Monday, October 12, 2015

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“HEAR THE WIND SING and PINBALL 1973” by Two Short Novels by Haruki Murakami (translated by Ted Goossen) (Harvill Secker / Penguin-Random House, $NZ40)

Although he is now in his mid-60s, the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami has a huge international fan-base, especially with people in their twenties and thirties. Part slacker, part Kafka, he resonates with those who like their existentialism wrapped in short narratives filled with both highbrow and pop culture references. (See on this blog reviews of his ColorlessTsukuru Tazaki and The StrangeLibrary)
Murakami’s appeal is so great that publishers are now marketing to the complete-ists. These two novellas Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973 were the first things that Murakami wrote and had published, back in the early 1980s. They have been around for years in an English translation by Alfred Birnbaum, but that translation did not attract a large audience. Now the two novellas are getting wider distribution in new translations by Ted Goossen. This single volume prints them back-to-back, one right-side-up and one upside-down (depending on which side of the book you’re holding up). The two stories are “bulked up” with blank pages between chapters etc., though in truth each is short enough to be read at a sitting.
Written in 1979, Hear the Wind Sing is a first-person narration by an unnamed 29-year-old looking back eight years, and recalling his younger self when he was a 21-year-old biology student at university.
To call the narrative episodic is an understatement. Presented in bite-sized chapters, it takes us through the narrator’s year of seemingly random encounters. One of the most significant people in his life is “the Rat” an idler and university dropout from a rich family, about the same age as the narrator. While the narrator is bookish, the Rat isn’t. He prefers to spend his time hanging out in coffee shops, reading car mags and porn mags and drinking beer. The Rat does, however, tells the narrator the plot of a nightmare he’s had, which sounds to the narrator like an excellent plot for a story. The narrator introduces the Rat to books, and by the end of this novella, we hear that the Rat has been reading Henry James (whom he judges crap), Moliere and Kazantzakis. Very coffee-bar. There’s another male friend, the Chinese bartender “J”, who is more shadowy and seems mainly a sounding board for the narrator and the Rat, although he does occasionally express pieces of pithy wisdom.
But Hear the Wind Sing is not a story of salvation by reading. It’s more a series of apparently random and apparently unconnected events. There’s the narrator’s recall of once, as a kid, going to a psychoanalyst and being treated by being fed sweets. There’s a meeting with an older woman who tries to chat him up in a bar. There’s the DJ who rings him up and lets him win a redundant t-shirt.
So it trundles along until the girl-with-one-missing-finger, who passed out drunk at a party, turns up in the narrator’s bed.
And here we get this odd thing with hipster narratives. The novella does not suddenly focus of the relationship of the narrator and the girl. Instead, the narrator passes into memories of earlier girlfriends and bed-mates and has his continuing random encounters with the Rat. But it’s clear that the girl-with-one-missing-finger is now the most significant thing in his life, even if their conversations are minimalist and give as little away as possible, and even if the narrator continues to play the role of Mr Cool, never letting his feelings out.
The novella has a soundtrack of course, with all those references to the Beach Boys’ “California Girls” (I found it a relief from all the pop stuff when at one point the narrator and the girl listen to the MJQ instead). It also has a wrap-up of sorts, where what really ails the girl-with-the-missing-finger is revealed to us and it’s thematically linked with the DJ from whom our protagonist won his t-shirt.
Murakami has the great advantage of a very clear style, being mainly simple, declarative sentences. Oddly, the main effect Hear the Wind Sing had on me was one of nostalgia. It’s the pared-back, casting-no-shadows style of American hipster fiction from the 1950s and 1960s, even if it was written in Japan in the 1970s.
There are times when this cool-as-shit style can become irritating, however. Take this paragraph where the narrator describes one of his former loves:
The third girl I slept with was a French literature major I met in the school library, but the following spring vacation she hanged herself in the shabby grove of trees by the tennis courts. Her body wasn’t discovered until vacation ended and the new school year began – she had been swinging in the wind for two whole weeks. Even today no one goes near that grove after the sun goes down.” (p.69)
So that’s it. No emotional reaction from the narrator to the tragic and dramatic death of one of his former girlfriends? No – because to express emotion would be uncool. But then that’s the game with hipster fiction. We are supposed to join the dots and see the subtext that is latent in the simple factual statements. Trouble is, too often this sort of fiction (surface only, with us having to supply or infer the depth) doesn’t really have much of a subtext once you analyse it.
Hear the Wind Sing is prefaced with an introduction in which Murakami explains how he came to write this, his first work, in such spare time as he had when he and his wife were running a jazz-bar. “I hadn’t a clue how to write”, he says (p.x). He taught himself simplicity and directness of style by first writing in his limited English, so that he would be forced into a restricted vocabulary and simple sentence structures. Obviously Hear the Wind Sing is itself partly about the art of writing – its opening chapter is about what writing takes out of one, and two or three times Murakami refers to the (fictitious) American writer of pulp sci-fi, Derek Hartfield, as a model for his own writing. We hipsters refuse not to model ourselves on pop culture, you know, even if it’s a pop culture we’ve made up.

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Pinball 1973 is basically a continuation of Hear the Wind Sing. Written a year later, it concerns the same main characters (anonymous narrator and the Rat), who are now both in their mid-20s.
The narrator runs a translation agency, which gives him a good living. He now cohabits with two young women – a pair of twins. While singleness and alienation remain a big part of the tale, this domestic arrangement sounds more like an adolescent’s fantasy than a young man’s reality. Freaky and dippy things (pardon the dated 60s slang) happen when he is with these twins – such as the funeral they hold for a switch panel that has had to be replaced in their apartment. No meaningful conversations ever occur between the narrator and the cartoonic twins, however. More is said between him and the young woman gofer at his agency. She worries if she is stuck in a rut at her job of filing and making coffee.
Her anxiety is the real mood of Pinball 1973. It reflects very much the time when, post-university, young men and women are wondering what the heck they will do with the rest of their lives and how much longer they are going to stay around in the old neighbourhood.
Murakami adopts a new and interesting strategy in Pinball 1973. While the narration is still first-person, the sections concerning the Rat are written in the third-person. In effect, we get outside the narrator’s head, and we find the Rat’s mind analysed. The Rat goes through a half-defined, vaguely-explained relationship with a woman, but more than anything he is caught up in a strong sense of angst. He no longer feels comfortable playing the role he has played. He wants to move on, but the wider world daunts him. Thus:
It appeared as though time had stopped for the Rat, as if all of a sudden its flow had been severed. The Rat had no idea why things had changed. Nor did he know how to search for the severed end. He could only wander through the autumn gloom with a limp piece of rope in his hand. He crossed meadows, forded rivers, pushed open doors. But the rope led him nowhere. He was as powerless and lonely as a winter fly stripped of its wings, or a river confronting the sea. An ill wind had arisen somewhere, and it was blowing the warm familiar air that had embraced him to the other side of the planet.” (pp.33-34)
Or again:
The world awaiting him out there was just too big, too powerful; there seemed to be no place where he could burrow into it.” (p.49)
Murakami “doubles” his theme by splitting the novel into two consciousnesses like this; for if the Rat is ill-at-ease with the world he knows, so is the narrator. He spends much of his time reading Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and trying to figure out the logic of things.
Pinball 1973 begins, as its precursor did, with some thoughts about writing (in this case introduced by a “man from Saturn”, so we’ve got another sci-fi. vibe here). But very soon it gives us a discourse on playing pinball machines, and how pinball is essentially the art of doing nothing skilfully because, in the end, all the pinball-player is left with is the score on the machine.
Only three-quarters of the way through the novella do we return to this pinball motif as the narrator recalls embarking on a quest to find the Holy Grail of the perfect pinball machine upon which he once played, but which has gone missing. The novella becomes much more robust as a narrative once this quest begins, as does the type of irony Murakami produces. It transpires that the most detailed and meaningful conversation the narrator has is with the pinball machine as he imagines it speaking.
And then he is over his obsession with pinball machines.
It all ends with the Rat leaving to find the big world beyond his own home; and the narrator’s twin bed-mates saying farewell. In other words, at its core Pinball 1973 is a novel about the painful business of growing up, even if it traverses only the first half of becoming an adult. The farewell-to-adolescence part.
Being somewhat more generous in its descriptions, somewhat less minimalist in its dialogue, and far less determined to be cool and detached all the time, I found Pinball 1973 a more engaging and mature piece of writing than Hear the Wind Sing. Murakami was growing up as a writer.
Murakami devotees will be quick to tell me that these two early works were the prelude to A Wild Sheep Chase, a third book about the narrator and his pal the Rat. But as I haven’t read this third instalment, I can’t comment on it. Suffice it to say that these two novellas will satisfy the Murakami fans and were worth publishing.

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