Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki

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A review of Teleology of the Self: Narrative Strategies in the Fiction of Murakami Haruki, by Tiffany Hong

Tiffany Hong’s dissertation is, as its title indicates, primarily concerned with the developments in the narrative strategies of the internationally acclaimed and bestselling novelist Murakami Haruki, especially as these strategies respond to the relationship between the individual and the history of the Japanese state. While many scholars have examined the meaning of plot and symbolism in Murakami’s stories, Hong’s readings of four of his most well-known novels contribute a valuable perspective on the intersections between the author’s personal politics and his use of self-narrativization through diegetic and metadiegetic elements often associated with magical realism. Teleology of the Self fills a gap in the existing scholarship on Murakami by discussing the mechanics of the author’s postmodern experimentation with the textual self. Hong captures what makes Murakami’s novels so successful in engaging the reader by tying his work into larger discussions regarding the transformative potential of fiction.

As Hong is quick to point out in her introduction, Murakami has been widely translated, more so than any other Japanese writer of his (or any other) generation. Murakami’s relationship to the Japanese bundan, or entrenched “literary establishment,” has been tumultuous, with his popular novels straddling the line between junbungaku and taishū bungaku – “pure” and “popular” literature. Hong argues that Murakami deliberately exposes the disadvantages of this distinction, especially as the modernist conventions of junbungaku as a politically committed art form have left it ill prepared to engage with both the political controversies and the commercial publishing market of the late twentieth century.

In her first chapter, “The Murakami Brand,” Hong charts Murakami’s transformation from a seemingly disaffected novelist to an international personage who has cultivated his image as a politically engaged activist. Hong draws on sources such as the author’s 2011 Catalunya International Prize acceptance speech to highlight how he has positioned the staunch individuality of his signature disengaged narrators against the empty ideologies used to mask the power of the state. This gradual transition is reflected in the narrative strategies used to explore the identity formation of the ubiquitous Murakami narrator character, generally referred to by the first-person singular pronoun with which he refers to himself, Boku.

In this chapter, Hong also posits the existence of a “Murakamiverse,” which designates “characters, storylines, and settings which overflow a single textual source” and references fictional worlds shared across pop culture texts such as the “Buffyverse” of showrunner Joss Whedon (p. 15). The Murakamiverse is characterized by its recurring tropes and characters, as well as “fan service” in the form of intertextual allusions such as cameo insertions of characters from earlier stories. Because of this intertextuality, Murakami’s novels progress along a sort of Palimpsestic Time in which their separate Boku narrators develop across tangentially intersecting story arcs. This cohesion has contributed to the emergence of what Hong refers to as a “Murakami brand,” which has been well served by translators and publicists who emphasize the writer’s cosmopolitanism over any sort of neo-Orientalist appeal he might demonstrate as a Japanese writer. Hong ends the chapter by stating that Murakami has become more popular abroad than Yoshimoto Banana or Murakami Ryū, which “may very well lie in his aptitude for reading the cultural moment” and “his awareness of his own zeitgeist” (p. 30). This awareness is in turn tied to the evolution of both his Boku protagonists and his own literary persona.

Chapter 2, “A Wild Sheep Chase,” investigates the interplay of narrative time and history in the 1982 novel of the same name. Hong argues that the Individual Time of Murakami’s narrators, who maintain a significant lag behind the present in their frequent meditations on the past, signifies a resistance to State Time, which is teleological and authoritative. The state, represented by “the Organization” in A Wild Sheep Chase, suppresses individualism, but the narrator counters this process through his acceptance of his own mediocrity, which Hong reads as a denial of the narrative of progress. The narrator’s conscientious failure to conform to normative configurations of adulthood is writ large in the final destination of his sheep chase, Jūnitaki Township in Hokkaido, which was once exploited by the Japanese empire for its resources but has since been largely left behind and forgotten. Hong draws on the concept of the “postcolonial ghost” to explain how the magical realism that pervades the latter half of the novel functions as a dark image of Japan’s modernization and imperial history.

The third chapter introduces the concept of “The Murakami Chronotrope,” a characteristic representation of temporality in which Individual Time, or the narrator’s sense of his own position in history, is separate from Story Time, or the progression of events in the plot. In the postmodern age, especially as articulated by Frederik Jameson, there is not a clear division between the conscious and the unconscious, thus necessitating alternative representations of the self. The modernist Freudian division of self is confronted in Murakami’s 1985 novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, in which alternate chapters are narrated by the conscious and subconscious selves of the protagonist. In this chapter, Hong details the novel’s breakdown of the duality of logos and the sensory, and of voluntary and involuntary memory.

Hong also cites Ishihara Chiaki’s argument that Hard-Boiled Wonderland constructs the narrator’s identity through “the temporal, or the correspondence of the past and the current self” (p. 74). This concern with temporality is reflected in the subconscious narrator’s “End of the World,” which, in its timelessness, reveals a nostalgic appeal to the 1960s. Like other Murakami protagonists, the narrator of Hard-Boiled Wonderland refuses to properly historicize himself, thus seeming to abnegate responsibility or concern for his current situation. Accordingly, Hong argues that the End of the World “is fundamentally a sim(ulation), a vision of reality liberated from the burden of accurate mimetic representation” that would otherwise force the narrator into a modernist auto-narrativizing impulse (p. 88). Concepts such as “the subject” and “interiority” are thus negated as anything other than semiotic echoes.

The fourth chapter is a study of the role of the unknowable other in the development of Murakami’s narrative strategy. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the narrator’s voice is punctuated by outside accounts and other points of view, which illustrates the artificiality of mimetic narrative. Hong’s discussion is framed by the figure of the “incompetent detective” who must investigate his memory as he constructs a story: the narrator’s own identity is the mystery he must solve. The narrator does not act as a directing focus for the larger mystery of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and his singular viewpoint becomes increasingly fractured over the course of the novel. This de-emphasis of a “teleological, historicist plot” therefore “takes for granted the impossibility of singularity” in the postmodern age, even despite the “timeless impulse to narrativize existence” (p. 115). In the end, identity is unstable, and so, too, is narrative.

By deconstructing the formula of the detective story, Murakami resists the modernizing impulse to impose a single immutable explanation onto a chaotic grouping of individual narratives. Later in the chapter, Hong demonstrates how this fragmented narrative style is applied to Sputnik Sweetheart, adding that the narrator, as in the author’s earlier novels, is more concerned with his memories of the past than he is with the present mystery in which he finds himself embroiled. The anachronous presentation of information places the burden on the reader to evaluate the point-of-view character as a primary source, thus privileging the reader’s own experience of the narrative.

In her fifth chapter, Hong returns to her discussion of the Murakamiverse as it is expressed and refined in the 2010 novel 1Q84. She explains how, in this novel, “For the first time the author classifies – and in naming performs a proprietary act – the players and their functions in his fictive universe” (p. 166). Concepts and characters from previous stories are incorporated in 1Q84, which Hong once again links to the idea of “fan service” for returning readers. In a sense, Murakami is mapping his worldview, rendering it more accessible yet at the same time forcing it into an excessive literalization. Hong argues that this loss of nuance is accompanied by the absence of the ambiguity and paradox that has helped to support the author’s expression of a political stance through narrative. By defining and then polarizing the abstract in 1Q84, Murakami creates an allegory between “good” and “evil” that undermines his repeated protests against violence and the rhetoric of control. This in turn contradicts the anti-Imperialism of earlier novels such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and results in an uncomfortable reductionism in the portrayals of ethnicity and homosexuality.

Hong wraps up her dissertation with a concise summary of the evolution of Murakami’s narrators from A Wild Sheep Chase through IQ84, charting the ways in which the author constructs and deconstructs his identity and its formation. “Each novel examined in this dissertation,” she concludes, “underscores the imperative of transcending the limits of the hermetic self and engaging in a dialog anchored in the real world” (p. 184). Perhaps one of the most effective means by which Murakami transcends these limits lies in his manipulation of narrative time, the various discussions of which Hong neatly ties together.

Teleology of the Self contains succinct and intelligible summaries of prior scholarship on Murakami published in Japanese and English. Hong assumes familiarity with the novels under discussion, so she forgoes plot summary in favor of analysis, making each chapter immediately relevant to a reader already versed in Murakami’s oeuvre. Her close readings are accompanied by theoretical and cultural contextualization, with special attention to international publishing markets and discussions of modernity and postmodernity. Teleology of the Self will be of interest not only to scholars of Japanese literature and popular culture, but also to anyone concerned with the broader topics of magical realism in contemporary fiction and how authors engage with history and society through their narrative techniques and strategies.

Kathryn Hemmann
Department of Modern and Classical Languages
George Mason University

Primary Sources

Murakami Haruki. 1Q84. Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, trans. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

—. A Wild Sheep Chase. Alfred Birnbaum, trans. New York: Vintage International, 2002.

—. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. Alfred Birnbaum, trans. New York: Vintage International, 1993.

—. Sputnik Sweetheart. Philip Gabriel, trans. New York: Vintage International, 2001.

—. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Jay Rubin, trans. New York: Vintage International, 1997.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Irvine, 2013, 206 pp. Primary Advisor: Edward B. Fowler

Image: taken by the dissertation author

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