Thursday, October 11, 2012

Murakami Party or Winning the Nobel Prize Is So Mainstream

You said it, Green Apple Books.

So, despite having great odds, Haruki Murakami did not win the Nobel Prize in Literature today. Nor did it go to Alice Munro. Instead, that prize went to Mo Yan, who, to be fair, sounds pretty interesting. But whatever, right? Awards are always subjective and of dubious long-term merit anyways (here are all Nobel Prize in Literature winners). Now Murakami fans don't have to worry about complaints that our favorite author is over-hyped, and we can say "finally" and be eye-rollingly smug and disaffected like adults when and if he does take the prize in the future. So let's have a little Murakami party! Time to make some spaghetti, pump up the Janacek, face some unsavory history surrounding the Asia-Pacific Wars, pet a cat, and be surprised by our periods. And maybe play some bingo.

My introduction to Murakami came in college, when I was taking a class on the short story. In this class, the Murakami story we read was "A Shinagawa Monkey," photocopied by the professor from the New Yorker (readable here or in the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman). What so gripped me about Murakami? His knack for writing women like they're - you know - people, his cool nonchalance with stepping into the bizarre, and the utter modernity of the story with its car dealership and costume-jewelry-wearing therapist. Part of me felt how some contemporary viewers of Impressionist and Impressionist-era paintings of absinthe drinkers and train stations must have felt: that this was the world, or at least some part of it, as it really was at that moment. Quite a feat for a story featuring an anthropomorphic name-stealing monkey.

I immediately wanted to read more. I started with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and was captivated by the epic of a missing cat and a missing wife, a psychic prostitute and a terrifying politician, and the repressed horrors of Japan's wars in China. From there on, I tore through Murakami's oeuvre. I'm not sure I can name a favorite, but The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World are all included. I also have a soft spot for After Dark, and I know Kafka on the Shore and Sputnik Sweetheart are all-time favorites of many.

Murakami has had this effect on quite a mass of readers. In early October 2008, I visited a friend who was living in New York. It happened to be the weekend of the New Yorker Festival, and Murakami was there. We went to see if there were tickets left for his talk, but they were long sold out. However, he was doing a signing that day. And it just so happened that I had brought After Dark with me on the plane. We got to the venue early and were still nowhere near the front of the line. But we were in before the line was cut off. Desperate, teary Murakami fans begged those who had gotten in to bring their books in to be signed. When my friend and I made it to the front and I presented my book for signing, Haruki Murakami asked me how I was. Naturally this turned me into the creepy valleygirl I always turn into when meeting writers and artists I admire (sorry, Kim Addonizio), though hopefully my high-pitched "Good thank you how are you I love your work" sounded fairly sane.

He asked me how I was, guys.

Some years later, when 1Q84 was first released in the US, Green Apple Books here in my hometown of San Francisco had a midnight release. I wasn't sure what the turnout would be (it was a weeknight, after all, and not Harry Potter), but the store was packed. Sure, one could argue it was a hipster nightmare (think skinny jeans and plaid instead of wizard costumes), but it was exciting to see so many people excited for a book. That excitement is as much a part of the culture of literature as the artist toiling in obscurity. 

On Muni in the early hours of the morning with my brand-new book.

That's what I love about Murakami. The excitement is genuine, not just about celebrity. There is excitement in being pulled into his richly imagined worlds. An excitement that is tempered with reflection on the quirkiness and sameness that make us human, with pausing to look up a musical or literary reference. Maybe Murakami will win another year; maybe he won't. But whether he does or not, we've got quite the library to read and re-read.

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