Haruki Murakami is a mid-Pacific man. One of the most popular novelists in Japanese history, and certainly the one with the most immediate and accessible international appeal, he is also the one who delineates a profound but imprecise discontent with contemporary life. He does this in an easy, conversational style, very much at odds with the stylised literary traditions of his homeland; and that is by no means the only aspect of his writing that seems more at home in the West. However many times he mentions districts of Tokyo or railway stops on commuter trains, the most telling references are to American or European cultural artefacts. In particular Murakami mentions music (jazz and pop feature heavily in almost all his works; Dance, Dance, Dance itself is the title of a Beach Boys track); but in general, and most significantly, the characters easily, unthinkingly, accept global fast-food joints and internationally recognised brand names. They are an everyday part of their everyday world, and despite critical maulings for daring to do so, that’s how Murakami treats them. He writes for contemporary Japan – which is, superficially at least, very like contemporary anywhere. His narrators, frequently first-person, are frequently unnamed and frequently do unimportant jobs they are capable at but not interested in. And then weird things happen to them.
‘It might look simple but it never is. It’s just like a root. What’s above ground is only a small part of it. But if you start pulling, it keeps coming and coming. The human mind dwells deep in darkness.’
The narrator of Dance, Dance, Dance (he is, of course, unnamed, first-person and in a job at which he is capable but in which he has no interest) is drawn not unwillingly, but hardly eagerly, into a thriller that has immediate similarities to any number of American detective novels, especially those that can be described as ‘hard-boiled’. The sparse prose and knowing, intimate relationship between the narrator and the reader bring the latter immediately into the story, and the speed with which events take place draws him/her even more quickly into the tale. There are sudden shifts and unexpected deaths, sexual encounters and dark social undersides, police questioning and a hero out to uncover the truth. But although Murakami admits to being profoundly influenced by such works, there is something else going on in all his writings, something other-worldly, philosophic, metaphysical. Murakami reaches these places in Dance, Dance, Dance through a literal other-world, a dwelling within a dwelling, accessible only to those with a strange kind of foresight. There the characters encounter an experience that may help them link aspects of their fractured lives into a more meaningful and satisfying whole – though there are no guarantees, and plenty of strange terrors.
I don’t want to join the ghosts.
Murakami has had a complex relationship with Japan. He rebelled against his parents conformist upbringing, rebelled against the spiritual stagnation he saw in the money-focussed, job-for-life salarymen who seemed to represent the only ambitions of the post-War generation, rebelled against the anti-Westernism he encountered. He set up a jazz club with his wife. He absorbed Western culture with a ravenous appetite. Then he started writing. His decision to do so was the result of an almost mystical experience at a baseball match, when – essentially – a voice told him to write a novel. So he did. It won a prize, and most of his works thereafter have done much the same, though selling rather more, and in many more languages. The indeterminate uncertainties and un-willed searching of his heroes has found an eager audience all over the world. There is talk of his becoming a Nobel Laureate before long. But his success at resonating with Japan’s readers turned him into a cult figure, and he left the country for many years – teaching in the States and touring; but always writing. After the Kobe earthquake and the underground gas attacks in Tokyo (both in 1995), he felt he had to return to Japan, and wrote two non-fiction works which focussed with understanding and humanity on precisely those people he had most despised when he had been a young man. He now lives near Tokyo.
‘Where’s the line between me and my shadow?’
Dance, Dance, Dance is one of his most immediately accessible works. Granted, there is a Sheep-Man, a psychic teenager who can read the vibes of a Maserati and a one-armed Vietnam vet poet; but that’s fairly mild for Murakami. He melds the reality of a world obsessed with money, image and waste with one equally lost in spiritual uncertainty, where there is a constant searching for connection and meaning. At the same time, he invests their spiritual search with a reality of its own, so that the ghostly element is both metaphor and concrete, thriller and symbol. The narrator is firmly grounded in real life, describing music from the likes of Boy George and Talking Heads, enjoying the comfort of his Subaru; but at the same time in touch with a shadow-world where people who may or may not be dead are trying to send him signals and signs. But it is here that Murakami most significantly departs from the thriller genre. These signs are not to help the hero catch the killer in a supernatural detective story; they are about managing to weave together the disconnected strands of an entire life; to make sense of them; to make life itself mean something more than existence and consumption.
No, not departing – returning. She was braving it back to the big, bad, real world.
There is much that is left unsaid in a Murakami novel. Traditionally, novels attempt to tie up loose ends to create an illusion of perfectibility that is morally satisfying. He doesn’t do that. This is partly a result of the free-flowing nature of the narrative and the attendant willingness to explore the bizarre with a kind of nonchalant detachment, the insider expressing extraordinary events with seeming objectivity. Conversations that should be stupefying are treated as if they were no more than bar-chat; strange circumstances or coincidences are left unexplained. But this is not a world where everything hangs together tidily – it is far more delicate than that, more fluid. And also more expressive. In the real world, where capitalism survives by wasting resources, where people can be murdered for no good reason and their killer never caught, where the individual can be bought out by the faceless corporation, something less obviously pat than a neat resolution is necessary for such a book. After all, this is a story where weird things happen to an ordinary guy.