Reading Fiction and Haruki Murakami

I've got a story coming out in the online magazine Every Day Fiction on Thursday, and some comments by one of the editors got me thinking again about fictional stories and what we expect from them. First, I will mention that the magazine has a rating system—every reader can vote zero to five stars per story. Every reader can also comment, which often leads to a discussion. I've been reading the stories so far this month and the comments they inspired. There is a bit of the typical online discourse that happens; someone feels emphatic about one thing and continues to defend it long after others post their own opinions. There is some love. And there is genuine close reading of a story. Most of the stories have something dramatic or action-packed to them. I confess I'm a little nervous.

My stories tend to be quiet moments, low drama, or points of heightened awareness. I like finding meaning in the everyday, something that might seem insignificant on the surface. Perhaps that is more of a poet or visual artist's angle, but I love writing prose. In grad school I began noticing that books considered "bests" tended to include a death. While that is a natural ending for all things living, it troubles me that death is the only or best way to add tension to a story.

In my twenties, I read quite a bit of Japanese fiction. The sensibility for what makes a good story seemed different. And the high stakes might be there, but it is the main character's response and how the characters change that is the purpose of the story. The stories seem to examine why people do what they do or think what they think, or feel what they feel, a deeper psychological look at humanity, rather than an action plot of getting from here to there. The endings are often left open. They don't wrap up neatly, leading the reader to surmise, guess, infer, or hope. At least that is what I remember.

Curious, I recently checked out two books by Haruki Murakami. While I had read his book The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel (1997), which I remembered to be surreal and unsettling, I wondered what his more current works were like.

The Strange Library (2014) attracted my attention as an artist's book rather than conventional novel. It has two cover flaps up and down, and images on the versos. The text begins immediately with no other title page or introduction and in larger monospaced typewriter font.

Full-bleed images occur on nearly every other page. Extremely visually rich.

The story is a quick read and fairly simple: a young man ends up imprisoned in a library basement by an evil librarian who thrives on brains filled with knowledge. There is the odd servant and the mysterious beautiful girl, the mother waiting at home, and new shoes. All those tropes have been done cleverly elsewhere. But, looking deeper, psychological questions such as, "Why do I act like this, agreeing when I really disagree, letting people force me to do things I don't want to do?" (Section 6), run throughout. Unfortunately, it only skims the surface of why we might to please other people and not want to make waves. I wanted to be satisfied—the book looked lively and seemed to have so much potential, but ultimately, it was not enough for me. I'm also looking for well-crafted prose, so sentences like this one are problematic: "She was so pretty that looking at her made my eyes hurt" (Section 11).  Daniel Pinkwater can do absurdity better and with humor. And, in the end, someone dies (albeit in smaller type and as a denouement). But the design is so good! I was sure he wrote better than that.

So,  I also tried After Dark  (2007). The outward appearance is conventional, but the writing format, I realized, was more like a play, which delighted me. The descriptions at the beginning of chapters are like stage directions. For example, the first chapter: "Eyes mark the shape of the city. Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair." Much more poetic prose. The same writer! 

In each chapter, "We allow ourselves to become a single point of view" (24) and "We follow the same rules, so to speak, as orthodox time travelers. We observe, but we do not intervene" (26). The book is written at a remove, primarily in omniscient third person when it does not say "we." We only get close to the characters when they communicate with each other and choose to reveal their feelings. We are not inside their heads. We stay in ours and observe. After all, he seems to show us, we are the readers, not the writer.

The whole novel takes place from 11:56 pm through 6:52 am; times are the chapter names. Strange things happen. There is risk, a little violence, but those are placed to keep our interest and wake us up periodically. The theme is about connecting, getting close to others, how memories connect us, the metaphorical barriers we put up, and what to do to take them down. These are ordinary thoughts, quiet thoughts, but in After Dark they are presented in a poetic and imaginative way. The ending doesn't tie up nicely, and we don't see death. It's open in what I would say is a more classically Japanese ending. An imaginative and intriguing book.

Translation is another issue, but that's a subject for another post.

For a third comparison, I re-read Kawabata's story, House of the Sleeping Beauties in the story collection of the same name (yet again, spoiler alert: there is a death at the end, although not what you'd expect). I discovered that Murakami may have been consciously or unconsciously echoing Kawabata, perhaps both thinking of the fairy tale. In both, there are beautiful women who are deeply asleep. Things seem to happen to them, but they have no knowledge of them. They may wake up and go back to sleep, but that happens offstage. But these are Japanese stories, not Western ones, so the important changes happen to the people around the sleeping women, not to the women themselves. They are psychological and emotional changes that deal with our questions of life and death, memory and connection. Kawabata's writing, as makes sense to the story, is more visceral, sensual, and written in very close third person, so we feel more intimate with the character. 

Subtlety and nuance can be sensual, can slow us down, make us pause and reflect and feel. That's the kind of work I like to read. And write.