A High Wind in Jamaica and After Dark.

Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica, ranked 71st on the Modern Library’s list of the top 100 English-language novels of the 20th century, is an anti-adventure novel that deglamorizes the traditional pirate story and instead uses pirates as a vehicle for a serious novel about innocence and its loss.

The novel tells the story of the Bas-Thornton children, five preteens who live on a plantation with their parents in Jamaica, but who are sent back to England after a terrible hurricane convinces their parents that life on the island is unsafe. Traveling with two children from a neighboring plantation, they have barely embarked when their ship is set upon by pirates, led by the Danish sailor Captain Jonsen, who takes the children as well as all of the cargo. The cowardly captain of their original ship believes them killed and reports as such to their parents, who don’t learn the truth until the end of the book. Captain Jonsen tries to leave the children with a matriarch in a pirates’ haven on the island, but is rebuffed after an accident befalls one of the five, leading to several months at sea during which tensions rise between crew and captives and their “adventures” prove more harrowing than thrilling.

Unlike typical novels set on the high seas, A High Wind in Jamaica veers straight for the more serious themes, including rape and murder, that would be required in any realistic depiction of piracy. Forcing children who do not as yet understand mortality, and all of whom but one remain unaware of sexuality, into a situation where they will be confronted by the harsh realities of adult life allows Hughes to explore innocence and the cognitive dissonance children utilize to deal with events they can’t fully understand.

Hughes’ skill in dealing with this extends to his ability to bounce between the children when providing perspectives within the book, and aside from the one real murder of the novel, often describing occurrences in obscuring language to mirror the fog a seven-year-old might perceive when older children are discussing sex. The way Hughes jumps from child to child also seemed to me to mirror the rocking of a boat sailing somewhat aimlessly on the open seas, as Captain Jonsen wishes to rid himself of his human cargo (without harming them) but fears that he will be charged with kidnapping or worse if he tries to hand them over to another ship.

The book reads quickly as Hughes’ prose is straightforward, but lacked much narrative greed – there seemed little chance that Hughes would simply wipe out all of the children to end the book, so I read it assuming full well that there would be a reunion before the novel’s conclusion. Those final few short sections are critical, particularly to the resolution of Emily’s story, as she ends up the most central of the child characters, but I found my involvement within the plot to be rather limited.

I haven’t even acquired Haruki Murakami’s new book, the mammoth 1Q84, and probably won’t until it ends up in paperback next year. (When I’m reading a book, I tend to carry it all over the place, including on planes, and a three-pound book just isn’t my cup of tea.) I am still working my way through his back catalog, and read the somewhat inconsequential After Dark earlier this month. Telling the story of a few lost souls on one peculiar night in Tokyo, Murakami slips in a little magical realism, a few touches of his usual violence (off screen, for a change), and a lot of the vaguely philosophical dialogue that populates most of his novels.

The two main characters, Mari and Takahashi, meet by chance, and then are thrown together again by necessity, launching them on an all-night conversation that links their story to the parallel tale of Mari’s sister, who has been asleep – but not comatose – for what seems to be months, the result of a depression that is never explained but that has taken a toll on Mari as well. The parallel narrative trick worked more effectively for Murakami in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, another book of his I’d rate below his average (which is still above most contemporary writers’ averages). In After Dark, all edges are blurred, perhaps a nod to the darkness and the way our vision is distorted by artificial light, but that same blurriness keeps his characters at arm’s length, and the novel is so brief that we never learn enough about any of the central characters to understand what’s driving them to or away from anything.

Next up: I just finished W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage – I can think of at least one thing wrong with that title – and have moved on to James Crumley’s hard-boiled detective novel The Last Good Kiss.

A Wild Sheep Chase.

Haruki Murakami’s English-language debut novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, gives an early glimpse of the mind-bending plot twists that define his two best novels, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore, along with the usual measures of food, cigarettes, nonchalant sex, and characters that alternate from three-dimensional to transparent, sometimes within single passages. While it can’t match either of the other novels I mentioned, it’s a good read on its own both for plot and for its expansive thinking, and also interested me as a look back at Murakami’s formative years as a writer, like watching video of a big leaguer from when he was a prospect in high school.

None of the characters in A Wild Sheep Chase have names; the best we get are the Boss, the Rat, and J, while the protagonist and his girlfriend don’t even get so much as a nickname or a single letter. The main character is in advertising and, as the book opens, his wife leaves him for one of his closest friends (although he’s more numb than mad or grieving, as the marriage seems to have been long dead), shortly after which he receives an urgent summons from a mysterious businessman about a PR flier his firm put out that included a photograph of a very unusual sheep. That photograph, sent by our hero’s friend the Rat, seems to show a sheep that, by all accounts, shouldn’t exist, at least not in Japan, but the businessman’s interest goes beyond mundane questions of taxonomy, as this sheep appears to have powers beyond any other ovine known to man.

That businessman represents a shadow organization that controls many aspects of Japanese industry, particularly on the advertising side. He offers the protagonist a deal, without much say in the matter: Find that sheep within a month or find your life ruined. So the hero and his girlfriend – whose ears are, as it turns out, fairly important in their subplot, if not the main plot as well – set out to figure out where the Rat is and thus, they hope, find that sheep.

The wild chase is anything but wild; it’s slow, halting, and in some ways quite realistic, even if the sheep they’re chasing and the people they encounter aren’t. And it’s not clear, even after the chase is resolved, whether the protagonist was searching on behalf of the Boss’s minion or for his own personal growth. Before the sheep tale appears, he has no real anchors left in his life – no wife, no kids, a routine job, a scarce existence in the physical or emotional planes. The chase itself provides much of what’s missing from his life, including purpose and urgency, but of course the chase will end, after which he’ll either find his life in tatters or he’ll have the riches promised him … and he’ll have to find a new purpose. Explaining my thoughts on the end and what Murakami may have been trying to express would give away too much of the resolution, but I can say that I found that payoff a little underwhelming. The physical plot was resolved, but the philosophical questions and answers remained vague. It’s a better read as a suspense novel that makes you think a little differently than as a book pushing for any specific philosophy or emotional reaction, whereas his best works provide more clarity without devolving into sermons.

Next up: Martin Amis’ Money: A Suicide Note, which seems to be just the book to buy your sister if she’s already read At Swim-Two-Birds. it’s currently on sale through that link for $6 in the Penguin Ink paperback, with cover design by tattoo artist Bert Kerk.

Norwegian Wood.

Haruki Murakami is one of the most intense, imaginative authors I’ve ever come across. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, #15 on the Klaw 100, destroys the line between our world and the world in our dreams in a way that goes beyond mere magical realism, creating a second, parallel existence for its characters and the reader. Kafka on the Shore (#92) mines similar territory, with a slightly more mystical bent, while Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World mixed in a scientific explanation for a fantastical setting and saw the main character jumping back and forth from reality to a strange world that exists only inside his head.

Norwegian Wood, an earlier Murakami novel that wasn’t translated into English until 2000, is a much more mundane work, a coming-of-age novel that focuses not just on the standard material of that genre (sex, mostly, and there is a lot of it) but on life, death, and the way we must deal with our loss of innocence about our mortality.

The protagonist, Toru, is a stand-in for Holden Caulfield but is more directed and a lot less frustrating to follow. He’s in a relationship with Naoko, formerly the girlfriend of Toru’s best friend who killed himself without warning or explanation one night, and the suicide has left both Toru and Naoko broken inside. Naoko comes undone gradually over the course of the novel as Toru happens into another relationship with the unpredictable, liberated, impetuous Midori, who co-opts Toru to fill the holes but ends up finding more meaning in their relationship than she does in the one she has with her boyfriend. Toru is gradually drifting through university as these various affairs occur, where he has a foil in Nagasawa, a materialistic, cynical boy who mistreats his subservient girlfriend yet can’t seem to feel remorse or stop his selfish behavior.

Even without his usual conceits of alternate realities, Murakami still writes in bold strokes, leaving Norwegian Wood open to quite a bit of interpretation, and the novel’s postscript implies that he wasn’t thrilled when the novel became a favorite among Japanese teenagers who read it as a straightforward story of love, sex, and loss. I found it largely unromantic, but at the same time Murakami was offering a view on what Aldous Huxley referred to in Island as “the Essential Horror” – the knowledge that we must die, and, in Norwegian Wood, that many of the people we love will die before us, leaving us to deal with grief, loneliness, and depression. He litters the book with examples of characters who choose not to deal – some kill themselves, others withdraw from society or flee their existing lives – but, of course, Toru does not choose an easy exit and instead has to face the reality of our existence, first choosing to live …

I’m never sure if it’s Murakami’s style or a loss in translation, but his characters often speak in an unrealistic manner even as what they’re saying is interesting, clever, or witty:

“I’m much better at bringing out the best in others than in myself. That’s just the kind of person I am. I’m the scratchy stuff on the side of the matchbox. But that’s fine with me. I don’t mind at all. Better to be a first-class matchbox than a second-class match.”

I love that analogy, but have never come across anyone who speaks remotely like that. Then again, Norwegian Wood is populated by characters who dance on the edge between sanity and insanity, and over the course of the book several of them fall into the abyss, so one might forgive the author his creation of characters with slightly stilted or awkward speech.

Nagasawa was the one poorly drawn character among those who appear for more than a page or two, and he’s more of a stand-in for a way of life Toru rejects, one that sits between stoicism and nihilism with a healthy dose of selfishness mixed in. But I did enjoy his take on languages, even if I can’t share his view on the fairer sex:

“The more languages you know the better. And I’ve got a knack for them. I taught myself French and it’s practically perfect. Languages are like games. You learn the rules for one, and they all work the same way. Like women.

There is, as I mentioned above, a lot of sex in this novel, and I saw one review that referred to it as Murakami’s “most erotic” work. That deprecates Murakami unfairly, since the novel is attacking larger themes and – I hate to break this to you – people have sex, especially people in romantic relationships, so it’s not as if he went out of his way to include it. More importantly, the different ways various characters in the novel view and approach sex gives the reader windows into their personalities, and to me made it more apparent that, for example, Naoko was a stand-in for an unsupportable path through life, where one refuses to give up one’s innocence and then is unprepared to cope with tragedy or loss.

Next up: Peter Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel, True History of the Kelly Gang.

An Artist of the Floating World.

Kazuo Ishiguro appears twice on the Klaw 101, at 96 with Never Let Me Go and at 62 with Remains of the Day. That latter novel was preceded by An Artist of the Floating World (#91 on the Guardian 100), an interesting book that seems in many ways to have been Ishiguro’s tuneup for Remains, as both revolve around older men who find themselves forced to reflect on the professional and personal decisions they made earlier in life.

The artist of the title is Masuji Ono, a widowed father of two who lost his wife in a bombing and his son in combat during World War II, who has made a name for himself as a painter of patriotic images in support of the imperialist regime that ultimately led the country into that conflict. Now retired, Ono finds his relations with his daughters strained, but seems vaguely unaware of why, as the younger daughter moves towards a potential marriage after an earlier match fell through unexpectedly the previous year.

Ono narrates the book and the reader spends most of it following his peripatetic thoughts, jumping back to his formative years as an artist, his heyday leading an artistic circle in the bars of the “pleasure district,” and through conversations with his daughters and old friends that gradually leave him reeling by forcing him to reexamine his legacy. Yet even as he moves towards a quiet acknowledgment of the current unpopularity of his prior position and role, he retains some pride in his choices – or chooses to rationalize them away:

…I start to think of Sugimura and his schemes, and I confess I am beginning to feel a certain admiration for the man. For indeed, a man who aspires to rise above the mediocre, to be something more than ordinary, surely deserves admiration, even if in the end he fails and loses a fortune on account of his ambitions. It is my belief, furthermore, that Sugimura did not die an unhappy man. For his failure was quite unlike the undignified failures of most ordinary lives, and a man like Sugimura would have known this. If one has failed only where others have not had the courage or will to try, there is a consolation – indeed a deep satisfaction – to be gained from this observation when looking back over one’s life.”

Remains of the Day succeeded because the main character was so well drawn and his cause for regret so subtle that the reader realized the cause for regret as the protagonist did, but in Artist, Ishiguro made the problem obvious to the reader as his main character fumbles his way towards the conclusion. Ono comes across as obtuse, not just in denial but simply unaware of how he’s seen or why his relations with family members, friends, or colleagues have changed over time. As Richard Russo’s Mohawk felt like a practice run for Empire Falls, this felt like a practice run for Ishiguro’s next novel, a fine read but nowhere near the quality of the two later novels of his that I’ve read.

Next up: James T. Farrell’s Young Lonigan, the first book of the Studs Lonigan Trilogy.

The Makioka Sisters.

Quick update on the baseball front – my editors have scheduled the top 100 draft prospects list for publication on Monday night, which gave me a chance to make a few major changes based on some last-minute dope.

Junichiro Tanazaki’s The Makioka Sisters appears on the Bloomsbury 100 as the only Japanese-language novel on the list, which covers novels written prior to 1950. It’s a dense period piece, an observation on the decline of traditional Japanese culture, depicted through the declining fortune of the Makioka family and their struggle to find Yukiko, the third of four sisters, a husband.

Japanese tradition dictates (so I infer from the book) that the youngest daughter may not marry until her older sisters have all done so, and that provides the only real conflict at the heart of this wordy book, as Taeko (also called “Koi-san,” meaning “small daughter”) has already run off once with a beau and is clearly chafing under the thumb of tradition and her hidebound family. Both Taeko and Yukiko live with the second daughter, Sachiko, and her husband, but their lives are also run from afar, the “main house” in Tokyo where the oldest of the four sisters lives with her husband in gradually diminishing surroundings as their family grows.

The entire plot revolves around the family, particularly the three sisters in Ashiya, and repeated failures in the search for an arranged marriage for Yukiko; where the family had once rejected suitors because of their high standards, by the novel’s opening it’s clear that the tides are shifting, where their standards are becoming outdated while the desirability of a Makioka daughter for a wife is lessening. Yukiko herself is slowly revealed as a stuck-up, insular, immature woman in her early 30s, and it’s possible (but never made explicit) that her disinterest in every candidate presented to her is more a function of her fear of change, or a lack of desire to leave a comfortable, easy family life where she’s supported by her sister and brother-in-law and serves as a second mother to Sachiko’s daughter, Etsuko. Taeko, meanwhile, is the most compelling character but is given the least exploration, with Sachiko sitting closer to the novel’s center. Sachiko is trapped by the family’s rigid adherence to tradition, and her escapades become more serious as the novel moves on, some understandable even today (affairs with men of questionable reputation) and some not (she becomes an expert doll-maker and seamstress and earns some money for herself through her work). The same story, told from Taeko’s point of view, would have been twice as compelling, and I wish I’d had her thoughts on why rebellion was preferable to separation from her domineering family.

And, unfortunately, that was my major problem with The Makioka Sisters – 500 pages that hinge on a conflict that now feels dated without enough focus on the most interesting character in the worst position of any of the sisters do not make for a compelling read, and when the prose is dense and rich, it required some effort to get through it.

There was one moment of unintentional humor from this 1957 translation by the eminent Japanese-English translator, Edward G. Seidensticker – this footnote:

“Balls of vinegared rice, highly seasoned and usually topped with strips of raw or cooked fish.”

Yes, in 1957, the word “sushi” was sufficiently foreign to English-speaking readers that it required further explanation.

Next up: Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Klawchat Thursday 1 pm EDT.

Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World came before his magnum opus (and top-ten entry on the Klaw 100) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and having read the latter book first, I can see HBW as a buildup to the later masterwork, where Murakami was still honing his storycraft. The voice is unmistakably his, as is the raucuously inventive plot, but it’s less cohesive than TWUBC or the similarly amazing Kafka on the Shore.

HBW tells two stories in alternating chapters, with the connection only becoming apparently at or just after the book’s midpoint. The main storyline revolves around a narrator who is a Calcutec, a person responsible for encrypting data in his brain, which has been surgically altered to allow for separate, independent access of the two halves of the cerebrum (?). He’s called in for a special, top-secret project by a mysterious hermit-like possibly-mad scientist who knows more than he lets on.

The second storyline is mysterious, as the narrator has just arrived in a strange Town where time exists but moves on forever – not in an infinite loop, where time repeats, but with neither beginning nor end, to say nothing of purpose. People in the Town have no names, no identities beyond their assigned roles, and no feelings. The Town is walled – by a Wall, of course – and there is no way out, although the narrator is never explicitly described as a prisoner and seems to be a VIP of sorts. Its nature is deliberately vague, and only becomes clear after Murakami connects the two plots.

Unfortunately, Murakami appears to have started with the idea of writing one novel and decided midstream to write a different one. In the first half of the book, it appears that the narrator is going to be sucked into an underworld battle between factions fighting over what appears to be control of critical data that he has been encrypting. He’s threatened and injured, goes on the lam … and that plot line ends there, with no return or hint of resolution, and it’s never quite clear what his assailants were after or what they decided to do in the day and a half that follows the assault.

Murakami’s easy, almost conversational style – like having a conversation with a slightly crazy person – and gift for creating memorable side characters was already in full effect in HBW, so it’s an enjoyable read, and he creates plenty of tension to propel the reader through the book. He goes off on an explanatory tangent mid-book, where he has to explain to the reader some bit of science or (in this case) mock science so that the overall plot will make sense, and it’s a jarring interruption to the flow of the story and the prose; it’s a crutch of a weak or inexperienced writer, and Murakami didn’t use it in either of the two books by him that I’d previously read.

If you haven’t read Murakami before, I’d strongly recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle over HBW. Wind-Up Bird is, on its surface, the story of a man whose wife disappears under odd circumstances, sending him on a quest not just to find her, but to find himself. This type of introspective journey forms a part of the ultimate uber-plot in HBW, but it’s incomplete and not as all-consuming as Wind-Up Bird, a book that possesses your mind as the dream of a deep slumber. HWB is best for Murakami completists.

Next up: Alan Lightman’s Ghost.

Kafka on the Shore.

Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami’s most recent novel, wasn’t quite the masterpiece that its predecessor, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, was, but it’s still in the upper echelon of contemporary novels I’ve read.

Murakami’s narrative is split into two, although we know from the start that they will converge near the book’s conclusion. The first narrative, told in the first person, is the story of a fifteen-year-old boy who runs away from home for reasons that are never entirely clear and adopts the pseudonym of Kafka Tamura. Kafka flees to the city of Takamatsu, on the island of Shikoku, largely because there’s a library there to which he is inexplicably drawn. The second narrative, told in the third person, follows a sixty-year-old simpleton named Nakata who can talk to cats and who is either a mystic or a pawn of mystical forces. Kafka is, to some degree, on a quest to find the mother who abandoned him and his father when he was four years old. Nakata ends up committing a crime he doesn’t understand that may have involved an out-of-body experience … and this just skims the surface of the events in the book.

Like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore is a mind-bender with plenty of magical realism and dreamlike passages. And like its predecessor, it has one scene of very graphic violence (this time against animals, not that that’s much easier to tolerate) and lots of slightly awkward descriptions of sex, although confused sexuality is a major theme in the novel, perhaps as a subset of the larger theme of confused identity. Murakami also raises questions about independence and fate, but like any skilled writer, offers little in the way of set answers other than a few platitudes in the book’s closing pages.

What I particularly enjoy about Murakami’s writing is the way he makes coincidence and fate a part of the novel without allowing the characters to ignore it. They’re either amazed by the coincidences, or are pondering whether it’s fate or Fate at work. Even the magical realism elements get mixed reactions, with some characters unfazed but a few always there to offer some double-u-tee-eff thoughts on the matter.

Next up: We’ve had Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist for some time, and I’ve even brought it on a few trips, but never got around to actually reading it.