Now *that* is what I’m *talking* about: a classic Murakami novel, with
* a disaffected narrator fumbling vaguely through his days
* the wall between our world and a much darker one — a world which *may be within our own souls OMG* — falling away
* some sex (though less than you might expect from Murakami)
* a semi-pulpy story that pulls you along effortlessly
In [book: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle], the dude’s cat disappears, *and then shit gets real*. (Oh, and by the way: he spends a lot of time at the bottom of a well. So there’s that.)
In [book: Kafka on the Shore], cats start disappearing from this one neighborhood, and a retarded guy with special powers chats up the cats’ cat friends, *and then shit gets real*.
In [book: After the Quake], people’s empty lives contribute in some undefined way to the Kobe earthquake; at the very end we see that our characters are tentatively bringing themselves out into the world again, becoming the sort of people they know they should be.
In [book: After Dark], the boundary between the Dark World and this one is paper thin, and sometimes disappears altogether. Sometimes that boundary exists on a physical device that gets left in a convenience-store refrigerator (for instance).
So you see a pattern forming. There may have been a time in my life when I would have derisively called Murakami “formulaic,” but that word is actually an insult to the power of a good formula. Philip Roth succeeded for a good forty years by adhering to the Jewish-author-with-inexplicable-sex-appeal-exploring-masculinity formula. (All right, that’s kind of a complicated formula. Roth was a [foreign: sui generis] author.) Jazz music has evolved from one formula to another. Country music, from what I can tell, has been the same formula interpreted in different ways for half a century (cheatin’ woman, lonesome highway, etc.). I’ve listened to a lot of Frank Sinatra, and it was all — down to particular trills — the same formula. But *man* was that a good formula. The formula is essentially arbitrary; I have a book in queue — Georges Perec’s [book: A Void] — whose guiding premise, if I’m not mistaken, is that all such formulas are arbitrary, so why not pick one that’s *truly* arbitrary (don’t use the letter ‘e’ at all) and see what you can do within it.
As ever, it’s what you *do* with the formula. Murakami knows how to fold, spindle, mutilate, and combine genres like no one else. [book: Dance Dance Dance] should maybe be called a supernatural mystery novel, in a way that really only makes sense if you’ve read a bunch of other Murakami. Our narrator — really a pretty excellent guy, which you can’t often say about Murakami protagonists — wakes up more than a little freaked out one day after an old lover calls to him in his sleep. She haunts him, but from where? From beyond the grave? Is she dead? Is that her ghost?
Anyway, this woman — Kiki is her name — is calling to him, and he knows exactly what he has to do: he must return to the hotel where he and Kiki spent the formative months of their relationship. It is a creepy, bizarre hotel, where everything is just a bit askew. I couldn’t help picturing an old ramshackle house, lightning flickering behind it during deepest nighttime. Our narrator returns to the hotel to find that it’s been replaced with a gleaming skyscraper of a hotel whose name is the same as the old one it replaced. Why would they bother to keep the name the same?
Here we spin off in a few directions. First of all, we run down the “I don’t know what this monkey business is, gumshoe, but I’m sure as George Peppard gonna find out what happened to that old hotel” direction. Might there be a [foreign: yakuza] connection? *Only time will tell.*
(Actually time won’t tell: it’s a Murakami novel, and I still have no idea by the end whether the mafia were involved. Just throwing that out there so that I don’t mis-set expectations.)
Second, our narrator sees a beautiful 13-year-old girl sitting in the bar with her mother. Hijinx ensue. Turns out that the mother is brilliant but spacey, and leaves her daughter all over the world while she — the mother — hops on planes to Kathmandu or wherever. The daughter is left to fend for herself. She is, as you might expect, world-weary and vulnerable and … well … motherless.
The friendship that develops between the narrator and this girl is the most convincing character development I’ve found in Murakami. He feels tenderly toward her — sort of fatherly, but more like a wise older friend. She’s a classic teenager: sullen, believing everyone else is *so lame*, smacking gum loudly and wearing her headphones whenever everyone else just gets *too lame for words*. Their relationship is very captivating, perhaps because I put myself back in the mode of a teenage boy who absolutely would have fallen in love with this gorgeous girl; back in those days, I wanted so badly for the uninterested girl to *be* interested. The narrator puts himself in that mode, too. Somehow it’s never creepy: our 34-year-old narrator doesn’t lust after a 13-year-old girl at all. They’re Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, with a window into the underworld.
We start out wanting to know where Kiki is, but we end up wanting to know so much besides. The old hotel, for instance, seems to have been reincarnated on the 16th floor of the new hotel, but you can’t always see it; what’s *that* about? To take another example, our narrator has transcendent — may I say *otherworldly?* — sex with a beautiful, high-priced prostitute (oh Haruki, I can’t quit you), who subsequently ends up dead, strangled with a black stocking. How does our narrator — a journalistic hack, who describes his job as “shoveling cultural snow” — afford such an exclusive call girl? Well, turns out he’s reconnected with a high-school friend of his who’s become a big movie star. (I pictured my friend Ben in this role — Ben of the million-watt smile and charm to match.) They’re hanging out, drinking, when the movie star suggests that they “get a couple of girls.” Yadda yadda yadda, so on and so forth, our narrator and the escort are washing up together. Soon enough she’s dead. What’s *that* about?
Often in these sorts of situations, Murakami would take the lazy route out: put some balls in the air, then walk off to see what’s on TV. Here he finishes the juggling routine. The result is an uncannily gripping story that’s also emotionally affecting. I can’t recommend it strongly enough.