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Jay Rubin. Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words. London: Harvill, 2002. ix + 326 pp.
At first glance, it would be easy to dismiss Jay Rubin's book on Japanese writer Haruki Murakami as scholarship-lite. Right from the start, Rubin admits to being a fan of Murakami's, a position irreconcilable with the dictates of scholarly objectivity: "I knew I would like the man himself when I read his work," he admits, "and I've written this book for other fans who feel a similar kinship with him and would like to know more about his life and art" (viii). That the two of them have become personal friends over the years is also reason for either suspicion or trust. Rubin sprinkles anecdotes from his personal acquaintance with Murakami throughout the book as it covers Murakami's writing career from his first novel Pinball in 1973 to his most recent publication in English translation, After the Quake. The two are professionally connected as well: Rubin, together with Alfred Birnbaum and, more recently, Philip Gabriel, has been Murakami's primary English translator. Rubin's book is driven by this odd mixture of personal and professional motives: the intent to broaden Murakami's readership in English is first among them, coupled with the wish to see him rid of an undeserved reputation as literary lightweight.
Rubin's book also comes across as somewhat of an oddity because of its well-intentioned attempt to provide its readers with everything but the kitchen sink. It is, in equal parts, a biography of the author, rich in exclusive insider information, and a series of essays on all of Murakami's novels and a fair number of stories. Some of these critical readings wander down strange back alleys in Murakami's career. Some have more to do with the author as postmodern celebrity than with the stern pursuit of literature. One wonders, for example, [End Page 886] if there is any critically useful purpose to the lengthy commentary that deals with Murakami's running of marathons or that shows us the man as a "Dear Abby" fount of quirky wisdom on his website. Rubin also comments on translating Murakami, with special emphasis on globalization and how it affects the publishing industry. The book ends with a number of bibliographies of a variety of primary and secondary sources, both in Japanese and in English.
The sources in the bibliography suggest that Rubin's own discussion of Murakami's writing is based upon, but hardly ever exceeds, critical observations already in print. He follows his sources, for example, in discussing the significance of cats and subterranean spaces throughout Murakami's work, the performance of small household tasks like cooking and ironing, and the significance of American pop culture, especially of jazz. Rubin recapitulates the critique of Murakami as a glib apolitical entertainer, frivolous and devoid of literary merit, launched by Nobel Prize winning novelist Kenzaburo Oe and critic Masao Miyoshi. Arguing against this view, Rubin presents Murakami's work specifically as a product of generational experience—something that Matthew Strecher has already done in an outstanding essay published in the Journal of Japanese Studies in 1999. Rubin also paints a portrait of Murakami as an author of middle-aged nostalgia, a theme previously developed by Stephen Snyder in "Two Murakamis and Marcel Proust."
Having listed everything that might lead readers to dismiss the book entirely, let me now explain why I not only consider it to be a timely and useful piece of scholarship, but why I also liked it immensely. What might at first sound like cliquishness in the interactions between Murakami and his critic ultimately comes across as sheer excitement and enthusiasm. Thanks to its elegantly conversational style, the book does not appeal solely to a few select fans or fellow initiates. Rather, Rubin sounds open and inclusive, like someone telling us, bright-eyed, all about his favorite writer (while keeping his hagiographic urges within reasonable bounds). Even better, here is someone who also happens to...