Quake. I read the latter first and absolutely loved it. The former I started but didn’t finish. I have a long-standing policy of not finishing books I don’t actually want to read. I think the habit must have started in elementary school, as soon as teachers started assigning books, because in all my schooling I never really wanted to read anything my teachers assigned, and I never really read anything in school. When the teacher assigned Vonnegut I thanked God it was The Sirens of Titan, which I’d already read on my own by that time. I actually did skim it for class which was for me a pretty good showing.

I will be clear from the start that I did finish the book and I did enjoy it. This speaks of a basic quality of the book. That said, After Dark is by no means a great book and this is particularly disappointing given Murakami’s elevated reputation. This is a writer whose name one drops for literary hipster cred. And I say that having really enjoyed, as I noted above, one of his books. I remember as I read it–before this “blog” came into being–thinking more than once, “ah…this is really interesting. I think that’s one of the things I read for, those moments when I see things in a way I hadn’t expected to see.

But here we have bits like the following. The full text is from the book, and the strikethrough is mine.

A thin cream-colored coat and red pumps. The shoe bottoms are worn out of shape. A deep pink, beaded crew-neck sweater, an embroidered white blouse, a tight blue miniskirt. Black pantyhose. Underthings of an intense pink with an unmistakably synthetic lace trim. These pieces of clothing give an impression that is less sexual than sad. (128)

There is nothing in the experience of a work of art that makes my skin crawl more than being told how to feel about something that happens. I’ve never expressed it here, but I detest everything Steven Spielberg has ever done, even the things I actually enjoyed watching. And why? Because he hates his audience. Only an artist who hates his audience would, as Spielberg persistently does, tell them how to feel. You can imagine my disappointment that Murakami descended here to Spielberg’s depths.

A writer should approach text like Hitchcock, not Spielberg. Hitchcock directed the viewers’ attention, where Spielberg directs their emotion. Strike out that last sentence, and we have perfect mise en scene a la Hitchcock, or that great shot in “Citizen  Kane” where Kane and the doctor break down the bedroom door, the one that’s in every film textbook.

focus

In the film, Welles, like Hitchcock, has entirely prepared us to see the glass, spoon and bottle. No explanation is needed and we know entirely what it means. As a result, our feelings on seeing them are appropriate. The things onscreen elicit our response. This is how a writer, particularly a writer of fiction, should write.

As it happens, Murakami–who can, in fact, write–has likewise set up the scene. I remember reading the list of clothing and finding it incredibly sad. And then, that last line.

These pieces of clothing give an impression that is less sexual than sad.

When I read that it was like getting slapped in the face by an insult. One of my pet terrors is that we live in a society that is becoming more elitist while producing elites of diminishing quality. This line struck me as clear evidence of the process. If this is how one of the “great writers” of the day approaches the craft and his audience, we’re more screwed than I had previously imagined.

I also wondered who the h**l edited the book. No way would that have gotten past an editor of serious fiction at Random House back in the ’50’s or early ’60’s. The assumption was that the reader was capable of doing some of the work in the work of art. None of this back then, at least in “serious fiction.” Again, my strikethrough.

Backed up by electric piano, acoustic bass, and drums, Takahashi is playing a long trombone solo, Sonny Rollins “Sonnymoon for Two,” a midtempo blues. (163)

Now, any writer who cites Sonny Rollins scores a few points with me. And in my case, I would have gotten the reference immediately without aid. Most readers at this point, and likely when the record was new as well, wouldn’t have known the tune. But when Joyce packed Ulysses full of references, he very consciously didn’t pad them with explanations. He thought enough of his readers to assume they would put forth the effort to chase down his references if they were curious. And Joyce is not so scary and high-falutin’ as some people would have you believe, if you just put in the time and effort.

A work of art does not exist as a thing, but comes into being as it is experienced by an audience. The artist is not the most important part of the relationship between artist, work of art, and audience. It’s the audience. And when a reference in a novel doesn’t just let the reference be but explains it–in this case, tells the reader who composed the tune, and what type of tune it is–the novel, the author, and the industry kill the process of the reception of the novel as an active, imaginative process. We need novels that let their readers breathe, not that do their breathing for them.

Don’t misunderstand me. I finished the book. It was good enough to finish.

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Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

invisible-citiesI’d read Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities a number of years ago, decades. I’d read Borges, and started thinking about all the talk about “the postmodern novel” or whatever one might call it. I’d taken a course in college in which Calvino was assigned, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and I felt an antipathy toward it at the time. Likely, I felt an antipathy above all to what I felt, at times in hindsight justifiably but not as generally as I then felt, was an antipathy toward the pompous Lit majors who would pontificate about the book when they hadn’t read it. I only skimmed it, but I kept my mouth shut.

So it was part of a process of opening up to the world, at the time very incomplete, that I allowed myself to read Calvino in my 20’s. I read most of his work over a two-year period. As it happens, I really did enjoy If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler least of the lot. Invisible Cities, the first of a serier that I’d read on a friend’s recommendation, I enjoyed most, followed very closely by The Castle of Crossed Destinies.

I’ll start with the uncharitable read of the work. At some level, Calvino is Borges-lite, for the NPR crowd. Above all, he reads incredibly easily for someone who associated himself with semiotics. I am all for easy reading on its own merits, but the situation is ripe for abuse by the audience. While most of us won’t slog through Barthes if there isn’t credit attached to it, we can read Calvino, talk about postmodernism (-structuralism, semiotics, or whatever), and feel like we’re cool. We heard these terms on NPR on some report as we were driving to work. We know we should use them. With Calvino, you get a lot of name-dropping bang for your buck. You can say “Oulipo,” and then tsk-tsk your interlocutor for mistaking the word for a font.
Borges, on the other hand–or at least the Borges of Ficciones–is a graceful, engaging read, but not an easy one if you pause a bit and scratch below the surface. He’s playing–we will get to this–with some of the same things as Calvino, but in a way that is not quite as light.This gets to the charitable read of the work. Calvino’s real virtues, as far as I can tell, rarely get talked about. Above all, Calvino has as light a quality to his writing as anyone I’ve read. Lightness, I have said again and again my friends will attest, is my cardinal virtue in any form of art. This is a matter of personal taste, without doubt. Lightness, too, does not mean insubstantial, or “lightweight.” The best example I can find in any medium of this quality of lightness would be Jo Jones‘ playing in the Basie band of 1938.

Invisible Cities–I haven’t yet actually described the book–is a series of descriptions of imaginary cities threaded together as an ostensible dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. These descriptions are by no means all equal. At their best, though, they give a feeling of a lifting of the reader, this reader anyway. It’s like I’m in a hot air ballon, floating somewhere. This feeling is absolutely priceless.

This is the kind of thing that I never hear discussed about Calvino, and which I’m sure he’d be thrilled to hear. Calvino associated with hip postmodernists before it was hip, but he also, like Bakhtin, was fascinated by pre-modern popular culture, in particular folk literature as his collection of Italian folktales retold bears witness. Calvino’s approach at some level is that of a storyteller rather than po-mo novelist.

Calvino might be hip, but I have a clear sense that being hip was not his agenda. Rather, like a storyteller in a traditional setting, he very clearly wanted to produce in his reader a sense, through fiction, of a wider world of being than what any one individual’s daily life encompasses. Reading Invisible Cities, I get a clear feeling that the world is wide and that anything is possible. Art can communicate this. With Welles, people talk about his use of the camera, his play with narrative, his self-conscious artificiality, but his real virtue as an artist is–present tense–that he communicates the idea that anything can be done. I get this feeling with Calvino.

As with Welles, Calvino plays with his medium. The most obvious example of this is The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the writing of which he began by laying down a bunch of tarot cards on a table to see what lay where. It is this sense of play, in the most basic sense, not in a hipster po-mo kind of non-play play pretension, that produces that feeling of lightness so critical to the beauty of any work of art.

So, with Calvino, we need to discard all talk of the postmodern novel, semiotics, and post-structuralism. Attaching these terms to Calvino is like attaching lead weights to an air ballon. Rather, when we discuss Calvino, we need to see his work for what it is. Calvino’s work is light, fun, easy reading that opens a reader up to the idea that the possibility of the world is far from exhausted. I can’t imagine that Calvino wouldn’t prefer this type of discussion.