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


1 comment:

Medea said...

I have mixed feelings about this novel. It was hauntingly beautiful in some ways, but this Murakami always tells truths I don't really want to think about in Japan. I used to hang in the rockabilly clubs of a small city and saw that loneliness firsthand. I went on and got married and had a family but so many of my acquaintances from that time can still be found in the same place complaining of the same things.

Plus it worries me to think my children may have contact with the floating world someday!

I prefer this Murakami to the other, which is a little odd I think. Part of that is that it's easy to identify with the feelings of these characters, as they are in the here and now. I find H. Murakami to be much more about sentamentalism. Plus in Japanese I have a harder time following who is speaking/acting in H. Murakami's novels, but that's most likely a problem with my language comprehension. ;)


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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.