Thursday, October 20, 2016

I Hope Haruki Murakami Wins the Nobel Prize - And Will Be Thrilled When He Doesn't

[ed. This is exactly how I've felt about every Murakami novel I've ever read (and I've read nearly all of them). This was published just before Bob Dylan won the Nobel prize for Literature this year (you notice he's been kind of quiet lately?... maybe a little conflicted about accepting an honor from the inventor of dynamite and other lethal weapons?). Anyway, I do hope Mr. Murakami wins it one of these years because he really does have a masterful narrative style, but I'll still be baffled by what it all means.]

Well, it’s Nobel season again, and with it the annual ritual of speculating and gambling over who will win the literature prize.

Every year, Haruki Murakami’s name comes up. This year The Guardian reports he’s the 4/1 favorite.

Every year I’m both disappointed and relieved when he doesn’t win.

Disappointed because—well, ethnic pride. He’s Japanese, and I’m sort of Japanese.

Kenzaburo Ōe was the last Japanese literature Nobelist, and that was more than two decades ago. There’s only been one other literature laureate from Japan, the great Yasunari Kawabata, in 1968. Sure, I’m biased, but that seems like an oversight, although certainly not the only such oversight in the prize’s history (cf., only 14 women among 112 laureates, no black African winner since Wole Soyinka in 1986, etc.).

I’m also disappointed because he’s a writer whose work I actually know. I’ve read more Murakami than I have of any of the other writers on these annual lists—probably more than any of the top five to ten also-rans put together. If a writer you know wins, there’s this largely unearned but nevertheless pleasurable feeling of personal validation. Oh yes, you think, I’ve read that writer! I felt that way when Ōe won. And Lessing. And especially Munro. I wouldn’t mind feeling that way again.

And I do admire Murakami’s work. Some of it. I often like his short stories. And the novel excerpts published as short stories in The New Yorker, like “The Zoo Attack” and “Another Way to Die,” two excerpts from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that still haunt me 20 years after I read them. I quite liked after the quake, his collection of short fiction that reflects, in ways direct and indirect, on the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake. My students are reading “U.F.O. in Kushiro” this week, and I can’t wait to talk about it. I appreciate the obsession with disasters both natural and human-made, the latter explored in Underground, his non-fiction book about the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system (also 1995, a bad year in Japan).

So yes, I’m disappointed when Murakami doesn’t win.

But mostly I feel relieved because—okay, don’t hate me, but—I can’t stand the novels.

I know, I know, I know. Heresy! He’s the darling of the literary world! No other Japanese writer in my lifetime is likely to command so much attention in the West! He was really nice that one time I met him in Berkeley, more than 20 years ago, before he became so famous here! His novels are so weird and compelling and cool!

Yes, so weird and compelling and cool. But for me, reading a Murakami novel is a lot like eating a party-sized bag of potato chips by myself in one sitting. The bag is so enticing, and the potato chips look so good. The first one I crunch down is delicious, and the next one is pretty good too, and the next one and the next one. Before I know it, I’ve eaten the entire bag. But now I just feel gross and full of self-loathing. I didn’t even enjoy the last 30 potato chips, which were greasy and salty and nasty. I ate them because they were there. Because I wanted to recapture the taste sensation that was the first chip. Because I thought for some reason there would be a prize at the bottom of the bag. Even though I’ve eaten through many bags of potato chips, and there’s never a prize at the bottom.

So it is with Murakami’s novels. I love the inventive set-ups, the pell-mell zaniness, the quotable zingers. I love the international flavor—the pasta, the jazz, the references to Chekhov and Bashō and Janáček, oh my! If I leaf through my copies of his books, I can see where I’ve penciled “Whoa” and “Creepy” and “Yes!” in the margins. But my comments gradually betray my growing frustration: “Duh” and “I don’t buy this” and “Enough with the brand names already” and “I’m really tired of the plot hinging on someone’s ‘sixth sense’” and “This contradicts p. 165” and “Wait. What?” I love its parts, like the excerpts I mention above. But the whole is always somehow less than the sum of its parts. I devoured The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle when it appeared in English, but was left scratching my head afterward, wondering what I’d missed.

Novel after novel seem perversely to manipulate reasonable reader expectations, deploying plot elements that go nowhere and details that seem to be placed simply for kicks or shock value. All too often the books read like first drafts written straight through from beginning to end with no backward glance, as if the author forgot what he was up to between writing sessions or changed course a few times and didn’t realize it or care. No one else seems to notice these things or mind. I feel like the little boy in the fairytale pointing at the emperor and saying, “But… but… but… he’s naked?” (...)

At this point you’re probably yelling at the screen, Jesus, if you dislike his work so much, just stop reading it!

This is easier said than done, as it turns out. I’ve tried, really. Every time I read a Murakami novel, I say, Okay, that’s it. No more Murakami. I’m done.

But then another book comes out in translation, and there I am, munching down on those greasy, high-calorie chips as if they’re the best thing ever, then feeling bloated and pissed off afterward.

by Naomi J. Williams, LitHub |  Read more:
Image: uncredited