I keep waiting for the day to arrive that I’ve become so old that reading a shitty short story by Haruki Murakami, in the New Yorker, won’t irritate me. I suppose the good news, by that measure (and only that measure), is that I am still extremely young.
Not that Murakami isn’t admirable. He’s fearless about committing thick lacquers of cliché to print and lavishing those clichés on the dreariest, least-imaginative language possible. Fearless also about pumping it out like a ’70s screenwriting hack, trying to sound timelessly “Oriental,” for the rubes of the heartland, while dictating from a hot tub and chomping a Cuban. Time for the ripply-dissolve and philosophically-meaningful Shakuhachi flute of an Orientalist flashback:
Master Po: Close your eyes. What do you hear?
Young Caine: I hear the water, I hear the birds.
Po: Do you hear your own heartbeat?
Po: Do you hear the grasshopper which is at your feet?
Caine: Old man, how is it that you hear these things?
Po: Young man, how is it that you do not?
Dialogue from the hit 1972 TV series Kung Fu would not need a terrible amount of tweaking to sit comfortably beside this, from Murakami’s awful new New Yorker offering “Cream”:
“But the old man wasn’t there anymore. I looked all around, but there was no sign of anyone in the park. It was as if he’d never existed. Was I imagining things? No, of course it wasn’t some fantasy. He’d been right there in front of me, tightly gripping his umbrella, speaking quietly, posing a strange question, and then he’d left.”
That passage is all a really serious reader needs to know about “Cream,” isn’t it? The sheer hokum of it! That type of thing wasn’t exactly new when Rod Serling used it to such grand effect on The Twilight Zone, but when Murakami’s self-parodying koan of two-toke metaphysics comes up with the following, I want to fight someone at the New Yorker (editor, janitor, it doesn’t matter):
“There’s nothing worth getting in this world that you can get easily, the old man had said, with unshakable conviction, like Pythagoras explaining his theorem.”
How much of that sentence isn’t awful? The commas.
Murakami opens this brain-eating masterpiece in his standard, colloquial, Paul-Auster-ish register. Nice and vague. No perks in the language; no poetry: none. But it’s in the New Yorker so it must be at least occasionally slightly not-atrocious, yes?
“So I’m telling a younger friend of mine about a strange incident that took place back when I was eighteen. I don’t recall exactly why I brought it up. It just happened to come up as we were talking. I mean, it was something that happened long ago. Ancient history. On top of which, I was never able to reach any conclusion about it.”
It’s not much of a grabber, but at least Murakami is decent enough to quickly deploy, after that appealing-as-week-old-dish-water-as-chip-dip opening, the narrative trick of putting his first-person narrator in a physically uncomfortable and confusing situation, compelling the reader to read on. You read on to answer the trivial questions posed (why did she say/do that?) and to read your way out of the discomforts described (the old “give your protagonist a tooth ache” gag, popular with bored writing teachers). It’s a cheap trick that always works until it’s time for the pay-off. Well, thinks the reader, how is this going to end? Cleverly? Subtly? Redeeming the time invested, surely…?
It’s at that half-way point that Murakami, who is probably improvising as he pushes the narrative forward, doesn’t know what to do once he gets his absurd narrator to the top of the absurd mountain with the cut-rate visual detail of a bouquet of roses. Narrative momentum vanishes. Murakami is stumped but doesn’t want to spend too much time on the story (he doesn’t strike me as much of a reviser) and he probably wanted to get it sold before the weekend… soooo… he just wraps it up rather quickly, after a too-long build-up, with a few lazy dollops of tacky woo and…
Note to students: if you’re improvising a story and don’t know how to make the second half worthy of the first, the least you can do is make the story fucking short. When a story mystifies even you (its writer) don’t keep adding to it: trim it down. (Unless you’re selling to the New Yorker by word-count; then you pad. And pad: this worthless story, with nothing much to show or tell, was fourteen printer-pages long.)
As bad as all of the above may be, let’s end with my choice of Murakami’s least not-idiotic sentence, which I swear to you was actually written by bestselling professional (not officially suffering from brain damage) author Haruki Murakami and printed in the New Yorker…
(wait! where did the New Yorker go…? Was it all just a dream? )
(cue: Shakuhachi )
“In French, they have an expression: crème de la crème. Do you know it?”