I kept this book on the shelf for a few years, before thinking I was ready to read it.
I didn't want to break the spell of the first tw...moreA Spelling Test
I kept this book on the shelf for a few years, before thinking I was ready to read it.
I didn't want to break the spell of the first two David Mitchell books that I had read (I didn't really like Cloud Atlas) and I was a bit apprehensive about the subject matter of a young teenage boy.
Ultimately, it was very much a book of two halves for me.
Teenage Mates Land
The first half captured male teenagerdom in the period in the 60's and 70's (when I grew up) and the 80's (when Jason grew up) perfectly.
It was the tail end of a period of Empire, Britannia Rules the Waves, Scouting for Boys, Biggles books and playing British Bulldog.
It had nearly died by the time of Punk Rock for me, but it had one last inglorious revival when Maggie Thatcher invaded the Falklands, before deflating altogether, so much so that Tony Blair couldn't even revive it.
The trouble and the troubles set in in the second half.
Things start to challenge the relative security of Jason's adolescent world view.
I haven't seen the film of this book, and now I don't know whether I want to. It depends on what aspect of the novel it relates to best....moreQualifications
I haven't seen the film of this book, and now I don't know whether I want to. It depends on what aspect of the novel it relates to best. Diane Johnson is actually a serious writer, rather than a popular fiction or chick-lit author (as Stephanie points out in her review).
Off to a Good Start
The first half is pretty serious, setting up the characters, giving you a feel for Paris. In that sense, it's like a sophisticated travel guide.
But for much of the time, you have started to ask the question: she's got everything lined up, when is she going to get on with it? Well, she does, in her time, but unfortunately I felt that was when the wheels started to fall off.
Author, What Were You Drinking?
Instead of remaining within a fairly realistic narrative, everything went very melodramatic. I had started to find these characters quite believable, then they started to do stupid, farcical things to each other. Not as a result of normal personal and family stresses, more like someone had spiked everybody's drinks and it had now become one long strange trip. It's not as if these characters are Deadheads, they're normal people.
Don't Do Me Like That
I think they were good enough characters to deserve a little more respect from their creator. They must have been really pissed when she revealed what she had in store for them. I hope this was just a lapse of taste, because I have already bought some of the other books in the series. (less)
A writer might have done more with these characters, locations and possibilities than a journalist, at l...moreIn Which a Journalist Struggles to be a Writer
A writer might have done more with these characters, locations and possibilities than a journalist, at least this particular journalist. Still, there's room for improvement and he has potential, so hopefully he improves next attempt. I wonder whether he'll keep doing journalists? (less)
I knew that this book existed for some time. However, something about the title didn't attract me.
I think I have always assumed tha...moreTractor Attraction
I knew that this book existed for some time. However, something about the title didn't attract me.
I think I have always assumed that I would prefer a book about American tractors.
Then one week I saw it again, bought it and read it within a week. I was ready for it. Our lives had mysteriously moved into alignment.
Not So Secret Family Business
Although it is set within a Ukrainian British family and it takes hilarious advantage of this fact, it reveals a lot about families generally. Particularly, the interactions and dynamics between family members.
Tolstoy said "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" at the beginning of Anna Karenina.
I think this book goes one step further. Although there might be happiness and unhappiness in this family, I don't think they stop to think and dwell on it that much. It isn't a cause of self-pity. They just get on with their lives in a relentless way.
What is different about them is that they are funny.
Maybe unfunny families are all alike, but every funny family is funny in its own way.
Senses of humour vary enormously.
But humourlessness doesn't change that much.
I hope the author can make a transition away from the Ukrainian migrant subject matter and still be insightful and funny.
That must sound terrible...what I mean is that she has enormous skills and I'd love to see her apply them to any topic of her choice. (Does that sound better?)
Since reading this book, I have bought everything that Stephen McCauley has written. I love the insight he has into people gen...moreHow We Became Acquainted
Since reading this book, I have bought everything that Stephen McCauley has written. I love the insight he has into people generally and the people in this book. You get to know the full dimension of his characters. Nobody is fundamentally good or bad, everybody is human and interesting. You get the impression that you are living in a real world and that these people are (your) real friends or acquaintances. (less)
I started reading this novel, because it was Pamuk's shortest and although I liked the subject matter of his other novels, I was worried...moreA Short Start
I started reading this novel, because it was Pamuk's shortest and although I liked the subject matter of his other novels, I was worried I might bite off more than I could chew (I am the sort of person who must finish a book once I've started it, even if I hate it). So this was a taster for me.
From A to B Inevitably
I think it is fair to say that what happens at the end is inevitable. His craftsmanship lies in how he achieves it.
There is a moment towards the end of the book when the door opens and we're suddenly on the other side of the story.
Only we have to look back over our shoulder and think, how did I get here?
From A to B Predictably
It annoys me when people criticise a book, because they think it is predictable. Everything is predictable to someone, if not necessarily me, because I didn't see it coming. (I am not a big fan of prediction. I don't see the point.)
From A to B Enjoyably
But even if it is predictable, the skill is in the journey, the telling.
It's like a joke, or life or sex, we all know what the end is, it's what happens between now and then that matters.
Something similar might have happened to us all, it's the little differences that matter. (less)
I read this almost 12 months ago, which makes it difficult to recall and recount the tone of the writing. However, I would like to make so...moreUrban Recall
I read this almost 12 months ago, which makes it difficult to recall and recount the tone of the writing. However, I would like to make some general comments about the novel.
An Abstract High Concept Novel
In one sense, it is an abstract high concept novel. What does this mean? It's high concept in the sense that it takes a basic concept and explores it in detail. And it doesn't stray very far away from that concept. It's not "Snakes on a Plane". It's far more abstract than that.
The concept is basically: what if two cities and cultures or civilisations co-existed in the one physical city? I don't mean two distinct areas with a wall separating them like Berlin or Jerusalem. I don't mean two sides of the same street being administered by different councils or governments. One analogy for the City in the novel would be one city populated by some people and administered by one council during the day, then everybody moves out and it's a different people and council at night. If that makes sense so far, then this City has one difference. It isn't separated by day and night. The two Cities within the City co-exist in time, but in the same geographical space (hence, the City and the City). Everybody is everywhere at the same time, but they are separate. They walk down the same streets, they drive on the same roads, but they are legally separate. They aren't allowed to look at each other or acknowledge each other's existence. Each City must act and behave as if the other City isn't there. So this is the abstract high concept.
Mieville explores this fantasy concept within the crime thriller genre. Some readers question whether this is the right vehicle for the concept. They feel it makes the cardinal error of mixing genres. But I think it makes sense.
The two different Cities are basically legal constructs. They need the law to make the separation concrete. The law sits at the interface between the two Cities and enforces their separation. Any breach has to be detected and punished by the law. Therefore, when a breach occurs in the novel, we find out the true nature of the Cities, the law and the justice system.
As usual, there is too much law and not enough justice. As you would expect, these institutions end up being corrupt, not because they are institutions, but because they are institutions established and maintained by humans for human reasons. The novel is really the story of these institutions and their corruption.
The Detective and the Crime
Like crime fiction, it is told through the eyes of a detective investigating a small crime, which ultimately leads to the detection of a big crime. You could almost say it is the story of the Crime and the Crime (so I will).
Whether Mieville gets the tone right is a subjective issue. We don't know a lot about the back story of the characters, we don't get a lot of physical descriptions. We do get a well-constructed feel for the Kafkaesque atmosphere that defines this city. People walk its streets like automatons or ghosts, unwilling to look left or right, for fear that they will breach the separation of the two Cities. So if characters don't seem like they're human, if a reader feels that they are just cyphers, it's because the City has stripped their humanity away, it's the result of a stylistic choice (not the result of poor writing).
Abstract but Powerful
I admired Mieville's ability to construct these worlds and explore them credibly, while making the novel work at a metaphorical and political level. The novel could describe life in a totalitarian state, it could describe life in a separated city or nation, but it might also symbolise cultures where people co-exist, but don't acknowledge each other's existence or right to participate in institutions as equals. This could describe Christians and Jews, Christians and Muslims, whites and blacks, men and women, the rich and the poor. This differentiation exists everywhere, Mieville's genius is to explore it through a highly abstract, but powerful, metaphor. So comparisons with both Kafka and Chandler are apt.
Collins St, 5pm
COLOUR SPOILER ALERT
I don't want to spoil the visuals of the book for you, but below is a link to a wiki article about a 1955 painting that the book evokes for me. The painting explores a similar concept as a metaphor for alienation. One warning before you view it though: Partly because of the cover, I imagined The City as a blue/grey world, the world of this painting is brown. So if you want to leave scope to choose your own colours, you might not want to visit the link until you've read the book.
"V" isn't so much a difficult novel to read - it is after all just words, most of which are familiar - as one in which it...moreHow Hard Can It Possibly Be?
"V" isn't so much a difficult novel to read - it is after all just words, most of which are familiar - as one in which it is sometimes hard to understand what is going on and why.
What does it mean? Does it have to mean anything? How does it all connect?
Ironically, if not intentionally, the inability to determine what and why, as well as who, is part of its design. Pynchon mightn't want to answer all the questions he or life asks.
However, that doesn't mean there isn't a lot of food for thought in the novel.
Pynchon actually tells us a lot all of the time. Like "Ulysses", there are lots of hints and clues and allusions, and it's easy to miss them, if you're not paying attention to the flow of the novel and taking it all in. It's definitely a work that benefits from multiple readings.
Characters Both Sacred and Profane
"V" starts with one of two protagonists, the schlemiel Benny Profane, on Christmas Eve, 1955.
On the anniversary of the sacred day upon which a Virgin, Mary, gave birth to Christ (and thus started what would become Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant), Profane is wearing black levis, a suede jacket, sneakers and a big cowboy hat, a sort of bohemian uniform at the time.
He drops into the Sailors' Arms, which welcomes sailors from the tempestuous sea onto solid ground. For them, it's a dream come true, where the barmaids "all love to screw" and "remind you that every day is Christmas Eve".
This tavern is a haven and safe harbour. The big-breasted women here provide comfort and succour to men, something we can easily get used to and take for granted.
A Form Guide to Stencil
Sixty pages later, Pynchon introduces us to the second protagonist, Herbert Stencil, a man who refers to himself in the third person, which allows him to create a repertoire of bad faith or inauthentic identities (or Sartrean "impersonations").
He has no one solid persona, but somehow the ability to think of himself as and be not just the third person, but a first, a second, a fourth and a fifth permits him to function reasonably adequately (if not always normally) for a male, and so the multiple personalities "keep Stencil in his place".
When we meet him, however, his "place" is not static, it's dynamic. He is on a single-minded quest to find evidence of a woman named V. who he believes once knew his deceased father:
"As spread thighs are to the libertine, flights of migratory birds to the ornithologist, the working part of his tool bit to the production machinist, so was the letter V to young Stencil.
"He would dream perhaps once a week that it had all been a dream, and that now he’d awakened to discover the pursuit of V. was merely a scholarly quest after all, an adventure of the mind, in the tradition of The Golden Bough or The White Goddess."
With these V-shaped analogies and the allusion to these non-fiction works (is "V." itself just such a scholarly quest?), Pynchon gives us some insights into the myth and mystery and significance of "V".
The next paragraph gives us even more clues as to the nature of the pursuit or quest in general:
"But soon enough he’d wake up the second, real time, to make again the tiresome discovery that it hadn’t really ever stopped being the same simple-minded, literal pursuit; V. ambiguously a beast of venery, chased like the hart, hind or hare, chased like an obsolete, or bizarre, or forbidden form of sexual delight.
"And clownish Stencil capering along behind her, bells ajingle, waving a wooden, toy oxgoad. For no one’s amusement but his own."
In Pynchon's next novel, "The Crying of Lot 49", a woman, Oedipa Maas, would be the subject in and of the quest. She would be the one doing the detective work. Here, a male is the subject and a woman is the object of the quest or pursuit.
While both Oedipa and Stencil take their quests seriously, they meet with mixed success (perhaps a hallmark of a post-modern fiction). However, Pynchon seems to venerate Oedipa more highly. For all his earnestness, profundity and third person pretension, Stencil is a clown or a fool to match Profane's picaresque schlemiel.
"A Beast of Venery"
We all know the word "venereal", but how often do we see its root, "venery" (which means sexual indulgence or the pursuit of or hunt for sexual activity)?
The quest for man, if not necessarily for Stencil, is a quest for sexual pleasure, for sexual delight, for the sexual conquest of woman.
Stencil is looking for one woman. However, because she is of his father's generation and vintage, you have to ask whether in reality he is trying (potentially on behalf of all men) to understand the mystery of sexual attraction, the mystery of womanhood and the place of women in society and, if only from a male perspective, the role of woman in a man's life.
The Birth of Venus
From an etymological perspective, the word "venery" derives from the Latin "veneris", which in turn derives from the Roman god of love and sex, Venus, who in turn was modelled on the Greek god, Aphrodite.
The connotation of pursuit is thought to come from the resemblance of the word to the Latin "venari", which means to hunt.
Not coincidentally, the Botticelli painting "The Birth of Venus" features in the novel.
According to Robert Graves, Venus was also adapted from the pagan sea-goddess, Marian, who was often disguised as a merry-maid or mermaid. Suffice it to say, this Venus rose from the sea, hence the shell in the painting.
If we go back further in time, we meet another goddess Astarte, whom the Egyptians worshipped as a goddess of war and tenacity, while the Semites worshipped her as a goddess of love and fertility.
The Greeks would later adapt Astarte as the basis of Aphrodite (on the way to the Latin Venus). It is also linked to the goddesses and names Astoreth, Ishtar and Esther.
Esther is the name of a character in the novel, (partly Jewish, she gets a nose job in an attempt by her plastic surgeon who wishes to make her look more Irish), while a model of Astarte is the figurehead of the xebec or sailing ship upon which Stencil's father Sidney died in the Mediterranean off Malta in 1919. In a way, Sidney's death might be a return to the embrace of Venus (after all, she was a V) and the great unknown of the ocean?
Profane and Stencil inevitably meet each other over the course of the novel and collaborate in Stencil's quest as it moves from Manhattan to Malta.
They approach life and womanhood in contrasting ways.
Here's a summary of Profane:
Aimless, directionless, concerned with the present, existential, free-style, random, improvisatory, profane, superficial, more interested in the surface, physical, decadent, irrational.
Motivated, purposeful, concerned with the past, in pursuit of understanding and meaning, structured, organised, profound, more interested in depth, metaphysical, civilised, rational.
Despite their differences, they join together in Stencil's quest. What they share, obviously, is their manhood, the fact that they are men in a patriarchal society.
Whatever their differences as men, they are on the inside, whereas women, in contrast, are on the outside, subjugated, unable to exercise political power or social influence, whatever other means of persuasion they might have at their disposal.
"Not Who, But What"
Stencil's quest starts when he inherits a journal in which his father wrote the following cryptic note:
"There is more behind and inside V. than any of us had suspected. Not who, but what: what is she. God grant that I may never be called upon to write the answer, either here or in any official report."
There is a suggestion that Young Stencil is trying to find his own identity in V. He was raised motherless, having been born in 1901, which we are also told was the year "Victoria" died.
Stencil, speaking in the third person, says:
"You'll ask next if he believes her to be his mother. The question is ridiculous."
But does it mean the answer is ridiculous? Does it mean we shouldn't ask the question? Are Stencil and Pynchon simply steering us away from the obvious or the possible? Is Pynchon suggesting that fiction (at least post-modern fiction) need not be obliged to offer up answers, that not every quest leads to its Holy Grail?
I don't think I'm giving anything away when I say that there's not just one V, but potentially many. Or at least, Young Stencil finds clues as to the existence of many candidates.
Does it make any difference though? Does it matter who this particular woman, this V., is? Does the identity of any individual V. matter, when it is the "what", the abstraction of woman that Stencil might be seeking?
Is he, like us, simply trying to understand womanhood in all of its complexity?
Animation and Agitation
Whatever the answer, Stencil's quest animates and energises him. Beforehand, he had been inanimate:
"His random movements before the war had given way to a great single movement from inertness to - if not vitality, then at least activity. Work, the chase...it was V. he hunted...
"Finding her: what then? Only that what love there was to Stencil had become directed entirely inward, toward this acquired sense of animateness...to sustain it he had to hunt V.; but if he should find her, where else would there be to go but back into half-consciousness? He tried not to think, therefore, about any end to the search. Approach and avoid."
Sidney, on the other hand, was a spy and interrogator for the British Foreign Office whose function was to perpetuate the British Empire.
He regarded V. as a threat to order. He viewed her as an agent of chaos who, in her different manifestations, always arrived at a time when the world was in a state of siege. She had an unerring ability to appear when the patriarchal world of Western Imperialism was under threat, whether by civil war, rebellion or revolution.
In a way, V. represents an undivided, less phallocentrically structured world that unites the stability of land and the fluidity of the ocean, as well as Europe and Asia, West and East, Woman and Man.
At a more generalised level, V might represent the relationship between the Animate and the Inanimate, between Life and Death, between Eros and Thanatos.
The Woman Question
It's interesting that neither Stencil really wants to find a definitive answer to their particular woman question. They are males, and they can't see beyond an era during which men are firmly ensconced in the saddle of power and influence.
There is no preparedness to share power or to improve relationships between the sexes.
The nature of womanhood is therefore a question that remains unsolved at the end of the novel.
Women remain a mystery to men, perhaps because they (men) don't try hard enough or don't really want to understand. They are unable to change their own perspective, so that they might listen and learn. They are content to live with the allure of mystery.
In a way, what hope would there be for relationships if all of the mystery was obliterated?
As Profane says towards the end of the novel:
"Offhand I'd say I haven't learned a goddamn thing."
In a way, the unresolved concerns of the novel, from a male point of view, reflect Freud's plight:
"The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul, is 'What does a woman want?"
What is to be Done?
Both protagonists are selfish in their own masculine way. Profane seems to be oblivious to the issue of what women might want. Young Stencil is ambivalent. However, at least Pynchon is posing a question, which I hope he did not view as ridiculous.
Ultimately, while it's arguable that "V" is a pro-feminist novel, I think Pynchon's view was that, as at the time of writing in 1963, there was no solution to the relationship question in view. There was, quite simply, more to be done.
Perhaps the underlying truth is that, unless and until man understands the place of woman in the world, he will never understand his place next to woman.
Some perspective and hope might come from McClintic Sphere, the jazz musician in the novel.
His counsel, almost zen or beat, is to "keep cool, but care." Don't worry too hard about it, just do it. But try to do it with love, not just lust and desire.
Of course, the Women's Liberation Movement was only then starting to gather force. However, for all the good it has achieved since then, I think there still remains much to be done.
Maybe at the level of couples it can be done, if we keep cool, but care.
Esther Got a Nose Job
After years of childhood misery, Red-headed Esther got a nose job. One day the doctor removed her hump And returned it to her in a bottle. He thought it was such a great success, He gave her another hump for free.
Task force off Gibraltar Moving forward En route To Malta On tar-coloured Mediterranean Waters under Stars blooming Fat and sultry. The sort of night When there's no Torpedoes On the radar And Pig tells Us all a story About how he was Never caught Behind the green door The night Dolores Held an orgy.
Nothing if Not Profane
They met mid-function At the Rusty Spoon. Although she's nowhere Near his age or size, He dreamed that he might Find himself one night At the conjunction Of her inner thighs.
Voila, Vera Meroving! [After and Mostly in the Words of Pynchon]
Twin tendrils of sunlight Illuminated a crimson stain In the courtyard of the Baroque plantation villa. A window swung open On this fantastic day To reveal a striking woman In her forties, and otherwise, Barely clad, in a negligee, The hues of which were Peacock greens and blues, The fabric transparent, But not especially obscene. One Kurt Mondaugen, A crouching tiger, hid behind Wrought iron curlicues, Astonished by his desire To see and not be seen. If he waited long enough, A movement of the sun, This woman or the breeze, It might reveal to him, A voyeur, yes, it might reward His impatient gaze, his stare, With a glimpse of nipple, Her navel or some pubic hair.
For Want of Godolphin [After and Mostly in the Words of Pynchon]
Vera wanted Godolphin For reasons he Could only guess. Her desire arose Out of nostalgia For the sensuous, Her appetite Knew nothing at all Of nerves or heat, Or flesh or sweat, Or last night’s caress, But was instead beholden Entirely to barren, Touchless memory.
Schoenmaker Offers to Make Esther Beautiful [After and Mostly in the Words of Pynchon]
You are beautiful, Perhaps, not as you are, But as I see you. I, my love, yours truly, Want to give you Something that Is truly yours. I can bring out The beautiful girl Inside you, latent, The idea of Esther, As I have done already With your face and nose. Do you think me so shallow That I would only Love your body? Don’t you want me To love your soul, The true you? Well, what is the soul? It is the idea of the body, The abstraction behind The reality, the perfect Esther Behind the imperfect one Here in bone and tissue. Just an hour of time In my plastic surgery. I could bring your soul Outside, to the surface. I could make you Perfect, radiant, Unutterably Beautiful and Platonically ideal. Then I could love you Unconditionally, Truly, madly, deeply, dearly.(less)
Murakami sings to me of fascination. I still haven't worked out why.
I could analyse the sensatio...moreOriginal Review: February 22, 2011
Songs of Fascination
Murakami sings to me of fascination. I still haven't worked out why.
I could analyse the sensation until it died on the operating table.
Or I could focus on just keeping the sensation alive.
Or, somewhere in between, I could speculate that it's because Murakami sits over the top of modern culture like a thin gossamer web, intersecting with and touching everything ever so lightly, subtly expropriating what he needs, bringing it back to his writer's desk or table, and spinning it into beautiful, haunting tales that fail to stir some, but obsess others like literary heroin.
Sins of Fascination
Pending a more formal review, below is a song that I pieced together by way of dedication to the book and Paul Bryant's parody.
The song careers all over the surface of the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood" and "Paperback Writer", so I probably owe them and you an apology, but it seemed like an apt way to celebrate Murakami at the time.
As these things often do, it emerged in a thread on a review of this novel.
In the cold hard light of retrospect, I don't know what I was thinking. Nor can I remember what I was drinking when I thought it up.
However, if any one ever creates or releases a soundtrack to Murakami's novels, I'll play it every day of my life.
Or as Paul jokingly suggested, there might even be a musical in there somewhere. (For someone else, maybe even Murakami, to create.)
"Sister Feelings Call" (or "Wind-Up Bird and Black Cat") (A Sonic Chronicle)
"I once had a bird or should I say she once had me. She had a passing resemblance to Halle Berry.
She showed me her room, and said "Isn't it good, this neighbourhood?" She asked me to stay and said she'd written a book. It took her years to write, would I take a look.
I read a few pages of parody and started to laugh. It was then that she told me she was only one half. She had a twin sister called Sally she'd like me to meet. She lived in an alley at the end of the street.
She told me she worked in the morning and went off to bed. I left her room, a brand new idea in my head. When I got there, that alley was dead at both ends, Just me, a black cat and a few of its friends."
Paul Bryant's Review
Paul Bryant has written an excellent parody of Murakami in his review of "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle".
It absolutely nailed Haruki Murakami's writing style in this book:
"After Dark" is probably the easiest Murakami novel to read. At 201 pages, it's not difficult to...moreOriginal Review: March 8, 2011
A Midwinter Night's Tale
"After Dark" is probably the easiest Murakami novel to read. At 201 pages, it's not difficult to finish in one session. It's also close to what you would call "high concept" in the film industry. Its execution is not much more than its conception. All of the action takes place from 11:56pm to 6:52am on a midwinter night, more or less "after dark" when the days are shortest and the nights are longest.
Murakami's writing is stripped back, simple, present tense, in the style of detective fiction, yet there is always a sense of deeper meaning, even if it is or remains hidden. We see the surface, almost like a camera, but we know there is something behind it, even if he doesn't choose or have to describe it.
Beware of Darkness
"Darkness" is an extended metaphor throughout the entire novel. At the most superficial level, it describes the night. However, it also represents the darkness of the human soul. This level of meaning is most likely to resonate with its likely audience – youth in their teens or early twenties who are still trying to piece together some sense of the meaning of life and how they fit into it.
The Same People, Just a Different Cave
Before people developed the technology to build houses, they huddled together in caves at night, primarily to escape their predators, but also to share their collective warmth. Darkness then created a sense of family, if not society as well. Language as a form of communication probably developed during these hours of darkness, when there was little else to do. Now that we can build accommodation, we create smaller scale, more individualised caves where we can live alone and lonely. What was once a source of comfort has become a source of alienation.
The Life of Buildings
This spiritual or anti-spiritual life of buildings in Murakami's fiction has been coming for some time. The homes, office blocks, cafes, bars and hotels in his novels take on a life of their own. They are characters with their own mysteries that embrace and surround the human characters. They're almost microcosms with their own cosmic significance. Inside these buildings, we can be easily lured away from interaction with other humans, even the members of our own family.
Sister Feelings Call Again
Mari and her beautiful sister, Eri, are two sides of the one coin (their names are only one syllable apart) that have lost touch with each other. Eri is at home sleeping a deep sleep that is "too perfect, too pure" and has lasted for two months. Late in the book, we learn that they once embraced each other for protection in a lift while it remained trapped in darkness in a blackout. Spiritually, it was the closest they ever came to each other, a return to the comfort of the cave. Since then, they have drifted apart for no discernible reason. Metaphorically, they have lost touch, but it's almost as if it is important that they have literally lost "touch" as well.
Close to You
Although Eri never fully regains consciousness during the span of the novel, their reconciliation and sense of wholeness begin when Mari learns to open up personally over the course of meetings with strangers during the night and decides to sleep in Eri's bed, holding her close under the sheets, just as the sun starts to rise and the darkness starts to dissipate.
Open Up and Let Me In
In Murakami's concluding words, "this hint of things to come takes time to expand in the new morning light, and we attempt to watch it unobtrusively, with deep concentration. The night has begun to open up at last." Throughout the night, we have watched two flowers start to blossom…or, more likely, two shrubs about to re-blossom. In a sense, they have emerged from the dark and into the light. They are literally "after dark" or post-darkness. There is a suggestion of a recurring cycle at work here too. Just as day follows night, night follows day.
Darkness Becomes Light, and Light Becomes Darkness
Murakami's very last words are that the hint of things to come will continue to expand in the light, at least "until the next darkness arrives". This might just mean that we will retreat to our caves at night, pending a new sunrise. But it could also mean that, all through our lives, we have to deal with darkness and depression, but we have to remember that there will be a new sunrise, especially if we make it happen ourselves.
Is Once a Night Enough?
Someone has suggested that this novel could be the first in a trilogy based around these characters. There are a myriad of questions that the detective in the reader wants to find answers for. On the other hand, the metaphorical significance of the novel and its title is complete in one volume.(less)
For people older than me, the most significant birthday was their 21st.
But when the age of legal...moreTwenty Revolutions
My most feared birthday was my 20th.
For people older than me, the most significant birthday was their 21st.
But when the age of legal adulthood was reduced to 18, turning 21 no longer had the same significance it once had.
Before then, you could be conscripted into the armed forces at 18, but you could not drink alcohol until you turned 21.
So, if you were old enough to die for your country, surely you were old enough to have a drink?
Either way, turning 20 for me meant that I had ceased to be a teenager, a group of people linked only by the fact that their age ended in the suffix “-teen”, but still it felt special not belonging to the grown up crowd.
On the other side of 20, you emerge from university (if you’ve been lucky enough to go there) and dive straight into full-time employment, maturity, responsibility, expectations and adulthood.
Suddenly, things are all a lot more serious, more permanent, less experimental, or this is how it seems.
Haruki Murakami writes about the Japanese experience in “Norwegian Wood”.
It’s set in the years 1968 to 1970, so it mightn’t be the same now.
However, it seems that the transition into adulthood is more demanding, more stressful.
It also seems that there are more casualties, more teenagers fail to make the transition and end up committing suicide.
Murakami writes about the transition almost like it’s a game of snakes and ladders.
You can climb into the future, success and normality, or you can slide into darkness, failure and death.
Murakami’s protagonist, Toru Watanabe, pictures the darkness as a well-like abyss early in the novel when he recounts the events of a day he spent with the girl he longs for, Naoko.
“I can describe the well in minute detail. It lay precisely on the border where the meadow ended and the woods began – a dark opening in the earth a yard across, hidden by grass. Nothing marked its perimeter – no fence, no stone curb (at least not one that rose above ground level). It was nothing but a hole, a wide-open mouth…You could lean over the edge and peer down to see nothing. All I knew about the well was its frightening depth. It was deep beyond measuring, and crammed full of darkness, as if all the world’s darknesses had been boiled down to their ultimate density.”
As a teenager, Toru’s life had been fairly innocuous, he had been playing in a meadow compared with the thicket that awaited him in the future.
But first he had to avoid the well in making the transition.
As his friend Reiko says in another context:
“She and I were bound together at the border between life and death.”
There is a sense in which we have to negotiate the boundaries as safely as we can, to cross the border and close the gap.
If we are lucky, we can do it together.
Unfortunately, not everybody is destined to make it into the forest and out the other side.
The overwhelming feel of reading “Norwegian Wood” is one of being in a blank, dream-like, ethereal world.
Although Murakami describes people, surroundings and objects with precision, it all seems other worldly, as if everybody lives and breathes in a world beyond this world.
There is a sense that at any moment, it could all disappear, that it might all just be part of some cosmic vanishing act.
Even if we make it through, we might turn around and discover that some of our friends haven’t been so lucky.
Talking about My Generation
Most of the action in the novel is dialogue, the characters talking about themselves and their relationships.
They are preoccupied with themselves, introspective and self-centred.
They converse, they play folk songs on the guitar, they write letters that are later burned.
Nobody makes anything that will last, other than perhaps themselves and the relationships that are able to survive into adulthood.
They struggle for permanence, when everything else around them is ephemeral.
Even their memories fade.
In the “frightful silence” of the forest, Naoko asks Toru:
“I want you always to remember me. Will you remember that I existed, and that I stood next to you here like this?”
Of course, he responds that he will, although 20 years later, he finds that his memory “has grown increasingly dim.”
“What if I’ve forgotten the most important thing? What if somewhere inside me there is a dark limbo where all the truly important memories are heaped and slowly turning into mud?...the thought fills me with an almost unbearable sorrow.”
To which he adds, “Because Naoko never loved me.”
The Beatles song features throughout the novel.
It’s a favourite of Naoko’s and Reiko plays it frequently on her guitar.
For much of the novel, the lyrics could describe Toru’s relationship with Naoko and his other love interest, Midori:
“I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me.”
There is a sense of sadness in the sexual subject matter of this novel, almost as if it's been written in a minor key.
Reiko sums up the Beatles pretty accurately, “Those guys sure knew something about the sadness of life,” she says, before adding, “and gentleness”, almost as an afterthought.
She Never Loved Me
I love all of this talk of love and longing and loss and loneliness and labyrinths (all the “L” words).
Not everybody feels the same, though.
You should have heard my wife, F.M. Sushi, when she noticed my tears and stole a look at what I was reading.
“Why don’t these people just stop moaning and get a life. Can’t they just grow up, for chrissake. Everybody’s responsible for their own orgasm.”
Then she flicked the book back at me across the room, adding defiantly (and defeating my prospects that night in one fell swoop), “Especially you.”
I pick up the book, find my place and resume reading where I left off (page 10), equally defiantly, and aloud...“Because Naoko never loved me.”
My wife turns her back on me as I snicker at her lack of understanding of my gentle side.
Growing Up (How Strange the Change from Minor to Major)
Still, a few hundred pages later, I am stunned by her prescience.
Toru grows up in Murakami’s delicate hands.
He has to stop dreaming, he has to live in the present, he has to embrace the now that is in front of him, he has to love the one he’s with.
He has to distance himself from the past, so that it becomes just a lingering memory.
Reiko tells him:
“You’re all grown up now, so you have to take responsibility for your choices. Otherwise, you ruin everything.”
Midori (who he has ummed and ahhed about) tells him:
“...you, well, you’re special to me. When I’m with you I feel something is just right. I believe in you. I like you. I don’t want to let you go.”
In the pouring rain, she reveals to Toru she has broken up with the boyfriend that has prevented her from committing to him.
“Why?” he asks.
“Are you crazy?” she screams. “You know the English subjunctive, you understand trigonometry, you can read Marx, and you don’t know the answer to something as simple as that?
Then in a scene that could come straight out of "Casablanca", she says:
“Drop the damn umbrella and wrap both your arms around me – hard!”
How did F.M. Sushi know this would happen?
That Toru would grow up and get a girl, not just any girl?
That they would fall in love and not into a deep, dark well.
Still I prefer Murakami’s way of telling the story.
It always comes as a surprise the way he tells it, the change from minor to major.
What would my wife know of these things?
What I find mysterious, she finds obvious.
When I find the harbour hard to fathom, she appears to walk on water.
If you put her in a labyrinth, she would always find her way out.
Whereas sometimes I prefer to hang around and enjoy the experience of being down in the rabbit hole.
Mystified. Confused. Excited.
At least for a little wile.
Original Review: October 3, 2011
Audio Recording of My Review
Bird Brian once initiated a Big Audio Project, where Good Readers record and publish their reviews. Unfortunately, BB deleted his page after the amazon acquisition of GR.
My recording of this review was my first contribution. You can find it on SoundCloud here: