Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Desert Island Novel to Read and Read and Read Again #7 - Haruki Murakami's "Dance Dance Dance" (or "Dansu Dansu Dansu" in Japanese)

[For Desert Island Books to Read and read and read again # 6 click Ernest Hemingway's Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises]




PART I 



Surprise Ain't the Only Thing That Translates
At the New Yorker Festival talk Haruki Murakami gave a couple years back, describing the effort of writing books, I swear Japan's now most famous author must have told the audience that writing was "fun!" at least five times. And when I say "fun!" I  mean that he said it (I know, I was there) with a near shoulder-shrug, high-pitched ease, like the way your ten year-old nephew would nearly indifferently describe his gloriously perfect day at Canada's Wonderland. Murakami wasn't being obnoxious; he wasn't saying writing a novel like Dance Dance Dance was easy; he was just trying to say that he enjoyed the process as much as he did. Still, you're sitting there listening to your favourite writer, taking furious notes like the wonder-student you never were, hoping to learn a few things, and there he is shoulder-shrug, high-pitched saying, "It's fun!"

You think I wasn't jealous?

There's an expression popular amongst those of us with writerly aspirations: No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. If you've plotted and planned out every detail of your book you'll never truly throw your reader for a loop. If, however, on page 342, as you're finishing your first draft, you realize that - holy crap! - your heroine is going to commit suicide, chances are you'll be instilling a rather holy crap feeling in your reader as well. They never saw it coming and how could they? You didn't either.

This of course doesn't only apply to surprises. Joy also translates and that fun Murakami feels in the crafting of his stories is evident throughout his extensive body of work. There is, as I've said on this blog before, a lightness to his stories no matter the subject matter. I don't mean they're all airy-fairy popcorn (for airy-fairy popcorn see Banana Yoshimoto). They aren't. But even when death is a theme it manages not to veer into the hopeless or nihilistic. His stories can get sad; they just never seem hopeless. There is an acceptance there, an always calm acceptance of what life is, of what it will deal. In turn, there is always a light behind, beyond or just the other side of whatever darkness Murakami might present.

As the Kyoto born novelist has said, he is always looking for balance in his writing and thematically he is unparalleled at coupling light with dark, especially in his later works.

In none of his novels, however, is there anywhere near as much fun (and not all that much dark) nor as many flights of fancy - to my mind, at any rate - as with his sixth novel, Dance Dance Dance (1988), a book so much about the "advanced Capitalist" age we're in and how much of our lives are now spent killing time, or trying to figure out how to kill time. To be honest the novel does very little heart breaking, but I'll call it soul healing and it does (heal my soul) by dint of its glorious ability to take me to another world - that bedtime = story time thing we've forever asked of fiction, especially on cold, wet autumn eves.

Planes, (Bullet) Trains and Subarus
There's a movie about to be released in theatres about a guy stuck in a wooden coffin. That's the setting for the entire feature. A coffin. Sounds about as pleasurable as being ... well, stuck in a coffin, which I suppose is the film's claustrophobic point, but doesn't sound like any kind of entertainment I'd enjoy. In my stories I like movement. Even on stage I've always preferred if there could at least be a kitchen for a character to walk over to and pour a stiff drink, so that you're not always just stuck in that living room. People talking in one room for scenes on end makes me tired.

I am, I fear, the same way in life. My favourite kind of dinner party allows me to be at one table, then another and then outside with the smokers (I haven't smoked cigarettes in years but haven't stopped sympathizing with and understanding the break-away-from-group-need that is so much of what feeds the habit).

I love Dance Dance Dance for its sense of adventure - for the various journeys it takes you on. The story doesn't stay in one place or even one city or even one country, and crap, it turns out the limitations of my life are such that I can't hop on airplanes nor afford bullet trains and go on vacation on a monthly basis. A book ain't a bad alternative sometimes. 

When I revisit The Catcher in the Rye I always forget how long the opening chapters in Holden Cauflield's school, Pencey Prep, really are. In memory the story spends a few pages at the school and then we're off and running away from school in the night with this teenager, spending the few days and nights that follow round New York. Going back, though, I realize there's a significant and rather dense portion of text (and the time required to develop some truly memorable characters - pimple popping Ackley kid, any Salinger fanatics out there?) set in the school. I mention this here because if one of the funnest things great books do is take you on a journey, then the only way to do that is by firmly situating you someplace first.

With Dance Dance Dance Murakami situates us first in Saporro, on Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido, which has a lot in common, I'm told, with Canada. (Canadians visiting Japan don't always gravitate to those northerly locations with climates and snow falls and greenery simliar to home - go figure.)

The streets were covered in a thin layer of slush, and people trained their eyes carefully at their feet. The air was exhilarating. High school girls came bustling along, their rosy red cheeks puffing white breaths you could have written cartoon captions in. I continued my amble, taking in the sights of the town. It had been four and half years since I was in Sapporo.

And whilst there the narrator is staying at the Dolphin Hotel, a once shoddy place that has now been demolished, replaced by an over-branded five-star hotel. So there you are in the slush and snow, or in the hotel lounge watching the swirling snow while sipping your drink and then he has you - I mean the narrator - sort of fall in love with a woman who works at the hotel's front desk before you're flying to Tokyo with a rather precocious thirteen year-old girl (speaking of Holden, and this is not Murakami's only novel with such a character - did I mention that Murakami wasn't satisfied with the Japanese translation of The Catcher in the Rye and so did a new translation himself a few years back?). And then it's her story, the thirteen year-old's (Yuki's) and the story of her clueless mother, who is a great artist but a terrible mother (eg. leaves her thirteen year-old to fend for herself in Sapporo, when home is Tokyo).

So now you're in Tokyo where you'll meet a movie star you once knew in high school. In Tokyo, back in your apartment, with your little Subaru and your music and your kitchen where you can cook the dishes that'll make all your readers ravenous (more on that later).

But just as you've settled into a book set in Tokyo, a hundred pages later (give or take - I didn't count) and you're suddenly on a trip to Hawaii. And really, who doesn't like to take spontaneous trips to Hawaii? Who, for that matter, doesn't want to read a book that makes you hungry and horny and so much more?

For that you'll have to click on Murakami's "Dance Dance Dance" that makes me hungry and horny Part II.

6 comments:

  1. The first three tracks in this week's soundtrack relate to Murakami as Stan Getz's "Desafinado," Radiohead and Miles Davis have all been referenced at some point in the Japanese author's oeuvre.

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  2. I refused to read Catcher in the Rye for ages just because my 7th grade Englsih teacher raved about it so much so I thought it must have been boring! I was so silly, it's now definitely one of my favourite books and I can't quite put my finger on why. I haven't read Dance Dance Dance but am looking forward to more on it! Books that make you hungry and horny are awesome, unless you're reading them at work, then they suck...

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  3. English, Corinne. It's spelled E-n-g-l-i-s-h. Clearly your 7th grade teacher did a bang-up job! says Mr. didn't understand the difference between 'their' and 'there' till his late twenties.

    But seriously, hungry and horny at work. You know that's the name of someone's blog somewhere.

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  4. Haha! And I'm an englamish teacher and all! I love the irony in my typo. Damn it I even re-read the comment for errors before clicking as well!

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  5. My partner bugs and bugs me about Dance Dance Dance, I'll have to give in and try it. Great post Jon

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  6. The bugs are telling you something, Dempsey.

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