Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Murakami postscript

One advantage to writing about books on a blog, rather than for a print publication, is that I can return to topics if I feel I need to clarify a thought. (Of course, a related disadvantage is that there’s a constant self-imposed pressure to go ahead and publish a post, just to keep current, even if I’m bothered by a niggling feeling that I haven’t said exactly what I meant.) So today I’m going back to Murakami.

I wrote a few days ago that the protagonists of Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle return to a state of aloneness at the end of the book, but one that is “pregnant with possibility, with previously unseen connections and a sense that there is an actual self, existing separate from the clutter of the world around it.”

I think a more clear way to put that is that, at the start of these two novels, the narrators are solitary selves who aren’t quite sure who they are. They exist almost entirely in the space left over by the impingement of contemporary culture and material objects, pressed into a vaguely defined shape by their jazz CDs, Bogart and Bacall movies, fine whiskeys, television sets, stir-fries, and Russian novels. Solitude for them is a way to avoid having to actively define the self or make emotional or ethical choices.

In both novels, the men undergo ordeals—a period at the bottom of a well in one, an escape from an underground flood in another—that, while acutely physical and realistically described, are essentially mythological, trials of the flesh and the spirit. The ordeals serve to separate the men from much, if not all, of what they thought defined them, and they emerge free to think about who they actually are and the ways they belong in (and to) the world. That's the great movement of the two books, what gives birth to a new understanding of the solitary self.

I’m still not certain that this reading is exactly what Murakami intends. I don’t think his actual, legitimate strangeness should ever be discounted, and multiple readings of his novels will always be possible. But this is the one I’ll carry with me the next time I open one of his books; we’ll see how it stands up.

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