Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Book #59: The Other Murakami

"They don't have compensated dating in America," Jun said.  "I wonder what these geniuses would say if an American newspaper asked them to explain why Japanese high-school girls sell it."
                                                                                               -Ryu Murakami, In the Miso Soup

I recently went book shopping and bought Haruki Murakami's latest novel 1Q84, a tome-like brick of a book with a close-up of a pale, beautiful, slightly melancholy Japanese woman on the cover, and Ryu Murakami's much slimmer and lighter In the Miso Soup sporting a photo of a woman in black lingerie, her head cropped off, her skin aglow in eerie red light. 

Much as I love Haruki Murakami, there's something a bit daunting about starting a 925-page novel while immersed in my own writing....  I decided to save it for the Christmas holidays and dove into the other Murakami instead.

I have vague, pleasurable memories of reading Ryu Murakami's cult classic Almost Transparent Blue as a teenager and being particularly fascinated by the character named Reiko (perhaps partly because Reiko is my middle name).  In the Miso Soup, his more recent novel, provides the same kind of gritty look at Japan's underworld through the lens of the sex trade, yet this novel provides more reflection and commentary, on the part of the narrator, than I recall in his previous work.  It closely follows the relationship between two characters: Frank, a slovenly, balding American tourist, freshly arrived in Tokyo to indulge his appetite for the sex trade, and Kenji, the twenty-year-old drifter whom Frank hires to be his guide in navigating the peepshows, lingerie pubs, bars and brothels.  While the premise of this novel may not sound overly promising - it could quickly lapse into nothing more than a prurient thrill - Murakami's art lies in his ability to provide an almost anthropological look at the two cultures, Japan and America, which the two protagonists and their strange encounter represent.  One of the most interesting concepts central to the Japanese sex trade, we learn, is known as "compensated dating," where school girls go on paid dates with businessmen - but their activities may go no further than singing karaoke.  Or they may go further; the line isn't clear.  And it isn't only school girls.  Middle-aged, frumpy women trying to pass themselves off as college students frequent the same bars where hookers hang out, vaguely entertaining the possibility of selling themselves, too, should Mr. Right walk in.  What emerges, as Kenji takes Frank through this bizarre, highly stratified underworld, is a picture of a society where the lines between intimacy, sex and prostitution have utterly blurred and money is the only currency of desire.  

I lived in downtown Osaka one summer several years ago, during my undergrad days, and I recall being both baffled and intrigued.  Perhaps it was just the area where I ended up living, but the sex trade seemed to be absolutely everywhere - hostess bars tucked between the flashing lights of Pachinko parlours, swarms of garishly made-up girls in stilettos and mini-dress uniforms running into the streets accosting the men.  It perplexed (and saddened) me because I guess I held some naive, stereotypical views of Japan as a fairly traditional society.  Instead, I found myself immersed in a place where selling sex and sexuality seemed very much in your face and integrated in everyday life.

I don't know whether I ever quite came to terms with that summer in Japan, but Murakami's critique of the extreme loneliness and hollowed out existence that seem to be driving both his Japanese and American protagonists (the latter turns out to be a psychopath) made for a fascinating read.  In the end, the novel suggests that Frank and Kenji, though they come from very different cultures, may be equally screwed up.  In one of the final scenes, after Frank has gone on a killing rampage, Kenji searches his memory trying to explain what the word bonno means in Buddhism: "I think it's usually translated as 'worldly desires.'  It's more complicated than that, but the first thing you need to know is that it's something everybody suffers from."

Photo from: here


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Book #58: Writing Unrest

“My younger self had come back to shock my older self with what that self had been, or was, or was sometimes capable of being.  And only recently I’d been going on about how the witnesses to our lives decrease, and with them our essential corroboration.  Now I had some all too unwelcome corroboration of what I was, or had been.”
                                                                                                 -Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending is replete with all the ingredients I’ve always loved in novels: intrigue, sexual secrets, and a complex matrix of desire kicked into gear by a missing piece of writing.  No wonder that it recently won the Man Booker prize.  This elegant, 150-page novella opens with the main character, Tony Webster’s glance backward at his high school days in 1960s England, a place where he and his admittedly pretentious clique of friends got high on Baudelaire and Dostoevsky and debated grand questions like the origins of war.  “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation,” says Adrian Finn, the genius of the group.  Thus, early on, the novel establishes its fascination with the limitations of history and memory and writing – themes that Tony obsesses over, particularly as he gets older.

But “history” in this novel means personal history.  Personal history of the most intimate kind.  When the boys grow up and go off to university, Tony gets a girlfriend, an elusive beauty named Veronica who strings him along for several months until he dumps her – only to discover that she’s hooked up with his old pal Adrian.  Incensed, Tony has a vague recollection of penning a nasty letter.  Shortly after, Adrian kills himself for reasons that aren’t at all clear.  Through a strange turn of events, decades later, Tony comes in contact with Veronica when it turns out that her mother has in her possession the late Adrian’s diary – again, for reasons that aren’t at all clear – and she has left it in her will to Tony.  It might contain the key to the secret of why Adrian couldn’t bear to go on living.  Yet Veronica has stolen the diary, setting the stage for a bizarre series of emails whereby Tony attempts to wrest the diary from her.  Instead, what she sends him is his old letter – replete with his callow, biting (yet hilarious and sardonic) words.  He is brought face to face with the cruelty of his younger self and the disastrous consequences his writing unleashed. 

While the ending delivers a perverse twist, the most interesting aspect for me is Tony’s unraveling upon confronting his own former words.  It is as though he repressed all memory of his writing; the letter seems as alien as if another person penned it, yet his writing is unmistakable.  Fear of confronting and despising but nevertheless being forced to take responsibility for a former piece of your own writing strikes me as a fear that is especially resonant with writers.  It certainly is with me.  Here we are in November, a few months before my first book is set to be released, and I find myself waking up in cold sweats, tormented not so much by the possibility that readers won’t like my book, but rather by the possibility that two, five, ten years down the road, I may not like the book.  Like Tony, I might barely even recognize my writing … or who knows?  Perhaps a disastrous train of events is about to be kicked into gear in my personal life, as a result of its publication. 

Paranoid?  Me?

But what’s written is written.

So as Barnes says in the final sentence of his novel, “There is great unrest,” yet what can a writer do except keep on writing?

Photo from: here

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Addicted to House Hunting

Over the past six weeks, my boyfriend and I have been shopping for a house.  I’ve come to realize that I take a strange pleasure in wandering through these houses of varying styles and levels of decrepitude – some still inhabited, others hauntingly empty, others carefully accented with generic furniture brought in by a stager giving the house the feel of a theatrical stage set.  The houses that still shows signs of authentic habitation are by far the most interesting.  There’s something quite delicious about running my fingertips over a stranger’s bookshelf and pulling down a novel I’ve been longing to read and finding a hand-written message inside, or opening a closet and finding a pair of beat-up ballet slippers or a tangled bathrobe.

Yes, I could imagine myself living here.

Back in my moribund grad student days, I wrote a good deal of my dissertation on the relationship between novels and houses.  Although I no longer speak that academic language (thank God!), there’s a part of me that remains fascinated by how novels use houses to tell the story of a protagonist’s state of mind, status and relationship to place.  It’s a sad fate indeed for those characters who can’t find a home – think of Lily Bart, the wayward heroine of Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, for instance.  An impoverished socialite, Lily sponges off her wealthy friends who have decadent country houses, yet it’s the comfort of Selden Lawrence’s more modest home that catches her fancy, the bookshelves in particular: “She began to saunter about the room, examining the bookshelves between the puffs of her cigarette-smoke.  Some of the volumes had the ripe tints of good tooling and old morocco, and her eyes lingered on them caressingly, not with the appreciation of the expert, but with the pleasure of agreeable tones and textures that was one of her inmost susceptibilities.”  As Lily sinks down the social hierarchy, the novel charts her decline in terms of her increasingly tasteless and dreary surroundings, until she is finally left in a sparsely furnished tenement room: “The shabby chest of drawers was spread with a lace cover, and set out with a few gold-topped boxes and bottles, a rose-coloured pin-cushion, a glass tray with tortoise-shell hair-pins….  These were the only traces of luxury.” 

In light of my love of this novel, perhaps it isn’t surprising that the most evocative houses I toured during our house hunt were places that I wouldn’t want to live in.  They’re places that give me glimpses into other people’s lives – lives on the “other side of the social tapestry,” as Wharton puts it.  On a whim, we visited a dilapidated white clapboard house at Bloor and Lansdowne that turned out to be an illegal rooming house.  I know from my father that after the war, my grandparents ran a boarding house in this part of Toronto, and so I felt that in a curious way, I was getting a glimpse of that other world and time while peering into these cramped, dingy quarters and gingerly walking up precarious staircases and knocking on bedroom doors (or at least, the real estate agent did, while I cowered behind).  Many of the boarders didn’t want to let us in, and it made me sad to think about how this was their last-ditch effort to claim a kind of squatter’s sovereignty.  Yet even as they shut the door in our faces, I found myself peering over their shoulders, entranced by the curious shrines some of these people had set up on their dressers, candles and incense burning all round, the hint of earthier substances in the air, and one woman had a string strung around the entire perimeter of her room, from which dangled hundreds of pairs of colourful sunglasses.

Although we weren’t serious about buying houses of this sort, I remained eager to keep touring them as a kind of research for my historical novel, part of which takes place in the Bloor Lansdowne neighbourhood in the 1950s, in a boarding house similar to my grandparents’….  So for me, the house hunt was doubling as a sort of field expedition, but I think our real estate agent was getting tired of our dithering.  Alas.

Yesterday evening, we purchased a fairly decrepit, but structurally sound Victorian house full of architectural possibilities (Chris is an architect, so we are looking to take on a “project” house).  The house is at the slightly more gentrified end of the Lansdowne neighbourhood, but close enough that I will be able to walk past my grandparents’ old house every day, communing with ghosts of my family past.

Photo from: here


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About Me

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Toronto, ON, Canada
Leslie Shimotakahara is a writer and recovering academic, who wanted to be simply a writer from before the time she could read. Hard-pressed to answer her parents’ question of how she would support herself as a writer, Leslie got drawn into the labyrinthine study of literature, completing her B.A. in Honours English from McGill in 2000, and her M.A. and Ph.D. in Modern American Literature from Brown in 2006. After graduation, she taught English at St. Francis Xavier University for two years. Leslie woke up one morning and realized that she’d had enough of the Ivory Tower. The fact that she wasn’t doing what she wanted to do with her life loomed over her, and the realization was startling. It was time to stop studying and passively observing life and do something real instead. She needed to discover herself and tell her own story. This blog and the book she has written under the same title (Variety Crossing Press, spring 2012) are her foray. Leslie's writing has been published in WRITE, TOK: Writing the New Toronto, Maple Tree Literary Supplement, and GENRE.