Thursday, May 03, 2007

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, by Haruki Murakami, Read by Patrick Lawlor and Ellen Archer, Tantor Media, 2006

Like Alice Munro, Haruki Murakami is an author you will grow well acquainted with if you read your subscription to The New Yorker. I often wonder what the magazine would do if Munro, Murakami, and T.C. Boyle were to all die in a plane crash a la Buddy Holly et al.

As many have noted before, entering the world of Haruki Murakami is to step into the world of waking dreams. Only occasionally do completely and overtly supernatural things come into play (and those are related in a straightforward, reasonable manner — as if to be expected), yet even in uneventful stories there remains the pungent sense of a subtle and quiet horror story playing out.

Often, though, nothing much at all happens in the course of the story, frustrating expectations of climax and resolution. This is epitomized by the title story of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, a collection of twenty four stories spanning Murakami's career. In this tale, the narrator chaperones his younger cousin to a new hospital for treatment on his ears; while waiting for his cousin in the cafeteria, the narrator remembers visiting a hospital years ago with a friend. In his memory, they sat and talked to the friend’s girlfriend who was a patient, then his friend gave her a box of chocolates that turned out to have melted. The narrator’s cousin returns, asks the narrator to look inside his ears. He does so, then they get on a bus to go home. There is no revelation, no epiphany, no conflict per se. Something has happened; of that, you feel curiously certain. These elements taken together mean something — but what?

The vague quality of barely comprehended important events exists partly because Murakami’s writing style vexes anticipation, but partly this also stems from many stories being sketch bits that remainder over from the previous novel or seed fragments of the one he will write next. As such, reading a collection of his stories is rather like channel surfing for hours, watching most of several very good programs and all of some others.

A perfect example comprises the volume’s third story, where our nameless narrator (most of Murakami’s short story narrators whether male or female are nameless) meets a woman at a party. She is introduced to him, tells him he looks just like another man she knew; when he asks to be introduced to the man, she informs our narrator that she killed his exact double by throwing him into a beehive. They talk a bit more, then say goodbye, and that’s the end of the story save a brief disconnected passage about miners trapped in a mine without light.

Huh? You might say, feeling like one of those miners, and to some degree you’d be right. Just as Murakami’s stories are nearly unclassifiable (low-grade psychological horror comes close to capturing some notion of genre), they are also at times inscrutable. That is, if you insist on asking them to have meaning. Allegorically, their sometimes nonsensical qualities lend themselves to obscure symbology, though you’d miss the point if you tried to shape them in that manner.

What are we to make of the story about an older woman having an affair with a younger man? She weeps on his shoulder, they make love, she looks at her watch, a train goes by (all of this happens every single time, just like that), and as he makes love to her he thinks of a room filled with hanging multicolored strings. He considers pulling one of the strings and wonders if it will open up a new dazzling world or will make this one go to hell. Later, she asks him why he speaks to himself when he’s alone. He doesn’t know. She then tells him that she used to do the same thing when she was a child, and sometimes she still has the urge. She looks at her watch, a train rumbles by, they continue speaking, she telling him what it is he talks about when he speaks to himself, as he’s unaware of ever doing it.

The story has no real point to it, as if Murakami were making a perfect art for art’s sake statement. In its outlines, we could see the development of something, we could see it going somewhere, we could view a subtext even, but all of that is unnecessary. The story slips by like a fragment of a memory, like a dream only partially remembered. The chance and coincidence of the tale is similar to another story. In that tale, a lothario relates to Murakami how he used to vomit every single day for a month and every day he’d receive a phone call from a man who would only say the lothario’s name before hanging up. Again we see a narrative with less of a story arc than one might expect and the hint of sinister forces at work. No answer is provided as to why this man vomits every day nor who his caller is; things merely happen, then they stop happening, just like a Murakami story.

In the category of semi-supernatural, there is “A Poor Aunt Story,” about a writer who suddenly gets the idea to write a story about a poor aunt, one of those spinster relatives who exist on the peripheries of families, unpopular, unloved, depressing to everyone. As he begins to think about this more and more, eventually what happens is the development of “an ether” of shiftable form clinging to his back, one that looks like the observer’s poor aunt whoever that observer may be. A light kind of tumor that clings to him wherever he goes. Instead of frightening anyone, it merely fascinates them. Amusingly, the writer ends up on daytime television, exasperated by the host’s desire to turn his poor aunt into a horror story ghost or a joke. As a writer he tries to describe it to people as a meaningless sign, a signification of whoever happens to observe it, independent of his will.

This might best describe Murakami as a writer. Each story, in its amorphousness, expands its levels of meaning dependent upon the reader. Without following clearly delineated paths of story-telling, Murakami’s tales are as shiftable as a poor aunt, inherently meaningless signs which are given power by the reader. Signs are introduced, but their connections, both precise and general, are left to the reader to fill in. Many if not most authors write in such a way that reader input is necessary to make sense of the material. With Murakami, it’s impossible to do less.

Readers Patrick Lawlor and Ellen Archer alternate duties depending on whether the story’s protagonist is male or female, meaning Lawlor takes the bulk of the work. Both present a no-frills reading with none of the characterizations favored by other voice talents.

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