Friday, 15 August 2014

Murakami - normality versus the ordinary

This is the original text of the lecture I gave on the eve of publication of Haruki Murakami's Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage at the Big Green Bookshop, London.

Murakami – normality versus the ordinary

In the autumn of 1997 I was a bookseller in Birmingham. The sales rep for Harvill came into the store and told me that he had a book I would love. He said don’t bother about the cover; it really is something. I took it home. I had no money and when the electricity meter went off I had to light candles as I was already on emergency. I picked up the book and started reading, still somewhat put off by the horrible yellow jacket. I was still reading some six hours later, six hours in which I thought I had finally found my writer. 

I hadn't dared re-read the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle until a week or so ago. Re-reading is a dangerous thing to do to books you have fallen for so deeply and not had chance to return to. Declan Kieberd wrote in his introduction to Ulysses that you do not read Joyce’s book, Ulysses reads you. And to me that’s a fair assessment of any book: timing, mood, manner of discovery, the place where it was read have a profound effect on the experience. Reading the Wind-Up Bird would be to go back to that bedsitting room, strange cooking smell coming from the man below me, the burr of the heater that didn't work even had there been electricity. It felt a suitably Murakami thing to do. At least it wouldn't mean sitting at the bottom of a well.

The temptation was, of course, to read the new book first - Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. I had an advance copy ready to read, the thrill of that never ceases, and I could easily have just elected to read that and spoil  the whole reading experience for you by giving you my cock-eyed opinions. But I went back, primarily to work out what it is that we’re all doing here. What it is that makes this writer different to any other literary writer in the world? Why are we here, on a Monday night waiting for a new book to be allowed to be sold?  What is it that we read in Murakami that we don’t get anywhere else?

What surprised me perhaps the most was the freshness of those opening pages of the Wind-Up Bird. Fresh despite having a clear memory of reading it, fresh despite so many of the tropes we have come to associate with Murakami being present inside the first six or so pages. Here’s the opening page.

[I read the opening page, I can’t type it out, sorry]

To me this, up until the section break on page 6 is the ur-Murakami text. Almost all of his tics are here: cats, food, music, sex, the surreal and the normal clashing while the narrator shrugs his shoulders and tells us he’s just a normal, regular guy. It felt fresh despite this, fresh also in comparison to his other subsequent big books – Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84. These are words and sentences worth analysing, picking apart. The music is important, because Murakami is a musical writer, not just in the sense of his appropriation of everyone from Nat King Cole to Duran Duran, Janacek to The Lovin’ Spoonful, but in the way he builds his stories. As Jay Rubin says in his excellent book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, “Murakami knows how stories are told – and heard” which is getting closer, I think to the crux of the matter. Murakami knows where the white spaces are, the silences, the beats you miss because you’re concentrating on the complete sound of his world.

Let me explain what I mean. In that opening section of the Wind-Up Bird, we have Toru explaining his routine and how it has been interrupted by someone wanting to get to know him, later who will talk dirty to him down the phone. What we hear, as described by Toru is an ordinary person to whom something extraordinary is happening. 

Incidentally as a quick aside, this is why so much of modern British literary fiction is so anaemic. British literary fiction has a tendency to invert what all great American and world fiction understands, that being a normal person thrust into an extraordinary situation is what gives a story its great narrative drive. A lot of British fiction does the opposite: it puts extraordinary people in ordinary situations. There are too many geniuses, writers and grotesques in British fiction. One of the reasons Harry Potter was so popular was because he was just an ordinary boy, who was suddenly caught up in something incredible. Read Martin Amis, later Ian McEwan people like that – their characters do not understand what it is to be normal; they exist in a privileged, extraordinary manner.

And even though that’s an aside, it comes back to my initial point about what Murakami does that is so appealing: the ordinary. He present ordinary brilliantly, and the extraordinary brilliantly too, but it is the ordinary which has me in awe. And it comes back again to the music, and what we really hear.
Let’s take again that opening of Wind-Up Bird. This is a guy making lunch listening to the radio when a woman starts talking to him as they are close confederates, then she hangs up, he makes the pasta, goes back to his library book, then the phone rings and it’s his wife suggesting he works for a poetry magazine, who then reminds him to go and look for their missing cat.

On the face of it, this is entirely the notion I described earlier, an ordinary man for whom the extraordinary happens. Except, Murakami is playing a kind of jazz brush drum beat in the background that if you don’t listen closely enough to, you’re likely to miss.

Yes, this seems fairly normal: man listens to radio while cooking food. But the normality that Toru is so insistent he represents is not actually so normal at all. Firstly he is cooking pasta at 10.30am, which isn’t the kind of thing regular people do. Secondly, he is out of work, we later learn, simply because he quit his job, with nothing to go to, with no plan in mind and no interest in what happens next. Then a woman calls him for some phone sex and he just sounds…mildly irritated. Phone Sex he says, Fantastic.

What we therefore see as a ‘normal’ life is far from that, he is, like most of his characters, not normal, not regular, not even close to a Joe Schmo slob. The voice is intoxicating, didactic even, telling you what to listen to, while leaving everything else in the background. It’s this I think that gets to heart of Murakami’s great gift: making everything seem normal, when actually, there is nothing normal to cling to.

One thing that grabbed me on the second read of Wind-Up, which I had forgotten from the first time around, if I even noticed it, is the clear evasions of Toru’s wife. She is coming home later and later, seems now, all of a sudden happy with her husband sitting at home all day, is a different woman than she was just a few months before. Toru registers this, but does not investigate it. A normal reaction would be suspicion, but he just lets everything slide. The normal world, such as it is, is no less dangerous than the one that can be found at the bottom of a well.

It’s a popular idea that Murakami writes two different kinds of novels, the big, surreal opus like Hardboiled Wonderland, Wind Up Bird and 1Q84 and the smaller, more winsome tales such as Sputnik Sweetheart and Norwegian Wood. However, I’d argue that all actually come from the same space and from the same yearning: to see the world in a more magical, yet more real way than it often is presented in fiction. Even at his most faux-realistic, the nature of Murakami’s prose means that it inhabits a fictional realm means it feels other, strange, but distinctly our own. He is playing with our own notions of what we want from life – love, sex, food, adventure – while also subtly showing that it is here in our own lives if we look hard enough.

This section of the Wind-Up Bird originally appeared as a short story, the opening to his collection The Elephant Vanishes. This is a book I have read many times, perhaps because it includes the other great pillar of Murakami’s work, a very short story called "On seeing the 100% Perfect Girl one Beautiful April Morning". It is, to me, one of the very great short stories: simple, but heartbreaking, stylistically and formally inventive, but with a story as old as humanity. If The Wind-Up Bird is Murakami’s masterpiece, this story distills his gifts of love, sex and fate into just a few pages.

[Here I read the story, you can too, here]

The crucial line in the story, for me is the two cliche's tucked in to the end of the second paragraph: "The moment I see her, there's a rumbling in my chest and my mouth is as dry as a desert." These are faux-naif words, but one that immediately grounds us in the ordinariness of the narrator. He is one of us, one of those people who gets tongue tied and can't really explain the world around him in any great or significant way. The simplicity sets up an expectation of realism and normality. We are in the realms of a pop song - where hearts beat like a drum and love is everlasting and permanent.

However, this set-up is reversed in paragraph four. "Much as I like noses," he writes "I can't recall the shape of hers - or even if she had one." It could be a joke, the style is conversational and wouldn't feel out of place in that kind of comic deadpan way. Yet it actually puts a tremor through the still and normal world Murakami has created. How normal is this set up anyway? How can one be so sure that someone is the 100% perfect person for you? The normality is false here; there is something strange right from the get-go; Murakami just doesn't allow you to fully see it. 

It's this, I think, that draws us to his work, draws us deeply in. His work tells us that really, we don’t need a Malta Kano, a wild sheep or a talking cat to see the strangeness abound; we just need to look around us to take in the fantastical oddity of the world we inhabit.