The Full Monty

August 22, 2007

I recently came across these wonderful full access web resources and just had to share them immediately.

First up is a link to the complete Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.  Todd Haynes is an astonishingly affecting film-maker who has emotionally blind-sided me numerous times.  Poison and Safe are each arresting thought bombs in their own right, but it is Superstar that earned him his notoriety when it was banned by Karen Carpenter’s brother.  This is probably the only film that has made me cry while telling a story through the use of Barbie dolls.  I first saw it about 15 years ago in Massachusetts from a bootleg video cassette and I am extremely grateful for its presence online today.  Check it out before it disappears again.  This is straight-up biography by the way, not World-Weekly sensationalism, with a devastating portrayal of anorexia that you will not soon forget.  (a tip of the pen to girish’s 25 June 2007 blog post)

Next up is a link to Haruki Murakami’s wonderful novella Pinball 1973.  Unreleased in America and so far only available as a grossly overpriced out-of-print import from Japan, this is his second novel, part of the loosely themed Trilogy of the Rat.  Really it’s a quartet of books, comprising Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball 1973, A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance, Dance, Dance.  You’ve likely heard of the last two, but for some reason Murakami is reluctant to release his first two novels stateside.  A genuine shame since they are each superior to his most recently translated work After Dark (though revealingly amateur, which is likely the source of his reluctance).  Check it before it too disappears into the ether.  Hopefully Hear the Wind Sing will show up as well and slake the thirst of many a Murakami fanatic.  (a tip of the hat to The Millions’ 17 May 2007 blog post)



Luxury to Read

July 14, 2007

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.


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…


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.

Being Murakami Haruki

June 17, 2007

“Hajime,” she began, “the sad truth is that certain types of things can’t got backward. Once they start going forward, no matter what you do, they can’t go back the way they were. If even one little thing goes awry, then that’s how it will stay forever.”

South of the Border, West of the Sun p.147

For me, possibly the most important passage Murakami ever wrote, as far as understanding his work. He is one of my favorite modern authors, likely my absolute favorite, though it is hard to express why. At times maudlin, at other times a little too cozy and smug… but those moments are luckily few and far between. His work is able to touch me so directly, snaking stealthily under years of disillusionment and cynicism by stoking any lingering fires of sentimentality and, most meaningfully, nostalgia. As Yeats sang so beautifully for wandering Aengus, “I went out to a hazel wood because a fire was in my head…”

disappearing act

Somehow I was introduced to Murakami around when his first English translations were coming out, and the first book I read was a hardcover edition of A Wild Sheep Chase. A wicked mashup of noir, Raymond Carver, and Albert Camus, I had to read it a second time almost immediately to convince myself it was real. Strangely it took me several years to read another one, and once I did, I couldn’t stop until I read them all.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World is a masterpiece. A Wild Sheep Chase is good, but I didn’t know at the time that it was the third in a loose trilogy, sometimes called the trilogy of the rat after a character who is, by the time of Sheep Chase, already a ghost. Wonderland embodies everything that is so beguiling about Murakami’s work.

(And, curse the powers that be, but Pinball 1973 and Murakami’s first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, are not yet available in English outside of translations for sale only in Japan for Japanese students of English. I want to publicly thank a remarkably kind book rep, Bill Verner, who years ago gifted me his personal copy of Hear the Wind Sing, which, if you find it on abebooks or ebay at all, will cost you over a hundred dollars! Bill has translated several Paco Ignacio Taibo II books into english, by the way, and they’re very well done.)

There are two major elements to his best stories, obsessions that he shares with several other Japanese artists, but that are hard to meaningfully isolate. Often his characters are divided into halves, and seek unconsciously to remedy any blindness this may cause. The borders of memory are fragile, and Murakami exhumes what we hoped would remain buried, the tender sentiment of past regret. What brings me back to his stories, especially Hard-Boiled and one of my favorites, after the quake (originally All God’s Children Can Dance in Japanese) is how he works his way under my skin so that I am inhabited by his nostalgia, like wearing a diaphanous cloth of which I am aware only in the breeze.

Just as frequently, women disappear in his works, literally or existentially, sometimes hard to tell. And yet he manages to turn those moments into haunting ruminations on memory, like an emotional transliteration of the Schrödinger’s Cat paradox. Luckily it doesn’t seem like a parlor trick, except in Sputnik Sweetheart which should be avoided at all costs, because the core mystery is a mystery which bedevils him as well.

He is able, like Luis Buñuel and David Lynch, to communicate an ephemeral dream state so that you feel like it’s your dream, and that it is your consciousness that is divided. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and Norwegian Wood make this division quite literal; in Hard-Boiled every other chapter vacillates between two wildly different narratives, and in Norwegian Wood the book was published in two volumes (at least in Japan and in England), a red and a green edition.

Norwegian Wood, both editions


(He became so popular at the time, with so many school kids identifying with one book or the other that it became fashionable to dress up in the color of one’s favored book. He fled Japan soon after, unwilling to suffer the widespread recognition, though today I think he does go back.)

I am thinking of him lately because a new novella came out last month, After Dark, and I haven’t read it yet. I was spoiled for years, working as I did in bookstores where everyone knew how much I loved his work, so I would get first dibs on advanced reader editions. When I returned from an absence to work at Malaprop’s Bookstore, the owner showed her appreciation of me by gifting me a signed hardcover copy of after the quake (how cool is that!). I didn’t even see any ARC copies of After Dark at BookExpo this year…did I miss them or is it a sign of tightened purse strings in lean times?

Murakami also features librarians in several of his works, most memorably in Wonderland where a man unwillingly has had his shadow severed from him by an axe-wielding gatekeeper, and is trying to find out how to keep his shadow from an early death. He is called upon by the town librarian to read the skulls of some mysterious animals; reading the skulls summons up magnificent memories while stripping him of his own. Also, in Kafka on the Shore, the main character winds up befriending a gender dysphoric librarian as well as the unusual library director Miss Saeki.

So if you’re up for a bit mental dislocation (a la Philip K. Dick) or an atmosphere of ruminative nostalgia (a la Raymond Bradbury) be sure to check out some Murakami. At least, if you have some time for a new literary obsession.