Luxury to Read

Flying can be nerve-wracking for someone like me who doesn’t really like to fly. I think it’s being so far from the ground, rather than any nausea or fear of aeroplane safety, that rubs grit into the animal fear center of my brain as assiduously as a penitent with a worry stone. There are more geometries to be worried about in a plane, as opposed to an earth-bound accident. Irrational, I know, but persuasive.

A great pleasure of flying for me though is reading. Being forced to inhabit isolated pockets of time like that, where my normal penumbral distractions and responsibilities have no power, can be such a godsend. There is a wonderful little story by Isaac Asimov that I read when I was 16 or so which explains a bit of the pleasure of such isolated pockets of time. It’s part of his short story collection Azazel.

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Azazel is a loosely connected cycle of stories based around the eponymous Biblical Demon, a mischievous little imp who grants the spoken and unspoken wishes of a gentleman named George. All of these wishes are taken quite literally, and predictably all of George’s best laid plans go awry. Unfortunately I cannot remember the title of the story I am reminded of, but the gist is this:

George’s writer friend complains to him that he is sick of waiting everywhere he goes, sick of the grocery store lines, sick of waiting for a table at restaurants, sick of waiting for taxi cabs, just altogether sick of the modest inefficiencies in his daily life. Azazel hears this complaint, and without George’s explicit request to do so, Azazel corrects the writer friend’s problem without delay.

George doesn’t run into his friend for a little while, but when he finally does the writer seems haggard, aggrieved and generally depressed. Unbeknownst to the writer, he needed those isolated pockets of time to daydream, create and process his ideas for which he has no time anymore to conceive of or hash out. He is miserable because of his lack of self-awareness; he is consumed by a pernicious bout of writer’s block since he did not comprehend the precise value of his time.

The perfect little story to read when you’re 16 and full of beans, asea in the chemical wash that besets us all after puberty. Something stuck with me, and made me a little more patient and sensitive to bubbles of frustration that might afflict me from time to time. The older I get this is easier to forget, especially now that I am in graduate school and drink espresso most every day. I do not want to be like an old boss of mine from the now-defunct Child World (or, Children’s Palace) chain, whom a fellow manager once described memorably as a “guy who takes red lights as a personal offense.”

I mentioned in an earlier post about Haruki Murakami that I hadn’t yet read his new novel, After Dark, and on my flight over to Seattle I finally had the time to invest; I finished it while still in the air, actually. It’s a modest little thing, more like a novella than anything else, but unfortunately I think it would’ve worked better as a short story…

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After Dark (Afutādāku), Haruki Murakami transated by Jay Rubin ©2007 (originally 2004) Alfred A. Knopf

Many of the best artists seem so original because they have a peculiar world-view that seems so alien but in which we can recognize ourselves, or the contours of our world. Murakami very often mines this terrain by kneading our recognition into a pulsing silhouette of memory and nostalgia, calling forth tendrils of recognition from a deeply submerged mental seabed of symbols, much like Dali, Jung, Borges and Buñuel. Unfortunately, for many artists and thinkers who inhabit these spaces for too long, their initial insight becomes a locked groove, cycling endlessly over that same grainy inch of inspiration, and what they represented so powerfully at first becomes an aenemic cliché teetering on the edge of parody.

Murakami has flirted with this in several of his works, alternatively successfully (as in A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle) and disappointingly (Sputnik Sweetheart, anyone?). After Dark is nearly a failure, but there is enough tweaking of his formula to keep it interesting for a time. His central conceit is that there are two worlds which inhabit us all, and it is the struggle to maintain a distinct separation between the two that fuels the emotional psychology of his characters. He is like David Lynch in this respect; each of them repeatedly returns to either the idea of the doppelgänger or of the homunculus, and each has an overwhelming need to make this separation explicit. For Lynch, it can appear as corporeal agents who freely traverse both worlds, or in the case of Twin Peaks it is the Black and White lodges. For Murakami, it is a rift in a person’s consciousness, a mysterious disappearance or a physical twin. No matter how firm our identification with a sense of reality, there is an equally tenable alternate reality holding scissors to our worryingly thin umbilical thread.

In After Dark the doppelgänger twins are sisters, Eri and Mari. Eri is a hopelessly beautiful model who is condemned to a self-imposed somnolescence throughout the entire book. Mari is her younger sister, and the essential heart of the work. Mari is an insomniac most nights since her sister’s several month-long exile of sleep began, unaware that she is searching for her sister somewhere in the shadowy nether regions of the night. The period after midnight is predictably depicted as an entry-point to alternative worlds, where Mari is beset with trials and nudging revelatory episodes in roughly the same manner as Kubrick’s Bill Hartford during his waking nightmare in Eyes Wide Shut.

The chapters alternate between the metaphoric malaise of each sister, and what is so alienating is that Murakami seems to be slumming it. The symbols do not carry their weight and feel forced upon the story rather than comfortably paired with it. A Videodrome-esque force powers an unplugged television, at one point capturing Eri for a time in a cavernous office space occupied by a plastic masked & chair-bound stranger, indistinctly flickering between two worlds, which is threatening but too obscure to really haunt. Murakami’s characters feel roughly sketched, which can serve as a concise metaphor in a developed shorter work but is often not compelling in a longer story,especially where emotional states represent a psychological twilight.

Film Still from Alphaville by Jean-Luc Goddard

Perhaps the strangest part is his narration, in which the observer/reader is supposed to be a camera-eye, somewhat in the tradition of Dziga Vertov’s documentary style conception but likely just a literalization of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, a continued reference point for the story. I don’t know if you’ve seen Alphaville, which is a great sci-fi noir from 1965 sans sci-fi special effects, but it is an accurate symbolic kernel for Murakami to re-imagine. In the dystopian future of Alphaville, private eye Lemmy Caution must navigate a dangerous technocratic dictatorship run by the sentient Alpha 60 mainframe. Alpha-60 has outlawed illogical constructs such as love, poetry and emotion, replacing them with an ideation of logical science and, by extension, Nazism and fascism. The film continually quotes bits from Jorge Luis Borges, in particular “A New Refutation of Time,” which provides the resolution in Caution’s final confrontation with Alpha-60. (I cannot recommend Labyrinths by Borges highly enough, the source of the original Refutation essay)

Murakami’s vaguely noir narrator is intrusive and ingratiating in a strange way, continually appealing to our TV-moderated visual sense while cheapening the motif of electrically charged menace. I’m not a fan of narration which disrupts the flow of a story unless it is absolutely crucial to communicating the symbolic resonance of a story. Far more often than not narration is a substitute for substance, masking holes in the narrative or simplifying the process of revelation central to a well-crafted narrative. Worse, they try to artificially involve you in the story without making the effort to convey the emotional weight naturally. (I am thinking of Tom Robbins’ 2nd-person narrative misfire Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas in particular) I just wonder why he chose to use a narrator who speaks directly to the readers, and it never became clear to me unless he is writing with an eye toward the eventual cinematic treatment…

Like Lynch before him, who nowadays is endlessly recycling symbolic content in an accelerating circle of fragmentary polarization, Murakami is at risk of seeming like a one-trick pony if he doesn’t ease up on using and abusing his highly personalized semiotic universe. Perhaps he needs to slow down, and appreciate any opportunities for any restful isolated pockets of time. My advice to you then is to read his earlier works first, and though After Dark isn’t as bad as Sputnik Sweetheart it is not essential, more of a holding pattern than a fully realized narrative. For me it just deepened my admiration for the numerous brilliant works he has already so effortlessly created.

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One Response to Luxury to Read

  1. Lotus Reads says:

    Enjoyed your take on Murakami’s “After Dark”….beautifully written.

    After reading that you think it’s one of his weaker books, I take an almost perverse satisfaction in realizing that his better books are just waiting to be discovered by me (“After Dark” is my first Murakami).

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