His first book, and still unavailable in English outside of Japan [note: in 2015 this was finally published in English outside of Japan, in a new translation by Ted Goossen]. Although you can find it if you look.
I’ve always liked this and the sequel a whole lot; I’ve always ranked them up near the best of his work. It didn’t let me down this time. It’s about as accomplished and moving a debut work as I’ve ever encountered.
Now that I’ve read a lot more J-lit, the games he plays with the time structure in this book don’t strike me as out of line with the mainstream, although they’re still fresh from a Western perspective. He jumps back and forth from a present where the narrator’s about 30 to a past where the narrator is 21, to various points before that ranging from childhood to months before the 21-year-old present. Most of the scenes take place in August of 1970, though: the narrator hangs around with his drinking buddy the Rat, meets a girl, almost has a romance with her, visits J’s Bar a lot, and thinks back on past girlfriends and/or traumas. In the 1979 present he ruminates on the meaning of writing, the meaninglessness of existence and the poignancy of that, and adds childhood anecdotes about taciturnity and loquacity. All of this is fractured and confused, and interspersed with other passages that take a while to figure out (a DJ’s patter is introduced without explanation, for example). Again, it’s not so unusual in J-lit – but it’s tremendously effective, all the same.
It’s a novella (A-Prize-bait length, truth be told), but it’s amazingly packed. The 1970 scenes function as a seishun novel, sure enough – the fleetingness of summer, sunsets and torrid love affairs, beer and Beach Boys records. But the love affair is unconsummated (this is about the most delicate evocation of blue balls you’ll ever read), and so’s the Beach Boys record for that matter. It’s about missed connections, as well as broken ones; unfulfilled desire, rather than fulfilled. “You can’t miss what you never had,” Muddy Waters sang; but Murakami knows otherwise.
The 1979 frame only deepens the story. Poetry is, Wordsworth sang, emotion recollected in tranquility, and the 1979 frame is all about finding, at long last, the voice to recollect 1970’s emotion in public. It’s a lot of navel-gazing, frankly, talking about the narrator’s childhood inability to speak, then his rush of speech; and then of course there’s the Derek Heartfield bit. This is of course an homage to Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout: a hack sci-fi writer, forgotten by everybody, but known by the narrator, in a sort of gnostic transmission, to have possessed the keys to knowledge and to communication of it. Murakami is modestly shrugging off literary ambition here, while at the same time setting himself very high aims indeed: to speak truth, in a new way. (And a measure of his art is how he carefully and subtly ties this ambition, this theme of learning how to write, to the 1970 story as well, by having the Rat undergo a literary awakening and decide to try to write a novel. We think the “I” of 1979 is the “I” of 1970, but what if it’s actually the Rat?)
What is that truth? It’s pretty simple: life is meaningless. All you can do is do what you must do, and you do it well, as Bob Dylan sang; Voltaire sang it, too. It’s not an earthshaking truth (although it is, really), certainly not a new one; and as such it’s not really the most remarkable thing about the book. Although, if you’re still into such things as thinking about truth, as most of us tend to be at age 21, it can make a big impact on you anyway. As well it should.
What’s more remarkable about the book is that, even though he comes right out and states this meaning, or something like it, several times, he also effectively demonstrates it, through the narrator. It’s the voice of the narrator, of course – the narrative persona – that’s so alluring about this book. His famous “cool,” which involves dismissing its very coolness as a debility, starts here. Is it a disaffection? Ennui? Only to the unperceptive. There are plenty of hints that the controlled exterior hides an interior full of grief – the narrator is still getting over the unexpected suicide of his girlfriend the spring before – he’s wallowing, but it takes us most of the book to realize it, because he’s so mild-mannered about it. So matter-of-fact about it. So determined to know that this kind of bewilderness of pain is the way of the world, not something he can blame on anybody.
It’s also a very funny book – Murakami has great comic timing, a fantastic ear for dialogue and a classic Hollywood eye for mise-en-scene. (And Alfred Birnbaum is a great translator.) It’s just satisfying in so many ways…
It’s good to be back.