Murakami’s Abnormal Normalcy

August 19, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished: South of the Border, West of the Sun, by Haruki Murakami.

Reading now: Shriek: An Afterword, by Jeff VanderMeer.

One of Murakami’s recurring themes is the strangeness ever present near the surface of “normal” everyday life.  This is one of the motifs that has made his work so successful globally: while his blend of the domestic and the bizarre is quintessentially Japanese, it translates beautifully to a range of cultures, and his (for all I can tell) simple, unadorned style also lends itself to translation.

I’ve been thinking about this theme ever since the beginning of South of the Border, which, in typical Murakami fashion, efficiently sets up a perfectly normal environment and immediately shows how the narrator perceives himself as abnormal: he has a “100 percent average birth” and “grew up in… your typical middle-class suburbia.” But Hajime, our narrator, is an only child in a town of families with 2 or more kids, and feels himself isolated and “different” because of this.

The oddness within such a normal-seeming life — of any life on earth, from within the unique mind of the person experiencing it — is encoded even in the title.  Hajime and his only friend, the fellow only child Shimamoto, listen to Shimamoto’s father’s records over and over.  One of their favorites is “South of the Border.”

Off in the distance, Nat King Cole was singing “South of the Border.”  The song was about Mexico, but at the time I had no idea. The words “south of the border” had a strangely appealing ring to them.  I was convinced something utterly wonderful lay south of the border.

In Japan as in the US or hundreds of other countries, this is a banal scene of domestic suburban childhood or adolescence from the 1950s to 1970s: going to a friend’s house, listening to pop standards on his/her parents’ hi-fi, experiencing the first sexual longings of your life.  And the choice of “South of the Border,” a hoary old pop song if there ever was one, by Nat King Cole, a wildly popular, very talented, but incredibly safe singer from the perspective of mainstream society just about anywhere, deepens this banality.  It’s Murakami’s gift to makes this unusual, to reveal mystery inherent within even such banality, such domesticity.

Of course, the lyrics they are listening to are in English, and as such present something of a mystery to any listener for whom English is a second language.  The words themselves, “south of the border,” are appealing and mysterious to young Hajime: he doesn’t know what border it is, or what might be south of it.  He doesn’t know yet what Mexico is, or where, or what it signifies.  The border could be the border between life and death, between human life and the realm of spirits and mythological creatures, between childhood and adulthood.  As it turns out, this utterly normal, banal song carries the story of the strangest happenings that will occur to Hajime in his life, the story of his relationship with Shimamoto.

Beyond that, there is another mystery: Nat King Cole did not sing “South of the Border.” I’ve gone through the discographies online without uncovering any version of the song having been recorded by Cole (though, of course, it’s always possible that a Japanese pressing has escaped my notice).  Even a fan video for the book uses the Sinatra version — probably the closest corollary for the kind of bland smoothness we hear in our heads when Hajime mentions a Cole version of the song):

This is kind of fascinating.  You could speculate that Murakami just gets this wrong, and I suppose it’s possible.  But it’s highly unlikely of an author who embeds specific musical cues in all of his works, and especially in a book about a character that becomes the owner of popular jazz clubs.  I think this is intentional, and could be read in a number of ways:

  • The recording only exists between Shimamoto and Hajime.  Later in the book, Shimamoto gives Hajime a gift of the copy of the Nat King Cole record they’d listened to as children.  They listen to it again, together.  When Shimamoto disappears, so does the record.  There are a number of ways to interpret this, most of them hinging on a reading of Shimamoto as a supernatural being: she creates the record as something special for Hajime.  Or it simply becomes, willed into being by the magic between them.
  • Hajime misremembers, or misidentifies.  This is perhaps the most prosaic reading, but also quite momentous for a reading of the entire work.  In this reading, he forgets details of even this most important song, from these most important memory.  Again, this seems highly unlikely since music is Hajime’s business, but is just plausible: in his first memory of the song, Hajime had just mentioned how an old record by Nat King Cole is among the few records in Shimamoto’s father’s collection, so the memory of that record may have transferred to the memory of listening to “South of the Border.”  The incident could be emblematic of the mystery we all present to ourselves.  Our memories are friable, fragile things; Hajime’s emptiness, his existential struggle, comes from within.  One could even speculate that Shimamoto, as a magical, mythological trickster figure, plants such a false memory as part of her promise to “take all of him,” including his memories.  Such a reading reminds me of the explorations of consciousness that structure Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.
  • In the world of this novel, Nat King Cole did sing “South of the Border.”  Murakami inserts supernatural or surreal elements into many of his works, but such elements are either ambiguous or nonexistent (depending on your reading) in this book.  The intrusion of the magical or romantic that Shimamoto represents to Hajime may be mirrored in the early placement of a nonexistent song into the “real world” of the novel, making a very familiar standard bizarre.
  • This is an issue of cultural translation which I’m not reading correctly. Perhaps Nat King Cole signifies something to Japanese readers that he does not signify for American readers: an element of exoticism or popularity among a particular social strata that the extant singers of the song would not provide.  Since Murakami wanted to use the song’s lyrics as a motif, he gave it to Cole.

The ambiguity in this motif, which seems at first glance like nothing but a signifier of normal suburban life, is quintessential Murakami.  It’s why even his lesser works (and I consider this one of his lesser works) are well worth reading.

A Brief Glossary for Super Sad True Love Story

August 18, 2012 § 3 Comments

Finished: Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart.

Shteyngart’s book is full of fascinating names and terminology, so I thought I’d pick a few that especially interested me and look at them a bit more closely:

äppärät: The devices which control social interaction in society, broadcasting information about their owners (all subjective rankings, potentially humiliating and cause for constant anxiety) and also serving as the main entertainment and communication devices.  So, yes: iPhone/iPads.  Everyone is constantly ranking and evaluating everyone else, and monitoring their own rankings, and the rankings as well as the categories of ranking themselves (Credit, Hotness, Sustainabilit¥, Fuckability, Personality) revealing the coarse, striving superficiality dominating American discourse.  As now, the devices themselves are also status symbols, the smaller and sleeker the better.

dachshunds: Kind of the Shteyngart equivalent of Nabokov’s butterflies, they pop up here and there in the narrative.  Mostly, however, this is an excuse to show the inscription to and drawing of our dachshund Bruno by Shteyngart in my copy:

GlobalTeens: The Facebookian social media site that dominates communication, especially for our protagonist Lenny Abramov’s beloved, Eunice Park.  Her side of the story is told through the semi-literate messages, called “teens,” that she sends to her friends and family through her GlobalTeens account.  The emphasis here on an arrested, adolescent-level emotional development and communication is a recurring theme in the work: that the basic messages themselves through which most of society now communicates are called “teens,” to the point that physically speaking is called “verballing” to differentiate it from teening, is both plausible and kind of horrifying.

Media: Both a noun and adjective, as in “He’s so Media,” the ultimate sign of approval.  One of the main Media outlets for news information is called CrisisNet; others are FoxLiberty-Prime and FoxLiberty-Ultra.  But many people have their own streaming entertainment/commentary shows, and ratings for these shows are monitored in real time to react to what people do and do not want to hear about.

People’s Literature Publishing House: The publisher of an edition of Lenny’s diaries and Eunice’s GlobalTeens messages — in other words, Super Sad True Love Story.  As Lenny says, “it never occurred to me that any text would ever find a new generation of readers,” and did not write his diary entries with publication in mind.  However, the People’s Capitalist Party of China issued, as the last of its “Fifty-One Represents,” the message, “To write text is glorious!”, leading to resurgence of the printed word.  This is one of the few hopeful notes in the book.  Lenny is one of the few buyers and readers of “bound, printed, non-streaming Media artifacts” left in the world, and is something of a freak because of it: his friends and Eunice find the books smelly and somewhat disgusting, and he sprays them with air freshener to get rid of the smell of old paper.  The representation of how reading functions in a society that places no value on introspection or empathy, and what might come to be valued in it again, is a fascinating subtext in the work.

Post-Human Services: The division of the Staatling-Wapachung Corporation which employs Lenny Abramov.  It is dedicated to achieving eternal youth for its High Net Worth Individual clients through a variety of nutritional, cosmetic, and high-tech medical procedures (“smart blood” being one of the key elements).  The process does seem to work, at least to some degree: Lenny’s boss, Joshie, seems to be in his seventies even though he appears a twenty-something.  But Shteyngart leaves the exact nature of Post-Human Services ambiguous.  It could be seen as a scam for separating the desperate, aging wealthy from their money along these lines.  Lenny clearly believes; Joshie, a smooth operator, may be playing at belief.  Whatever the case, the inclusion of this thread of life-extension technology exclusively for the superwealthy by a giant, foreign-owned multinational is a smart inclusion in a day-after-tomorrow dystopia.

Rubenstein: The shadowy Secretary of Defense who seems to be the true man in charge of the entire American government — or what remains of it, in the form of the American Restoration Authority, a turbo-charged Homeland Security-like apparatus, run by the Bipartisan Party, given to equal parts paranoid security measures and absurd sloganeering (a digital spy/mascot in the form of an otter, cartoonish anti-immigration posters, a PR campaign based on Mellancamp’s “Pink Houses”).  The names are interesting here: in Shteyngart’s dystopia, Israel is SecurityStateIsrael, still a lynchpin of US foreign policy, and our political parties have blended into one “Bipartisan” non-choice, even as the US is eaten from within by its debt, its military misadventures, and its economic inequalities.  So, yes: as with all satire, this is not so much bleak vision of the future as slight exaggeration of the current state of affairs.  I’m curious about the Zionist angle, here, and what kinds of reaction Shteyngart has received to it.

Suk, Reverend: Leader of a Korean Christian crusade, the description of his Madison Square Garden revival is one of the fascinating set pieces of the book, tying together the themes of immigrant families’ assimilation, religion, spectacle, and evolving/devolving language in an astounding display of guilt, shame, and community.  It also calls to mind other famous sermons in American literature, from Father Mapple in Moby-Dick to Reverend Barbee in Invisible Man, but as with so much else in this dystopia of America on the verge of collapse, the rhetoric and the presentation are wildly different: flattened, religious experience debased.  And yet, even though Lenny’s friend Grace believes Korean Christianity to be a matter of assimilation, gone in one more generation, haven’t we been saying the same thing for generations now?  Aren’t we always thinking the next generation will be the one to abandon religion altogether, and aren’t we always surprised to find it still alive and well?

TIMATOV: One of the hilarious GlobalTeens-based acronyms in the book, standing for Think I’m About to Openly Vomit.

Venezuela: Site of the current American military intervention, leading to the veteran-led revolt and credit crisis that finally brings down the US.  As with a number of glancing references to corporations here, oil is the subtext: nationalized corporations in oil-rich countries are running the show, and the US attempt to take over Venezuela is obviously about that.

How Snack Cakes and Thomas Kinkade Explain America

August 11, 2012 § Leave a comment

Finished long ago: Pym, by Mat Johnson.

Pym is a wildly uneven book, its amazing premise (Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym is a true story, as revealed by the existence of a narrative by Dirk Peters, the black sailor on the voyage) and brilliant, relentlessly inventive plot undermined by some uninspired language (the word “guy” is used excessively) and underwritten elements.  But any book that can move from a satire on academic tokenism to a post-apocalyptic scenario in Antarctica is worth a look.  It’s a worthy entry in the category of the American Weird; the book it reminds me of most is Victor LaValle’s Big Machine.

Johnson is really good at presenting the scope of America’s absurdity, and the overlooked pervasiveness of race and racism in its giant problems: he has a real gift for skirting close to allegory in his fantastic scenarios.  I especially loved the inclusion of two connected elements of satire in the comic character of the narrator’s friend Garth: his overwhelming loves for the paintings of Thomas Karvel and Little Debbie snack cakes.

Karvel is, of course, a thinly veiled reference to the self-proclaimed “Painter of Light,” Thomas Kinkade.  If you’re not American or have somehow, blessedly, missed seeing his work, just check out his website for an introduction.  You’ll see that, as Chris Jaynes  points out in Pym, the work “looks like the view up a Care Bear’s ass.”  Jaynes also points out that black people seem to have no place in the Karvel aesthetic: they are just not part of the “pretty picture.”

The cloying sweetness of Karvel’s landscapes is only matched by the HFCS-laden Little Debbies that Garth is addicted to, to the point of bring cases of them along to Antarctica.  Great fun is had with the Little Debbie name, logo, and long-lived slogan, “Little Debbie has a snack for you.”  The white American obsessions for centuries — racial purity, cleanliness, “wholesome family values,” the monetization, standardization, and mass production of just about everything — are mirrored in both Karvel’s factory-produced “masterpieces” and the omnipresent, addictive Little Debbie simulacra of homemade desserts.

Johnson’s greatest gift in this book seems to be for giving the abstractions of academic discourse — fear and attraction to the Other, sexual sublimation, the deep contextual underpinnings of American literature — lurid, provocative, narrative form.  To make them, in other words, interesting as entertainment.  The juxtaposition of Karvel and Little Debbie works beautifully on this level, bringing together many threads in American culture, politics, and aesthetics.  So do the brilliant plot twists in which Karvel and Little Debbies become the salvation of the black cohort of adventurers at the South Pole are a perfect example of this.  But to give too much away about that would spoil the fun.  The fantastical plot elements of the work do function, as I said, at an almost allegorical level for the predicament in which America finds itself: our gluttony and willful blindness to problems like inequality, racism, and global warming leading to a situation nearly as dire as that in which the black explorers find themselves in Antarctica.  Eventually the  hermetically sealed hothouse of Pollyannaish exceptionalism has to be exposed to the harsh elements.  The Little Debbies eventually must come home to roost.

In Faery Realms

August 5, 2012 § 1 Comment

Finished long ago: The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien.

Reading now: Mythologies, by William Butler Yeats.

The Third Policeman is one of those books that casts a kind of glamor as you’re reading it for the first time, making it impossible to recapture the mysterious feeling of experiencing its strange world.  As it happens, the book is less directly indebted to Irish mythology and history than O’Brien’s masterpiece, At Swim-Two-Birds.  But I’ve been reading Yeats’s compilation of Irish folklore and musings, and things like glamor are on my mind.

As different as Yeats and O’Brien seem to be, their books may both be read as explorations of the realm of Faery, which can also seem the realm of death, as well as the realm of both good-natured and menacing tricks.  As Yeats describes them, the “Good People” of Faery are everywhere just beyond our vision, capable of switching the bodies of those that seem dead to whisk them away to a better realm, or to steal a newborn or newlywed for their own revels, and good and evil are somewhat meaningless terms to them, their love and hate untrammeled by the moral ambiguity that mortals must always experience.

O’Brien’s book can also be read as a visit to a particularly dark and disturbing part of Faery, by a particularly unsavory individual.  In it, as in Yeats’s vision of Irish mythology, the twilight realms of death and Faery are always near:

It was some change that came upon me or upon the room, indescribably subtle, yet momentous, ineffable.  It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye…

Our narrator then finds himself face to face with what appears to be the man he had just helped to murder.  As in tales of Irish Faery kidnappings, the individual is uncannily changed from his former self:

But the eyes were horrible.  Looking at them I got the feeling that they were not genuine eyes at all but mechanical dummies animated by electricity or the like, with a tiny pinhole in the centre of the ‘pupil’ through which the real eye gazed out secretively and with great coldness.

O’Brien is the best writer I know for channeling the spirit of the Irish Sidhe, for he harnesses chaotic and mysterious plots to beautiful language and moments of joy and laughter.  The hilarious subplot in The Third Policeman of the bicycle-people, slowly becoming more and more centaur-like as they absorb more atoms of bicycle due to excessive riding, is a perfect example.  This is the kind of cock-and-bull story, and the kind of book, that rings both true and hilariously false, that brings together anarchic joy of making it up as you go along and a kind of commentary on humanity, on the limits of science, on our strange hybrid nature, machine and spirit and body all mixed up together.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for August, 2012 at The Ambiguities.