Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The steady insanity of Haruki Murakami

It's a funny thing, how ideas take root in our heads.

The GCSE short story anthology that our school uses for English study contains a story by the Japanese author Haruki Murakami, who you might have seen on the cover of 1Q84 among various other titles and seems to be placing himself quite successfully into the realm of Western literature. Murakami's short story really is a small one, a cute four page bibelot called "On seeing the 100% perfect girl one beautiful April morning". You can read it in the link but I'll summarise it here: an average thirty-two year old man is walking through a busy street in modern Tokyo, when he walks past a girl. He thinks as he passes this - he reflects later: perfectly ordinary, not even particularly striking - woman of about thirty, he guesses, that this was "the 100% perfect girl." He doesn't stop, he doesn't say anything to the woman, he walks straight on past, but later on he wonders what would have happened if he'd talked to her.

I won't give you any reader analysis on the main character, especially if you're going to read it yourself, and if you read on, you'll see why I don't want to give my insight.

It was a curious thing, studying "perfect girl" - as I'll refer to it for brevity - in English, because of one particular activity that really brought out people's imaginations. We were tasked with profiling the main character, "CSI: Harajuku," our teacher optimistically headed the task sheet, as if the thirty-odd of us were about to transform into canny detectives and start quizzing the character about the last place he was when the suspect was murdered. And that's where it got funny.

I decided to start with that I'd refer to the unnamed character by the author's name, Haruki Murakami. The first thing we were to do was to deduce the basic characteristics and traits of the Murakami - that he's 32 years old, presumably well-educated, and then the deeper stuff. He walks straight past this girl, he doesn't talk to her - does that mean he has confidence issues? Maybe he's nervous. Then out of various places came neurotic, compulsive, suffering from OCD, and then as the seeds that our teacher had planted of a crime started to spread in our heads, it got darker and darker still. Suddenly Murakami was twitchy, with stalkerish tendencies, with unhealthy obsessions, self-doubting, serious lack of confidence, and it all snowballed into a steadily growing psychopathy that came completely out of nowhere. Haruki Murakami had been driven insane, dragged down to the depths of madness by nothing more than a class of thirty-odd overimaginitive 16-year-olds.

I didn't want to say what I think about Haruki Murakami because I'd be doing exactly the same thing, grabbing him by the shoulders and tossing him into the confines of a big, dark label in my mind. Granted, that was almost the purpose of the exercise, to establish more about the character, but it got real strange when, at the mere mention of a crime, the narrator was transformed into a madman so easily.

Perhaps it's something we need to watch out for more, the ease with which ideas can get planted in our head. Once we start clinging to an idea, we forget about the reasons that don't work in its favour, focus on the positive evidence, and sometimes even make up pure speculation in order to support it. This is an example of Confirmation bias in its finest. But perhaps it's different for stories. Perhaps stories are all about pigeonholing, inventing a colourful backdrop for characters that gives them a whole new perspective, especially with stories as biographically arid as "perfect girl." I really don't want to be someone who tells people to read in a certain way, to not read in this way, to do this and avoid that like the plague, and especially with something as precious as a book, it's really about what you bring to it that's crucial.

So with that, I don't really have a message of "Do this or do the other." This post is a simple rumination on the ways we can drive imaginary characters off of imaginary precipices.

~Love Leonidas

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