Thursday, April 8, 2010

Murakami's Mystery: Why is He So Fascinating?

1Q84. It's a strange book.

The book doesn't have a plot synopsis anywhere - you know, the kind that goes something like, "X, the son of Z, begins a journey of unforgettable atrocity when he discovers that..." Worse yet, the book title looks like it's about a low IQ.

And yet the book is written by my favorite author, Haruki Murakami, and you know when it's by this quirky guy, you're in for a wild ride. So everyone seems to agree. The book literally disappeared from bookstores on the day it was published in Japan. Half a year later, I sat down with the book and read it, and it was good. I enjoyed being steeped into his world that my heart actually raced in excitement every time I opened it. I couldn't put it down. I read late into the night and couldn't wait to read the next part when I did put it down. I even fell in a state of despair when I learned that the story didn't end by Book II and the next installment was to come out in five months. And I bet Book III will disappear from stores faster than Louis Vuiton bags on sale.

 So, I want to ask a simple question: why are Murakami's works so fascinating? The prose is nothing fancy. It's written in a deceptively simple style in the tradition of Vonnegut and Carver. The stories are usually about an "ordinary" person (usually a guy), punctuated by long, pseudo-philosophical conversations that remind one of Dostoevsky. The main guy usually doesn't do much and likes to  just chill. In short, Murakami's stories seem to have NOTHING fascinating about them.

So I ask, "Why are his stories so fascinating?"

What about all that weird stuff. Oh yes, his signature surrealism that offers the reader the spectacles of fish raining from the sky, a pitch-back floor in a hotel that shouldn't exit,  a giant frog waiting at the apartment... yes, these seem fascinating enough. But this can't be the sole reason his works are so riveting. Usually the surreal moments comprise a very little portion of his works. And there's even less of them in 1Q84.

The book in question opens with a female protagonist in a taxi stuck in heavy traffic. She hears music by a Czech composer, Janáček in the taxi and knows that it's by Janáček and the piece is called "Sinfonietta" composed in 1926. Okay. Then she starts thinking about Central Europe and Japan in 1926, then wonders why she could identify the music by just listening to the opening passage. The taxi scene continues. She realizes that the taxi she's in isn't a normal taxi. She talks to the driver who talks a bit funny and tells her that she won't be able to make it to her appointment on time because of the traffic. The driver proposes an "emergency method": take the emergency stairway. She does. End of Chapter 1.

Did you find anything inherently fascinating about the story so far? No? I thought so.

Then it hit me recently.

It's not surrealism, or the simple, easy-to-read prose, or his quirky humor that crops up every so often. It's not his passive male characters who listens to music a lot and can cook passably well or their female lovers who show inordinate interest in them and jilt them later without explanation.

It's all that and more.

What makes Murakami fascinating is his masterful maintenance of mystery.

It starts out slow and very subtle. The main character FOR SOME REASON knows the exact name of the music and the composer and the exact year in which it was composed. The cab driver who tells the main character something weird: Don't be deceived by appearance. There is always only one reality. The main character remembering "the sharp object at the bottom of her shoulder bag." All these hints are scattered throughout the story strategically to keep your interest high. Then it snowballs until you get the signature surreal moments.

We are curious animals. When we don't understand something, we want to know. When we feel that there's a gap in our knowledge, we want to fill it. When a mystery is presented before us, we want to solve it. We want to know.

So like any good mystery writer, Murakami drops these nuggets of mystery along the way. There are a lot of places where he overindulges and makes it a slow going, but overall, he doesn't neglect to crank up our curiosity before it starts to flag. When we're almost fed up with elaborate physical descriptions, he pulls out a Crow or Little People or something out of his bag of tricks. What is this main character doing with this "sharp object"? What's her "duty"? Her "job"? Who is this eccentric driver? What's this comment about reality?

And we keep reading.


Unknown said...

Very good analysis. Murakami is also one of my favorites. I will have to ready this one sometime.

Taks said...

yeah man, read that shit when it comes out. Probably his best work yet.

M + V said...

Love it. DO you think he fits into the category of magic realism? The mystery is thre: but the surrealism always ties back to real issues, the common man's search for magic in a world of the mundane.