Thursday, August 30, 2007

My Narrative Needs

Last weekend I read Haruki Murakami's new novel, After Dark. He's the Japanese novelist whose books are sometimes described as "metaphysical" -- though actually the metaphysical parts of the books aren't really the parts I like.

What I do like in Murakami are the characters and their conversations. Even though I rarely feel a sense of kinship with the people in these books, I do feel very interested in them, right away. They're interesting people.

Also the feeling of reading Murakami is great. I wrote recently of rereading Platform to try to say something comprehensive about it. I read it with a pencil, marking up passages, realizing to my amazement that it may have been the first time I had ever read a novel that way. Obviously, I didn't take a lot of literature courses in college.

I found it a real chore. It's funny, because often when I'm reading novels I'm struck by particular passages, and I'm excited at the thought that I might go back to them. My experience with the pencil suggests that not making the note is part of the pleasure, which I don't understand, but there it is.

That feeling of momentary delight in sentences or phrases -- that's great in Murakami.

And another thing is: Murakami writes about women who seem like real people. Ages ago there was a strip in the comic Dykes to Watch Out For that featured one character explaining to another that she never went to a movie unless there was a scene featuring one woman talking to another, about something other than a man. The punch line was the last movie she'd been able to see was Alien -- Sigourney Weaver and someone else talk about the monster.

This has stuck with me for years. If you apply it to contemporary narrative art products you get depressed fast. But Murakami's books often feature complex, strange, girls and women, doing stuff, talking about things. I like it.

The narrative structure -- or lack of it -- though, in most of his books leaves me frustrated and weirded out. The story wanders, the details come and go, lots of threads are introduced that never get resolved. I realize this is part of the point. And I realize it may be part of an interesting and good point: that the experience of life is not narratively tidy. Details come and go. That's the humanity for you.

Even knowing that, I don't like it. I yearn for narrative. I want to know: why did that guy do that horrible thing? What's going to happen to him? And the guy's wife, we know she's sitting at home, what's going to happen with her? What's the story?

This is an alternate cover for the book, with itself a much greater implicit narrative punch than the cover I'm familiar with, up at the top.

Probably this desire is partly from having spent my life reading narratively tidy books. But still, I don't think it's unreasonable. The story of a novel creates a tension, and part of what's exciting about reading is seeing how that tension gets resolved. To make a decision about an ending requires an author to make a choice, himself. The choice recasts the rest of the book.

Leaving it open-ended is a choice too, but it's not one we ever get to make in our lives, since stuff just keeps happening, and we can't help trying to make sense of it. Even if we don't know about the narratives of others, they're there. There was some reason that guy did the bad thing he did, and something's going to happen to him, even if it's nothing. And his wife either will or won't find out.

So in some ways the experience of life is narrative. Probably we impose narrative structure on events, but that doesn't make it any less real as part of our experience.

I'm childishly needy for this same kind of thing in my reading life. The one book of Murakami's that struck me as utterly different in this respect was The Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. And when I finished it I actually burst into tears. I think it's his best book.


Daniel said...

You know, I haven't read After Dark yet, but I am a big fan of Haruki Murakami (my friend who studies Japanese literature always says "Murakami Haruki" which is something I can't bring myself to do for some reason). I too feel roped in and compelled by the desire to answer my (traditional narrative conditioned) questions about what's wrong with so and so, why'd she do that - is it a psychological problem, is there a back story that will be revealed later? But, for some reason, I'm very much NOT bugged when there is no answer.

I'm wondering though if it might be sort of wrongheaded (is that a word that I can use pleasantly? because I certainly don't mean it aggressively) to put the lack of continuity or explanation in these novels to the idea that in the world answers are not always given, nor explanations. That would be a better reasoning for a more realistic sort of novel or story that leaves things open ended, no?

If you ever thumb through any of the analyses of Murakami in bookstores (in dissertations, too!!), you'll find lots of talk about symbolism too. I never get or really think out loud about any of the symbolism, although I'm sure it's there. Clearly it's there, but the books so effectively capture my attention without knowing anything about it, that I sort of never try to get it.

One big difference from you, though, is that I actually do relate to Murakami's heroes.

Captain Colossal said...

I haven't read After Dark, and I haven't read any Murakami in a long while. I remember finding the narrative blanks about the pre-novel beginnings of the characters pretty irritating, as much as any open-endedness at the end.

It's funny thinking about the Murakami mode of non-resolution versus Villette, which ends with an aggressively and narratively overloaded ambiguity.

Noko Marie said...

Hi Daniel and CC, yes, it does seem open-endedness in the sense of no ending is different from the "lack of continuity and explanation" (as Daniel very nicely put it) in Murakami. That is interesting.

Daniel, I did think that lack of continuity and explanation was supposed to be saying something. I guess I don't really know what, but something about the nature of human experience, or the world. Maybe, indeed, that's wrong.

I do rebel against it, in any case; I can't help myself. In some ways I just feel like I care about these people and I'm not ready to let them go until I find out something else. And then the book is over.

I agree about the symbolism, I think. A lot of the metaphysics stuff I didn't mention here seems like it could be read in a heavily symbolic way. But it doesn't need to be. I agree the books are entrancing without trying to get the symbolism.

CC, I haven't thought about Villette in a while. What a great book! What an aggressive and narratively overloaded ending ambiguity! I don't like it there, either.

Captain Colossal said...

Thinking about things I don't like in books always raises those jostling "what's the point of reading?" questions. Sometimes I think it's just pleasure and that all the various ways in which one can enjoy a book are just variations in kinds of pleasure (the pleasure of the plot twist, the pleasure of the well-crafted sentence, the pleasure of a different better world -- whatever) and sometimes I think of them as distinct -- that there's reading for pleasure and then reading to learn about the way the world works, etc.

As someone once said to me when I was telling some story of some idiocy by a casual acquaintance, "Hasn't he read any books?"

This is excluding purely instrumental reading: i.e. done under orders of others or for a particular purpose.

Those questions come up because it's hard for me to think properly about why I dislike something if I'm not sure whether I'm objecting on straightforward "that reduces my pleasure" grounds or if I'm objecting on grounds that it undermines my other reasons for reading the book (moral improvement being, pretty much always, at the top of that list).