Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Faster! Faster! Faster!

The international bestseller.  You grab it, hands shaking, sweat drops the size of marbles rolling down your face.  Get out of my way!  Get out of my way! Rushing, barging, you batter a path, through the few customers, to the empty till.  Oh, there you are.  Come on!  Come on!  The shop assistant is much too pleasant; and so she is slow with your cash.  She asks if you have read the last one.  It’s ok, its ok; I haven’t time for the receipt.  Outside you’re running to the nearest tube.  The train clunks along, breaking at every misfortune, can’t you see I’m in a hurry! as you pace the carriage…  and race the escalators at your home stop.  In the house, through the door, quickly into the bedroom; where you shoot up 500 pages…  Later, when she returns from work, Madeleine finds you flat out and comatose; peppered with the ripped pages of an “enthralling” new talent.  She picks them up, and puts them out for the recycling.

Or do you rush past those fat volumes leering from the shelves, scared of what you’ll catch: hello darlin’, doncha fancy some fine time under my voluminous petticoats?  You’ll get lost in there, my lovely.  Go on, stick your head in.  No, its ok, I have a partner you see, with two children; it’s that Trollope in classic black and white is what I am actually looking for; it will suit me quite nicely.  Goodbye my dears, goodbye.  At the till you regret, having succumbed to the temptations of good taste, the prude you have become.  If only your education hadn’t been so refined; so respectable…

Why do we avoid the embossed covers that promise unlimited love, murder and universal fantasy?  It’s just entertainment these days; so why not have the best?  And let’s face it, all those class restraints on good taste are far weaker than they used to be: now we’re actually encouraged to slum it.  It’s just a laugh, you see, and all a bit of irony.  Ah!  But the art, you say…  true, but how many of us are still believers; who care, that is, about books as we do about life?

These days a bestseller can mean merely a few thousand copies; though international sales must increase this by at least a hundred thousand.  Not bad, I guess, for about five hundred pages sold on the back of a dozen blurbs; the publisher's graffiti that decorates these often poor covers.  Though does anyone ever read them?  Isn’t international bestseller, sprayed canned out in front, itself sufficient?  Look!  Everybody likes this.  So it’s all right, you can buy it.

What’s the appeal?  Increasingly celebrity is the biggest attraction.  The other week I went into a charity shop in Caerphilly, and amongst the usual popular stuff, the romances and thrillers, the majority were biographies, mostly of sport stars and celebrities.  These shops, and the books they sell, are excellent signs of wealth and status – has a study ever been done on them?  This one reflected a relatively poor town, and thus the prevailing taste of today.  As I scanned the shelves I noticed that many appeared not to have been opened.  Had they become part of a modern ritual, a gesture of friendship, like a hug or a handshake; to be then given away to salve a guilty conscience?  Books no longer written to be read, but produced as methods of exchange, one present for another to seal a relationship, in a world narrowed down to the mirror and the digital screen.

Haruki Murakami is a more traditional bestselling author, one who has become popular through his work.  But what makes them so?  Narrative.  You can’t say it enough.  Narrative, narrative, narrative.  Indeed, I should end it here; for without a good narrative the book isn’t going to reach every charity shop in the land.  So much depends on the story, especially its pace.  It has to be a sports car, and it must do a ton down the motorway.  The faster the car, and the more dazzling its gadgets, the more popular it is likely to be; though for some speed is all that counts.  On a personal note, I can remember the moment I became bored with these books.  It was when I realised I was only reading to get to the last full stop.  It was like having a fast car simply to drive on the M4, to leave Bristol in order to reach London.  You put your foot down because there is nothing else to see.  Murakami, however, is a more vintage model: slowing down, investigating the side roads; and stopping to take in the scenery – he is both a popular author, and an artist who has something to say.

His Norwegian Wood, built around the Beatles’ song, is a good novel (though the writing does seem very loose on a second reading).  Why?  Because it creates its own atmosphere, of loss and longing; where some of the scenes have depth and originality; there is a nuance of feeling, and it grasps a truth, an old one for sure, of Adam and Eve alone outside the garden wall.  They can never return to their paradise; but must forever search for it, in places never be found.

Kafka on the Shore is described as having a “snappy plot”, “a thumping narrative”; while the rest of the blurbs are written by Murakami junkies.  We’re back in the sports car; speeding down the highway, the countryside a blur.  How fast can this thing go…

It is a poor novel.  It feels more like a draft than a completed book.  Remove at least half of it and you have the beginnings of a good story, which may have something to say.  There are fine scenes, and the central idea, of a journey into the subconscious, where the borderline between fantasy and real things, spirits and human beings, is unclear (there are references to the Tales of the Genji, which I presume is one of the influences), is a good one.  But the craftsmanship is poor.  We want our artists to absorb their experiences, so as to give us gives fresh perspectives and original insights.  What we don’t want is this:

Beethoven, he learned, was a proud man who believed absolutely in his own abilities and never bothered to flatter the nobility.  Believing that art itself, and the proper expression of emotions, was the most sublime thing in the world, he thought political power and wealth served only one purpose: to make art possible.

There are lots of this kind of thing, together with too many half-digested ideas from an international range of thinkers and writers.  We hear the clever student reciting their university textbooks.  It can impress, but usually only the naïve and the badly read.  Anthony Burgess once wrote that a common characteristic of the bestseller was its high information content – they must have lots of facts.  It was as if, he thought, we have to justify reading for pleasure; and thus we need the illusion that we are learning something (Burgess saw it from a Catholic perspective: the inherent Puritanism of the man in the street).  He may be right; but he misses the primary purpose of these books: to pass the time.  Thus the holiday read, burning up dozens of surplus hours, when bored on the beach there is nothing else to do.  To achieve this a novel must be both simple and innocuous, like newspapers.  The easiest thing of all is copy the familiar: thus the clichés, the formulas, and all those facts; many of which you may not know, but can skim over; for they are simply decoration; to give you the feel of a secure world.  In a work of art facts in themselves are irrelevant.  What is done to them is what counts.  But then the novel becomes difficult; there’s uncertainty; we have to interpret it; it makes us work; but here we are in Tuscany, and this damn book is taking me back to the office…  Murakami follows the bestseller prescription, but gives it his own twist: many of the references are to art and philosophy; which appears to give intellectual weight to his story.  One reason for this may be his audience.  Norwegian Wood was extremely popular amongst adolescents and young adults in Japan; mostly students, I assume.  Such a surface glitter of sophistication is just the sort of thing to appeal to the pretensions of this age group.  And it is superficial: for the ideas, rarely explored, simply become facts in another form.

Popular novels tend to follow formulas.  Fans keep buying, in effect, the same book; each successive novel thereby becoming easier to read; and potentially more forgettable; thus increasing the sales.  This may also reflect the author’s own trajectory, with each new book including less of his creative personality – each day just little less fresh than the one before.  Kafka on the Shore is also built around a song; this time created by a character.  Already you feel some tiredness; though no doubt others will be excited by the recognition; warmed up by the associations with the previous one.  Although it produces a major problem, for the story gets swamped by this conceit, coincidences hitting us like car crashes, as five hundred pages is shunted into just a few lyric lines.  It begins to feel forced and contrived.

So much crazy stuff happens!  Leeches and mackerel fall from the sky; the life force appears in person, as Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker, while prostitutes are philosophy students – and give the best sex ever -; and a 15 year old acts out a Greek tragedy.  It is a world where dreams enter the daily round…  except it’s poorly done.  The novel is like those adverts in the cinema, where films whiz by like cars in a Grand Prix: snippets of disjointed action, dazzling effects, and lots of smart dialogue; where even the truck driver talks like Isaiah Berlin.  Initially excited by the sensory overload, soon you weary of it; desperate for the main feature to start.

To get to the end of the novel Kafka Tamura must be the “toughest 15 year old in the world”.  That is, he mustn’t be a 15 year old at all – the biggest weakness in the book.  We could have got a less nuanced, but no less interesting, version of Daisy Miller, the confused and limited understanding of a teenager dealing with his distant father and lost mother; all mixed up with sexual desire and strange fantasy.  However, instead of subtle investigations into an individual’s psychology, we get dull-witted comedy, the hundred best ideas, and wild flights of fancy; where the Oedipus Complex is enacted in real life; though the hero is warned it is merely a metaphor…  We can have it all ways, and none.  The final resolution encapsulates these weaknesses.  It is less than a fully worked out finale, arising naturally from the texture of the book, than a bit of tacked on homely wisdom, or self-help counselling.

The more he talked, the more Hoshino realised how pointless his life had been.  Four of the six girls he’d gone out with had been nice.  (The other two, if you looked at it objectively, had personality problems, he decided.)  By and large they had treated him pretty well.  No drop-dead beauties among them, though each was cute in her own way, and let him have sex whenever he felt like it.  Never complained when he skipped foreplay and went straight to the main course.  They fixed meals for him on his days off, bought him presents on his birthday, lent him money when he was a little short before pay day – not that he ever remembered having paid them back – and they never demanded anything in return.  All this, and I was an ungrateful bastard, he concluded.  I took everything for granted.

Hoshino plays the straight guy to crazy Nakata, a sort of idiot savant, who can do amazing things, though mentally impaired.  Nakata, damaged by some unexplained occurrence, has lost all his memories, and his ability to reason; though he was the smartest kid before the accident.  (How many times have we read this in poor novels?  It assumes the reader can only respond to extremes: a punch in the guts or a kiss on the lips.)  As a result he lives inside his own universe; which is similar to ours, but exists on a queer tangent – he can talk to cats.  These two characters though real also seem to be part of the dream world of Kafka Tamura, who is running away from his father; though really himself.  The two worlds eventually collide.  They are like two sides of a triangle, narrowing down to its apex.  The real and the extraordinary, the present and the past, consciousness and the demons of repressed pain, are all free in the world.  They must be returned to Pandora’s Box.  So when the sides meet, the triangle whole again, and the lid once more locked, the anguish will go away; and Kafka, like ourselves, can then leave behind those mad fantasies.  We return to work; him to school.  And our comic duo?  So dull, they should join those sad acts on the end of Great Yarmouth pier; where they can wallow in their cheap psychology and sentimentalism. 

If only the author had stayed with Kafka, and built the novel solely around him; though it would still need to be improved and deepened; for even here there are problems: too much intellectual pretension, at the expense of real insight.  Nevertheless, the author is able to create some mystery; of a twilight world between the real and the unreal, where spirits and symbols merge with mundane life; and where we all get lost, from time to time.  It reminds me a little of Yukio Mishima’s great The Sea of Fertility, and suggests the wider influences of Japan’s literary culture.  It may also have something to do with the world of the child, and its borderlands with adulthood.  According to Ian Buruma childhood in Japan has a particularly special significance because, more than in other countries, it is clearly demarcated from the rest of a person’s life.  This tends to create a certain infantilism, and a nostalgia for a golden age; especially strong in feelings around the sexes, which is in turn reflected in the prominence of transvestism and trans-sexuality.  For in childhood there is mingling of the genders, which doesn’t occur in adult life; the separation being quite significant.  (This was confirmed to me by a Japanese friend, who said that traditionally there have been differences in the language between men and women, amounting to almost different dialects.)  In later life there can be a strong longing to return to that previous unity.  Murakami both captures this longing, and transforms it in a particular way: of the books I’ve read there is a high quotient of lesbians.  In this one a friend of Kafka’s is a female hermaphrodite.  The international references, whether in literature or music, tend to obscure what might a strong cultural conditioning; and therefore a possible lack of originality.  Not that being original is everything, of course.  It can be a weakness, as in this book; where the author tries too hard to create new toys and weird gadgets.

The novel is a song of praise to myth and dream, to fantasy and the imagination.  Be smart, but also have creative sympathy, is the message here.  However, the atmosphere it leaves behind is something a little different.  The greater the imagination the more likely you will be trapped within labyrinths of your own making.  For how rich and mysterious they are!  A feeling for the strangeness of the world, and an empathy with Reinhard’s invisible things, is apt to lose you to the obsessions of self and fantasy.  Murakami, by relying too much on his imaginative power…

“But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination.  The kind T.S.Eliot calls ‘hollow men’.  People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware of what they’re doing.  Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you don’t want to… But what I can’t stand are hollow people.  When I’m with them I can’t bear it, and end up saying things I shouldn’t…  Do you know why that’s a weak point of mine?”

“Cause if you take every single person who lacks imagination seriously, there’s no end to it.” I say.

“That’s it…  Those are precisely the kind of people who murdered Miss Saeki’s childhood sweetheart.  Narrow minds devoid of imagination.  Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems.  Those are the things that really frighten me.

…loses his art.  It gets lost in the fantastic; even though Oshima also warns his friend that he must always judge and analyse, and thereby stay close to the ground of reason and common sense.  The unconscious message is clear: beware the power of the unbounded mind.  Oh, how we wish the authors would listen to their characters! 

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