First of all, let me say that I’ve been reading this book like forever, or at least it seems that way. To be fair, my mind had been retrained to seek the immediate resolution of flash fiction and thus a novel-length book was suddenly overwhelming unless it was quick-paced action that required little involvement from the reader. Murakami demands more.
I’m not totally convinced that the story itself and even the writing wasn’t falling a bit short of my expectations. Surely McCarthy or Faulkner would not have let me put them down for weeks at a time. And this story of Murakami’s is not one that is easily followed unless you keep in mind that there are two stories here: likely the same narrator, a futuristic analyst with a brain implant who is caught up in a weird world of a scientist and his granddaughter in one; and in the other, a dream reader who must give up his shadow and live within the confines of a town walled in and watched over by a Gatekeeper. The former is written in the past tense, the latter in the present.
The thing with Murakami is that he manages to create unusual environments, lay them out, people them with characters with whom for some reason, have depth but do not truly elicit empathy, juggle pace and plots so that sometimes reading two pages is a chore and sometimes reading twenty flies by in a snap, include dull details interspersed with danger and action, and toss action and danger amid dull details.
There is no real lovely language here; it is stark and perfectly suited to the dreary starkness of both worlds. Even in the simplicity of words the settings emerge real enough in the reader’s mind–even if it’s not what Murakami himself imagined. Therefore, there wasn’t anything I read that sent me dashing off to the laptop to blog about and share, until this:
No, these holes could go on forever. And I would never get to read that morning edition. The fresh ink coming off on your fingers. Thick with all the advertising inserts. The Prime Minister’s wake-up time, stock market reports, whole family suicides, chawan-mushi recipes, the length of skirts, record album reviews, real estate, . . . (pg. 235)
This is the narrator’s thoughts as he’s following the scientist’s granddaughter through a slick black plateau of holes from which leeches emerge in this underground world. The thought is odd because as the story is evidently the future, the looking back to a more normal present for this character goes further back to a time not of DVDs or CDs but of “record album” reviews. And newspapers–which have already become a rarity for morning reading.
Even as I feel these two stories are of the same character and are separated by time, there is at last a reference in one of the other:
Back to the newsreel, arcs of water shooting across the screen, spillway emptying into the big bowl below. Dozens of camera angles: up, down, head on, this side, that side, long, medium, zoom in close-up on the tumbling waters. An enormous shadow of the arching water is cast against the concrete expanse. I star, and the shadow gradually becomes my shadow. (pg. 238)
This, in the dark underground world, as he is following the granddaughter to some sort of safety. This, while in the parallel narrative, he has given up his shadow to the Gatekeeper.
And, a hint at what is perhaps being drawn out as a theme; the loss of self? No names are given to the narrator nor any of the main characters. They are the Professor, the Colonel, the chubby granddaughter, the Librarian, etc. This would also tie in with the rather flat characters who we never-the-less endow with a sense of reality. And just at this point in the story, the narrator also begins to realize that when he gave up his shadow, he gave up his memory, his own sense of who and what he is.
I’m not sure whether the story’s getting better at this point or I’m just coming down from a flash-fiction high and learning to concentrate for longer than two minutes, but I know I’m enjoying the story more and want to read, rather than pushing myself out of guilt.
(Still, I must admit that reading the jacket blurb describing the book as “hilariously funny” isn’t something I remember feeling at all.)