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The Great Soul Healing, Heart Breaking Novels #7 - Haruki Murakami's "Dance Dance Dance" Part II

For Part I click the fun that is Haruki Murakami's "Dance Dance Dance"


When Your "Normal" Six-Figure Readership Explodes Into the Millions

In 1979 Haruki Murakami's debut novel won first prize in the only contest he entered. By the time he got to his third novel, A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), when the writer himself believes he found his voice, he was already a big name in Japan's literary world. It wasn't, however, until 1987 with Norwegian Wood - the only Murakami novel that has no overtly surreal moments - that the author's readership went into the stratosphere. As the Translator's Note at the back of my copy states:

Haruki Murakami was shocked and depressed to find his normal six-figure readership exploding into the millions when he published Norwegian Wood in 1987. Fame was one thing, superstardom another, and the craziness of it sent him back to the anonymity of Europe (he had written the book in Greece and Italy). In 1991 he moved on to the United States. Not until 1995 was he prepared to resume living in Japan ...

I bore you with all this bibliographic detail because Dance Dance Dance, published in 1988, is the novel that followed Norwegian Wood. Murakami's only totally realist work of fiction worked and worked well - c'mon, Jonny, say it: it's a masterpiece (Norwegian Wood is the first book on my heartbreaking, soul healing list and ranks up there with The Catcher in the Rye and East of Eden as an all-time favourite), but for Murakami-san it was only an experiment. With Dance Dance Dance he was joyously (maybe even dancingly) coming back to the comfort zone he established with Wild Sheep Chase, to a world that could involve both high-priced hookers and an alternate world on the 14th floor of a hotel. In returning to the voice he was now so firmly comfortable with, in a voice so uniquely his own - that veers between the surreal and the hyper-real, ie. the mundane (more on that in a sec) - Murakami is clearly flying here. What I mean is, he's in total command of his story. He's so in charge of his talents that he can truly take his characters anywhere, take the stories down rather dark and dangerous roads, but then veer back to the weird, the wacky and, in Murakami fashion, the gloriously mundane.

Master of the Quotidian Detail

No writer I've encountered can do what Murakami does with the usually dull and pedestrian stuff of our everyday lives. When his narrator isn't flying on airplanes with sharp-witted, if rather sullen, pre-teen girls, or sleeping with expensive call girls because his movie star ex-classmate from high school suggests and pays for it, the story's first-person 'I' works in his ho-hum job or he's cooking or just having a beer at a local pub. I can only take a stab and assume that it's the way Murakami puts the quotidian details of life in contrast with a character met in a near alternate universe named The Sheep Man that the mundane stands out and in fact glows the way it does.

Perhaps also there's a connection to Murakami's admiration of the great private detective writer, Raymond Chandler. Murakami has translated two of Chandler's novels into Japanese.

There is indeed something of the detective story structure to Dance Dance Dance. Because of the suspense created for the "mystery" to be solved, once suspense has been place in the reader, Murakami knows he can veer off on a tangent for a few pages, using the pull of the mystery to keep us page turning. Just as Chandler's detective/alter-ego Philip Marlowe could take a momentary break from his investigation to drink and think and brood with his bourbon at the bar or play chess alone at home, so too can Murakami's narrator retreat solitarily from the more plot-restrictive aspects of his story, at least momentarily. A lesser storyteller, in either case, would send us racing through these pages, bored and waiting for more action. The way Murakami and Chandler do it, however, those breaks in the action become perhaps the most pleasurable reading moments of all. 

Murakami has said of his writing that his goal is to achieve a kind of balance. After a moment of high drama (there may even be a murder in there somewhere) we return to the redundancy of life. In Murakami's world, though, as you flip the pages and live it, the mundane comes as pure pleasure, like a soft spot in a favourite symphony. The music analogy isn't chance, as Murakami, an inveterate jazz fanatic, has compared writing to making music. He's trying to find the Music of Words (the title of Murakami English translator (and Princeton professor) Jay Rubin's book on the famous novelist).

Hunger, Housework and Humor
Hemingway may make us want to drink, but Murakami makes me want to iron. Seriously. (Though not literally.

Ai is stuck with ironing. I do wash the floors though, and derive the kind of calm Murakami gives me when his narrator does housework from my own Swiffer wet-mop action. Oh yeah!) Murakami just has this magic power that makes me want to clean or go out and have a beer with some eggs, or cook a simple Japanese meal. Writers go back to favourite books trying to undo the spell those books put on them, trying to unravel them, figure them out - how did they do it? But I fail every re-reading (this fall's re-reading of Dance Dance Dance in Japan, for this post, was my fourth go round). Each time he casts his spell on me and I can't help but let go and stop thinking and simply luxuriate in doing the relatively everyday with the narrator, for housework, or especially those things food related.

In quite a few Murakami novels the main character somehow or other, and usually because he is invited by a friend, winds up at a very fancy restaurant where everything is cooked to perfection. And really, who doesn't enjoy a gourmet meal once in a while, especially when you don't have to pay .

Presently our steaks and salads arrived. Beautiful steaks, Magazine-perfect medium rare.

Scenes of dialogue are that much more fun when a character has brought "a forkful of steak to his mouth and slowly savored the juiciness." Or the way Murakami has no trouble slowing his story to a near full stop to give us his spaghetti recipe. Stop. To take in the sizzle of garlic frying in olive oil before it browns and the peppers are added. Don't know about you but my mouth waters just paraphrasing the stuff.  

Probably best though and most Murakami-like of all is how frequently you find yourself amused.The book is filled with whimsy, with wonderful flights of fancy, but Murakami doesn't Wes Anderson capsize with it.OK, for a couple pages it does. But a couple pages does not a Life Aquatic dissapointment make. It is instead a breather from the story. Here, a taste:

In the end I decided to go up to the [hotel] lounge on the twenty-sixth floor. I nursed a martini while gazing out blankly at the flecks of white swirling through the void. I thought about the ancient Egyptians, tried to imagine what kind of lives they led. Who were the ones that joined the swim club? No doubt, it was the Pharaoh's clan ... trendy, jet-set ancient Egyptians. They probably had their own section of the Nile ...

Undress Me Nice and Slow - 
Finally, Those High-Priced Escorts

I don't know how he does it. Murakami's books are always, to quote Holden, sexy as hell, but without being pornographic or offensive to women. Believe you me, though, that there is always some of that old Japanese perversion. (I wish there were a better word for it than perversion, and all the Western judgment attached to the word -  spend a little time in Japan and the question of which is the repressed society sexually can get mighty confusing/interesting.) In a Murakami novel women are bound to get naked and the narrator never does worse than a hand job. What I can't figure out is how he gets away with portraying high-priced hookers without degrading or getting in trouble, at least not from the mass of female readers who adore the writer, my feminist (though ironing) wife included.  

The first thing that comes to mind is that he loves them. Women I mean. He treads, if you ask me, into far more dangerous territory than prostitution, but I'll leave that for a future date when I get round to recommending The Wind-Up bird Chronicle

But enough analysis, back to those hookers.

She was stunning. The sort of woman who'd linger in your memory even if she never spoke a word to you. Not glitter and glamor, but refinement. Under her coat she wore a green cashmere sweater and an ordinary wool skirt. Simple earrings, no other adornment. Very well-bred university girl.

Her scent was lovely. She was every man's, every boy's dream. The high school girl you'd always wanted, now come back years later.

'Undress me nice and slow,' she whispered into my ear. So I took off first her sweater, then her skirt, then her blouse and stockings. Out of reflex  I almost started to fold her things ... She in turn undressed me.

She stood before me in scanty bra and panties. 'Well, what do you think?' she asked with a smile.

And I didn't even include the dirty parts.