I’m not entirely proud of how I got my copy of Haruki Murakami’s Pinball 1973. I found a pirated translation in the geocities archive. So I downloaded it and put it on my ereader and felt bad. But. It’s not available to buy in English anywhere but Japan in a version that was created for Japanese learners of English. Murakami has said that he’s not interested in his crappy immature work being translated for international audiences. So a copy of that English version of Pinball 1973 (and his very first novel Hear the Wind Sing) is something I’d been keeping my eyes open for for ages, but I couldn’t bring myself to spend over $100 on a copy. This was a free PDF with the attendant formatting issues, but because it’s ripped from the Kodansha student edition of the book, it’s an Alfred Birnbaum translation (not some amateur’s), so that’s good.
(Note: If you ever want to buy me a present I’ll cherish forever, get me signed/rare copies of books that I love that are too expensive to justify buying for myself, since I have a copy of the work already. See what I did there? I differentiated between a FRBR work and an item. I’ve learned something in this semester of library school.)
Anyway, Pinball 1973 is about the boku narrator from A Wild Sheep Chase (and Dance Dance Dance) and his friend the Rat (just a name). It’s very loose and non-plottish. The narrator is living with indistinguishable twins and generally feeling like his life is aimless. The bit of plot comes from him trying to find a pinball machine of the type he played a few years before, but that quest is barely there at all. The whole thing is much more of a mood piece.
It definitely feels like a warmup to A Wild Sheep Chase. You can see all the Murakami-isms taking shape and it feels familiar but sketchy. Nothing’s as stab you in the heart awesome as his later work, but it’s Murakami that I hadn’t read before, so how could I dislike it?
Another book Holly had kicking around for me to read while hanging out at the bakery was Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. I love this book so much. I think this was the first time I’ve ever read it while being in love, though, so it was a new experience despite being the 8th or 9th time reading it.
There are two parts to the book that I hate. Not that I hate the writing or whatever, I just wish things would go differently each time I read it. I hate what happens to the characters.
The first is the story of Reiko and the evil little girl who fucks up her life. Just for a lark. I mean, there’s not a lot of subtlety to how horrible this girl is and it flips all these sexualized roles around and is so creepy and it’s just to be evil. There’s this whole lack of control in the telling of that story that makes my guts twist up. It’s not Reiko’s fault, but this awful thing happens to her anyway. Shudder.
The other part I hate is how Watanabe doesn’t comment on Midori’s hair. How he goes to get a coffee and finds her writing him a letter. And then he’s fucked everything up forever. Because he didn’t comment on her haircut. Saying “Cute hair” is the kind of thing you can forget so easily. I hate to think about that being the gap between love and nothing.
But it’s such a good book. I can’t think of a better love story.
Doug Dorst’s The Surf Guru is a good collection of contemporary short stories. The best ones are funny, but nothing really changed my life.
One of them is about a controlling-personality woman who goes kind of wacko when she loses a wedding cake job (she’s a pastry chef). Another is about a quack doctor who’s treating Vincent Can Gogh. There’s also a collection of biographical sketches of botanists by a cantankerous botanist compiled by the son of the cantankerous botanist’s ex-wife (both ex-wife and son are also botanists). That was probably the funniest in tone of all the pieces, but the footnotes in one of the biographical sketches were either done from the wrong point of view or they were clumsily suggesting an alternative explanation for what was going on. It’s hard to say, as this was an advance uncorrected proof, so there might be more editing to do. Two stories were about the same fuckup characters, one story them on the road, and the other about them before they left. Those were my least favourite, apart from the really short one about firecrackers.
They were all decent stories about people who were on the edges of things and weren’t ever going to find their ways to anything important, so the whole thing had a bit of sadness hanging over it. I don’t agree with the backmatter text that calls Dorst “a Northern California Haruki Murakami,” or buy into him being “one of the most creative, original literary voices of his generation.” The stories are good. I’ll read more by Dorst if it’s set in front of me, but I’m not going to go hunting his previous novel down or anything.
In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star Paul Theroux retraces the overland journey from London through Asia he took back in the ’70s (and wrote about in the book The Great Railway Bazaar). It’s impressive. The route isn’t exactly the same (he could go through Afghanistan and Iran in the 70s but not Georgia or certain parts of Vietnam), and it’s not entirely overland (he flew into India and Japan and a couple of other short hops) but it’s still a great read.
Theroux travels differently than I have, in that he talks to people through out the trip. He’s also travelling with more money than I’ve ever done, but still. The conversations he has with people on trains and in cars throughout Asia are much more impressive than anything I’ve ever done. I mean, he chats with Prince Charles in Rajasthan, and can get invited to dinner with Orhan Pamuk, so yeah. It’s a different kind of thing.
But he also is embracing of the vagabond loafing voyeurishness that travel really is. It’s a way of life and he talks about it really well. Since this is a return journey for him, he’s comparing how it is in 2006 with how it was thirty years before. I appreciate that very much. It’s why I went to China when I did, so I’d have something to compare it with later. The bits in Turkmenistan were crazy good, talking about their (now dead) insane dictator. And he talks with sex workers in loads of different places.
Also, I had no idea this would happen, but near the end of the book he hangs out with Haruki Murakami and Pico Iyer in Japan (separately). Their recounted conversations were pretty great, and kind of make up for his unbearable snobbery on the issue of comics (all of which he dismisses as vacuous unchallenging pornographic pap).
It’s interesting reading about what he didn’t like about different places like Bangalore and China. They were the places where people are making crap-tonnes of money. Here’s what he said in one of his few paragraphs about China (he came into Kunming overland from Vietnam):
“China exists in its present form because the Chinese want money. Once, America was like that. Maybe this accounted for my desire to leave. Not revulsion, but the tedium and growing irritation of listening to people express their wish for money, that they’d do anything to make it. Who wants to hear people boasting about their greed and their promiscuity? I left for Japan, reveling in the thought that I was done with China – its factory-blighted landscape, its unbreathable air, its unbudging commissars, and its honking born-again capitalists. Ugly and soulless, China represented the horror of answered prayers, a peasant’s greedy dream of development. I was happy to leave.”
I ran a paraphrase of that by my friend who lives in China and she said “Oh dear, that makes me a little sad . . . because it’s true.” And that’s kind of what you want your travel books to do with their generalizations, right? Be at least a little bit true?
I will admit I knew nothing about Natsume Soseki’s classic Sanshiro when I bought it. I’d seen Soseki’s name at the library, but that’s about it. I bought this book, which is an early 20th century Japanese coming-of-age story, and read it because Haruki Murakami did the new introduction for the Penguin edition. It’s been a while since I’ve read a new Murakami book and I missed him. 1Q84 is probably going to take a long time to translate so I have to settle for introductions and essays and things. Or learn to read Japanese (a project which is proceeding slowly if at all).
Murakami’s draw to this book was more than just his name though. See, he has this history of preferring Western literature. In the books/essays about him that I’ve read he talked about not really caring about Japanese literature. So this introduction of a Japanese literary classic meant it must be something special. Or he’s changed his opinion in his old age. Whatever.
The book is about a young man, Sanshiro, who comes from the country to go to university in Tokyo. It’s Meiji-era Tokyo so there are streetcars and such, but people are still wearing kimonos and the trains are far from bullet-like. Sanshiro basically wanders around to his classes and falls in love with a woman and gets embroiled in his friend’s schemes. The floatingness of the protagonist did remind me of Norwegian Wood, and would have even if the comparison hadn’t been made in the introduction, I think.
It’s a good book. I enjoyed it, but it’s not the kind of thing I’m rushing off to press into everyone’s hands. Just a quiet sitting under an elm tree watching a pond kind of book.
I’ve been reading 2666 but because it’s divided into five parts, I’ve been breaking it up with other (lighter) books in between. (I owe you teeming handfuls a review of American Gods; it’s coming.) Right now I’m reading The City and the City and I just love it. It’s about a crime that happens in a city where there’s another city right there sharing the same streets but they’re in different countries and in each city you aren’t allowed to see (or interact with) the things that are happening in the other. Things aren’t invisible; you are not allowed to see them. If you look at someone/thing in the other city too closely you’ve broken the rules and the all-powerful group that deals with Breaches comes and takes you away. Possibly to kill you, but I’m not done the book yet (I’ll review it for reals when I am).
This organization, Breach, is so powerful they could act with utter impunity, but if it’s not an emergency they have to follow the rules and be asked to handle things. I like this common idea of powerful entities having rules to follow. Vampires can’t cross running water. Police need a warrant. Breach must be asked. But. I don’t care about the little guy breaking the rules. In fact, I expect it, and get sort of sad when the powerless person doesn’t try doing something other than follow the rules. I’m having a weird time with how few people agitate against Breach in The City and the City. There are some, but I keep on wanting to shout at everyone, “You can see things! You shouldn’t have to unsee them!” But it’s a book and the characters (thus far) are well enmeshed in their setting.
A lot of fiction I read deals with the individual and celebrates the individual, especially in the face of power. For example, there’s an article I linked to a long time back about Murakami always wanting to be on the side of the egg not the wall, and you know how I feel about Murakami stories. Yesterday I watched a National Film Board movie from the 60’s called “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen.” He was all young and bright-eyed. In one bit Pierre Berton is trying to get young Leonard Cohen to say what he stands for, what great idea drives him, what issue burns in his soul. And Leonard Cohen says, “No idea; I just check if I’m in a state of grace.” His companion explains that Leonard Cohen is talking about the task of the individual to live one’s own life, but Leonard Cohen is sort of dismissive. I like that.
Of course, it’s easy to “identify” with the powerless when you’re a white guy with a beard and a Mac.
I picked up David Mitchell’s number9dream from the library last week, solely because we didn’t have The Cloud Atlas in. “Japan?” I said upon picking this one up, “Sure I’ll give it a shot.”
The thing I’ve been telling everyone about it is how British it feels, despite being about a young Japanese man from the countryside going to Tokyo to find the father he never met. It’s mostly just the turns of phrase Eiji (the main character and narrator) uses to describe things. The occasional word from the English countryside is a little jarring. At first I thought this was going to annoy me to no end, but as it went on it became kind of a translation artifact. It almost made it feel more Japanese because of the obviousness of the filter. I wonder how it is when translated into Japanese?
The thing that really made the book for me was the shifting styles in each part. There’s the story of Eiji Miyake trying to find his father, but each section has different sort of dreams. Panopticon is filled with wish-fulfillment action movie daydreams (and are perfect for making the book grab you and knock you a little off-kilter). Lost Property is all flashbacks and remembering. Video Games is mediated escape from reality. Et cetera. So structurally/stylistically: great.
The story itself works, though the quest itself isn’t the main thing. At least not for me. There are unrealistic things that happen. There are Yakuza; I won’t deny that. There is a bit of a sense of the writer stringing the protagonist along in service of the structure of the book. But whatever. I was happy to take the ride. It took me through some of the same headspace that a Haruki Murakami novel does (there is a discarded Murakami novel as a tiny bit of set-dressing in one of the chapters and I am sure Mitchell was conscious of the comparison) which is a place I like to be.
I don’t know if it’s a really good book or not. Maybe it’s culturally imperialistic or ethnocentric or one of those other very bad things of me to think that some young white guy can write a good novel about Japan. Maybe I only like it because it’s the kind of Murakami pastiche my China book might turn into. I know I liked it though.