Tag Archives: Banana Yoshimoto

Murakami Murakami Murakami

Cover of "After Dark"
Cover of After Dark

I’m in the midst of a Haruki Murakami binge. I finished Norwegian Wood a few days ago, and had to go right back to the beginning and start reading it again. I’m tearing through After Dark, and have Sputnik Sweetheart at the top of the ‘To Be Read’ stack.

(The ‘To Be Read’ stack lives by my bed. It’s actually more like seven or eight stacks. If I kept all the books that need attention in one stack, it would be taller than I am and present a genuine health and safety risk. I also have a ‘To Be Read queue for e-books.)

My Murakmi love began around 2006 when I plucked a copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle from the shelves of the Piccadilly Waterstones in London. It’s very rare that I buy a book ‘cold’, most of my reading follows the trail of authors related to or influenced by other authors I’m interested in, and these days my schedule of reviewing. So to pick up a book by an author I had not even heard of, having no idea what to expect, was unusual. I was likely influenced by my love of Banana Yoshimoto (whose short story collection Lizard I read half a dozen times in my late teens).

I didn’t entirely understand Wind-Up Bird at first. I knew what happened. I knew I was powerfully affected by it. But I didn’t understand why. The story of Wind-Up Bird, which follows the journey Toru Okada as he loses first his job, then his cat, then his wife, would have strange resonance’s with my own life over the next few years. Murakami has a uniquely accurate bead on the lives of young men, and the growing-up process we go through to reach true adulthood.

All of Murakami’s novels are bildungsroman, or ‘formation novels’, in which a variety of young male protagonists, generally in their late teens / twenties / early thirties experience emotional trauma which then drives them towards true adulthood. In Norwegian Wood it is the loss of a first love that drives the story of Toru Watanabe, as he is torn between a profoundly damaging emotional entanglement with his first lover, and the hope of a future life offered by another young woman. Murakami’s protagonists, talking in the first person, are terrifyingly ignorant of their own vulnerability. There is a chilling edge to Murakami’s narrative, as he shows his chracters placing their trust in friends and lovers, but leaves open the possibility that they are being manipulated and betrayed even as they are being helped.

It’s that utter moral uncertainty that raises Murakami’s novels to greatness, along with his breathtaking exploration of the edges of the metaphysical. As his young characters are broken by loss and grief, Murakami shows how certainty and reality collapse in states of great emotion. In the most subtle and oblique ways Murakami is a fantasist, twisting strange eruptions of the weird and unreal in to his work to explore the inner lives of his characters. It’s as though his writing sits eternally on the border between the real and mundane and the fantastic and numinous, with every part of his story slipping freely between the two.

My latest Murakami binge has been set off by the release of the film of Norwegian Wood. Which I can now watch, having decided there was no way I wanted to spoil the book by watching the film first. Here is the trailer. If it catches your attention, but you have not read Murakami yet, I suggest you do so immediately.

Why SF is not genre

Originally written in response to the SF Signal Mind-meld question: What non-genre books have influenced you in some way?

I’m fascinated to see this issue discussed at the moment. If I was to place one major criticism at the door of Speculative Fiction, it would be the way it continues to segregate itself from the rest of literature. And this is caused in great part by the misapprehension of SF as ‘genre’. Genre is part of Speculative Fiction, just as it is part of all literature, and just as all literature draws in some way from one genre or another. Some SF is overtly ‘generic’ (which generally makes it uninteresting to me), much other SF uses genre creatively (much more interesting) and the best Speculative Fiction is no more attached to genre than any good writing. Genre is something that good writers make use of, but don’t let themselves be trapped by. Similarly, SF presents writers with a set of tools. Like any specialised toolkit it fulfills certain functions. Skillful writers pick up the right tools for the right job, rather than limiting themselves to only the tools they are familiar with.

My own reading has always mixed SF with all other kinds of literature from as early as I can remember, so these books that have influenced me are drawn from across the whole history of my reading:

Lizard by Banana Yoshimoto – as a teenager this short story collection was one of my first glimpses of how fiction can deliver insight in to very normal, everyday existence. I read it at least a dozen times in the space of a year or so. Yoshimoto claims it was written whilst listening to Nirvana, which was pretty much the soundtrack of my teenage years.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck – Steinbeck wants you to know that the events of ordinary life are the very stuff of drama. And that it is filled with both pain and unexpected kinds of healing. His theme is how the archetypal patterns of our oldest stories, in this case the biblical Caine and Abel, repeat through the generations in the lives of us all. Read simply as fiction it is a powerful story, but it becomes something more when you start to look at how these dramatic archetypes repeat in your own life.

Hamlet by William Shakespeare – The British state education system has ruined the greatest English language writer for most of his latter day countrymen. I studied Hamlet three times at school, but it was only when I started reading Shakespeare myself as a young writer that I really began to see why his work has endured. Hamlet is about the worst of human existence, the structures of power and control, ego and ambition, that make it impossible for people to love or trust one another. There is no hero in Hamlet, all the characters are equally corrupt, and in the end everyone dies. The perfect tragedy, that plays out day in and day out in the places of power around the world.

Underworld by Don Delilo – most of this generation of Great White Male novelists, British and American, are to my mind chronically overrated. Amis, McEwan, Roth, Updike. The only way I can rationalise the acclaim these authors and their peers receive is to believe that at some point literary readers fell in to a kind of self-hate, and like abused spouses are unable to escape the bilious behaviour poured on them by these writers. Delilo is this generation of writers saving grace. Underworld is his masterpiece. I’m not going to bother describing it…go and read it and White Noise and a few others by DeLilo, and put McEwan et. al. in the rubbish and forget about them.

Runaway by Alice Munro – I discovered Munro this year, and read this entire collection in two days. By the end I felt like the top of my head had been taken off and my brain rewired by someone who knew me better than I knew myself. Munro’s writing is extremely cruel, because it continually returns to the ways people fail themselves, and act as the unconscious villains in their own lives. It’s very difficult to read her without noticing the hundreds of ways, large and small, we do these things to ourselves.