Mainland, ho!

Tomorrow, I fly to China with some friends for what promises to be a pretty exciting week. This means I won’t be posting for awhile, but in return, you’ll get lots more pictures in the next installment.

And if you’re hurting for content, I did just post a 2,000 word review of Haruki Murakami’s opus, 1Q84, that I’m quite certain nobody wants to read. So there’s that if you get desperate.

Gaijin out.


Gaijin Book Review: 1Q84

(NOTE: This discussion of 1Q84 will avoid particulars and be left intentionally vague so as to exclude spoilers.)

My first brush with Haruki Murakami came during my junior year of college, as part of the required reading for a course on Post-War Japanese Literature. Almost twenty years earlier, such a class might have been taught by Murakami himself, who briefly joined the Tufts faculty as a writing fellow during the late 1980s.

(It is beyond me why the university does so little to publicize this fact, since Murakami is–with apologies to Daniel Dennett–easily the most famous faculty-member Tufts has ever had.)

Of all the authors I read during that semester–among them Nobel Prize-winners Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe and cultural icon Yukio Mishima–no one captivated my imagination quite like Murakami.

The course syllabus allotted us two weeks to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which was at the time Murakami’s longest and most ambitious novel, checking in just over 600 pages. Neglecting all my more pressing assignments in other classes, I finished the book in three days because I couldn’t force myself to stop.

Before this, Murakami wasn’t a total unknown to me. Even then, he was arguably Japan’s most celebrated living author, though perhaps Oe–now in his 70s, the elder statesman of Japanese literature–might have made a compelling case. (So, too, might have Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japan-born British author of The Remains of the Day and, more recently, Never Let Me Go, if one chose to count him.)

Now, with the wild success of 1Q84–which we’ll be arriving at shortly–Murakami has settled this debate for the foreseeable future.

At any rate, Murakami’s reputation for the surreal and fantastic preceded him then as it does now, even amongst the uninitiated. But no reputation could have adequately prepared me for the thrill of sitting down to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Murakami’s personal history is rather well-documented, and for good reason, because it is fairly remarkable. Born in Kyoto, the most venerated city in all Japan, during the American post-war occupation, Murakami opened a coffeehouse and jazz bar in Tokyo while studying drama at university there. Murakami and his wife ran this establishment, The Peter Cat, into their early-30s.

As is always cited, Murakami’s devotion to music–as well as food–leeches into everything he writes. Many of his works allude explicitly to particular songs in a variety of genres, from classical to rock ‘n roll. And it is a hallmark of his characters that they are forever grocery shopping, or preparing food, or eating, or washing dishes, often while listening to music. It’s a wonder they find time to do anything else.

The most famous anecdote regarding Murakami is surely his own description of how he came to become a writer. In 1978, at age 29, Murakami was at a baseball game. During the game, a batter hit a long double, and in that moment, Murakami realized he could write a novel. Which, within a few short months, he did, one that took first prize in the only literary contest he entered.

It’s always tempting, but often risky, to draw parallels between an author’s own life and those of his characters. “How,” we wonder, “could Vladimir Nabokov have penned such a chillingly realistic description of pedophilia without feeling some of it himself? And are we sure it’s such a good idea to let him chaperon this weekend’s Brownie retreat?”

In most instances, this exercise is misguided. Talented authors, and especially novelists, aren’t like the rest of us in this regard. The currency of their craft is the ability to draw, not just on personal experience, but on observation and imagination to project depth into their characters. (As a point of fact, Nabokov was more interested in butterflies than pubescent flesh. So you can leave him alone with your daughter, but not your priceless collection of Palos Verdes Blue.)

But it is indicative of the way Murakami’s mind operates that he would have such a powerful, seemingly-spontaneous realization and then immediately move to act on it. Though trite from overuse, the word epiphany applies best here.

And it’s impossible to ignore the frequency with which Murakami’s characters experience similar moments of sublime clarity. Throughout his books, but especially in 1Q84, Murakami’s characters are visited by abrupt realizations or sudden intuitive insights delivered with such conviction that the reader’s tenuous framework of understanding comes crashing down like so much scaffolding in an earthquake.

In a great many books, this would be an obnoxious tendency, resulting in accusations of lazy storytelling and overcompensation. Murakami gets away with it, in some cases just barely, because he is–in my opinion–the world’s most imaginative writer.

I don’t mean this in terms of his usage. Although his imagery is often superlative, as a reader, you tend not to notice Murakami’s language too much. You will never mistake a Murakami sentence for one by F. Scott Fitzgerald or, for that matter, David Foster Wallace. In nearly a thousand pages of 1Q84, there are few passages that will leave you gasping for breath. Perhaps this owes in part to the burden of translation, but in any case, Murakami’s inventiveness as a writer isn’t his strongest suit.

It is his imagination as a thinker and a dreamer that sets Murakami apart from, well, everybody. Certainly, Murakami owes a debt to forebears like Franz Kafka and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and perhaps it is silly or unfair to compare them, like trying to compare Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, or George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. The variables in play just can’t be reconciled in a meaningful way.

But at any rate, the world that exists inside the pages of a Murakami novel–whether it’s 1Q84 or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World–is a far cry from what you’ll find in most novels, and farther still from ordinary life. Parallel worlds and alternate realities, such as you’ll find in both 1Q84 and Hardboiled Wonderland, are only the beginning.

When you begin throwing around phrases like those, you’re usually talking about science fiction, but it would be a mistake to characterize either novel as such. In most science fiction, the normal rules that govern the world have changed in some way, but in general, the new rules are laid out and generally adhered to. In Murakami’s books, the rules are never what they seem, and always subject to change.

To Murakami’s credit, he blends genres rather seamlessly, and the result is that he really belongs in a category of his own. In addition to elements of sci-fi, Murakami’s affinity for noir-style detective stories is well-known and evident in many of his works.

But one of the distinct pleasures of reading a mystery or detective novel, or watching a noir film, is a feeling that the trap has been set. That a puzzle has been laid before you, and that clues will appear from time to time, popping up like skeletons in a haunted house, allowing us to solve along with–or, better yet, ahead of–the inspector himself. There is a great deal of satisfaction in looking back upon completion, and thinking, “Oh, how clever! I should have known!”

In many of Murakami’s books, and 1Q84 in particular, there is a very strong element of mystery, and the characters are forced to do a considerable amount of detective work. But, in the world of Murakami, no trap has been set, and the clues–though abundant–rarely seem to lead anywhere. Rather than the sense that we are deftly solving towards an answer, we feel as if we’re groping blindly through a maze that keeps revolving around us, with no entrance or exit to speak of.

And when we finally emerge from the maze, we have only the faintest notion of where we are–that is to say, outside the maze somewhere–and no recollection of how we got there. Incidentally, this not only describes the experience of reading a Murakami novel, but would be very much at home as a scene in one.

What’s more, it’s actually evocative of Murakami’s process, according to an interview he gave to Sam Henderson of The New York Times Magazine about 1Q84:

“I asked Murakami if he intended to write such a big book. He said no: that if he’d known
how long it would be turn out to be, he might not have started at all. He tends to begin a
piece of fiction with only a title or an opening image (in this case he had both) and then
just sits at his desk, morning after morning, improvising until it’s done. ‘1Q84,’ he said,
held him prisoner for three years.”

The thing that keeps all of this from running comically off the rails is that Murakami does just enough to tether us to reality as he sets us adrift in the surreal. One of his trademarks is the juxtaposition of ordinary beside extraordinary, mundane amidst the paranormal.

That’s where all the cooking, the cleaning, the listening to music and other minutiae of daily life comes in. Murakami’s characters are constantly caught in the throes of a world beyond comprehension, yet they always manage to spend plenty of time on the actions that seem trivial or pedestrian. Consider the following passage taken from 1Q84:

“Using the food still left in the refrigerator, she made herself some ham and eggs. She
drank orange juice straight from the carton. The silence after her nap was strangely
heavy. She turned on the FM radio to find Vivaldi’s Concerto for Woodwinds playing…
After clearing the dishes from the table, Aomame took a shower and changed into the
outfit she had prepared weeks ago for this day–simple clothes that made for easy
movement: pale blue cotton pants and a white short-sleeved blouse free of
ornamentation. She gathered her hair in a bun and put it up, holding it in place with a
comb. No accessories.”

She goes on to brush her teeth, put on cologne, and examine her apartment, but… you get the idea. The thing is, in another book, this might make for dull filler, but in 1Q84, passages like this are absolutely essential to maintaining some semblance of balance between the familiarity of the characters and their often unrecognizable surroundings.

Which isn’t to say the book is perfectly balanced from start to finish. It’s hard to write a 900-page book and have it all coalesce into a completely taut, polished product, especially when it’s written in three separate installments like 1Q84. The characters spend a lot of time thinking about where they are, where they’ve been, and where they’re going, which slows things down considerably, but affords Murakami the opportunity to inject a lot exposition into the story without it feeling totally inorganic. (Though his penchant for having characters provide plot details through long, drawn-out, one-sided speeches skirts dangerously close at times.)

The book ebbs and flows, and its pacing plods and suddenly quickens, and its loose threads snag here, there, and everywhere. One of things you have to accept about Murakami, if you are going to enjoy him fully, is that things never tie up as neatly as you want them to. There’s such an abundance of weirdness, of magic, of serendipity and connectivity in his world that he doesn’t even try to address it all.

Without introducing any spoilers, I can tell you that the central question of 1Q84 is never really answered, at least not in any way I can parse. And while, yes, that’s a frustrating pill to swallow after 900-plus pages, it’s not entirely unexpected.

Don’t enter Murakami’s world, or the world of 1Q84, looking for answers. Do it because it is a strange and wonderful place, a place that defies understanding and expectation, a place so very different from anywhere else.

(However, I still think The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is his best book, and a better introduction to the author.)

A little off the top

Nagasaka's in Nagasaki

For almost three years–the better part of college and immediately after–I managed to get by without a real haircut.

Now, I didn’t just let it grow that whole time. I’m not a savage. I just scrupulously avoided barber shops, forgoing professional methods and relying on amateur haircuttery.

There were a few reasons for this. The most obvious is that, as a student or poverty-line earner, the $15 I would’ve dropped on a trim seemed better spent elsewhere, on things like booze or burritos. At that age, I had no need for well-cut hair, and besides, the infrequency of my bathing regimen would surely have diminished any positive returns.

Instead, I had friends cut my hair. Every February, like the rest of my Tufts teammates (with a few DISHONORABLE exceptions), I would get my dome buzzed for the first frisbee tournament of the year. And periodically, throughout the rest of the year, my ex-girlfriend and I would drink beers in the driveway or on a porch, and she would have at me with art room-quality shears. When she was too drunk to hold the scissors–or I was too drunk to sit still any longer–my haircut would be complete.

Although I have very fond memories of these times, as a tie-wearing professional, mange is no longer considered a mark of distinction. Consequently, every six weeks or so, I go to the barber shop down the street and have ‘er pulled back off the ears.

Given the state of the economy, and the recency of my former destitution, it seems downright indulgent to spend 2,500 yen (~$30) on a haircut almost every month. It wouldn’t be much of a sacrifice to make a single trim last three months.

But you know what I’ve realized? A good haircut is a thing of beauty. And I’m not talking about the way your hair looks in the aftermath–I’m talking about the act itself, one of the true simple pleasures in life.

Once, before my junior prom, my Mom took me to a boutique barber shop. No, you know what, I want to call it a barber shop, but cards on the table, a spade is a spade–this was a salon.

Throughout high school, I’d only ever gone to Supercuts, at my own insistence. It was cheap, it was close to school, and the wait usually wasn’t too bad. They were too chatty but did an adequate job.

For prom, though, my Mom wanted to “treat me” to a nice haircut at the place where she went. Right away, this fact should’ve sounded alarms, but I was young and naive and didn’t know any better. After all, you don’t wear a tuxedo every day, do you? So maybe getting the “tuxedo” of haircuts wouldn’t be so strange.

As soon as we arrived at Henry’s–when you say it, make sure to lisp hard on the S–I knew I had made a huge mistake. Instead of playing the generic, bland alt-rock that was always in style at Supercuts, Henry’s was playing… I don’t know what, exactly, but I’m pretty sure it was caliente. The lights were dimmed–how does mood lighting help you cut hair?–and on the walls, rather than stock photos of vigorous people enjoying the full variety of Paul Mitchell haircare solutions, there were arty black-and-white photographs in decorative frames.

And this was all before I saw the huge, muscular guy with the pompadour and tight black t-shirt who was to be my stylist. Half-an-hour later, I emerged with something best described as avant-garde.

The next day after school, I stopped by Supercuts, and had them bulldoze the chic, trendy ‘do that Rex or Jonathan or Enrique had given me.

Now, look. I know it’s impossible to tell this story without implicating my own sexual insecurities at 17-years-old. If a gay man can teach you arithmetic, or bag your groceries, or be your mayor, it shouldn’t be outlandish for one to cut your hair.

But I bring this up, not to demonstrate my own (hopefully outgrown) prejudices, but to draw a comparison between the salon experience and the barber shop experience.

The barber shop I go to now is a tidy affair, family-run, with only two chairs. The old man who cuts my hair is deft and efficient, quiet yet personable. He doesn’t play music in the shop. He doesn’t put any product in your hair when he cuts it. I’m not sure he even keeps any product on hand.

Every time, he cuts my hair the exact same way without having to be told. His fingers have the look of developing arthritis, but his touch is supple when he bends your ear down to trim behind it. He never asks you to turn your head this way or that, chin up or chin down, a little more to the right.

For twenty-five minutes, you simply sit, listening to the whisper of the scissors, and feeling the pads of his hands against your scalp.

My favorite part is after he’s done with the scissors and clippers and gets out the straight-razor. There’s a reason that wealthy, powerful businessmen in movies and on TV–the Don Drapers and Gordon Gekkos–are often shown getting a shave. It isn’t cause they need one–it’s cause a straight-razor through hot lather feels awesome.

Women may go for facials or other spa treatments, but for guys, I submit that there are few forms of pampering that beat a professional shave.

Now, I don’t get the whole treatment, since that costs extra and I’m only a tie-wearer, not a suit-man like Don or Gordie. But the straight-razor around the edges, to clean up any strays, comes standard. And it’s hard not feel like a work of art when a good barber is picking his way across your neckline, touching you up stroke-by-stroke, hair-by-hair.

I don’t care what the mirror says. You got a barber like that, it’s always a good haircut.