Book Reviews

After the Quake
Sputnik Sweetheart
Wind-up Bird Chronicle

Norwegian Wood
Hear the Wind Sing
Pinball 1973

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Dance, Dance, Dance
Author Joanne  
Date March 5, 2002  

It's a sequel, I suppose. But really it isn't. Or it concerns a character we've met before but he seems different. But the same. The hotel is different. But it's also the same. There's the sheep man too, and I know he's exactly the same.
Murakami was a complete revelation to me when I discovered him. The first thing I read was about a man preparing spaghetti and receiving a peculiar phone call. I read that perhaps 18 months ago and the image is still fresh in my mind. I don't know how he does it. His prose is unfussy and bare but he makes the bizarre seem natural, almost expected.

His central character is almost always the same - his job may change, his wife may change, his location may change but he is always a blank canvas on which a story is painted. He listens, observes, is non-commital, non-judgmental, people tell him things. He is willing to see the story to the end.

This book, as far as I know, is the only one to revisit a character who has had a Murakami experience (in this case searching for a magical sheep - 'A Wild Sheep Chase'). What better way to carry on than with another - a girl who meets the sheep man in a hotel, down a darkened corridor outside of the hotel's normal reality, a thirteen year old depressed girl, befriended on a plane journey, whose parents won't listen, an old school friend, now an actor, who stars in a film with the girl with the extraordinary ears...

It's not magic realism, although that's the first thing I reach for. I think that's because what happens doesn't seem particularly magical - there are great swathes of the book in which nothing weird happens at all. In fact, sometimes it seems as though nothing much of anything is happening. But you'd be a fool to think that was true.

There's a rhythm to his work that makes it impossible to put down after a certain length of time: I finished this in a bath that had long grown cold.

Murakami is an author whose work I buy on reflex. I think it's what's known as a 'no-brainer'.

Author David Mazzotta  
Date July 9, 2002  
  The real and surreal clash in post-modern Japan

In A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) the main character and narrator lives a mediocre existence. He is passionless; seemingly unaffected by his wife's betrayal and subsequent divorce, and only attracted to his current girlfriend because he finds her ears to be "marvels of creation" that can incite irresistible desire in any man who sees them. This shallow view of life is further emphasized by the fact that, throughout the book, no characters are referred to by proper names.

When the "Rat," a nomadic friend of the narrator, sends him a photograph of some sheep from Hokkaido, a chain of events is set in motion. The sheep picture comes to the attention of a shadowy figure simply known as the "Boss" -- a mythically powerful underworld kingpin -- who has a dire need to get a hold of one of the sheep in the photo. The Boss sends a messenger to the narrator making it clear that unless he finds that sheep, he will face financial ruin, if not worse.


What follows is a surreal journey from Tokyo to Sapporo and points north, including a hotel that could be right out of a Kubrick film and creature known as the Sheep-Man, who is worthy of David Lynch. In the course of this journey, and in the face of extraordinary events, our narrator confronts his superficial world view and the affect it has had on his life.

Set six years later, Dance, Dance, Dance (1994) is murder mystery, but one in which the clues are revealed by chance rather than dogged investigation - often by a seemingly random psychic encounter. Our narrator has resumed a normal life as a freelance copywriter. He refers to this as "shoveling cultural snow" -- doing the thoughtless and thankless work that needs to be done to clear the path. He is fairly well disengaged from humanity, spending a lot of time alone doing absolutely nothing. Yet, in the midst of this anti-social life, he finds that his long missing girlfriend, the one with the amazing ears -- is calling to him as if in a dream, and she is weeping.

Once again, a chain of events is set in motion. He travels back to the strange hotel to find it modernized and corporate. He has another encounter with the Sheep-Man who tells him to "keep dancing." In the course of story he encounters, and finds sympathy for, a disaffected adolescent girl from a dysfunctional family, and an old high-school acquaintance who has become a famous movie star. Through his relationship with these characters he solves the mystery of his missing girlfriend, not through directed investigation but just by staying engaged with life and society -- by keeping up the "dance."

As a Westerner reading these novels, I was struck by how different the Japan portrayed here is from the hyper-efficient, sanitized, sexless and safe Japan of common impression. This is late twentieth-century post-modern Japan. References to Western pop culture are incessant. Call girls abound. Characters find themselves entangled in confusing, neurotic relationships worthy of HBO original programming. And nobody is practicing Kendo.


These books are hard-boiled -- that is to say, they are written in the hard-boiled style defined in the mid-twentieth century by U.S. mystery writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet. There is a stark contrast between the blunt, gritty realism of hard-boiled style and the surreal, supernatural events that occur. This causes the stories to seem solidly planted in the real world, despite the occasional bizarre episodes.

There are certain shortcomings; the camera's eye perspective of the hard-boiled school lends itself to a bit too much dwelling on the details of setting. This is primarily in evidence at the beginning of A Wild Sheep Chase. And one suspects something is lost in the translation from the original Japanese. For example, this passage from Dance, Dance, Dance:

"... and if you consider the telephone as an object, it has this truly weird form. Ordinarily, you never notice it, but if you stare at it long enough, the sheer oddity of its form hits home. The phone either looks like it's dying to say something, or else it's resenting that it's trapped inside its form. Pure idea vested with a clunky body. That's the telephone."
There is a certain vagueness that may not be intentional. One is left with the feeling that "form" doesn’t quite convey the same meaning it did in the original language.

Reading Murakami has been described feeling like you've just awakened from a deep sleep and you aren’t sure if you're still dreaming. These are fascinating, engrossing books that will leave you full of ideas and impressions to dwell on for a long time to come

Author Dave Edelmann  
Date May 11, 1994  
Media The Baltimore City Paper  

In Jay McInerney's underrated 1985 novel Ransom, Christopher Ransom flees from the materialistic excess of life in Hollywood to search for moral purity in the city of Kyoto, Japan. He abandons his drug and drinking habits, he tries to remain celibate, he studies karate from a real Japanese sensei. But America keeps creeping back into his consciousness, tainting all his efforts with capitalist fever and the Protestant work ethic.

I felt a little bit like Christopher Ransom when reading Dance Dance Dance and Sixty-Nine, two novels by what Kodansha International proclaim to be "the best-selling young writers in Japan." I wanted un-American books about un-American problems, only to discover that the primary concern of Japanese literary hotshots Haruki and Ryu Murakami (no relation) is America. Not necessarily America the chunk of land across the Pacific Ocean, but America the cultural influence, America the trendsetter, America the quiet infiltrator of the East.


At first glance, Haruki Murakami's Dance Dance Dance, far and away the better novel of the two, seems to have little to do with the land of Big Macs and rock n' roll. The author's skillful blend of murder mystery, spiritual quest, and the supernatural takes place mostly in Japan. But the currents behind the scenes hold deep resentment for the American cultural invasion that has left Japan a hollow, faceless player in the corporate mind games of the Western power structure.

At the beginning of Dance Dance Dance, the nameless narrator is a recently divorced freelance writer in search of some larger connection to society. He inhabits a Japan where individuals are no longer important, where "advanced capitalism" and the movement of yen between large corporations consume the public interest. After receiving a dream message from a former lover, however, the narrator suddenly finds himself entangled in connections to several individuals without knowing why: a clairvoyant 13-year-old girl, a big screen movie star and former junior high classmate, a one-armed chef, and a hotel receptionist.


Uncertain of how to weed through this confusion of characters and find once again his ex-lover Kiki, the narrator comes into contact with a strange entity from another world, cryptically named the Sheep Man. His advice to the narrator is, "You gotta dance. As long as the music plays.... Don't even think why." So the narrator learns to treat life in modern-day Japan as a dance, a meaningless jig between alienation and corporate money and murder, simply trying to balance the elements and make it through intact to the next day.


In Murakami's novel, the intangible America haunts modern-day Japan like a ghost, seeping through stereo speakers and TV tubes and glaring on the pages of magazines. The mysticism of the East that's for so long been associated with Japan has all but vanished into the "other world" of the Sheep Man; the narrator's Japan is a land of Dunkin' Donuts, flashy cars, and classic rock playing on the radio.

Author Herbert Mitgang  
Date January 3, 1994  
Media The New York Times  
  Looking for America, or Is It Japan?

Haruki Murakami, Japan's most popular novelist, writes metaphysical Far Easterns with a Western beat. His rapid-fire style and American tastes seem deliberately designed to break any possible connection to traditional novelists from his own country like Kobo Abe, Yukio Mishima or Yasunari Kawabata, Japan's only Nobel laureate in literature. True, in his fiction there are echoes of Raymond Chandler, John Irving and Raymond Carver, but Mr. Murakami's mysterious plots and original characters are very much his own creation.

"Dance Dance Dance" is the latest and liveliest example of Mr. Murakami's frequent-flier fiction. His characters are constantly on the go. In the novel, the author takes the reader on a business-class trip across two cultures, from Japan to Hawaii and back home again. His protagonist is a 34-year-old freelance writer at loose ends who doesn't need much money and is always ready for new adventures.


Along the way, the freelancer encounters various women: dream girls, nice girls, call girls and a mature, smart-alecky 13-year-old named Yuki. Yuki almost steals the novel away from the protagonist because she's so wise, sad and witty. She behaves like Eloise at the Plaza and thinks like an unblemished Lolita. It's a tribute to Mr. Murakami's abilities as a seasoned novelist ("A Wild Sheep Chase," "Norwegian Wood," "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World") that all of his female characters stand out as individuals.

The unnamed protagonist in "Dance Dance Dance," faced with an early midlife crisis after a divorce, appears to be living on the rungs of a psychic stepladder, treading gingerly between depression and nihilism. To make an occasional living, he lowers himself in his own eyes by writing restaurant reviews for a women's magazine. With self-contempt, he describes his writing this way: "Shoveling snow. You know, cultural snow."

As in his imaginative novel "A Wild Sheep Chase," Mr. Murakami's man takes swipes at the Japanese conglomerates that gobble up small companies and at the bribery that is built into business and government. "Advanced capitalism has transcended itself," the freelancer says. "Not to overstate things, financial dealings have practically become a religious activity. The new mysticism. People worship capital, adore its aura, genuflect before Porsches and Tokyo land values. Worshiping everything their shiny Porsches symbolize. It's the only stuff of myth that's left in the world."


Mr. Murakami's novels are fairly apolitical, but this time there's a plot reason behind his protagonist's comments about capitalism in the 1980's. The freelancer is trying to find an attractive young woman of limited virtue with whom he once shared a room in Sapporo in the seedy but homey Hotel Dolphin. She has disappeared; even more strangely, so has the hotel. In its place now stands one of those glass-and-steel caravansaries with flags of various nations waving along the driveway. The Hotel Dolphin has been replaced by the pretentiously named "l'Hotel Dauphin."

Enter the Sheep Man, whom we have met before in "A Wild Sheep Chase." Who is he? And what is he doing in the dark corridors of the Dolphin that, somehow, still exists if one pushes the right elevator button, and walking through walls inside the Dauphin? The Sheep Man may be whatever the author allows the reader to think he is: phantom, conscience, elder wise man, sci-fi figment, symbol of goodness in a rotten world, maybe all of these. Whichever, the Sheep Man has only one piece of philosophical advice for the freelancer: "Dance. As long as the music plays."

A reader puzzled by the Sheep Man must be patient with Mr. Murakami. For "Dance Dance Dance" becomes a murder mystery when several of the freelancer's acquaintances begin to disappear. At the same time, the heart of the novel contains a story about the changing needs of love. A woman with interesting ears is replaced by a woman wearing interesting spectacles.

My favorite character, 13-year-old Yuki, drops pearls of wisdom to the 34-year-old freelancer. They're together because he is acting as her companion at the request of her estranged parents, who are busy with their own love affairs and businesses. At one point, speaking contritely of her mother's deceased American boyfriend, whom she once called a goon, Yuki says, "Mediocrity's like a spot on a shirt -- it never comes off."

Americanisms dance across the pages of the novel, practically turning Japan into an anchored aircraft carrier for American products and culture. The protagonist eats two doughnuts for breakfast at Dunkin' Donuts and burgers for lunch at McDonald's; he also drops into the Kentucky Fried Chicken and Dairy Queen franchises. Truman Capote, Count Basie, Keith Haring, Darth Vader, Clint Eastwood, Walt Disney, Gerry Mulligan and Jodie Foster are all mentioned. In between listening to rock tapes while tooling along in his old Subaru, the freelancer reads a biography of Jack London.

Mr. Murakami's keen translator, Alfred Birnbaum, who keeps "Dance Dance Dance" hopping, valiantly interprets the author's numerous references to American music, books and movies. In fact, he may even exceed the challenge now and then by dropping in a New Yorkism, as when the freelancer says: "Before noon I drove to Aoyama to do shopping at the fancy-schmancy Kinokuniya supermarket."

Wonder how you say fancy-schmancy in Japanese?