From my 2011 MFA work.
Response to The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami, The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, and Black Dogs, by Ian McEwan.
This month’s response brings me back to the world of magical realism. As usual, one book dominates my discussion, but I ultimately have decided that this is OK. For one thing, if every book is complex, long, and drew me into a long analysis, I would never get anything done. As it is, I still end up abbreviating my thoughts immensely.
Murakami is the rare Japanese writer that has made the leap to international fame. I think there are a number of reasons for this, not the least is the issue of good translation. In this respect, from a purely credentials perspective, the use of Jay Rubin as a translator is hard to criticize. Yet, I will note that since Professor Rubin admits that he does not write creative fiction, despite translating it, that I wonder if something is lost in the translation. My own level of Japanese borders on the “just enough to be wrong” in my understanding, but Japanese is an extremely difficult language to translate from. From a craft perspective, the question is does one write in a way that translates?
Murakami, interestingly, makes a huge number of cultural references that are all western. He has even joked that “With nothing but my writing, I had made a number of human beings want to drink beer. You have no idea how happy this made me. (MatadorNet)” He likes opera, western music in general, and beer drinking. These are not typical Japanese cultural references. His main character is even a man who has lost his job and is being supported (for a time) by a working wife, something that even in modern Japan is quite rare.
Murakami writes Wind-up Bird in the first person. What he does that is interesting, from a craft perspective, is that he encounters a number of characters who tell him their stories, or stories of their family, that are complete short stories on their own—and not in the first person. Several of these sub-stories were published as stand-alone pieces in the New Yorker. I have no way of knowing for sure, but it is possible he wrote these first and wrote the book to tie the stories together more. At least one of the stories was published two years before the book (The Zoo Attack, July 1995). The use of stories within stories allows him to vary technique within the novel. For instance when a character is telling a story, it becomes a pseudo memoir, often many chapters long. As a memoir, he can use techniques such as the narrator talking about both the action at one time and what will happen in the future, e.g. “The young soldier who would be beaten to death by a Soviet soldier seventeen months later in a coal mine near Irkutsk took sevearal deep breaths in succession, averting his gaze from the bears’ corpses. (414)”
Beyond this technique, of providing extremely vague clues via these standalone stories, he introduces a series of extreme characters. The protagonist, Toru Okada, is rather passive in the beginning. Events start happening to him. Normally this is a “no-no:” having events happen to the protagonist, rather than the protagonist doing things. In this case, it is the part of the crux of the story. The awaking of the man and his very slow interaction. The technique of throwing extreme characters at the story is not a new one. With Wind-up Bird, every single one of the characters is extreme. Yet, they are accepted. They are extreme in strange and subtle ways and almost all of them have some sort of magical realism surrounding their differences. Even the setting gets just strange enough quickly, yet quietly.
The alley had not one dead end, but two. … Barely over three feet in width, it had several spots at which you had to edge through sideways because of fences sticking out into the path or things that people had left in the way. (12)
This alley that has no entrance except by crawling over a wall is a central physical piece of the story, along with a strange well. Murakami is very good at keeping unique pieces as common threads of seemingly unconnected stories and characters. The well shows up repeatedly, as does water, the wind-up bird, facial birthmarks, strange names (well, strange primarily if you are Japanese, most Americans would not blink at the name Malta Kano, but Japanese, as with Germans and to some extent French, expect an acceptable first name.
One bit of cultural knowledge that is important, but subtle, is that everyone in Japan has a “name card” aka a business card. Everyone. If you visit Japan for even pleasure for any length of time, you are expected to exchange these all the time. Yet, our protagonist has not bothered to have more printed up in some time and one of the early extreme characters has her simple business card with only her name “Malta Kano” on it. No contact information. No business or title. This, in Japan, is weird.
To stray back to the translation. Murakami’s language is generally simple, straightforward, each sentence easy. Yet, each paragraph and chapter is full of hidden meaning. This makes it hard to quote as one would have to quote entire chapters. Professor Rubin seems to have the same problem: “the more the commentary – and the factual information – grew, and the use of quoted passages shrank. (MatadorNet)” However, there are some funny/great lines that transcend all cultural barriers. In talking about dinner with the in-laws early in his relationship he says, “This was a truly loathsome experience, situated at the precise midpoint between a meaningless mortification of the flesh and a brutal torture.(50)” or discussing his wife’s mother, “As far as I could see, she had no opinion at all about anything that was not directly in front of her (and in fact, she was extremely nearsighted). (75)”
Like last month’s analysis of The Lady Matador, Murakami keeps each chapter as a scene and gives each chapter one or more titles, indicating one or more scenes. Unlike the former book, this is less movie like and indeed one almost does not bother to read them as the story flows fine without reading it. Within a chapter, if he changes scenes, he uses the single dot to indicate a switch. What is perhaps more interesting is that these switches are fairly large at times. Often to an entirely different time and place, where one has to give a little thought to the connection…but it is always there. I have not yet figured out the full technique here, but Murakami does not lose us in the sense that we are not stumbling and out of the world he has drawn us into, rather, we accept the rambling mind of the protagonist.
Finally, to return to the main point I want to make. Murakami’s magical realism is different from others. He has created a unique voice and it is not a Japanese voice. Unlike the magical realism that often springs to mind, with a Latin American flavor, or of Toni Morrison’s, which has a folk, even black folk, flavor, or Rushdie’s work which has an Indian and eastern religion flavor, Murakami’s has no ethnicity—despite heavy use of WWII history as a vehicle for some of this.
Much of the main plot and its magical realism is that there is another world that we are connected to. He tells a number of stories of people who in one sense or another have had out of body experiences and while out of body have connected to something else. In a gruesome way he even connects the concept of being out of your own skin in a scene where a man—in a WWII sub-story—is skinned alive in front of the story teller, who later is thrown in a well where he has an out of body experience which then the main protagonist tries to mimic and does in his own well in an abandoned house in the doubled dead end alley. In this scene he has pulled even the water metaphor which is used throughout the book…water run dry and then used in description:
Despite these efforts, my body began to lose its density and weight, like sand gradually being washed away by flowing water. I felt as if a fierce and wordless tug-of-war were going on inside of me, a contest in which my mind was slowly dragging my body into its own territory. The darkness was disrupting the proper balance between the two. … “Prostitute of the mind,” Creta Kano had called herself. I no longer had any trouble accepting the phrase. Yes, it was possible for us to couple in our minds and for me to come in reality. In truly deep darkness, all kinds of strange things are possible. (231).
This references one of the early magical realist events. He had sex with Creta Kano (sister of Malta, both made up names by the women), but only in a dream, yet he finds out that the dream was simultaneous and intentional with Creta…she can enter his dreams, but only for intimate settings, like sex, yet the world he enters there, with her, is an alternate world that he enters on other occasions. As with the first book on magical realism, one has to ask the question as to what makes this different from fantasy or science fiction and the answer remains the same, one can argue both ways, but generally magical realism is centering more on other portions than the magic, which is primarily a vehicle and part of the reality for these people. Murakami’s magical realism has no roots in folklore, not Japanese, nor western. Like Toni Morrison, he also does not worry about being too linear and tells other stories that are often decades before the main story. Also like Toni Morrison, he is confronting a bit of Japanese history that is not welcomed by the general populace, but unlike Morrison, that is not the main plot—though certainly important.
Murakami does not normally spend huge amounts of time on details of a scene, rather he concentrates on details of smaller things, which end up being extremely effective. In the dream world, where he is in a large hotel that is part labyrinth, we never really have a clear picture of the hotel, or even really of the room (room 208 is the recurring room number), but we get suddenly some detail, “The flowers seemed to have been brought from a garden only moments before, so perfectly fresh were they, retaining every bit of their color and aroma. They probably still hadn’t noticed that they had been severed from their roots. (243)” There is much in this simple last line, including a bit of violence, which is part of the hidden undercurrent of the book as a whole.
All in all, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle was an interesting surprise and there is much beyond the pure craft level to analyze in it. If there is any fault, it might be that there are so many layers and references, that you feel a bit cheated in that you are sure you have not caught them all and that at 600 pages, it is a bit of an effort to do a second read to catch more. It will be one that I reread a few years from now, rather than try and catch all the nuances now.
I move from Murakami and magical realism to a more literary fantasy. I felt that while I had actually read The Time Traveler’s Wife before, when it first came out, that I would reread it both to contrast with a magical realist book and to examine what made this work so well for so many people—despite being turned down by so many publishers originally.
One of the things that makes Niffenegger’s novel work so well is that it is a “high concept” novel. By that, I mean that one concept can be used to describe its plot and uniqueness and she uses this constantly throughout the book. It drives the book constantly. In fact, unlike many high concept books it is relentless. It never lets up and the concept is such that this works. The high concept is not time travel per se, but the involuntary time travel that leaves the protagonist naked and defenseless when he arrives. What further makes this work as a literary piece of fiction, rather than pure and classic science fiction is that this is a high concept used strictly to examine the effect on two characters and their love for each other. From a craft perspective this is a reminder that character driven novels can really work well. We get two POVs that are equal in weight and importance.
I say two POVs, but what makes this equally interesting is that it is very non-linear at one level. By using time travel as a vehicle, we actually get something very interesting, which is multiple POVs for each POV. We see Henry at different ages, in a non-linear fashion, sometimes interacting with himself at another age, and we get one POV of Henry interacting with another Henry that we don’t have a POV on. This makes for an interesting assembly of character data for the reader that is more “fun” than the straight forward, linear, building of the character. Seeing Henry much older than Claire often, we get strange insights into both of their characters very quickly, that would not be possible, or interesting, to build up linearly, for example by simply following Claire year by year.
Niffenegger sets each scene up with three important details: Date, age of both Claire and Henry (who may be wildly different age in this scene due to time travel) and the first word of the scene is the POV. This explicit setting of three pieces of information turns out to be extremely effective. It is not done for memoir/journal effect. It is to ground us very quickly in the confusion that occurs with one of the characters age being completely random and since his movement through time is random, the date is seemingly random.
Another aspect of the book that is important is that it asks a very big question, is there free will? This may sound like it is review of the book, not a craft observation, but I don’t think so. From a craft perspective, a few important points can drive and shape the entire book: high concept, love story, is there free will even under extreme circumstances of time travel where you cannot change the outcome of something you know. All age old science fiction themes, but by making it all about the characters and their struggle, it becomes more “literary.”
Niffenegger manages to convey significant passion that is three dimensional, while Murakami’s protagonist is very cool. I suspect the latter is partially translation. The following paragraph gives not just the passion, but the interesting dichotomy of a person knowing the love of their life, but a different version of him:
I realize that I have forgotten my present Henry in my joy at seeing my once and future Henry, and I am ashamed. I feel an almost maternal longing to go solace the strange boy who is becoming the man before me, the on who kisses me and leaves me with an admonition to be nice. As I walk up the stairs I see the Henry of my future fling himself into the midst of the slam dancers, and I move as if in a dream to find the Henry who is my here and now. (162)
Really, all I am noting is that high concept can take a book quite far, but it still boils down to the execution of the high concept for it to go further.
Like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, the trick of not being linear, but simultaneously in total being linear, works quite well. In other words individual scenes jump all over and tell different parts of the story from a different time and perspective, but enough of a critical mass of the scenes progress in a linear fashion.
One thing Niffenegger does that does not work, for me, is the use of quotes at the beginning of a section. Some authors use poetry, or some other “cute” quote at the beginning of every chapter. Thankfully, she does this only in major sections. It appears she is showing us where she got some of her inspiration, as when she quotes A.S. Byatt (282), but this distracts me as a reader. In general, this rarely works for me. The variation of the technique that I have seen is to quote a fictitious author, or work, from the world that is being built. Frank Herbert in Dune did this fairly well. Then the quoted work adds to the novel, giving it another dimension.
I think that the clincher in the success of the execution of the high concept is that Niffenegger uses a variation of the “ticking clock” that some mystery and suspense writers (and directors like Hitchcock) do. We find out at about midpoint of the book that Henry is going to die fairly early in years. She then throws in the cheat, as I call it, which is a little girl. This probably is a bigger cheat because I have a little girl. The little girl also knows that her daddy is going to die. We keep hoping that there will be a twist due to the time travel, but there isn’t. The inevitable nature of this death does not take away from the novel, but rather enhances it.
The final note on Niffenegger, she keeps the sub-scenes very short. This does not speed up the flow too much, but rather serves to emphasize the disjointed manner of the time travel.
Most, if not all, of these techniques noted require little quotation, but they are the more powerful pieces. Niffenegger’s craft, in this book, is in the execution of the idea, in many ways much more like a director than a wordsmith. Her language is fine, but this is not a book of metaphors and each sentence carefully crafted, it is a complex staging of the idea that goes beyond what would be possible in a movie—and having seen the movie also, I feel the book is more powerful in its production than the movie (which was well done). The book had more cinematic technique in some ways than a movie could.
To round out and contrast further I went for another first person book, as one of the areas that I still struggle with I am gravitating toward these when I can. Black Dogs is interesting in contrast to the other two in that it is more subdued in its impact on the reader. It is, which is itself an interesting technique, a fictionalized memoir. Like Wind-up Bird Chronicle, there is firmly within the main plot another story. Wind-up Bird used these to further the plot and had the interludes as standalone sub-stories. Black Dogs there is one sub-story, which is itself the collecting of information by the protagonist to write a biography of his mother-in-law. As with Wind-up, this allows moving from first person to second person.
Black Dogs initially comes across as less sophisticated and less complex than both of the other books, but that is only the initial impression. The prose is certainly more quotable. I believe this is partially because taken as either a memoir, or a biography, the POV narrator is free to speculate and “tell” versus show and we as readers don’t feel that the tell versus show rule of thumb has been violated. It also, as was done in Murakami’s, allows for discussion of things into the future: “It kept me civilised and away from my own problems. Another two decades were to pass before I felt as rooted as I did then. (12)” or “Neither Sally, Jean nor Harper play a part in what follows. Nor do the Langleys, Nugents or Silversmiths. I left them all behind. My guilt, my sense of betrayal would not permit me to return to Notting Hill, not even for a weekend. (19)”
The duality of the memoir within memoir is acknowledged openly. “Whether June’s black dogs should be regarded as a potent symbol, a handy catch phrase, evidence of her credulity or a manifestation of a power that really exists, I cannot say. In this memoir I have included certain incidents from my own life – in Berlin, Majdanek, Les Salces and St. Maurice de Navacelles – that are open equally to Bernard and to June’s kind of interpretation. (21)”
In fact, the writing is almost like the narrator is writing a personal essay, with the memoir he is writing of June simply the vehicle for that essay. “I felt stifled by her expression of faith, and bother by the unstated assumption of all believers that they are good because they believe what they believe, that faith is a virtue, and, by extension, unbelief is unworthy or, at best, pitiable. (21)” I find this sort of method of insinuating essay-like opinions appealing as readers often find essays too preachy and by sprinkling in these thoughts this way, it is less so. Of course, as a work of fiction we don’t really know if the author has these opinions, or simply is good at channeling the protagonist, but that is OK. As branches of philosophy might note, whether or not the concept presented is from a real person, the concept itself may be valid and thus is worth exploring. Thus, regardless as to whether the author believes what the protagonist is saying, it may have meaning, a bit of phenomenology and Descartes.
McEwan also uses some props rather well. By prop, I mean a symbol, or object that probably does not really have any special significance, but the narrator keeps returning to it. For instance, there is a photograph of June and her husband Bernard that he constantly looks at, while talking to June, and then fills in meaning to that photograph:
There in its frame, the unwritten-on skin, the pretty round head nestling against Bernard’s upper arm. I had only known them in later life, but I felt something like nostalgia for the brief, remote time when Bernard and June has been lovingly, uncomplicatedly together. Before the fall. This too contributed to the photograph’s innocence – their ignorance of how much and for how long they would be addicted to and irritated by each other. (38)
What Black Dogs illustrated to me was that what ostensibly was the simplest and shortest of the three books, with the simplest of plots, was really as complex a book as the other two. Usually, when I write these monthy analyses, I tend to really feel one book was vastly superior than the other two. In this case, I felt all three were very well done—in their own way. Murakami brings a new voice to magical realism that is truly new and inventive, Niffenegger shows how a high concept can be executed so well that it almost stands on the concept alone, and McEwan shows that what seems simple can achieve quite a bit and allow the author to ruminate without seeming boring.
Niffenegger, Audrey. The Time Traveler’s Wife. New York: Harcourt, Inc. 2003. Print.
Murakami, Haruki. Trans. Jay Rubin. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. New York: Vintage International. 1998. Print.
McEwan, Ian. Black Dogs. London: Vintage Books. 1992. ePub on Barnes and Noble Nook.
“Jay Rubin: Translating More Than Words” Matador Network. Feb. 16, 2009. Web. 10 Mar. 2011. <http://matadornetwork.com/bnt/2009/02/16/jay-rubin-translating-more-than-words/>