Reading Murakami and Steinbeck in Nuevo LaredoReading


This novel begins with such a normal scene: the narrator in the kitchen, boiling spaghetti and listening to an opera, “which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.”(5) There’s absolutely no indication in the first 100+ pages that the story is going to end as weirdly as it does.

This was absolutely the most perfect book in the world for me to read at this particular point in my life. The friend who gave it to me told me he’d read it during a time in which his “flow was obstructed,” and I guess the same goes for me. There was just something so warm and reassuring about reading this book. I would be in the office or in the field all day in Nuevo Laredo, learning all these new concepts and absorbing all these incredibly draining, intense experiences, and yet, at the end of the day it would all be okay, because I knew I could come home to my little apartment, sit on my beat-up couch, eat my cornflakes and yogurt and read another 100 pages of Wind-Up Bird. It was like coming home to cuddle a stuffed animal, albeit one that talked a lot about the Japanese military efforts in Manchukuo.

I loved reading this book. *Loved* it. I wanted to hug it to the chest and clap my hands gleefully with happiness, like a happy seal. I love all the different Joycean techniques Murakami employs to tell his tale: computer chats, letters, newspapers, hallucinatory dream sequences. It feels important that the story begins with a very straightforward, realistic narrative that is almost boring in its simplicity: a man begins searching for his wife’s missing cat. In the last couple of chapters, you’re no longer sure if what’s going on is happenning in this world, a parallel universe, inside somebody’s head, or inside several people’s heads (that’s about as spoiler free as I can be). Also, as a history geek, I loved reading the parts about the Japanese army in Mongolia or the Japanese occupation of Manchuria and the prison camps in Siberia. There’s so many parts of the world and of history that I have yet to learn about…

My absolutely favorite thing in the world about Murakami is all his descriptions of what the characters eat. A ham, tomato and cheese sandwich. Stir fried green peppers. Coffee, constantly. These little details sounds so simple, and yet they add so much to the story: it grounds it in something that’s so real and very much every day. The literary cliche gods help me, but I have to call it Kafkaesque: we believe all the crazy things that happen later, because everything that happens early on is so credible, to the point of being monotonous almost. It really is clever technique.

This is a very postmodern novel in the sense that it deals a lot with the question of the self. As in, do we actually have one? Can you ever actually “know” yourself, let alone another person? More than anything else, I think this is the central question of the novel. It reminded me a lot of Tori Amos’ concept album, American Doll Posse, in which she assumes the persona of five different female archetypes, each representing a different side to the female personality. This idea of having several different selves, as opposed to one that is already neatly, conveniently formed, is a theme I believe I’ve already brought up in this blog. I really like the idea of having this “wise self” inside of me, this very pure, intuitive wisdom that I can turn to, time and time again, in order to reassure myself and calm myself down, make myself feel like everything is going to be all right. What about all my other selves? Is complete integration an illusion? Is being mildly fragmented the best that any of us can ever hope for? The question feels even more relevant if you consider victims of trauma like war (as in Wind-Up Bird) or rape (as in American Doll Posse). Trauma can shatter you, splinter you apart. How do you go about rebuilding yourself, making yourself whole again?


This idea of rebuilding and coming together appears in a very different form of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the other book I looked forward to coming home and reading these past few weeks. Steinbeck is about as straightforward as narrative realism gets, not much I can call postmodern here (though please feel free to correct me!). I liked how this book made me want to listen to Bruce Springsteen (which makes sense, since Bruce Springsteen has obviously read Steinbeck. I was surprised by how easily you could update The Grapes of Wrath to a 21st-century tale of immigration to the U.S., if you just substituted the Joads for a Mexican family, changed Okies to mojados, throw in a scene of crossing the Rio Grande.

Oh, it just makes me sad, it makes me angry, it makes me want to—I don’t know, I was going to write “run into the street, burn something, write to a Congressman,” but to be completely honest, what it makes me want to do is read more. I want to read more about the history of labor movements in the early 20th century, I want to read more about the development of 21st-century immigration policy, I want to read more about socialism. I want to sit up late reading drinking my carrot juice, underlining passages in pencil and maybe even scrawling a note to myself in the side margins (yes, I am thus revealing myself to be a book vandal!). I want to read and think and write my thoughts down and them talk about them, late into the night with other people. And then I want them to give me more books to read and tell me, “I think that you would like these ones.” More than anything else it makes me feel hopeful and happy to think that there are other people like this in the world, other people who can relate to the feeling of your heart beating as you hand a book over to another person, the words in your throat bursting with eagerness as you say “oh! This one—you really need to read this one!” What would the world be like, after all, without all these people who want to read great books and think silly thoughts about them and then go out and do completely random-seeming things like intern for a microfinance institution in a border city?

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under bruce springsteen, comfort food, Nuevo Laredo, social justice

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s