“[A]ll this fiddle”: On Genre Wars in a Time of Craft Beer

Poetry MM

“Poetry,” Marianne Moore

Several years ago I was initiated into the craft beer world—having been a serious drinker of beer since high school but being a somewhat resolute low-brow consumer in many ways eschewing the snobbery I witnessed among wine connoisseurs.

Along with my cycling friends Rob and Brian, I made a couple trips to Colorado for bicycling and beer; while on those trips, I was gradually indoctrinated into a more refined understanding of craft beer, mostly guided by Brian.

Today, I frequent local and regional breweries almost exclusively for my beer drinking—along with my one remain low-brow habit of grande Dos Equis ambers a couple times a week at Mexican restaurants.

I remain far too naturally unsophisticated to ever grasp wine nuances, although I have friends who can easily convince me to enjoy wine with them, but my beer palate is moderately well educated, and I do enjoy a wide range of craft beers that I am certain baffles the mostly Bud Light crowd of my hometown and state.

Having come to beer snobbery late in life, I find the distinctions about “good” or “bad” beer quite similar to the genre wars that I have been living since I was a teen since my introduction to so-called literary fiction was significantly primed by my initial love for science fiction (mere “genre” fiction) and comic books (not any sort of literature at all!).

In Literary fiction or genre? When Megan Abbott and Naomi Novik are writing, who cares, Michale Robbins opens by confronting: “If there’s a distinction between ‘genre fiction’ and ‘literary fiction,’ it’s certainly not that the former isn’t literary and the latter isn’t generic. It’s mostly that the generic conventions of the latter are those that critics and professors are trained to value most.”

A former student, who was a top-notch English major and now teaches English, recently finished reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and drew the same conclusion—if we remain in a formalist paradigm of what counts as “literary,” then Tartt’s novel may well be pronounced so much popular fiddle.

Yet, as my former student noted, the novel could just as easily be praised if we change our metrics, set aside our snobbery.

John Warner’s Is ‘The Great Gatsby’ really required reading? Disrupt Texts challenges teachers to reconsider the classics also ventures into the debate about such snobberies grounded in the canon:

Much of the discussion among educators focuses on how using these texts can be enhanced by injecting marginalized perspectives. This is the “disrupt” part of Disrupt Texts. Rather than taking a single perspective as representative for all, the discussion challenges the notion of a single, fixed history. This is the root of critical thinking and a pre-requisite to lasting learning.

Education isn’t merely transmitting information; students must be taught to make meaning for themselves.

Warner’s last point can be extended, I think, to giving students not the right or only lens for evaluating texts (using the often unnamed New Criticism approach to dissecting text often written with New Criticism’s emphasis on craft and meaning in mind) but many and varied opportunities to examine texts in order to draw their own ways to navigate texts (a variety of lens, some more formal such as feminist or Marxist) and their own guidelines for what makes texts compelling, satisfying, and even “good.”

My former student and I continued to discuss her experience with The Goldfinch, the challenges, I noted, of making a really long novel satisfying. Tartt’s work, she said, was enjoyable to read, but she felt it failed in some important ways—ways I categorize as achieving or not that “satisfying.”

This discussion prompted me to think about Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, a very long and complex work.

When I first read 1Q84, I was initially drawn to the rotating main characters, but when a third focal character is introduced, I began to feel uncomfortable, a sense that the novels’ cohesion was being compromised.

Also I was uneasy with Murakami’s novel being labeled “science fiction”; I could not see anything about the work as I read it that would make me classify it as that genre (maybe something like fantasy or magical realism?).

I find all of Murakami compelling so I read quite eagerly even as I was uncomfortable with the possibility that the long work would not remain cohesive (I am sure my English training in New Criticism and literary snobbery were in play here as well). However, the work came together, fell into place—although how that happens is at least fantastical (one would argue a convention of genre not literary fiction).

All of this is to say that as an experienced and autonomous reader I have developed capacities for interrogating texts, mostly to determine if I enjoyed the work and the writer.

Some of my formal background as a student and English education major/English teacher actually inhibits my joy as a reader—a reality all too common for students.

The genre wars, then, often create barriers to reading and reading for pleasure.

In Moore’s “Poetry,” her second stanza evokes “high-sounding interpretation,” “unintelligible,” and “we/ do not admire what/ we cannot understand.”

Writers, like Moore and others, it seems, do themselves play into the genre wars and all that snobbery, especially about what constitutes the “good” writers as distinct from the hacks. But in the end, writers are mostly about having readers, readers eager to read, readers satisfied by a compelling and cohesive text—wishing for a next story, or book, or essay, or poem.

I cannot shake from my own mind as a reader the importance of texts being satisfying, cohesive. But I also think about my joy as a reader.

Two of the most wonderful texts I have ever read are Roxane Gay’s “There is No ‘E’ in Zombi Which Means There Can Be No You Or We”  and Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch”—beautiful, compelling works of fiction that depend heavily on so-called genre conventions but rise well above the bar of satisfying (even if we cannot resist the allure of evaluation, whether they are “literature”).

As a reader I am seeking writing that demonstrates purpose, a fidelity, I think, to the sort of writing the writer intends, the sort of text I am choosing to read.

Everything else is just fiddle, like calling Miller High Life “The Champagne of Beers.”

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Flawed Men Artists and Their Crumbling Art

Have you ever told a lover insecure about their attractiveness, “You are beautiful,” or “You are sexy”? And then have them reply, “Yes, but you love me.”

I guess we are left with something like beauty is in the eye of the beholder—or at least we are aware that our love and our crushes can allow us to see all the wonderful while conveniently ignoring the troubling.

I have massive literary and artistic crushes, and as a result, I often have to come to terms with my rose-colored glasses. I was warned by a college professor (a wonderful, kind, and smart woman who introduced me to a feminist perspective) that I would someday think less of Ernest Hemingway, and of course, Hemingway gives me fits.

Actress famous for her teen roles, Molly Ringwald shares a really compelling and personal experience with confronting in the same way John Hughes:

I made three movies with John Hughes; when they were released, they made enough of a cultural impact to land me on the cover of Time magazine and to get Hughes hailed as a genius. His critical reputation has only grown since he died, in 2009, at the age of fifty-nine. Hughes’s films play constantly on television and are even taught in schools. There is still so much that I love in them, but lately I have felt the need to examine the role that these movies have played in our cultural life: where they came from, and what they might mean now.

As a high school English teacher, in fact, I was one of those who taught annually Hughes’s Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; it struck me as unusually smart about high school as well as a powerful example of craft (and I can say the same about the Coen brothers’ Raising Arizona, which I also showed every year).

Ringwald eventually concludes:

If I sound overly critical, it’s only with hindsight. Back then, I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of John’s writing was, given my limited experience and what was considered normal at the time. I was well into my thirties before I stopped considering verbally abusive men more interesting than the nice ones. I’m a little embarrassed to say that it took even longer for me to fully comprehend the scene late in “Sixteen Candles”…

It’s hard for me to understand how John was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot. Looking for insight into that darkness, I decided to read some of his early writing for National Lampoon. I bought an old issue of the magazine on eBay, and found the other stories, all from the late seventies and early eighties, online. They contain many of the same themes he explored in his films, but with none of the humanity. Yes, it was a different time, as people say. Still, I was taken aback by the scope of the ugliness.

I just completed a scholarly chapter on Marvel superhero Daredevil, including several sections on the influence of writer/artist Frank Miller. This is an excellent example of the essential problem confronted by Ringwald: How do we navigate the flawed artist and (often) his crumbling art?

Miller is a highly celebrated comic book creator who revolutionized Batman and Daredevil directly and thus superhero comics more broadly. Yet, Miller’s ideology and tendencies are quite disturbing at times.

As Sam Riedel unpacks in a review of the reissue of Hard Boiled, “Miller is working within the same misogynist trope that’s plagued genre fiction for decades: that women are all deceivers who use sex to manipulate men into doing what they want.”

Miller, like Hughes, benefits for the powerful shield of being white and male, which allows them to revel in the role of artist; its all about craft and not about substance (a deformed modernist argument).

Haruki Murakami: A Case Study in the Artist/Art Dilemma

A former student and early-career teacher is rereading Kafka on the Shore as a possible new text in her works in translation unit for International Baccalaureate (IB).

Murakami represents one of my more recent literary crushes, and I nudged her to his work while I was co-editing a volume on the world-famous Japanese writer.

We share a strong affection for Kafka on the Shore, among a couple others as the best of Murakami, but her rereading has both reinforced that affection and given her pause about, especially, Murakami’s flurries of sexism, a problem I touch on in a brief review of his short story collection, Men Without Women.

As I considered her concerns, I then had a near out-of-body experience as I listened to myself wrestle with a reply.

Murakami, I explained, is of a generation and a culture that could help explain (but not excuse) that his works often portray women and attitudes toward women that are accurate for that time and place. I then noted Murakami presents a layered problem since his literary background seems to rest on problematic men writers, many of whom personify a macho literary tradition: J.D. Salinger, Raymond Carver, John Irving, F. Scott Fitzgerald (Murakami often identifies).

Further:

After the Second World War, novels like “The Old Man and the Sea,” “The Call of the Wild,” and “Moby-Dick” entranced Japanese readers yearning for a future of heroism, naturalism, and reason in the wake of the chaotic militarism and destruction they’d endured. Instruction was still a part of the appeal, but heroism and identity moved to the forefront. The transformation to a more purely literary engagement with American fiction, with readers appreciating and actually enjoying American prose over what it could teach them, occurred in 1975. That’s when Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan were translated into Japanese and introduced a sense of humor, absurdity, and social criticism voiced in vernacular prose.

Murakami, the case can be made, embodies a sort of literary tradition found in Albert Camus’s The Stranger, a work written intentionally to mimic Hemingway’s style but also includes some of the same gender and sexism problems found in Hemingway’s work.

Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World seems to nod pretty hard toward these stylistic (hard-boiled) influences, but that sort of excuse wears thin, I think.

Several degrees further away, I have also been wrestling, like Ringwald, with Blade Runner and the many decades later sequel Blade Runner 2049; just as I tried to explain about Murakami, these films may be describing elements of sexism and misogyny without endorsing them.

But how do we know, and what do we do?

I imagine there is a line, maybe not black and white but fairly wide and gray. Some artists and their art are rightfully at last beyond excuse; those we dismiss, maybe with due fanfare.

Some are allowed a new life, one that is about tempering the praise, balancing it against the flaws.

But always, I think, we must keep this powerful observation from Lindsay Lynch on Salinger: “It turns out sad women don’t get to be asshole geniuses.”

Flawed men artists and their crumbling art remind us that we have excused and still do excuse men (often mediocre) almost anything while simultaneously discounting women and people of color for any transgression.

Maybe there is an unintended lesson to these flawed men and their flawed works that can lead us to a better way that allows them some limited space as we make room for those too long ignored and even silenced.

Haruki Murakami’s 7 Stories: “It’s quite easy to become Men Without Women”

Could we possibly need yet another fictional investigation of men in 2017? Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women suggests we do with seven short stories that blend a narrative focus on men who seem equally inept at connecting with women and ultimately incomplete when women seem destined to leave, to be absent.

“Drive My Car” opens Murakami’s slim collection by immediately challenging reader’s with “most female drivers fell into one of two categories,” leading into a story uncritically awash in sexism. Kafuku, an aging actor, hires a woman, Misaki Watari, to be his driver—a sparse plot common in Murakami, whose work is often driven by characters and narration instead of traditional action.

The shallowness of men, the weaknesses of men who embody and perpetuate sexism and misogyny—these would seem to be the sorts of fictional investigations needed in the twenty-first century. Murakami, however, investigates loneliness through the lens of men such as Kafuku:

Kafuku adored his wife. He had fallen deeply in love with her when they first met (he was twenty-nine), and this feeling had remained unchanged until the day she died (he had been forty-nine then). He hadn’t slept with another woman in all the years of marriage. The urge had never arisen, although he had received his fair share of opportunities.

His wife, however, slept with other men on occasion. As far as he knew, there had been four such affairs.

Throughout the collection, Murakami paints these men sympathetically despite their many flaws. Kafuku begins a friendship with one of his wife’s lovers after her death, in fact:

They shook hands once again on parting. A fine rain was falling outside. After Takatsuki had walked off into the drizzle in his beige raincoat, Kafuku, as was his habit, looked down at his right palm. It was that hand that had caressed my wife’s naked body, he thought.

The lonely, abandoned man is a staple of Murakami—and the stories include many signature elements of his fiction, such as The Beatles, quirky narration and the centering of storytelling, bar tending and jazz, and the ever-present hint of the supernatural, the unexplainable.

For readers already drawn to Murakami, this collection reaches out to them while often remaining subtle and nearly stationary. Someone new to Murakami may find the men too flawed to deserve the compassion Murakami seems eager to solicit.

As a Murakami fan and literary scholar of his work, I think the collection shines most powerfully with “Scheherazade” and “Samsa in Love”—both of which center loneliness in ways that rise above the more problematic portrayals of men and women.

“Whatever the case,” we learn in “Scheherazade,” “Scheherazade had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart.” This story’s man is a shut-in, although why is never revealed, and the woman offers him awkwardly satisfying sex and, as noted above, stories.

Habara, the man, dubs the woman “Scheherazade,” although it is not her name and he never shares this with her. The stories about dreams involving lampreys and her own pseudo-sexual teen obsessions driving her to break in a house constitute a second-level set of Murakami’s quirkiness.

The story blends the power of sex/intimacy with storytelling/intimacy as Habara becomes more and more linked to, dependent on Scheherazade:

She got out of bed and put on her clothes—panties, stockings, camisole, and, finally, her skirt and blouse. Habara casually watched the sequence of her movements from the bed. It struck him that the way women put on their clothes could be even more interesting than the way they took them off.

As the reader is guided along with Scheherazade’s adventures, the interior of Habara is more fully revealed, despite the remaining lack of details about his situation. That interior becomes a place where he fears loss:

He could be deprived of his freedom entirely, in which case not only Scheherazade but all women might be taken away from him….Never again would he be able to enter the war moistness of their bodies. Never again would he feel them quiver in response.

This fear of physical loss is immediately qualified:

Perhaps an even more distressing prospect for Habara than the cessation of sexual activity, however, was the loss of the moments of shared intimacy. To lose all contact with women was, in the end, to lose that connection. What his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while neglecting it entirely on the other.

“Scheherazade,” like many of the stories, walks the edge of objectifying women and reducing any individual woman as simply a stand-in for “woman,” to fulfill the need of any man. But Habara’s sadness is linked to the “gift,” “inexhaustible,” that is Scheherazade.

A companion to “Scheherazade” is the gem of the collection, “Samsa in Love.” Here Murakami brilliantly re-imagines Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a class of surreal existential literature often under-appreciated for its dark humor and ultimate focus on Gregor Samsa’s family.

The story’s first sentence echoes Kafka’s tale and appears to suggest the insect metamorphosis has reversed (insect becoming again human) with the remnants of the Kafkan nightmare throughout the house.

Samsa is uncomfortable in his human form and suffering an existential crisis of what he knows and how he knows it:

Samsa had no idea where he was, or what he should do. All he knew was that he was now a human whose name was Gregor Samsa. And how did he know that? Perhaps someone had whispered it in his ear while he lay sleeping? But who had he been before he became Gregor Samsa? What had he been?

Deftly, Murakami crafts a layered homage to Kafka as parody of Kafka—the original itself often driven by satire and parody.

Samsa struggles moving about the house—the stairs are a death trap— and feels compelled to cover her nakedness. But what most drives him is hunger, a powerful Kafkan motif in his novella and other works:

What mattered was filling that empty cavern inside him. He ate with total concentration, as if racing against time. He was so fixated on eating that once, as he was licking his fingers, he sank his teeth into them by mistake. Scraps of food flew everywhere, and when a platter fell to the floor and smashed he paid no attention whatsoever.

In his journey through the house, Samsa discovers he is alone, but there seems to have been others who fled quickly—his family. The central conflict of the story, however, is that a woman comes to the door to repair a broken lock.

This visitor appears first to be “little,” but soon Samsa “realized that the issue was not her size. It was her back, which was bent forward in a perpetual stoop.”

The hunchback woman arrives to repair a door lock, and the rest of story reveals an interaction between the only two characters—at times typical Murakami awkward man/woman interaction and then often bawdy slapstick:

“What the hell is that?” she said stonily. “What’s that bulge doing there?”

Samsa looked down at the front of his gown. His organ was really very swollen. He could surmise from her tone that its condition was somehow inappropriate.

Samsa pleads that his arousal is “‘some kind of heart problem'”—not sexual, but the reader soon realizes, his affection is emotional, not merely some carnal attraction.

Against the surreal plot and the social upheaval the woman mentions several times, she offers Samsa words of solace:

“Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.”…

“If you think of someone enough, you’re sure to meet them again,” she said in parting. This time there was real warmth in her voice.

The story ends with Samsa resolving to work on the little things, and he is hopeful.

None the less, the volume ends with the title story, and the foreboding returns: “Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women.”

Often, Murakami’s men challenge us to feel compassion for their longing, their loss, and their loneliness. But, ultimately, his storytelling suggests to me that, yes, there is something compelling about yet another literary investigation of men in 2017.

“How can anybody know/How they got to be this way?”

How can anybody know
How they got to be this way?

“Daughters of the Soho Riots,” The National

It’s 7 January 2017, Zore Neale Hurston‘s birth day; Hurston passed away 28 January 1960, a couple days short of one year before my birth 26 January 1961.

So my 56th birth day looms fewer than 3 weeks away.

Today, the world looks unusual for us in South Carolina:

snow-2

Skylar contemplates the necessity of pants for her snow adventure at the new home.

snow-1

The view from my back door for Flurrypocalypse 2017. Throughout the area, grocery stores have no bread or milk.

New years are arbitrary measures of time, and we humans seek any ways possible to understand and control the human condition. The calendar and holidays are some ways we have manufactured to name, organize, and maintain our grip.

As I have detailed lately, today also marks two weeks since I and several other cyclists were struck by a motorist. Writing this now, I notice in just a few minutes, the time will be about exactly when that happened on the morning of Christmas Eve 2016.

I have also confessed that my life has changed. Over the past week, I must admit that it has changed even more than I thought.

Without cycling, I have way too much time, but I also have found it difficult to commit to things the same way I have before. Pain is a problem—distracting and the most potent fertilizer possible for my chronic anxiety and occasional depression.

Yesterday, I finally had a visit with the orthopedist who viewed my x-rays at the emergency room, and almost immediately, I felt better just knowing more from someone with the sort of expertise I do not have.

My medication ran out a few days before this appointment, and along with the increased pain, my fretting was nearly debilitating.

It is embarrassing, but when the anxiety increases, my life is significantly reduced. I worry, and worrying is a very deep well I have trouble climbing out, a very deep well from which I fear I can never climb out.

I have confronted that my life as a road cyclist is likely over; a decision made for me, and a consequence of the accident about which I may be the most viscerally angry.

Anxiety for me is also fed by not knowing—the lowest pit of hell. And I am now swamped by not knowing how the insurance will work out (except to know this is going to be problematic), and not really knowing how soon I will be physically 100% again (I mean as 100% as a 56-year-old man can be).

Just normal aging has always terrified me in terms of the specter of knowing that human behaviors of many kinds will end, and likely without warning. Many things I love to do will no longer be possible just because that is one fact of the human condition.

I have a plan—a way to be hopeful: climbing on the dreaded cycling trainer by week 3 or 4 of the recovery, and as my orthopedist offered without me having to ask, being back on the MTB in 6 weeks or less.

Being mostly immobile and mostly inside has not helped any of this. A huge part of my cycling addiction is connected to constant and extended movement while being outside in the sunshine.

Most bicycle rides are 1.5 hours to 3-4 hours—even once a year, 11-12 hours of riding over 220 miles.

In 2016, I did 246 rides in 365 days, basically riding 2 of every 3 days. There simply is no physical activity possible to replace that.

For two weeks now, I have ridden only the couch.

radical eyes for equity: “Reality bites”

This has been a long build up to explaining why I renamed and chose a different template for this blog.

Blogging, I have discovered, is a powerful way for a writer to gain some of that understanding and control at the center of the human urge.

I started blogging at established but open sites many years ago, and then committed to this WordPress blog four years ago—completely unsure if or why anyone would read my work.

At the beginning, I already had come to terms with rejecting the liberal (versus conservative) tag too strongly anchored in partisan politics, and fully embraced Howard Zinn’s reclaiming the term “radical.” [1]

Naming my blog “the becoming radical” sought to acknowledge being a writer and being a critical educator were always a journey, not a destination, not static—again speaking to Zinn’s “moving train” metaphor.

Especially after working on a volume about James Baldwin in 2014, my focus, my refrain has shifted strongly toward Baldwin:

rigid refusal

As I noted in the prolonged opening, naming and organizing are efforts to understand and control; therefore, as I have changed—and as some of that has been against my will, not of my design—this new year and the horror of Trump before us (just when you think things cannot be worse) have converged with my personal development and my evolution as a writer/thinker/educator.

First, the new template.

I have always wanted a blog that doesn’t look like the stereotype of a blog as something not serious or possibly scholarly (since many people, especially in the academy, don’t value blogging), and I have distinct color and font proclivities.

Immobile and in pain (a dear friend quipped, “You have too much time on your hands”), I searched the free WordPress templates and found what you see now. The green, lower-case lettering of the header, font choices, and ability to control a sidebar all clicked with me. This seems relatively clean and accessible.

I hope my blog readers agree.

But all of that is cosmetic. The main shift has been the new title—radical eyes for equity—which incorporates word play (“radical eyes” = “radicalize”), an allusion to Baldwin’s “rigid refusal to look at ourselves,” and a more clear statement about my grounding in the pursuit of equity—race, class, gender, and sexuality equity.

I cannot explain how I got here, or even fully who I am or what “here” is, but I am here, and this is now, and this is all I can do.

I sit here ending this blog and the sun is shining while it continues to snow in South Carolina, where the temperature is still below freezing.

“What the hell” seems to have become my standard response to this world, but there is work to be done, living to be lived.

I hope you reading and even more will be willing, even eager, to join me here as I try my best to understand and control this thing called the human condition with radical eyes for equity.

And if you join this adventure, I think this from Haruki Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart deserves our attention, and it weighs particularly heavy on me now:

hm-ss-reality


[1] From You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train, Howard Zinn (1994):

When I became a teacher I could not possibly keep out of the classroom my own experiences. . . .Does not the very fact of that concealment teach something terrible—that you can separate the study of literature, history, philosophy, politics, the arts, from your own life, your deepest convictions about right and wrong?. . .In my teaching I never concealed my political views. . . .I made clear my abhorrence of any kind of bullying, whether by powerful nations over weaker ones, governments over their citizens, employers over employees, or by anyone, on the Right or the Left, who thinks they have a monopoly on the truth. . . .From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical, believing that something fundamental was wrong in this country—not just the existence of poverty amidst great wealth, not just the horrible treatment of black people, but something rotten at the root. The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian. (pp. 7, 173)

 

What I’m Reading: August 2015

Trying to keep the momentum from posting my June/July 2015 reading.

Haruki Murakami’s first two novels, 2/3rds of a trilogy that English language readers have had only the final 1/3 available, are now published together: Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 as Wind/Pinball.

Since the Rat trilogy ends with A Wild Sheep Chase, a reread is up after the above.

The controversy surrounding both publishing and then the content of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is in line after the Murakami-fest.

Magical Murakami Nightmares

I was afraid
I’d eat your brains
Cause I’m evil

“Conversation 16,″ The National

The foundations of my own quest to be a poet and fiction writer were laid while reading and hoping to be e.e. cummings and J.D. Salinger (hence, P.L. Thomas). Both share an idealizing of childhood and innocence against a skeptical, if not jaded and cynical view of adulthood.

Salinger’s short fiction also spoke to my early faith in craft; his stories are like diamonds so perfectly and carefully cut that one is both unable to look at or away from them.

Also—and quite logically in hindsight—I became fascinated with Franz Kafka, who posed a problem for my obsession with writer’s craft since his work was in translation and there was something unnamable in his stories and diaries/letters that moved me unlike cummings or Salinger.

More or less thirty years later, I am a much different writer as well as a much different reader. Part of my more recent journey has been the work of Haruki Murakami, who now bookends my Kafka phase with his magical nightmares that seem to defy much that I know about writing and reading (notably any clear concepts of genre).

The Murakami bounty in the last year-plus has been magnificent: “Samsa in Love,” “Scheherazade,” Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, and Matthew Carl Strecher’s critical work, The Forbidden Worlds of Haruki Murakami.

But the work that has lingered for me is his The Strange Library because it captures nearly everything both marvelous and difficult about Murakami.

Many years ago I read The Nightmare of Reason: A Life of Franz Kafka by Ernst Pawel and have always thought the title was perfect. It is the Kafkan in Murakami—and notably in The Strange Library—that pushes me to magical nightmare for Murakami.

As a book lover and library advocate, I first noticed The Strange Library is a physical argument for the power of hard-copy books (not ebooks). The clever flap opening, the stunning illustrations, the heft of the cover and paper, the neoclassic typewriter font, the occasional blue type, the ink smell, the odd and final tiny-print paragraph—all of these publishing craft elements shout out for the enduring beauty of buying and holding a real-life, printed book.

The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami. Book design and illustrations by Chip Kidd.

Having recently presented at NCTE’s national convention on the importance of libraries—highlighting Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, and Louise DeSalvo—I was even more eager to read Murakami’s story since he has included libraries before (see Kafka on the Shore).

While DeSalvo’s memoir, Vertigo, opens with the library as sanctuary, The Strange Library is immediately ominous: “The library was even more hushed than usual,” it begins with the main character’s shoes making a “hard, dry sound…unlike my normal footsteps.”

Although the nameless boy frequents this library, the librarian is unfamiliar, and this experience reveals the library to be a labyrinth and a magical nightmare leading to the boy imprisonment and horrifying fate:

The sheep man cocked his head to one side. “Wow, that’s a tough one.”

“Please, tell me. My mother is waiting for me back home.”

“Okay, kid. Then I’ll give it to you straight. The top of your head’ll be sawed off and all your brain’ll get slurped right up.”

I was too shocked for words.

“You mean,” I said, when I had recovered, “you mean that old man’s going to eat my brains?”

“Yes, I’m really sorry, but that’s the way it has to be,” the sheep man said, reluctantly.

The sheep man has also appeared in Murakami before: Dance Dance Dance and A Wild Sheep Chase.

The story is brief, but layered in the way that makes Murakami, Murakami: places and people are not simple dualities, but simultaneously opposing forces, to the point of being irreconcilable.

The Strange Library leaves a great deal unsaid in the wake of nearly too many aesthetic messages, a magical nightmare of childhood that almost reminds me of Neil Gaiman (almost).

The melancholy loneliness that clings to everything Murakami—”After that, I never visited the city library again”—remains once you carefully interlock the flip opening, much as those giant cartoon eyes seem to demand.

However, my heart is warmed because this book demands to be read and re-read, held solidly in your hands that remain somewhat unsure what to do with this odd little book.

For Further Reading

remnant 37: “‘If you think of someone enough, you’re sure to meet them again'”

remnant 61: “The right words always seemed to come too late”

remnant 70: “I was afraid I’d eat your brains”