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.