Wednesday, April 27, 2005

STUDENTS, WELCOME TO CLASS - AWESOME CLASS

I'm not a very good writer, but I am awesome.

Hold up. Wait a minute.

What I mean by that is though I usually know how to put words together in a way that conveys an idea - at times, even an action - and this fact makes me competent, it doesn't prove that I can move you. All it proves is that I'm just like every other sap with a college degree who has too much time on his hands and hasn't found his calling in life - at least not a calling that would make a person a little money, unless someone out there has found a way to turn a profit making plaster-casts of horse penises. As far as me being awesome, I only mean that I was born with it and I'll always have it, and I wish you knew how it felt, but you don't so stop bugging me about it.

I mention my mediocre literary skills as an introduction to what I'm about to do next: criticize one of contemporary literature's world heavyweights. Now, before you say, "Oh, but American Mastodon, everything is within your jurisdiction of expertise - including, but not limited to, the proper way to construct a perfect roguefort cream sauce, how to safely inseminate a great white shark in the wild, where to find the G-Spot, and who to talk to if you'd like to see the world's last remaining Tasmanian Tiger (the species was thought to have gone extinct in 1986)," please remember that none among us is perfect, except Jesus, who lives in our hearts.

If you were to say the above, you'd be mostly right, but there is one area where I plead ignorance, and that is in the field of literature, though I feign this deficiency softly; in public, I do it unconvincingly and in private I don't do it all. With that said, I don't mind telling other people whether or not they're good, bad, or just right, like the porridge in that one story, the really neat one with the bears.

Haruki Murakami, for instance, is one of those authors that doesn't seem to know how to write very well. In fact, sometimes I think he doesn't even know English! (Disclosure: I don't think Murakami does know English - he at least doesn't translate his own work.) Here are some excerpts from his short story "Where I'm Likely to Find It," recently published in the New Yorker:

She closed her eyes as if recalling it. If we were in a Hitchcock movie, the screen would have started to ripple at this point and we'd have segued into a flashback. But this was no movie, and no flashback was forthcoming. She opened her eyes and went on.

And then:

Not that Denny's made great pancakes - the butter and the syrup weren't up to my standards - but they would do. Truth be told, I'm a huge pancake fan. Saliva began to well up in my mouth. But I shook my head and tried to banish all pancake thoughts from the time being. I blew away all the clouds of illusion. Save the pancakes for later, I cautioned myself. You've still got work to do.

It's almost as if Murakami writes like a high schooler trying to write like a real author. "Let's see - this sentence here seems fine, but it lacks punch. Maybe I should put a metaphor in there somewhere. No, wait! I'll just throw in that cliche I heard yesterday!" I personally don't want to read a short story or a novel and see the words "Truth be told" unless someone's saying it. There is absolutely nothing in Murakami's work (or at least in the two novels and few short stories I've read) that really hits me as great writing. And yet...

And yet, that's precisely why I love his stuff. This morning while reading "Where I'm Likely to Find It," I found it difficult to put it down and get back to work. Granted, I was squeezing out a Dodger dog in the crapper, and that is always an opportune time for reading, but the simpleness, directness, and cheesiness of Murakami's prose is also one of its greatest assets. His works lull you in with their awkwardness but also with their consistency, so that as you work your way toward the end of the piece, you begin to concentrate even harder on the rare occasions when he tries to piece together something sublime.

I put down the phone. For a while I sat there, slowly twirling a brand-new pencil, staring at the blank memo pad in front of me. The white pad reminded me of a freshly washed sheet just back from the laundry. The sheet made me think of a calico cat stretched out on it for a pleasant siesta. That image - of a napping cat on a freshly laundered sheet - helped me relax.

Murakami is like that really quiet kid you knew who never said much because he never felt like he had to. But when he did, it was always a little weird, always a little funny, and always awesome.

And friends, I know awesome.

14 comments:

Anonymous said...

The key to making a profit making plaster-casts of horse penises is to stain them with an image of the Virgin Mary. There's money there guaranteed.

Elayne said...

I'm glad you posted this. I read that story this morning, and was like "Really? The New Yorker? Really?"

Anonymous said...

Okay, AM, so I read the story this morning on the train, and I find your criticisms pretty damn flimsy. The dog details? A character's obsession with brands, or, for that matter, pancakes?
Granted, one Murakami story is pretty much like the next. The illustrious editors of the New Yorker -- insofar as I can tell -- don't have the best taste when it comes to fiction (let's not even discuss the poetry they choose to publish). But this particular story is isn't that bad. Not bad at all. Not memorable, but certainly not worthy of a full-on AM onslaught. Now, Coldplay... I could get behind you on that.
More haikus, please.

Mathis said...

Anon#1: Something tells me that the whole Virgin Mary thing is too played out. Give it another 10 years and no one will even remember who she was.

Elayne: I know. Sigh.

Anon#2: I never said that the story was bad. I said that his writing was and is bad. I stand behind my comments about the "hunting dog hair" and the attention paid to brand names. I agree that the story isn't bad, but if that's the quality of stories The New Yorker is aiming for, then maybe I'll submit this comment and see if they'll print it.

Anonymous said...

Oh please, AM, you think there is a real, tangible difference between Murakami's writing and his story (stories, if you count the two you've read and the two I've read and his occasional short)??

Stick to your guns, cowboy, or don't bother to draw.

Mathis said...

you think there is a real, tangible difference between Murakami's writing and his story

You don't? By your standards a great essayist is also a great storyteller. And what guns should I be sticking to? I said in the post that I am a fan of Murakami's work and I will continue to keep reading. But I also said that the sentences he constructs and the metaphors and turns of phrase he uses are occasionally either awful, ridiculous, or both. I don't have the time or patience or intelligence to describe why it still all works despite this fact, but it does.

Mess with the bull again and you'll get the horns, chief.

Anonymous said...

Fine.

Let's take this outside.

T.S. Farmhand said...

The plainness and occasional awkwardness of the prose seems intentional to me. It's an echo of detective fiction--just the facts, ma'am. By naming brand names & spouting cliches, Murakami is faking us out. His stories are about the otherworld, but his casual, almost naked prose sneaks that past us. You think you're reading about one thing--butter on your pancakes--but really you're reading about another. His writing is very stylized, then, but not in the way you may be used to thinking of stylized (nowadays often thought of as pretty, or poetic -- like Jonathan Lethem, maybe, or Michael Chabon, Ian McKellen, etc.) To my ear, his style is very much influenced by traditional Japanese writing, where so much goes into the description of the appearance of things, and of daily ritual.

Which leads me to another thing. You may want to stop calling those things haiku. Haiku is more than 5-7-5. It's a highly developed poetic form that in its most basic form invokes nature/the seasons, is split across two sections that retain their oppositeness, and reflects upon an apparently simple thought or observation.

Bah.

Anonymous said...

Ian McEwan--Ian McKellen is an actor.

T.S. Farmhand said...

Thank you sir, that is indeed who I meant.

Trevor Jackson said...

Farmhand, Mellencamp invented the haiku. And then he ate all his efforts because if you read them, your brain would melt. Masto's just paying respect.

And I'm not sure if you meant Gandalf's acting could be described as pretty or poetic. Ian McEwan on the other hand . . .

I'm that kid that shouts at the screen during Jeopardy.

T.S. Farmhand said...

Mellencamp invented the haiku

Mellencamp invented many things, chief among them 1) actual pride in Hoosierness, 2) Farm Aid, and 3)songs that invoke sucking on chili dogs, but it is a cultural, psychological, spiritual, and historical impossibility that anyone from Seymour invented the haiku.

Mathis said...

T.S.: I actually was having a conversation with Anon#2 earlier today (apparently when she says "let's take this outside," she means, "meet me on IM") about how Murakami's prose is like film noir or science fiction. The cheesier it is, the better it works. But that doesn't mean I'm going to stop from calling a spade a spade. As a whole, he makes it all work, but taken piece by piece, it can be frustrating - "If we were in a Hitchcock movie, the screen would have started to ripple at this point and we'd have segued into a flashback. But this was no movie, and no flashback was forthcoming." Oh really? Thanks for telling us what didn't happen. Appreciate it.

And where you get off telling me how to write haikus...well, boy...you're riling me up, here. Trevor knows what it's about.

T.S. Farmhand said...

Yes, AM, that sure is a clunker(the line you just quoted). I wonder how much has to do with the translator. When he's at his best, he sounds like Raymond Carver--a real tightrope act of language, which is already straddling that line between the profound and the dull. The story was translated by Philip Gabriel, whose translations (South of the Border, West of the Sun) I've liked much less than Jay Rubin (Wind Up Bird Chronicle and a couple of short stories I've read) or especially, Alfred Birnbaum (A Wild Sheep Chase).

My understanding from some old article I can't remember is that Murakami is actually pretty good with the English (I believe he lived here for awhile), but I don't know what kind of control he exercises over the translations.