Haruki Murakami: After the Quake – Review

No matter how far you travel, you can never get away from yourself. It’s like your shadow. It follows you everywhere.

Enjoyed this far more than I expected to. In fact I read the whole book in almost a single sitting. Although Murakami is still one of my favourite authors I’ve become slightly jaded by his writing. Anyone who’s a fan of his surely knows all the criticisms reviewers throw at him: recycling the same themes, similar characters in almost every book, and the feeling which initially strikes you as an intense dreamlike surrealism can (after 4 or 5 of his books) become dull and overly predictable.

The key I’ve found to enjoying Murakami when you’ve read so much of his work is to know the right state of mind in which to read him. You have to be willing to be swept away by his thoughts. Saying that, this usually requires long periods of delving into a particular story, and considering this was the first collection of his shorts that I’ve read I wasn’t expecting much other than a few entertaining, easy, stories to read in my breaks at work.

Instead I found a really fantastic and at times bizarre collection. And this is coming from a huge fan of Borges, Calvino and Kafka who are the absolute peak fantastical and surreal short fiction in my eyes.

The opener UFO in Kushiro was a very familiar Murakami tale that included all the classic Murakami tropes (distant women, strange hotel rooms, sensual flashbacks etc.) but it really hooked me. In fact it put me into that dreamlike state which in my opinion is necessary to get the most out of Murakami’s writing.

The other two stories that stand out were Super-Frog Saves Tokyo and Honey Pie. Honey Pie was the final story in the collection and it was actually a beautifully written modern love story. By the end of the book it really tugged on my heartstrings. I imagine it’s very similar in style and content to Norwegian Wood (which I have never got round to reading!)

But it was during Super Frog (absolutely the most bizarre thing I’ve read by Murakami since the famed Johnny Walker scene in Kafka on the Shore)that I really understood what Murakami was getting at with this collection:

“A very, very big earthquake. It is set to strike Tokyo at eight-thirty a.m. on February 18. Three days from now. […] Buildings will be transformed into piles of rubble, their inhabitants crushed to death. Fires everywhere, the road system in a state of collapse, ambulances and fire trucks useless, people just lying there, dying. A hundred and fifty thousand of them! Pure hell. People will be made to realize what a fragile condition the intensive collectivity known as ‘city’ really is.”

Japan, throughout the last hundred years, has been subject to events such as this numerous times, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to Kobe and Fukushima. The aftermath of the 1995 Kobe earthquake is a common theme throughout the book, hence the name, but what Murakami did excellently here was to show how an unplanned natural catastrophe can echo the fragility of an individual’s personal experience. This imagery reverberates in some way or another through every story here.

In a country whose values are so routed in tradition and stability, yet whose modernisation has come through such an unsettling time of accelerating development and unplanned disaster, the Japan that Murakami writes about is a country coming to terms with this struggle.

Similarly to The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, and Kafka on the Shore, Murakami tries to reflect aspects of the Japanese psyche that have been affected by the turbulent times in it’s history. This is something that is arguably not talked about enough in regard to his writing. But all in depth analysis aside, I really enjoyed this. It made me remember why I love reading his books. No doubt Mr. Murakami still deserves his place on my top.5.

Aldous Huxley: Ape and Essence – Review

An interesting little book. A lot of familiar Huxley tropes (conflicts between eastern and western philosophy and religion, warnings about the progression of technology, commentary on the dualistic elements of human nature, etc.) but written in a rather more experimental way. Certainly ahead of it’s time considering when it was released. I think if I had read this during my late teenage years it could have been one of my favorites along with Brave New world and Island.

And remember this,” he adds: “even without synthetic glanders, even without the atomic bomb, Belial could have achieved all His purposes. A little more slowly, perhaps, but just as surely, men would have destroyed themselves by destroying the world they lived in. They couldn’t escape. He had them skewered on both His horns. If they managed to wriggle off the horn of total war, they would find themselves impaled on starvation. And if they were starving, they would be tempted to resort to war. And just in case they should try to find a peaceful and rational way out of their dilemma, He had another subtler horn of self-destruction all ready for them. From the very beginning of the industrial revolution He foresaw that men would be made so over-weeningly bumptious by the miracles of their own technology that they would soon lose all sense of reality. And that’s precisely what happened. These wretched slaves of wheels and ledgers began to congratulate themselves on being the Conquerors of Nature. Conquerors of Nature, indeed! In actual fact, of course, they had merely upset the equilibrium of Nature and were about to suffer the consequences.

Italo Calvino: Under the Jaguar Sun – Review

Another work of genius from Calvino. I can’t help but love virtually everything this man writes. The only reason for the 4 star rating is I feel I need to re-read this collection before I can judge it as being as brilliant as some of his other works. Of the three, the first two stories in particular are as beautifully written as they are inventive and imaginative. I would have loved to read the 5 completed stories in full context of the ‘frame’ that Calvino had imagined them fitting into. I’m sure, had he lived, this could have reached the lofty heights of his best works. An impressive, sensuous literary achievement.

Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49 – Review

I’ve been meaning to read Pynchon for a long time now and I really didn’t know what to expect. There’s no doubt TCL49 is a very interesting book. Much more strange, and even somewhat silly, than I was expecting. The book definitely has an air of 60s psychedelia to it (which is not at all surprising considering when it was written) and there were a few moments where the absurdity of it all legitimately made me laugh out loud.

Pynchon’s writing is a constant flux of densely packed images broken up by moments of witty surrealism. I understand how it can come across obtuse at times, but I’m surprised to see so many other reviewers have found it so difficult. To me it was not a particularly easy read but it hardly had that air of impenetrability that some of the other early post-modernists are known for.

Overall I’d argue that there are undoubtedly moments of genius in here but it seems like TCL49 only really gives the reader a taste of what Pynchon is capable of. To me, a style like Pynchon’s doesn’t seem suited to a short 150 page story, and that’s coming from a huge fan of short form literature. I can see why some people love it and why some people hate it but reading this made me really excited to dive into V. at some point in the future. Only then could I really decide if I’m a Pynchon fan or not.

E.E. Cummings: 95 Poems – Review

4.5* Absolutely beautiful. The work of a true master. Have never read anything quite like it. I’m not going to give it 5* purely on the basis that I read it so sporadically and many of the poems in the middle I didn’t give my full attention to. However, for me, the beginning and the end were absolutely stunning.

I feel like these
were poems
I could read again
and again (and again
and again)

and still find
meaning (the truth
that I had always
sought) within
them

Cummings’ experimental (yet thoughtful) style really makes you take a step back and analyse the poem as a poem. The length of the lines, the punctuation, the depth of the stanzas, they all have a clear purpose and they all change how the words themselves are experienced — more so than anything I’ve ever read before.

Reading these so randomly over the space of a couple of months (in PDF form on a laptop [the formatting didn’t work on kindle]) was somewhat of a disservice. I’ll next pick up a book of Cummings poetry when I’m in a situation where I can purchase a hard copy and keep it with me at all times. I have no doubt I will get even more from it than I did from this edition.

William Gibson: Neuromancer – Review

Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…

How can I describe Neuromancer? Probably by writing something with far too much unnecessary alliteration. A rip-roaring roller-coaster ride resembling a prophetic vision of our recent reality maybe? That’s something that I could imagine being on a blurb of a sci-fi book in the 80s…

Anyway, I got about halfway through this book almost 2 years ago before drunkenly leaving it at a friends house in somewhere in the sprawl of suburban London. Fast forward to the present and I’m living in a different kind of sprawl amongst the neon lights of East Asia. It seems quite appropriate that I finished the book here.

Neuromancer is really somewhere between a work of utter genius and the speculative ramblings of an inexperienced sci-fi writer. It’s extremely difficult to follow (even the second time round) and many of the characters and settings are unexplained or underdeveloped. However, in a sort of backwards way this is arguably one of the book’s biggest strengths. You are thrown head first into a world of technological acronyms and digital codes that are not explained to you by any omniscient narrator – you the reader have to try and work out what’s going on while it’s all happening, and this is no easy task. There is no break in the action for any kind of sustained explanation and this leaves you with a real sense of what life in a dark digital dystopia must feel like. In other words, Gibson’s scatty, action packed, fast paced writing is the perfect aesthetic style for the world he’s trying to envision, and it’s a world that has, as many readers are well aware, become eerily close to our own.

The fact that this book was released in 1984 is absolutely staggering in my opinion and it’s honestly a pretty big surprise that it hasn’t dated badly at all. Gibson actually joked that one of the only things that kids these days would found completely off about Neuromancer’s predictions is that no one is carrying around smartphones.

All in all as I’ve recently been digging down the rabbit hole of accelerationism and retracing my routes in the philosophy of technology Neuromancer was the perfect thing to read. Not quite worth 5 stars but easily deserving of 4. I’m going to give another book of Gibson’s a read to hopefully see if his ideas are as prescient as they were in this book when he has had more time to develop as an author.

A couple of my favourite quotes:

‘His vision crawled with ghost hieroglyphs, translucent lines of symbols arranging themselves against the neutral backdrop of the bunker wall. He looked at the backs of his hands, saw faint neon molecules crawling beneath the skin, ordered by the unknowable code. He raised his right hand and moved it experimentally. It left a faint, fading trail of strobed afterimages. The hair stood up along his arms and at the back of his neck. He crouched there with his teeth bared and felt for the music. The pulse faded, returned, faded…’

‘It was a vast thing, beyond knowing, a sea of information coded in spiral and pheromone, infinite intricacy that only the body, in its strong blind way could ever read…’

‘But weren’t the zaibatsus more like that, or the Yakuza, hives with cybernetic memories, vast single organisms, their DNA encoded in silicon?’

J.G. Ballard: High Rise – Review

Very interesting book but damn it took me a long time to get through for something so (relatively) short. It was partly due to the bleak nature of the book, but partly because Ballard has a very particular kind of writing style. It just doesn’t draw me in instantaneously. Even though his speculative concepts are intriguing and the stories are often compelling enough on their own, I just don’t particularly enjoy reading his books as I’m reading them. However, as soon as I finish I become seemingly more interested to delve deeper into his oeuvre.

On a side note: The modern politico-philosophical trend of accelerationism has a lot of interesting things to say about Ballard’s writing which I find to be of interest. As Ballard had predicted, sf had become the only medium capable of addressing the disorienting reality of the present:

‘Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the twentieth century. What the writers of modern science fiction invent today, you and I will do tomorrow—or, more exactly, in about ten years’ time, though the gap is narrowing. Science fiction is the most important fiction that has been written for the last 100 years…’

I’ll certainly be coming back to explore more of his work at some point before the year is through.