I’m looking forward to reading the new Haruki Murakami, which, by the way, has a lovely design, but I have yet to finish the old new Murakami, 1Q84. Presumably I’ll write about 1Q84 soon, but right now I’m enjoying it too much to think about it. An old boyfriend, who claimed the whirring of my mind kept him awake at night, would have been thrilled.
On Sunday morning I yelled at my husband from the kitchen, “Patti Smith reviewed the Haruki Murakami for The New York Times.”
My husband yelled back, “He’s overrated.”
1Q84 is the first Murakami I’ve read. A few years ago, after a book buyer for a store in Seattle told The New York Times Book Review that Murakami’s books are among the most stolen, I resolved to read Murakami.
And reading a rocker’s review strengthened my resolve to read the new book. I don’t know why I found it exciting that a rock star has reviewed Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. Rocker, writer? Not the same thing, right? But increasingly they are the same thing. There are so many rock memoirs on the market: Keith Richards, Morrissey, Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Cyndi Lauper, Rick Springfield…most of them ghosted, I’m sure.
I’m not a big fan of Patti Smith. In college, when art students listened to Patti, I much preferred Bonnie Raitt’s bluesy classics. Although Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, won the National Book Award, her distinctive style is not to my taste. She uses a lot of adjectives in short, poetic sentences. Her prose is striking, but wordy.
But since the rock aspect of Murakami fascinates so many of us, he and Smith make a good pair. In the first paragraph, she delves into the rock parallels of his popularity.
A devotional anticipation is generated by the announcement of a new Haruki Murakami book. Readers wait for his work the way past generations lined up at record stores for new albums by the Beatles or Bob Dylan. There is a happily frenzied collective expectancy — the effect of cultural voice, the Murakami effect. Within seven days of its midnight release, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage” sold over one million copies in Japan.
This interesting but awkward review seems to me to be in need of some editing. Of course if you edit too much the distinctive Smith voice isn’t there. Even the first sentence, with its redundant adjective and strange choice of the passive voice of the verb, is clumsy.
The more traditional reviews work better for me. Marie Arana, a writer and the former editor of The Washington Post Book World, has written a much stronger work of criticism for The Washington Post. I appreciate her smooth, articulate explication of the Liszt and Goethe references.
Soon it is clear that Tsukuru’s “years of pilgrimage” are an echo of Franz Liszt’s masterwork for the piano, “Années de pèlerinage,” especially its elegiac solo “Le mal du pays” (or “homesickness”), a melody that worms its way into the heart of our hero and suffuses his story with an exquisite sadness. Add to its haunting strains Liszt’s inspiration for that music — Goethe’s groundbreaking 19th-century novel about disillusionment, “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship” — and “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki” becomes a virtual symphony of literary and musical referents. Murakami’s wizardry lies in his ability to pack all that cultural and spiritual resonance into a book that is as tightly wound as a Dashiell Hammett mystery.
So what am I trying to say?
I’m a “pop” blogger myself, but when it comes right down to it, I don’t like too much pop mixed into professional book reviews. One of the comforting things about the TLS, the only book review publication I subscribe to, is that it’s “old school.” The TLS is unlikely to surprise me with a review by Patti Smith. In fact, TLS’s Patti Smith is Lydia Davis, whose name often pops up in the N.B. column at the back. I think somebody has a little crush.
The TLS is holding the line with traditional criticism, while The New York Times Book Review is trawling for new readers. Both publications need new readers, I suppose, but unless the NYTBR hires a rock band, how can they keep it up?