Primer #2: Murakami and American Scifi

Although Murakami has a connection to the wider trend of Japanese literature through writers like Kenzaburo Oe (the Nobel-prize winner whose work, like “A Personal Matter,” mostly revolves around learning to relate to his disabled son) he also obviously draws a lot from contemporary American science fiction, especially the hyphenpunk subgenres that sprung up in the 80s and are most closely associated with William Gibson, although I think Gibson was one of the most cliched and obvious cyberpunk writers (I’d get tarred and feathered for saying that in certain literary company, though.)

That’s why I call Murakami a pop writer – he draws heavily from American pop culture (moreso even than Japanese pop culture, some would say) not just in his subject matter – jazz, rock and roll, drugs, the sixties, and the film-noir urban pastoralia of seedy nightclubs and boozehounds – but from the imagery and frames of emotion of his Western cousins like Neil Stephenson, China Mieville and Bruce Sterling (probably the three true grandfathers of cyber/steam/whateverpunk science fiction in the 80s and 90s). Now, these three Westerners also drew from Japanese pop-culture references and style, most obviously Stephenson in novels like “Snow Crash” with its kitana-waving hero/protagonist named “Hiro Protagonist,” but they also adopt what I just called frames of emotion, the way characters are likely to emotionally react to an event that tells us a lot about an author, hinting at both what that author might be like in real life (authors, unlike musicians, are sometimes unable to hide the fact that they’re raging jerks) and what that authors expects from his/her fiction.

Look at a typically Murakamian frame of emotion. I mentioned in my last post that Murakami is a master of the drawn-out non-sequitur, something he shares with American geek culture. I’ll use an example here from the opening of “Kafka on the Shore,” a novel, filled with surreal imagery like talking cats and spirits, that won a seriously ridiculous number of awards. The book opens as the teenage protagonist, Kafka Tamura, has just stolen a decent chunk of money from his dad’s bank account to finance a solo elopement. He’s talking to his buddy Crow here about life on his own:

“I’ll think about that when the time comes,” I say.

“When the time comes,” Crow repeats, as if weighing these words in his hand.
I nod.

“Like getting a job or something?”
“Maybe,” I say.

Crow shakes his head. “You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about the world. Listen – what kind of job could a fifteen-year-old kid get in some far-off place he’s never been to before? You haven’t even finished junior high. Who’s going to want to hire you?”

I  blush a little. It doesn’t take much to make me blush.

“Forget it,” he says. “You’re just getting started and I shouldn’t lay all this depressing stuff on you. You’ve already decided what you’re going to do, and all that’s left is to set the wheels in motion. I mean, it’s your life. Basically you gotta go with what you think is right.”

That’s right. When all is said and done, it is my life.

What a passive main character! And that’s what you see a lot in Murakami: passive main characters.

I’ll talk some more next time about the history of the passive protagonist as it ties traditional English fantasy together with postmodern (I hate that term, but it’ll have to do) literature like Murakami, Auster and the contemporary scifi movements.


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