By Haruki Murakami

All Posts Contain Spoilers

When is it OK to decide that you don’t like an author?

I really struggle with this question.  On the one hand, there is more to read in this world than can be accomplished in twenty lifetimes, and so wasting time on authors you dislike comes at a high price, opportunity-cost-wise.

But, on the other hand, no two works, even by the same author, are completely equal, and to take a stand against an author is rule out works of theirs, unread, which you might love.

In a way, this is only a sub-section of the enormously important and complicated question: How do you decide what to read?  Do you hew to the canon?  Do you trust the recommendations of friends?  How about the New York Review of Books?  Do you read everything in the Sci Fi/Fantasy section, no matter what?  Let Amazon’s algorithm decide for you?

For myself, I hew strongly to canon.  I defer to the ages: I reach for Literary Giants, and cast a skeptical eye at modern literature (sometimes to my own detriment, as I have admitted).  I want to read the Great Books, even if that means missing a few cult favorites.

Now, I would like to be clear about something: something needn’t be old to be a Great Book.  An author doesn’t have to be dead before a critical consensus can emerge about his Greatness.  And really, it is this critical consensus to which I respond: if everyone thinks something is Great, I tend to think it’s worth spending some time and energy figuring out why.

So, yes, maybe I am a snob, but I do believe that, if the critical consensus is that an author is a genius, there is a higher bar to deciding that you don’t like them.  You should read a lot, if not all, of a Great Writer’s work before you should feel enfranchised to further disregard.

Why?  Why waste time on authors you hate, just because other people seem to think that they’re the shit?

1Q84’ is why.

Before this, I had read three of Haruki Murakami’s books: ‘The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’, ‘Kafka on the Shore’, and ‘Underground’, and he was definitely an Author I Did Not Like.  There was something about his style, about the bleak, gray expanses of his prose, which I found aversive, both boring and actively unpleasant at the same time.  He reminded me, in this way, of Don DeLillo, who’s grimness also seeps through his words and alienates me. 

But I felt a nagging sense of…not guilt, but unease, about this aversion.  Murakami is one of the most, if not the most, beloved writer of Japan, and it is apparently something of a national hope that he will win a Nobel Prize (and an ongoing source of national grief that he has not).

And yes, look, just because someone is good doesn’t mean I have to love them. An author can be both talented and not to your taste.

But there’s something patronizing about saying that, isn’t there? “Oh, yeah, Murakami’s great, really, such a good writer, just not my style”. Is art really like pizza, just a matter of preference? Surely not; surely we have some responsibility to Greatness, an obligation to ourselves to go to it, to try to see what other people see in it, and not to dismiss the men and women who have shaped the literature of nations simply as a matter of taste?

Haruki Murakami

So I didn’t know what to do about Murakami. I really didn’t like his books, and I didn’t want to read any more.

But I kept hearing about ‘1Q84‘. People told me that it was different than his other books, plottier, that the magically-realist tinge in his other books had come more to the fore. And I love George Orwell, and I find ‘1984’ devastating. So I decided to roll up to ‘1Q84‘ for my Christmas long-read, and give Murakami another shot.

And now I’m in a real fix, because I might have loved ‘1Q84‘. I think I loved it? I certainly lived in it, barely came up for breath. I had to: it’s 1,200 pages, and I finished it in about a week.

1Q84‘ is a magical tale. It’s also a cautionary tale about a bleak and dangerous future, but only a little. Mostly, it’s a love story, a profound and old-school love story, about two people who belong together, two souls who will find each other across time and space and distance. About two souls who will find each other across universes.

It is plottier than his other books. It is full of plot, and mystery, and magic. Details, mysterious connections, and sinister evil. I almost don’t want to say more, don’t want to give my normal plot summary, because anything I say I will be insufficient, either to explain the plot, or to express the strange, compelling aspect of the novel.

1Q84‘ is a novel from multiple points-of-view, a technique which, not to stress the obvious, either works or doesn’t. Here, it works. Aomame and Tengo (our protagonists) fill in the gaps in each other’s narratives, but in a way which builds suspense, fills out the world, rather than contradicting or merely delaying the plot.

And the novel is suspenseful, anxiety-provoking to the point where it disrupted my life. ‘1Q84‘ is one of those books that consumes your free attention, makes you want to sneak to the bathroom at work, leave parties early, tell friends that you have other plans, just so that you can keep reading.

But that compelling quality doesn’t necessarily mean that a book is ‘good’, per se. It only means that it is…well, compelling. And I guess that I’m not sure that ‘1Q84‘ is ‘good’, actually. I certainly don’t think that it’s beautifully written, but I am always hesitant to judge the language of a book in translation.

But, I think I also found it moving. It’s hard to say, because I am emotionally obtuse, but I think I became quite invested in the fate of these two characters. These traits of Murakami’s, the bleakness, the alienation, in ‘1Q84‘, they become the traits of the characters, of Aomame and Tengo, and they can therefore be solved, eased, by the existence of the other.

I think that is why I am so hesitant to give up on authors, to really leave them as lost causes. Sometimes (rarely, it’s true, but sometimes), the traits which alienate you from a writer, which make you hate a book, can change suddenly, can turn and become an aspect in a larger story which you love. When alienation is the work, it’s tough, but when alienation is a part which can be overcome, then you can work with the work, care about it and grow with it. You can root for it.

I can no longer say that I don’t like Haruki Murakami. We now occupy an ambivalent space, two bad books and one great one. Reasons for optimism, but an essential lack of trust.

But I’m not done with Murakami. Not yet.


By Min Jin Lee

All Posts Contain Spoilers

Brace yourself, because I’m about to go on a free-associative ramble for about a thousand words.

Pachinko.JPGI just read ‘Pachinko‘, by Min Jin Lee, which is a sprawling, multi-generational epic about the Korean diaspora in Japan in the first half of the twentieth century.  It begins with Sunja, the beloved only daughter of Hoonie, a fisherman born with a club foot, and his wife Yangjin.  When Sunja is a teenager, she falls in love with, and is impregnated by, Hansu, a handsome gangster.  When she discovers that he has a wife and children back in Japan and that he cannot legally marry her, she refuses to be his kept “local” wife and, instead, marries Isak, a sickly minister who is passing through town.  Isak agrees to raise the child as his own, and the young family moves to Isak’s new ministry in Japan

Now, stay with me, because I’m going to swerve here, and, for reasons which I hope will become clear, talk about ‘East of Eden‘, by John Steinbeck.

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but I love ‘East of Eden‘.  It might honestly be my favorite novel of all time.  ‘East of Eden’ is also a multi-generation epic, about an American family which recapitulates the story of Cain and Abel in each generation.  It is about original sin, about the transmission of sin through generations, about whether or not great evil marks a family, and passes from parent to child, twisting and marring their lives despite their best attempts to be good, happy people. It is about whether we can be damned before we are even born.

I cannot prove that ‘Pachinko‘ is consciously modeled on ‘East of Eden‘.  I do not even know for sure that Min Jin Lee has read ‘East of Eden’.  However, the parallels are clear, right?

Pachinko‘ is also about the multi-generational consequences of wrong-doing, about the sins of the parent being visited on the child.  But in ‘East of Eden‘, the inheritance is of evil, of simple, cinematic evil.  The question is whether or not the evil is innate, whether or not we are doomed to succumb to it.  In ‘Pachinko’, the inheritance is of something more complicated, more twisted: grief.  It is about the ways the deep, life-altering grief of a parent can warp, limit, or destroy the lives of her children, even when she loves those children desperately, even when her entire life has been devoted to their happiness.

I thought about ‘East of Eden‘ a lot while I read ‘Pachinko‘.  The books are alike in scope and ambition, but I’m not sure that they are equally successful.  Maybe it’s unfair to compare a book, any book, to ‘East of Eden’.  It is one of the most profound, most moving, explorations of the human capacity for evil, of the possibility of true goodness, that has ever been written.  And I don’t think that ‘Pachinko’ is one of the most profound, most moving explorations of human grief I’ve ever read.

OK, OK, yes: I agree, that is not a fair standard.  I need to acknowledge the possibility that ‘Pachinko‘ and ‘East of Eden‘ have different goals, as works of art.  ‘East of Eden’ is an essential hopeful work: while it is about the intrinsic human capacity for evil, it is also about the possibility of true goodness which can only exist alongside evil.

Pachinko‘ is not a hopeful work.  It is imbued with a deep sadness: the sadness of women who face lives of nothing but suffering, work, and loss.  Of subject peoples, doomed to cramped lives and arbitrary violence, simply because of their race.  Of deep and profound injustice, of lives destroyed because the values of small societies could not accommodate them.  Of love lost and never, ever regained.  In this way, perhaps, its scope is even greater than ‘East of Eden‘, which was a moral tale and a moral tale alone.  ‘Pachinko’, on the other hand, is not only the story of one family’s tragedies – it is also the story of a race, exiled and embattled.

Min Jin Lee.jpg
Min Jin Lee

And while the two books are alike in structure, they are quite different in style.  ‘Pachinko‘ is written in a prose which is so simple as to be almost brutal.  Lee’s sentences are unadorned and unsparing, and I believe that she is a good enough writer that this was done deliberately.  Tragedy, I have found, is usually most effective when it is written in prose which is clear, clean, and unflinching.  Flourishes, metaphors, long descriptive passages: these things blunt the force of tragic events, distract the reader, give the attention somewhere to hide.  It also, almost always, foreshadows the pain, so that the reader can brace himself.  Plain language, on the other hand, delivers its news like a blow, and gives you no warning that the blow is coming.

I offer, by way of example, the passage from ‘Pachinko‘ which I found the most effectively devastating, which genuinely shocked and upset me, to the degree that I gasped aloud and put the book down.

Fair warning, it is a very, very spoilerly spoiler.  The passage involves the reunion of Sunja with her son Noa.  Noa had fled his mother as a young man, when he discovered that he was the son of a gangster and found that he could not endure the shame.  He had lived in secret in Japan for decades, passing as Japanese, his Korean identity unknown even to his wife and children.  After many years, now an old woman, Sunja located him.

Again, if you do not wish to have major plot points spoiled, don’t read the excerpt.

“Sunja watched her son enter his office building, then tapped the passenger door of Hansu’s car.  The driver came out and held the door open for her.

Hansu nodded.

Sunja smiled, feeling light and hopeful.

Hansu looked at her face carefully and frowned.

“You should not have seen him.”

“It went well.  He’ll come to Yokohama next week.  Mozasu will be so happy.”

Hansu told the driver to go.  He listened to her talk about their meeting.

That evening, when Noa did not call her, she realized that she had not given him her home number in Yokohama.  In the morning, Hansu phoned her.  Noa had shot himself a few minutes after she’d left his office.” (p. 385)

This is not a passage which would have been possible in ‘East of Eden‘, where everything is larded with plenty of description and big events can be seen coming miles away.

And I have enormous regard for this style of prose, when it is successful, which I think it mostly is here.  It is true, the subject-verb-object ratatat of the plain language becomes a little arduous over hundreds of pages, but, for the most part, it’s mesmerizing and upsetting, bleak and tough in deliberate evocation of the lives it is describing.

I found, at the end, not that I loved ‘Pachinko‘, but that I had enormous regard for it.  I have compared it to ‘East of Eden‘ not so that it would suffer in comparison, but because the comparison helped me understand and appreciate the project of the book.  In fact, I think that some of the places in which ‘Pachinko’ is the strongest are places, like it’s language, where it is the most unlike ‘East of Eden’.

But keeping ‘East of Eden‘ in my mind helped me appreciate the intention of this work.  It’s one thing to tell the story of a few characters (although even to do this well is very difficult).  It is another thing altogether to tell a story through which you try to tell about human evil, or human grief.  To weave those grand things into the small lives you are relating takes bravery and skill.  ‘East of Eden’ taught me to love the scale, the ambition, of the endeavor, and it is because of ‘East of Eden’ that I recognize that ambition here.