Here’s another excerpt (previous one here) from the longer version of my interview with the art critic and writer Serena Qiu, this one about reading Murakami. My response to the last paragraph is to come.
wmc: Why are you rereading Murakami’s Dance Dance Dance? Have you finished it again since we met?
SQ: It was the only novel in English on Kota’s bookshelf, and he was about to get rid of it. I was in poor spirits that night and restless with the other book I was reading, plus Murakami is familiar and particularly comforting for me. When I become down, I tend to reread Murakami. Also, I remember being terrified reading Dance Dance Dance the first time, and I wanted to see if that had changed. I finished it maybe a day or two after I met you, and it was still terrifying.
wmc: I’ve read only about ten pages total of Murakami. Somehow I can’t enter the rhythms of his fictions. Can you tell me how I might approach his writing?
SQ: Which ten pages were they? Several people have said that to me about his writing, and it seems strange to me! He is one of the most unobtrusive storytellers I have ever read, but perhaps it is because his voiceover-persona is so mild that there are no visible rhythms to ride. Or perhaps it can too easily conjure good humor. I would say read The Elephant Vanishes first, because the short stories prime you with his way of thinking. Then go chronologically.
wmc: The ten pages I keep rereading are an opening scene detailing a phone call interrupting the narrator’s ramen preparation. You’ve pinpointed exactly why I haven’t yet been able to read him properly: no visible rhythms to ride. I ride on the lushly visible rhythms of Saramago and Sebald, for example, so Murakami’s flat affect is jarring, the way Saramago might be jarring to another kind of reader. In fact, a friend whose poetic sensibilities I trust without question said to me, “It seems to me that you and Murakami would be enemies.”
SQ: I believe in talking people into books, especially Murakami. In fact, I get into this argument with my father all the time; as a very old-school lit nerd, he doesn’t believe in anything but naturalism in novels.
You were reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle! That’s one of his best pieces, and very difficult to read, I think, and it was the first one of his I’d ever experienced (at the too-young age of fourteen). I recently reread that one too, for an unorthodox film class. Here might be a fun way to read it—rather, this is how it was set up in my class as the first and last days. Watch Wong Kar-wai’s In the Mood for Love just before you try starting the book again, and then when you know you’re coming to the end, queue up 2046 to watch immediately following the last sentence. Those films were the open and close parentheses of the book for me that second time, and it made a tremendous difference.
Or you can take the Elephant Vanishes route. I have to warn you that the ten-page passage you couldn’t stomach comes from a short story in that anthology, as do many of his other stories, though some barely recognizable. The reason I always suggest The Elephant Vanishes as an entry point is because it is the more raw and somewhat more delicately crafted base material he builds his fantastical cities of novels upon. (I actually think he is a better short-form writer than novelist.) And though the stories are supposed to be distinct, the recurrences make you wonder if perhaps they are not all shades of the same narrative. In a strange way, I think a bit about Calvino’s Invisible Cities as a comparison. Anyway, if you do read The Elephant Vanishes, you don’t have to go in order. In fact, start with a story called “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning.” Or the title story. That’s the one I want tattooed on me next.
And about that statement your friend made about you and Mr. Murakami being enemies: it makes me realize that I wish to know you better in order to understand that assessment. Based on my experience watching a variety of personalities encounter Murakami, I believe you could just as easily love him as you would hate him—a trite thought, but hear me out:
He produces amorphous prose, perhaps even vacant on its own. Maybe that’s what you respond so strongly to. I think you read him for what you want from him. I’ve known romantics to read him for his immovably weighted determination, gloom-mongers to read him for slow-evaporating loss, adventurers to read him for encounters with the unbelievable. I read him, as a clutter-hating introvert, for his clear pleasure in the quotidian and quiet. In that way (ah! this might be the connecting thread!), he is like Borges (via labyrinths) or Calvino (via cities), in offering you the coordinates and letting you figure out how to contour a narrative. It’s a dish that tastes differently depending on how you’re hungry.