Saturday, 20 August 2016

Prologue #1: 'Wind / Pinball' by Haruki Murakami

For a long time, Haruki Murakami's first two novels seemed to me like peculiar enigmas fitting of the novelist's idiosyncratic style. For decades since their original publications (in the late '70s and early '80s), they were only available in the English language as rare handbooks aimed at Japanese students of English as a second language.

Until these two novels – Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973 – were compiled recently as Wind / Pinball (in two new translations by Ted Goossen), A Wild Sheep Chase was the earliest of Murakami's novels commercially available to English-speaking readers, and was, most curiously, the only part (unless you're counting the related novel Dance Dance Dance) of Murakami's “Trilogy of the Rat” available outside of Japan. Sort of appropriately – given A Wild Sheep Chase's playful pastiche of detective fiction – this context adds another layer of mystery to that third part of the trilogy: how, exactly, do the first two “missing novels” relate to this absurdist story about an elusive, otherworldly sheep? Why is Murakami seemingly opposed to these novels receiving international exposure? Who is the Rat, outside of his distant role in A Wild Sheep Chase? And who is the protagonist for that matter, who remains nameless throughout?

So many questions. Too many for a couple of skimpy Wikipedia stubs to be able to satisfactorily answer, right?

To expect these two short novels to provide huge revelations is probably to ask too much of them, however. This isn't a criticism, by any means. In fact, what is done within the relatively small scale of these two novels is a large part of what makes them such a joy to read; and, as with the rest of Murakami's work, the appeal lies primarily in the singular atmosphere that he is able to evoke. Even as his narratives have become more sophisticated and mature over the years, dealing with such diverse themes as personal trauma (Kafka on the Shore), the dark spaces of Japanese history (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), and one's ownership of their own mind and identity (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), Murakami's strengths have resided to a great extent within his ability to convey a vivid and highly resonant imaginary space to his readers.

I was quite surprised to see that this 'Murakami feeling' was so present even in these early works. It's not a hundred percent there, but it's undeniably present. Even though Hear the Wind Sing is more or less a series of breezily comic and whimsically contemplative episodes in the life of a university student who spends most of his Summer drinking with his downbeat university dropout friend, the Rat; Murakami proves himself to be a writer with an almost supernatural ability to richly evoke nostalgia, melancholy, and solitude on the page. What struck me most was how comparatively innocent this novel feels: it's certainly not without its dark moments, but they tend more to deliberately juxtapose the self-deprecating humour and chilled-out introspection that characterises much of the book; like dark clouds on the horizon of a bright blue sky.

As Summer gives way to Autumn in Pinball 1973, so too does the general mood begin to grow colder and more depressed. In this novel, the things that once brought comfort and warmth start to become vaguely oppressive to its main characters. For example, as the novel progresses, the protagonist's tendency towards nostalgia leads to a series of bizarre emotional connections with inanimate objects: he holds a funeral for his old telephone switch board, and searches obsessively for an old pinball machine that he used to play in more innocent times. As for the Rat, he becomes besieged by anxieties, vague feelings of emptiness, and a worry that he's become trapped in a town that holds nothing for him. These themes of alienation – like the novel's more overt surreal elements, such as the twin girls who, one morning, appear inexplicably in the protagonist's apartment – would, of course, become a cornerstone of Murakami's writing.

Though Murakami has distanced himself somewhat from his first two works, and states that A Wild Sheep Chase is his “true” beginning as a writer, anybody with a love of the writer's work will relish this opportunity to see how the seeds of his literary world are sewn over the course of these two short novels. I'd even contest Murakami's claim that A Wild Sheep Chase was the novel that truly inspired his decision to go from writing to becoming a writer... all I can say to back that up is that the process of writing one particular staggeringly dreamlike episode towards the end of Pinball 1973 would certainly have inspired me to dedicate my life to writing fiction.

I'm looking forward now to soon returning again to A Wild Sheep Chase, and reading it with a new set of eyes... to see see it as the treacherous existential Winter to the nostalgic, lazy Summer of Hear the Wind Sing and to the anxious, depressed Autumn of Pinball 1973...


Further Reading / Watching...
  • Blog about Let's Meet In A Dream on Yomuka!
    • This blogger has written about (and kindly translated some of) this early curio; a book of short pieces written by both Murakami and Shigesato Itoi (possibly best-known for his work on the cult Super Nintendo RPG Earthbound). The translated parts highlight Murakami's lighter side: there are some goofy short poems, and a (hopefully true) story about Murakami's own pinball habit.
  • A 1981 film adaptation of Hear the Wind Sing
    • I've not actually watched this yet, but it certainly seems interesting. It's a film adaptation of Hear the Wind Sing, directed by Kazuki Ōmori. Given how the novel's pacing and style can be compared to films by - for example - Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater, and Yasujirō Ozu, it should be interesting to see how the novel actually translates to the cinematic form in Ōmori's adaptation
  • The BBC documentary Haruki Murakami: In Search of This Elusive Writer
    • A documentary made for the BBC's Imagine strand. It's actually a really good introduction for the uninitiated, which goes into some interesting analysis of Murakami's personal philosophies as a writer, how his own life and the world around him has influenced his work, and why this work resonates with so many readers around the world. Last but certainly not least, there's a bit where Alan Yentob has a natter with a cat.

I'm Back!

It's been a while. There's been no huge single reason why I haven't updated in such a long time, though I've been happily immersed in other projects since then (I'll come to that in a bit) and I definitely found that 'Epilogue' was a lot easier to manage when not in full-time employment and all the jazz.

The main reason I've decided to start this back up again is simply that I was reading through some of the old posts and remembered how this blog was a fun sort of "practice ground" for writing. Also I had a few ideas for posts that I quite liked... and, of course, a series of careful and lengthy ruminations led me to the conclusion that was the Internet really needs right now is more content.

Speaking of content (and let's stop using that word in that way, even ironically)... one of the projects I've been immersed in since this blog ceased posting to you, my non-existent reader, has been the album released under my noise-making moniker Mute Branches that was kindly put out by the Bricolage Collective -- a Glasgow-based collective gathering talented musicians from around the world. It's called Fake Real Warm, and can be checked out below!

One new feature I'm going to be starting up is called 'Prologue', in which I'll look at debuts / early works that I find are overlooked, unique, or maybe simply interesting to write about and examine in the context of an artist's later work. The first of these will be up very shortly!

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Epilogue #9

Yoko Ogawa
(translated by Stephen Snyder)

As a rule, I've decided generally not to cover short story compilations (a decision I came to after reading Haruki Murakami's The Elephant Vanishes) on the basis that there's often a lot more difficulty analysing and writing about them as a unified piece of work.

Having read Yoko Ogawa's Revenge (subtitled 'Eleven Dark Tales'), I'm unsure as to whether or not I can confidently describe it as a short story compilation. Though the said tales are all self-contained to some extent, a major characteristic of Revenge is how all the stories are linked in a number of ways.

The more overt, surface connections between stories are very skilfully incorporated, in my view. Rather than opting for making these short vignettes explicitly the sum of a larger, singular piece; Ogawa connects them more in order to illustrate how the insular lives lived by their protagonists can subtly impact on one another (events in the background of one story will be central or, at least, extended upon in a later story), and, through this, she is able to paint detailed portraits of her characters and settings without compromising the Kafka-esque minimalism of her writing style.

Backing this sense of connectivity up further is a strong thematic consistency. Broadly speaking, each story examines the strange darkness that lies just beneath everyday lives and interactions (she has warranted much comparison with David Lynch in this regard); something that is effectively presented, for example, in 'The Museum of Torture''s examination of how violence manifests itself within the everyday. The titular museum displays used implements of torture and violence alongside the completely ordinary artefacts of an otherwise normal, everyday, functioning home. As well as this, we follow the story's first-person narrator's growing feelings of anger towards her boyfriend as they spiral into contemplations of violence.

For all their dwelling on the strange, dark, and uncomfortable aspects of real life; Revenge's 11 vignettes are very accessible and - along with some short stories published in The New Yorker(equally fascinating and similarly evocative of a strange sort of eerie calm) - have made me want to explore more of Yoko Ogawa's work and, furthermore, to expand my knowledge of Japanese literature.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Epilogue #8

Inherent Vice
Thomas Pynchon

There are some things you can pretty safely expect to come across in a Thomas Pynchon novel -- hilarious character names, irreverent songs, staggering levels of research, perhaps a reference or two to 'magenta and green'... the list goes on. One could say, though, that there's a lot about the content of each work that's nevertheless pretty distinctive and unique amongst his canon. For example, debut novel V. intersperses a satire on New York bohemia with one character's obsessive search for an elusive historical constant known as 'V'; Mason & Dixon takes the real historical figures of Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon and places them within a beautifully strange ghost story about the growth and development of the Age of Reason; and Vineland deals, broadly speaking, with its protagonist's complicated relationship with his estranged wife, his daughter, and the federal government.

At first, then, it may seem quite strange that Inherent Vice seems - in many ways - to be very similar to 1990's Vineland. Both novels explore the end of the ''60s dream' at the hands of an ever-growing and restrictive regime of authoritarianism; and they both present a drugged-up, surf-rock-soundtracked California as perceived by stoner protagonists. But, where Vineland flicked channels through tones and themes as diverse as political satire, melancholy nostalgia, eclectic cultural referencing, apparent zombies, and Godzilla; Inherent Vice sticks more-or-less to being a weed-reeking mystery novel reminiscent to varying extents both of the Coen Brothers' slacker-noir classic The Big Lebowski and the chaotic, atmospherically rich hardboiled crime novels of someone like Raymond Chandler (himself, of course, a huge influence on the Coens' film). That's certainly not to say, though, that Inherent Vice is - as some critics have argued - a depthless pulp detective pastiche.

The story - of private detective Doc Sportello being hired by his ex-girlfriend and subsequently finding himself dragged into the middle of a Chandler-esque mess of criminals, corrupt police / feds, and shadowy organisations - is presented to the reader in a way that will certainly be familiar to anyone who's read Pynchon before (and if you've not; then this is a great starting point).

The way Pynchon portrays the time period (beginning of the '70s), particularly, is in keeping with his post-modern brand of 'historiographic metafiction' (what a term): he, as ever, acknowledges that history is always constructed from the artefacts of the past through eclectic references to contemporary television, film, and music. Most interesting, though, is how Pynchon once again uses a historical setting to engage with the present day: the ubiquitous problems posed by gentrification are approached in a similar way to those of the colonialism that haunts his more sprawling historical works; the World Wide Web (and issues of privacy and censorship) is explored through its academic / government research-based precursor, ARPANET; and parallels can be drawn between Pynchon's representation of a paranoid post-Manson rise in restrictive authoritarianism and the post-9/11 'War on Terror'...

... Which would seem to lead quite nicely onto Pynchon's most recent novel Bleeding Edge (expect a post about it at some point). Anyway: overall, I found that - for a novel that's received some derision for being 'Pynchon-lite' - Inherent Vice was still rich in the detail, the silliness, and the seriousness that one can expect from one of Pynchon's works. It may be his most accessibly written, and it may not scale the same dizzying heights of ambition as Mason & Dixon or Gravity's Rainbow, but it's no less worthy of a place within the canon of one of the most unique and brilliant writers still working today.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Epilogue #7

Raising Steam
Terry Pratchett

I'd been thinking recently about how Terry Pratchett was probably the author who first got me really interested in literature, and also about how good a 'first author' Pratchett is: as well as just being in tune with the fantasy genre that's often favoured by younger readers, the knowing sense of humour and tendency towards satire and social commentary take it a bit further, Pratchett's use of parody and pastiche opens up a wealth of further reading (for example, the City Watch novels could lead one to the works of Raymond Chandler; allusions to the Dungeon Dimensions can lead to H. P. Lovecraft, etc.), and -- overall -- through adding more and more depth to the settings and characters of his Discworld novels over the years, he's created a universe that encompasses the influence of so much literature, while itself being no less unique and overflowing with originality.

It had been a while since I'd read something from Pratchett, and - having not read any of the most recent Discworld novels - I went into Raising Steam curious about how the fictional world had changed and developed (especially seeing as how many of the recent novels seem to be about the Disc's increasing technological developments and slide towards industrialisation).

I feel like, having read the novel now, there's definitely been some change to the world -- Ankh-Morpork isn't as comically drowning in its own squalor, and this novel dwells less on the fantastical elements of a fantasy world and more on those of a more recognisably 'real' and constantly developing one. Raising Steam is, generally speaking, about progress: when a young, enthusiastic, Northern (or Discworld-Northern, anyway) autodidact engineer invents the first functional steam engine, the reader witnesses how - around the Disc - various groups react to both the perceived wonders and the perceived dangers posed by the innovation. In dealing with this theme, Pratchett clearly still possesses the ability to balance real-world issues and satire within a fantasy setting (a reminder here that I should really re-read Small Gods at some point); something visible in how one of the key themes of the novel centres around an extremist reaction by a faction of dwarves against technological advancement and explores effectively how those with power will exploit the fears and anxieties of ordinary people in order to further their own pursuits for further power and control.

If there's any fault with Raising Steam, I'd say it lies to some extent with the structuring of the novel. The early parts of the novel -- in which Pratchett is introducing and gradually bringing together the various characters -- sometimes feel somewhat disjointed: I'm wondering whether this is to do with the fact that Pratchett is, sadly, only able to write now via the use of voice-recognition software. I can definitely see how such a situation would effect how one is able to compose something as structurally complex as a novel (especially one like this that is set in a multitude of locations scattered across what is a seemingly constantly growing fictional world); and something that I feel is redeemed by the fact that Pratchett's style of writing and characteristic sense of humour is highly conversational in tone anyway, as well as by the fact that - as the characters come together and the plot finds its focus - the novel becomes ever more enjoyable and readable.

Raising Steam may not hit the heights of Pratchett's best work; but it's nonetheless a very readable novel displaying not only Pratchett's ability to effortlessly balance rich imagination and humour with contrastingly serious themes, but also that he - like his character, Dick Simnell - has immeasurable passion, pride, and care for what he has put so much time and effort into creating over the years.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Epilogue #6

The Luminaries
Eleanor Catton

In my 'Epilogue' about Eleanor Catton's interesting (and highly recommended) first novel, The Rehearsal, I wondered how (and, I suppose, if) her style in that novel -- one characterised by experimentation in a modernist / post-modernist style existing closely alongside, I thought, a strong interest in relatively accessible, 'gripping', storytelling -- would translate from that book's relative brevity to the oft-stated immensity of her second novel, The Luminaries.

It was definitely something that I kept close in my mind throughout my time reading The Luminaries; especially given that it's during the opening part of the novel that I thought the ghost of The Rehearsal lingered most strongly.

This part -- centred around the character of Walter Moody wandering into a meeting of twelve men connected by a recent cataclysmic event in the gold rush town of Hokitika, New Zealand and eventually gradually piecing the twelve's individual stories together -- is similar to The Rehearsal clearly in formal and technical terms. Much like with that novel, the reader is thrown into the immediate aftermath of an event (in that case it was a sex scandal between a teacher and a student; and in this case, it's a particularly eventful night that ended with a comatose prostitute, a dead old timer, and a disappeared young man) that is delved into further through a series of interconnected subjective narratives, detailing the wider settings, characters, backstories and events that are explored further in the later parts.

What The Luminaries does differently, though, to The Rehearsal is examine that theme on a larger scale: both literally in the fact that a mining community is larger than a high school, and in a more figurative sense in its exploration of themes of how greed, exploitation and violence branches from the (then) emergent capitalism that is now a central part of contemporary life. Overall, I found the novel a highly engaging work that effectively balances a gripping, interestingly told period mystery with an intriguing exploration of - amongst others - themes like the unreliability of the historical narrative / the illusion that is objective truth; and the wider consequences of capitalism on social communities.

If I had any problem with The Luminaries, it's that I thought it lost steam a bit towards the very end; as the novel becomes more about simply describing events that have already been established. Though there were some moments of beauty there and though it was interesting to see some of these events through a new perspective, it felt to me like the one time where Catton seemed to become a slave to her ambitious and very careful astrologically-centred narrative structure. Overall though, I'd highly recommend the novel to anyone after a thrilling story with a bit more going on underneath.

Sunday, 2 March 2014

Epilogue #5

The Castle
Franz Kafka

The final novel in the Vintage-released collection of Kafka's complete novels, The Castle, is one that's left me with a mixture of opinions and thoughts hanging in the ether -- much like, unfortunately, the story set up by Kafka in this unfinished work.

Out of the three novels, this is probably the strangest and most striking -- it's more strongly surreal than its predecessors, darker and also more absurdly humorous. We - like the protagonist, K. the land surveyor - are introduced to an odd small village that's seemingly in permanent Winter and ruled over by bureaucrats in the castle that overshadows it; we see the people who live there and their relationships with one another, we experience K.'s difficulty to do his job in this village (or even to figure out what it is) and the difficulties posed by the increasingly elaborate and deranged bureaucracy, as well as by the two comically incompetent and uncannily strange assistants assigned to him... and then...

Yeah. Unfortunately -- as well as being, in my view, the most atmospherically well-realised and gripping of Kafka's three novels -- it's also the most incomplete. Like the other two novels in the Vintage collection, this novel ends with a section put together posthumously from fragments and drafts... unlike with those two, though, this only serves to make The Castle end abruptly a little bit later than it originally would have done.

Nonetheless, it's worth reading for many reasons. The wintry, remote and peculiar atmosphere of the village is one of my favourite settings from Kafka's three novels; and the paranoia- and anxiety-inducing sense of bureaucracy that characterised The Trial is heightened with the seemingly incomprehensible system of government that oversees the village, while the novel also encompasses the more in-depth characterisation that could be seen in Amerika.

It's just a shame that it all ends so