Monday, August 26, 2013

Tales of a dancing dwarf, a disappearing elephant, and a green monster

The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami
Why didn't I realize that Haruki Murakami was so quirky?  Now that I look at the book summaries of many of his books, I see that quirkiness (or some synonym of that word) shows up in every single description.  So why I didn't expect it, I don't know.  But listening to Murakami's short story collection The Elephant Vanishes while driving to and from work was an absolutely surreal experience.  You'd be in a story with someone who appears totally normal, making spaghetti or drinking a beer or listening to classical music, and then BAM! you're introduced to some little green monster or a dancing elf or a man who works in a vanishing elephant.  And then it's gone and you return to normalcy and you are not quite sure if what you heard really happened or was some bizarre dream-memory in your mind.  It reminded me a lot of The Invisible Man, particularly the part in which the narrator worked at a paint factory and then underwent crazy treatments.  None of which were ever referenced again, so that when my teacher asked us in class about the paint factory part of the book, we were all like, "WHOA, that really happened?!"

That pretty much sums up how I felt about a lot of the stories in this book - like I was off-kilter and not sure if what I was listening to was really happening.  For me, this feeling worked well in a series of short stories.  Part of the reason is because some of the stories did not have the magical realism, surrealism element to them.  Part of the reason is that every character had this detached narrative style, so it seemed much more real because they themselves believed in what was happening so fully.


I can't say whether I liked this story collection or not.  All of the characters felt very much alike.  They were all about 30.  They were very "meh" about everything and were just so bored with life.  And I don't mean that in a "Yeah, work is work but it's not that fun" way, but in a "Life has nothing to offer me" way that was quite depressing and such a downer.  One of the predominant themes of this collection is loneliness and how much it can effect us, in ways we don't even notice.  Almost everyone in this book lives in a city with family and friends and a job.  By most definitions, they would be described as well-adjusted, normal people.  And that's just the thing - they are normal, but they are in situations of increasing isolation and sadness and that can lead to so many other things, without anyone else even knowing.  The characters are completely passive about their own lives, and that allows other forces, either in the form of a dancing dwarf or insomnia or insanity, to take active control of them.  It's scary stuff.

But while I didn't really like that many of the characters, there was a poignancy in many of the stories that really stood out.  That's the thing with short stories; so many of them are about loneliness, something that we all can understand and relate to.  And even if the person feeling lonely is an alcoholic with no real direction in life or a desperate housewife who clearly wants more from life, it's impossible not to feel for them and wish that things would get better.  I really liked that about these stories.  The acknowledgement that it's exhausting to present one face to the world, and that we all try to deceive ourselves into believing that we are often much happier than we really are.

I feel like Murakami tried really hard to give these short stories global appeal.  There were so many references to Russian literature, European and American food, Western classical music, neighborhoods in Tokyo.  I felt like I didn't know where I was.  I wanted to read a collection of stories that gave me a sense of contemporary life in Japan, but what I learned is that perhaps contemporary life is not that different in one place than it is in another.  This made me quite sad, actually.  I can't tell if Murakami created that feeling, so forcefully, on purpose or if that is just the way the Japanese live - completely globalized to the extent that these stories could take place anywhere and people all over the world will understand most of the references being made.

My expectation also disappointed me in myself,.  Why should a Japanese author be limited to writing stories from a distinctly Japanese point of view?  I shouldn't expect that and they shouldn't be boxed in like that.  I did learn more about Murakami, at least, and his imagination and creativity and writing style.  That doesn't mean I learned so much more about Japanese culture just by reading his stories; it's something I'll learn about by reading many authors and seeing what rises to the top.

8 comments:

  1. Murakami is one of my favourite authors but he does tend to write about characters who are 30-something and a bit meh about life. They float through life and these things happen to them - things that are neither fantasy nor realistic you don't always know which. Some stories contain more magical realism than others but they're mostly all off-kilter. Even Norwegian Wood his 'normal' novel. I do like this about Murakami. It isn't that his characters lack character, but it is what happens to them or around them. And it mostly always gets you thinking.

    Murakami dislikes classic Japanese culture, I think. I read somewhere that occasionally he'll start in English and then translate back to Japanese. He loves a lot of American culture and Russian classics feature a lot. So does music. In all his books. You end up with quite a playlist/reading list by the end.

    But his books are without doubt very Japanese in many other ways.

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    1. Definitely end up with a lot more books on the radar at the end of this book! Thank you for your insights into his writing style and process. I don't know if he will become one of my favorite authors, but I am glad to have read him!

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  2. Damn. Blast. The characters who are meh about life is not a deal-breaker for me, but it's at least a deal-complicator. I like characters who are engaged and passionate about the things in their lives. There is a distinct correlation between characters who care about something and characters I care about.

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    1. I know! I am the same! If you do not care about yourself, why should I care about you?

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  3. On my summer TBR list i have *Anything by Muakami* as I can't believe it's taken me so wrong to pick up anything by him. Your review has pretty much convinced me that I'm going to start with tis title.

    I love that you commented on being surprised at how non 'japanese' it was. That's a really mature insight, and I look forward to reading more of your reviews!

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    1. Oh, thank you! Your witty name has convinced me that I should read more of your reviews, too :)

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  4. Huh, meh about life, I am mostly meh about bookcovers ;)

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  5. Oh yea, Murakami has all sorts of interesting creatures and alternate realities and dream states like it's all perfectly normal. And funny that you say the character was drinking a beer. I know that scene is in both Murakami's I've read.

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