Haruki Murakami is one of those authors whose work I’ve known about from bestseller lists, seen stacked up on tables in bookshops, and featured in literary supplements for years. He’s so highly praised his it’s as if he’s popped up from nowhere only the last the past ten years, and which started after I’d come across the curiously titled novel Kafka on the Shore one day in Waterstones whilst looking for books about Kafka. Reading the back of it, I’d immediately got the impression that his themes were not comedy, sex or adolescence (my particular taste at the time), but about loneliness, death, love and God – most probably. Moreover, he was Japanese, my main association with Japanese culture was apocalyptic Manga, Godzilla, the Yakuza and Kurosawa samurai movies, and so my perception was limited, in short, to one that Japanese were a people obsessed with tradition, sex and violence, whom treated women badly, and had little sense of humour. I can say now, after reading Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance, I was wrong about one thing, the Japanese do have a sense of humour, and which probably explains the popularity of his books in the West.
Truthfully, I was abit disappointed with the elusive structure and ambiguous themes, although pleasantly surprised how contemporary and de rigueur the prose was, which seemed to be both an aesthetic choice and used to convey its themes of globalisation in its quotidian. According to Laura Walkey’s article (copied below), Dance Dance Dance had been Murakami’s favourite book to write and one based one actual incidents from the author’s personal life – although, I’m aware that Norwegian Wood had also been inspired by the author’s experiences at college during the 1960s. What attracted me to novel and had encouraged to choose this one, apart from the relatively shorter length compared with his other novels and also the name of Scandinavian ambient popgroup, was the Timeout quote on the cover comparing it to Blade Runner and Raymond Chandler – all of which appealed to my tastes and demanded that I should read further. All popculture references aside, the novel was interesting because it was strange and meandering like a dream, which I believe the novel is meant to be, but one created from the author’s own fears and imagination. Unfortunately, it’s not strange or exciting enough to be satisfying as a work of fiction, or to justify it’s slick and stylish design.
The central character who narrates the story starts out as a lonely and cynical manipulator, and who, as the plot thickens, gradually begins to develop a sense of integrity and suspicious of the weird apparitions and habits of those he takes for granted. The character appears to represent Murakami’s own insecurities and frustrations as a writer, where this solitary bachelor works as a copywriter for lifestyle magazines, researching and writing ‘fluff’ pieces reviewing restaurants and hotels, which the fictional writer spends most of time surveying. The character mocks and remains apathetic about his own empty, superficial work as a writer and his life in general, as he travels and goes on dates with escorts for sex. The character resembles the self-destructive anti-hero in Chuck Palahnuik’s Fight Club before his descent into violence and anarchy, as he watches and comments on the pulsing cityscape around him. He also resembles the nefarious and morally ambivalent Don Draper in the HBO series MADMEN, which I’d happened to be watching simultaneous to reading the novel.
It also reminded me alot of the teenage delivery boy/thief obsessed with the opera singer in Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (1981) with its 80s fashion icons, sunglasses and neon posters, but especially the boy’s young Taiwanese girlfriend listening to the Talking Heads and chewing bubblegum. The other would be David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001), a nightmarish film about actresses switching identities in a Los Angeles where demons and perverts are lurking behind every curtain. It would be difficult not to mention Wong Kar Wai’s surreal, post-modern films, wherein criminals, femme fatales, writers and misfits all inhabit the same lonely spaces and are haunted by the beauty, unrequited loves and dangers in these Hong Kong nightclubs and cafes, which Dance Dance Dance resembles. One couldn’t help but recollect the strange dreamlike structures and meditations on love and temptation intrinsic to the idiosyncratic director’s work, with more passing resemblance to Chunking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000). Perhaps the novel was even an inspiration for Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation (2003), which was set in Tokyo, and also about a platonic love between an older man and younger woman, and had Roxy Music on the soundtrack alongside its hipster prejudice for celebrities and Hollywood.
Clearly, Murakami, like Beineix (whose film Diva was probably an influence alongside Dostoyevsky and Kerouac) and Kar Wai, notice alot of beauty and poetry in Tokyo’s endless chains of shopping centres car dealerships, and wishes to focus on the personal emotions and thoughts of his characters navigating these places. And, even more startling, the novel had been published in 1988, six years before being translated into English, so whilst I’d assumed that all references to Talking Heads and Paul Simon were retro and hipster ironic, these references were actually popular at the time. This author’s disenchantment and sly sense of humour and the characters interest in sex and pop culture reminded me of Douglas Coupland, Bret Easton Ellis and Dave Eggers, none of whose novels would be published until a decade later.
I had expected the novel to be more of a detective thriller, since one critic already compared it to Blade Runner and Raymond Chandlers, possibly something along the lines of William Gibson (Virtual Light, Neuromancer), but Murakimi isn’t interested in science fiction, technology or the detective genre, he’s interested in existentialism, people and consumerism, similar to that of Coupland and Ellis, both of whose novels I’d enjoyed alot more than Dance Dance Dance.
As the main character becomes implicated in the murder of an exotic escort called ‘Mei’ whom he’d slept with after meeting with a college friend called ‘Gotanda’, a talented actor/celeb who’d achieved fame and fortune as a movie star, and whom the writer feels a sting of envy and contempt towards. Later, as the writer’s guilt and paranoia gradually takes hold, he tries to unravel a series of apparitions and dreams which begin to disrupt his already superficial reality. He tries to track down a woman he’d met earlier at a hotel called ‘Kiki’, whom he’d later watched in a bedroom scene for a film that stared Gotanda. After being interrogated by the police, they suspect that although he may not be responsible for the escort murders that he must be hiding something, but the writer refuses to tell them about Gotanda or the escorts. Afterwards at the hotel where he is staying, as a favour to the receptionist he seduces, the writer randomly agrees to be a chaperon to a sullen teenage girl on behalf of the child’s missing parents. The girl’s mother is a famous international photographer and her father is a writer whose name is similar to Haruki Murakami. Perhaps, Murakami has, like the comedienne and filmmaker Takeshi Kitano, Woody Allen, Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich) or in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), decided to write himself and his celebrity persona into his own fictional world in order to explore his fears about love and death.
The writer suspects that Gotanda, Murakami, the author’s ex-wife partner Dick North, an actual one armed assailant, and the mysterious ‘Sheepman’, whom he’d encountered during a waking dream inside a mysterious labyrinth at the hotel, must be linked to the murders of these escorts, but there are no clues apart from the young girl’s clairvoyance. Eventually when the writer confronts Gotanda about the murders, Gotanda confesses, but remains uncertain about his own guilt as to whether or not he was in fact responsible, since he himself is confused about the truth. Oddly, the writer disregards Gotanda’s confessions, despite his own feelings of remorse for Kiki and Mei, and after Gotanda miraculously disappears his body is later recovered after an apparent suicide. It’s as if the real Murakami, the author of Dance Dance Dance, is acting as a interfering puppetmaster, the Sheepman, which the characters and reader have become aware of, and is now literally writing the end of the story to cover up his indiscretions and plotholes.
There simply is no explanation or reason for these events except that the genre itself demands a resolution. In the final end the writer meets with the receptionist from the hotel where he’d met Kiki and the Sheepman, and has a dream about the hotel’s mysterious labyrinth and almost loses the woman he’d tried to seduce. She placates him, and the writer weeps for what he’s lost, but I’d remained puzzled as to what this could be, his freedom? his ignorance of the Sheepman? Kiki? the fact that he could just be a fictional character in a Murakami novel? Perhaps, I’m reading too much into it, as I’d felt that the author was deliberately trying to make me aware that things weren’t what they seemed, but as Gotanda remarks, the script gives the audience the lines they want to hear.
Interestingly, this happens to conform with some of Tzvetan Todorov’s critical essays about genre discourses in The Typology of Detective Fiction. Here, Todorov discusses crime fiction author’s SS Van Dine theory about what components form this genre, although Todorov’s goes on to discuss the differences between the emerging categories and how these relates, i.e. the ‘thriller’, ‘spy’, ‘mystery whodunnit’ and ‘detective’;
- A novel must have at most one detective and one criminal, and at least, one victim (a corpse).
- The culprit must not be a professional criminal, must not be the detective, must kill for personal reasons.
- Love has no place in detective fiction.
- The culprit must have a certain importance: (a) in life: not be a butler or a chambermaid (b) in the book: must be one of the main characters.
- Everything must be explained rationally; the fantastic is not admitted.
- There is no place for descriptions nor for psychological analysis.
- With regard to information about the story, the following homology must be observed: ‘author : reader = criminal : detective’
- Banal situations and solutions must be avoided.
There is little violence, suspense or action in the story. There’s no graphic sex or violence, which you might expect from a Japanese detective thriller about a murderous movie star and a ghost, and this is somewhat surprising considering the references to jazz music, Lou Reed, sex with escorts and alcoholism, all of which reminded me more of Madmen then Blade Runner, or perhaps The Shining (1980) – the Overlook hotel, psychic children and the Sheepman wouldn’t be out of place. All of the murders occur in the past tense, as the writer learns about these from other characters, and so is sex which is described as often as the writer listens to music and eats dinner with the others, scenes which happen alot. Where the characters drink and chat about their past, the future, love, dreams and everything else, this is what is most like American writers Coupland and Eggers, and seems so unexpected for a Japanese author.
A strange and interesting book, and I look forward to read more of Murakami.
The Best Books By Haruki Murakami You Should Read
The world renowned Japanese author Haruki Murakami is best known for his works of realist come absurdist fiction exploring the tough questions that concern humanity. A Japanese writer, his ideas appeal internationally and should be on everyone’s to-read list. So, where to start?
Norwegian Wood (1987)
The book that propelled Haruki Murakami to fame, Norwegian Wood follows the student years of Toru Watanabe and his experiences with two women. Set in Tokyo in the 1960s, the novel was a huge hit among students in the 80’s, as it saw one of the first depictions of the defeating nature of a student revolution and inspired many with a passion for contemporary politics and social action. All-in-all, this one is both a compelling and revealing read, and a fine place to start a journey through Murakami’s works.
Perhaps the most widely read of all Murukami’s works, 1Q84 reached the one million sales mark just one month after its publication. The title, a reference to George Orwell’s 1984, introduces the theater of action: a fictional Tokyo in a fictional 1984. The book’s premise is based on the idea that a single action will change the entire path of an individual’s life, much in the same vein as Tolstoy’s Forged Coupon. In this case, it’s the life of protagonist Aomame. A compelling read ensues.
Kafka on The Shore (2002)
Kafka On The Shore, published in 2002, narrates two separate yet interrelated plots, interchanging between them with each paragraph or chapter. Like Murukami’s other novels, Kafka on the Shore depicts a blend of pop culture, magical realism and sexuality but has a larger focus on Japanese religious traditions. There is also an overarching tendency to absurdity in this one, poking through with the protagonist’s prolonged conversations with cats and curious psuedo-nuclear goings on.
A Wild Sheep Chase (1982)
This mock detective novel has an unnamed protagonist; very unusual yet intriguing and typical of Murukami’s style. In truth, the device is there only to enhance the themes of Japanese cultural identity post World War II, Sexuality and Japanese religious traditions that are present in the book. The third instalment of the writer’s so-called Trilogy of the Rat, this parodic and animist narrative brings Murukami’s first famous franchise to an end with trademark magical realism.
Dance Dance Dance (1988)
For readers who enjoyed A Wild Sheep Chase, the sequel, Dance Dance Dance, is a must. Yes sir, what was apparently Murakami’s favorite book to write will likely be a favorite to read too. Dealing with themes of loss and abandonment, the novel indirectly includes many of Murakami’s real life experiences, which may be why the story is told so beautifully and compellingly, and is rarely forgotten once put down!
ga(‘create’, ‘UA-68860418-1’, ‘auto’);
By Laura Walkley