Wednesday, June 26, 2013

How Good is Murakami? – asks The Daily Beast

How Good Is Murakami?

He is one of the biggest-selling literary novelists in the world, and practically a deity in Japan. But American critics are still unsure about him, and often find his books strange and chaotic without explanation. Rob Verger looks at his reputation in the United States.

In a scene in Haruki Murakami’s novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a man descends into a dry well to do some thinking. He has a lot on his mind. His cat has disappeared. So has his wife. To make matters worse, a malevolent teenage girl has pulled up the rope ladder he used to get down the well, stranding him there in the dark. The man tells the girl, who is listening from ground level, about how he and his wife had tried to start a new life together and reinvent themselves, “like building a new house on an empty lot.” The girl tells him that’s impossible. “You might think you made a new world or a new self, but your old self is always gonna be there, just below the surface, and if something happens, it’ll stick its head out and say ‘Hi.’”

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A Novel’ by Haruki Murakami. 607 p. Vintage. $12.85. (Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group/AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

As readers of Murakami know, his books are filled with stuff like this. For novelist Jonathan Franzen, it’s moments like these that gave him an emotional response. “My experience at mid-life is that I have this busy modern life,” Franzen said. “And only at night, and when reading certain books, do I fall down into a tunnel that takes me back to a more enchanted place.” The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is one of those books for him. “While you’re reading it, everything in the world feels different,” he said. “And that for me is the mark of a great novel … I think it’s one of the great novels that’s appeared anywhere in the world in the last 30 to 40 years.”

In Japan, the release of Murakami’s new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, has been met with a kind of mania. It became the fastest-selling book ever on Amazon Japan. It will hit American shores next year, and Philip Gabriel, who has translated several of Murakami’s works, confirmed to me that he will be translating the new novel; he’ll be the sole translator and won’t be splitting the duties with Jay Rubin, as another reporthas suggested. In the U.S., there are close to half a million copies in print of Murakami's most recent novel to be translated into English, 1Q84, according to the publisher.

But popularity aside, Murakami hasn’t been universally praised. The New York Times has been particularly mixed about his books and was soundly critical of Murakami’s magnum opus, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. “In trying to depict a fragmented, chaotic, and ultimately unknowable world, Murakami has written a fragmentary and chaotic book,” critic Michiko Kakutani wrote in 1997. More recently, the Times’ other critic, Janet Maslin, panned 1Q84, dismissing it as “stupefying” and criticizing the author for leaving questions unanswered and for quirks like focusing too much on a few characters’ breasts. And what’s going on with the “Little People” in the book? They, Maslin wrote, “are supposed to be very wise, even though the smartest thing they ever say is “Ho ho.” These are fair criticisms.

“Is he the best sentence-by-sentence writer? No,” the novelist Nathaniel Rich said. He thinks Murakami is prone to writing awkward and clichéd sentences, but he loves his work regardless. “I think he’s creating something that’s new, and that doesn’t exist in the world. I think it’s an artistic endeavor. I think he’s creating art.” What he is, Rich said, is an excellent storyteller.

“Sometimes it doesn’t all add up,” the novelist Charles ...

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