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 Nabokovian Reading of Ishmael

May 30, 2010 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Moby-Dick.

Everyone who’s read or even read about Moby-Dick knows that Ishmael is a weird entity, a hybrid of character, limited and omniscient narrator, and authorial representative.  He shows and tells us things he, as a character, could not possibly have seen or heard.  But he came across as even weirder than I remember on this reading, if only because I was able to pick up more of the details than on previous readings, my attention focused on the bigger picture of understanding the novel.

The possibility of reading Ishmael as a Nabokovian trickster-narrator occurred to me on this reading — the possibility of Ishmael as a deliberately duplicitous narrator, a figure who indicates the fictional nature of his own composition and implicates the real-life author, as well.  It’s a half-facetious argument: some of the explanation for Ishmael’s weirdness lies, I’m convinced, in Melville’s being carried away by his passionate composition and his insistence that his text say what he wanted to express, whether or not it meant betraying the verisimilitude of the narrative and the character.  And so his character is given some of Melville’s own backstory and some elaborate incidents of his own, is thrown into situations to move the story along whenever convenient, etc.  But some of this does seem, if not deliberate, at least playfully possible as a legitimate reading, thanks to Melville’s gift for compelling detail, instructive incident, and frequent allusion.

Along with the first line of the book, the famously ambiguous “Call me Ishmael” (“call” you that because it’s not your real name, and you want to protect your identity, or “call” you that because you’re really the author and are assuming a persona?), the linchpin for an argument like this is probably the mention of a Captain D’Wolf in chapter 45, “The Affadavit.”  Ishmael has “the honor of being a nephew of his,” we’re told, and has confirmed with D’Wolf the truth of the whaling incident just described.  Interesting, this sidelight into Ishmael’s family (one of two, the other being the incident in which Ishmael’s stepmother sends him to bed in the middle of the afternoon described in an earlier post), especially considering his self-image as an “orphan” and “outcast.”  But more interesting is the fact that this Captain D’Wolf really was Melville’s uncle: “Nor’west” John D’Wolf.  (See here: as you can see, this message is part of a website about the film Traces of the Trade, about the slave trade, in which the D’Wolf family was heavily involved.  Also interesting, if not quite on topic.)

And so, if you knew Melville personally, or knew the D’Wolfs — and they were a famous family, and America was a much smaller place, so this was not unlikely — this punches a hole right through the mask of the character Ishmael to reveal the face of the author Melville.  This historical, verifiable D’Wolf is not the uncle of any Ishmael: he’s Melville’s.  And we’re suddenly on the unstable ground of nonfiction v. “realist” fiction v. self-consciously unreliable fiction.  And it’s utterly delightful that this mention occurs in “The Affadavit” — this half-serious, half-joking document attesting to the truth of Ishmael’s assertions, in which he relates whaling incidents he’s read about and those he’s “personally known.”

The trickster nature of Ishmael pops up often, of course, in his relation of incidents in Ahab’s cabin, of thoughts and private soliloquies he could not have heard — his apparent transformation into a spirit or god, until his reincarnation as the survivor Ishmael in the Epilogue.  But charting the course of his life after the novel’s close through mentions in the book also destabilizes his characterization.  Mentions of Ishmael’s working as a “schoolmaster” (in the very first chapter) and of his obsessive research into whales and whaling (throughout the heart of the book) lead one to look back on the prefaces to the “Etymology” and “Extracts” and wonder if that “late consumptive usher” and “sub-sub-librarian” are not, in fact, Ishmael himself: if his painting them in such pathetic colors is not a sign of self-loathing or remorse for his wasted life.  But then there are also frequent allusions to the many other voyages he’s made on whalers and other ships, the ports he’s stopped at, the adventures he’s had, the wisdom he’s found.  “The Town-Ho’s Story” is but the most famous example: Ishmael recounting the story he heard during the Town-Ho‘s gam with the Pequod to his Spanish friends in Lima some years later.  There’s also the utterly remarkable incident chapter 102, “A Bower in the Arsacides,” as Ishmael is able to measure a whale’s skeleton which has been converted into an idol.  Here’s the astonishing passage I’d forgotten:

The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.  But as I was crowded for space, and wished the other parts of my body to remain a blank page for a poem I was then composing — at least, what untattooed parts might remain — I did not trouble myself with the odd inches…

I mean… wow.  Ishmael, so astounded by Queequeg’s cosmological tribal tattoos at the book’s onset, has become an illustrated man himself.  That he did not mention it earlier surely means that this occurred after the Pequod‘s voyage.

So, to summarize.  We are to believe that Ishmael the composer of Moby-Dick, the lone lucky survivor of the Pequod disaster, is not traumatized by this experience into sticking to the land at all, but instead goes back to the sea constantly, taking many more trips not only on merchant vessels, but on whalers.  He becomes just as obsessed with whales and the white whale especially as much as Ahab ever was; he is a very old, very weathered and wizened sailor, covered in tattoos as surely startling as Queequeg’s once were to him.  The book is written on his body, perhaps, just as Queequeg’s understanding of the universe is written on his.  The book is as much an exorcism of his whaling demons as it is a chapter of his life recollected in tranquility.

All of which is not necessarily Nabokovian, except for the ending.  Provocative statement for discussion and debate: Moby-Dick has the craziest, most ludicrous ending of any great book.  As the ship sinks rapidly in its awful vortex, Tashtego, drowning, all but his arms underwater, still manages to continue hammering a red flag to the mast, and catches the wing of a “sky-hawk” in between his hammer and the mast, bringing it down with the ship.  In The Trying-Out of Moby-Dick, Howard Vincent somewhat hilariously tries to defend this as “perhaps [Melville’s] masterpiece of style.”  Um, yeah.  Style does not change the fact that this scene is bat-shit insane, and always has been, even by Romantic standards.

Does the vortex scene ultimately destabilize Ishmael as a reliable narrator?  Does it convince us that he, the character who supposedly shipped on the Pequod and supposedly survived its wreck, is making it up, Pale Fire-style?  Has Ishmael the author (or, beyond him, a fictional “Melville”) been driven insane by his whale obsession and his cowardice, driven to compose an overheated narrative about a monster whale, a demonic captain, and his incredible survival of a massive shipwreck — of which he is, conveniently, the only survivor, the tale therefore unverifiable — supported by an overabundance of “evidence” from his many supposed voyages, his years of “wandering,” and his extensive research (but really from just a few printed sources)?

Well, no.  The greatness of Melville’s book does not lie in its destabilization of the author as authority or the intricate interplay between narrator and reader.  But it’s a testament to the expanse, the capacity, of this book, that it can absorb this sort of reading, too.  And it is fun to imagine the book in this alternate-universe sort of way, as a giant hoax, a massive documentation of an unstable mind.

The Trickster’s Exemption

August 11, 2008 § 1 Comment

Now reading: Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me, by Richard Fariña.

Reading next: The Raw Shark Texts, by Steven Hall.

Lots of questions with this book. For one: Why am I reading it? (Well, because Fariña was a good friend of Pynchon’s when both were at Cornell in the ’50s, and I’m in this hippie-lit phase now anyway, and if not now, when?)

For others: is it Beat or Hippie? Does it matter? (Not really, but fun to parse sometimes.) I think it’s mostly late-Beat, actually. As Vineland is a kind of post-hippie novel, looking back at the 60s to reclaim its ethos from the greedy 80s, BDSLILLUTM looks back at the Beat heyday, 1958, from crazy 1966. It’s ponderous and pretentious (as well as overreaching in the very special way that only first novels from those weaned on the Beats can be), with jazz, Joyce, and multiple layers of mythological allusion involved. (Actual onomatopoetic lines of jazz at some points, I guess to reinforce mood and tone, or at least that’s the excuse.) It’s also got that Beat frisson of misogyny or at least condescension to women. And everybody embarrassingly calling each other “baby.” And Gnossos, our hero, with this retarded self-aggrandizing idea about being a spiritual virgin, claiming he’s “laid” like a million women but never “surrendered” himself to any of them. (What a tool, seriously. This is the stupidest thing about this book.)

But I’m being hard on the book. There are some funny slapstick scenes, and some good writing. It’s only pretense if you’re pretending to be good, as they say, and Fariña definitely has good stuff. (He died, sadly, two days after this was published.) And it does seem to be at least in part about that anxious incessant identity-forming that was so much of the Beat project, and is so much of a part of growing up, getting out of the house and going to college and out on expeditions in hopes of receiving a vision (as Gnossos does, into the American West and the frigid North, before returning to Athene, the stand-in for Ithaca, NY, in the book). Right at the start, there’s this interesting passage, as we’re plunged into Gnossos’s thoughts:

I am invisible, he thinks often. And Exempt. Immunity has been granted to me, for I do not lose my cool. Polarity is selected at will, for I am not ionized and I possess not valence. Call me inert and featureless but Beware, I am the Shadow, free to cloud men’s minds. Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? I am the Dracula, look into my eye.

Exemption, immunity: Gnossos is a trickster, or at least fancies himself such. An invisible Mercury, a wandering Odysseus (yes, he’s very self-consciously Greek), a fly in the ointment of an uptight 1950s university town. This passage does a nice job of introducing some of the main symbol-systems used in the book: the physics and chemistry of the nuclear age (we learn later that Gnossos witnessed a nuclear test in the Nevada desert), the mass media booming in the ’40s and ’50s and forming a generation both homogeneous and terrified of homogeneity, the literary and the mythical.

And yet Gnossos also obsessively worries about “the monkey-demon,” another trickster figure from Chinese Buddhist legend (and there’s a fair amount of Buddhist allusion in the book, making me think this is a Buddhist monkey-demon and not one of the flying monkeys of The Wizard of Oz. ‘Course, could be both). He reminds himself again and again to watch out for the monkey-demon. At one point, at a crazy party/orgy, a scary spider monkey actually appears; his owners get him stoned for fun, making the monkey even scarier. Needless to say, Gnossos is freaked out.

The monkey-demon seems to stand for the dark side of the trickster/outsider identity, to Gnossos: the side of chaos, of destructive rather than creative force, the side that turns evil and frightened when its mind is altered. The perspective shifts in this book in tricksy ways, too, Farina often shifting from third to stream-of-consciousness first and back within the same paragraph or sticking to one or the other for pages at a time with a few sentences sprinkled in that could either represent the thoughts of either the narrator or Gnossos. Mentions of “the monkey-demon” or “beware the monkey-demon” are often like this: we can’t be sure if it’s Gnossos saying this to himself, or the narrator telling us and his eight-years-ago hero-self that danger is afoot. (Clearly part of this shifting perspective is the semi-autobiographical nature of the book, the trickster as the author of his own fictional story and “true” identity, the web-weaver and lie-spinner. The confidence-man. Anansi.) The problem I’m having is with that mention of Dracula, which seems to show awareness, and even an embrace, of the dark side of the identity Gnossos has cultivated.

This circles back to this whole male-spiritual-virginity thing: as “Book the First” ends, Gnossos has fallen in love with a co-ed named Kristin McLeod. “Exemption” means exemption from the rules of society, but it also, apparently, has meant exemption from being required to care about the person on the other side of sex. Is this why the dark trickster figures of monkey and wolf recur here, why Gnossos’s boozy Indian neighbors interrupt the consummation with a smile and a warning, “Much caution”? Although Gnossos longs, supposedly, to truly “make love,” is this a warning that immunity and exemption are only granted to those who remain outside of love’s circle?

Under the Pear Tree: The Seventh Day

June 18, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Decameron.

I have to admit, Dioneo’s day was a disappointment. I really thought we were in for some truly filthy stories and maybe an orgy or two, but there wasn’t really much of an uptick in filth or sex. That being said, it is a day befitting a trickster-figure like him: Boccaccio begins by telling us Lucifer is the only star left in the sky when they awake, and the tales revolve around wives tricking husbands. (As an aside, the names of the three men in the group are interesting and probably important, at least rhetorically, in ways I don’t understand: Panfilo, the all-lover; Filostrato, lowered or tortured by love; Dioneo, a Dionysian reveler.)

This seems like a setup for some old-fashioned misogyny, but most of the time the stories are really quite gentle — or at least, no harder on the wives than the husbands. Lauretta speaks best for him, introducing her story, the fourth: “O Love, how manifold and mighty are your powers!… What philosopher, what artist could ever have conjured up all the arguments, all the subterfuges, all the explanations that you offer spontaneously to those who nail their colours to your mast?” Women who trick out of love, or boredom, or for anything but money, really, are okay in Boccaccio’s book; as Lauretta sums up her story, “Long live love, then, and a plague on all skinflints!”

The most interesting stories are the first, Emilia’s, in which a wife convinces her husband that it is a werewolf, not her lover, that is tapping at their door at night, and the ninth, Panfilo’s. This is one of the most famous stories in the work, the magic pear tree story. It’s one of the few stories to take place outside of Italy, in Argos, Greece. In order to win the love of one of her husband’s handsome retainers, Lydia agrees to undertake three crazy tests. To show just how committed she is, Lydia says she’ll not only accomplish them all, she’ll make love to Pyrrhus (the retainer) while her husband watches. Once Lydia has completed her tests, they fulfill her final wish when Pyrrhus climbs up a pear tree and convinces Lydia’s husband that he can see him making love to his wife, even though they’re just sitting under the tree. Afraid the tree is enchanted, the husband climbs up himself, and sure enough, there’s Pyrrhus and Lydia, getting it on.

I mean, this is brilliant in any number of ways. It’s a mockery of magic and superstition; it’s breezy and utterly Boccaccian (is that a word?) in its insistence that people who want to screw will screw, and it’s silly to fight such forces as Love and Horniness; it’s ingenious in that the trick is that there really is no trick: it’s all in the husband’s head, all in his strange but utterly plausible combination of credulity and disbelief. All perspective and self-delusion. I think Chaucer uses it, in the Merchant’s Tale, which I need to go back and read again.

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