Dance Dance Dance

ダンス・ダンス・ダンス :: Haruki Murakami :: Trans. Alfred T. Birnbaum :: Vintage :: 1988 :: 393 pages

In the beating heart of a booming 1980s Tokyo, a young(ish) man is left by his wife, to ride the wave of his time by himself. In his regained bachelorhood, he rejects a standard salaryman existence, standing and fending for himself in the big boys world of battling corporate interests as a freelance magazine and PR writer. Staring out into the capitalistic lights of the post-modern Shibuya, he partakes in the boredom and excitement of liberty from constraints.

Experiencing such liberty (no doubt further encouraged by the breakdown of his marriage) made him a firm believer of live and let live. His individualism and his independence baffles even him. As time ticks by, he is willing to forfeit almost anything to keep this liberty complete, leaving him without ties or obligations to take into consideration. Playing the outsider has the drawback of breeding an existential vacuum. In that void, his mind colourfully conjures up questions and answers about his existence and the world around him. When a mental ease in life comes back to him, his mind circles his wounded heart, suddenly desperate to find out what happened to an old love.

As in a thriller, he makes it his mission to track her down, but even in the controlled environment which is that life of his, he is thrown around off track every few steps of the way. The novel magically blends and mixes this seemingly unstructured path into one which is to become the narrative of his life. By the time you get through to the end of this mesmerizing novel, you can not help but be amazed at the coherence which Murakami creates in the chaos.

Dance Dance Dance, besides a very personal story, also offers a certain vision of its time, through the narrator. It is not only that singular freedom he has to do as he pleases, but also the ephemeral time in which he lives, in an economic order which can not last. The narrator is understandably impressed by the pervasiveness of expense accounts which create a potential consumption of goods irrespective of whether or not you have anything to spend. The concept becomes the clearest with his actor friend, who, when he loses everything he had in a terrible divorce, he seems to be spending only more. His employer, a film production house, has so much invested in him, that his image as a successful star can not be tarnished. And so the actor is set-up in a trendy Azabu apartment with a Maserati and an expense account. Because his success depends on image, any expenses he may consider necessary for himself will contribute to his image and his worth, to his investors that is. Mildly exaggerating: the more he spends off his expense account, the better. A successful actor creates a buzz, making him more in demand, upping his value. And so forth.

The narrator, despite his stubborn insistence on independence for his own integrity, also gets caught up in the money game. If you earn a lot of money, then the more other people do for you (even at your expense) will allow you to earn even more. On top of that, your costs will be deductible. Either way, you will not care about the expenses. This somewhat perverse situation comes around several times in different forms, promoting the booming and wasteful consumer society which Tokyo has become. If Samurai honour and Kimono wearing geisha’s seem far away then you are right. For the narrator they are far enough as not to reach him. He drives his Subaru through a modern Japan of Jazz and pop music, soaps, trashy magazines and capitalizing investments firms. But throughout all the flashing neon lights, Murakami never looses sight of an inherent mystique, nor for a fascination with his world. Highly recommended.

This is Murakami’s sixth novel.



Le Voyage d’hiver

Amelie NothombLe Voyage d’hiver :: Book :: Amelie Nothomb :: France :: 2009 :: 133 pages

Zoïle was scarred at an early age by a realization that sharing an aesthetic experience was little more than an invitation to ridicule. He took the cue to reject the pull of mediocracy, by developing an extremely individualist, selfish approach to life. He would not qualify as a social success, but as he was to be the only measure to himself, to remain untouchable from the leveling standards of society. In his simple life, he meets the woman of his dreams – a beauty who sacrifices her every living moment to a dysfunctional woman who doubles as a literary oracle. His love, in its physical expression, is thwarted by the constant presence of the vile but illuminated literary spirit. As his frustration mounts, he knows that it will end with a bang.

I will lift out one aspect of the book for consideration. In this year’s novel, it is as if Amelie Nothomb has returned from a high school reunion with a fierce determination not to be like the others. Irrespective of which of her school reunions she went to, there is little chance of that. Her writing is as fluent and creative as ever, and her characters as off the wall as they can get. Bizarrely though, she seems to feel that she has to justify herself. She argues for praise of qualities which make someone unique and the ability to recognizing talent or exceptional qualities in others too, irrespective of whether it “pays the rent” or not. It is as if she had been bombarded with questions as to whether or not she is earning enough with her strange novels.

In a society where recognition and pay check are increasingly being seen as the same thing, she rebels. It is as if she feels she does not receive enough recognition for her work herself, or that it is being brushed over. As in a wave of self-mockery, her editor even put Nothomb’s Harcourt picture on the cover, which, for those who do not know the studio, is a sort of photographic wax museum. If that is still not enough to take her seriously, she argues that our favourite passages should be copied, to unleash the power of the words. In case you are wondering how these words are going to be unleashed, she compares the action of copying literature to sheet music, as having more impact when it is played than when it is read (p128). I do not share the view of writing over reading for a superior literary experience, but her point is clear: she wants to be read with care.

After having soaked up the pretension, a reader can not help but feel a little tricked by the simplicity of the metaphor of this solitary seducer’s end. It is as if we are playing hopscotch in the streets of Paris with the two compulsively innocent women, while it is raining proverbial elephants. But then again, it is a pleasure to read Amelie Nothomb, and, it has to be said, she did surprise us once again with this literary road trip.


Nouvelles Mythologies

mythologiesNouvelles Mythologies :: ed Jérôme Garcin :: Seuil :: France :: 2007

Originally a column in the weekly Nouvelle Observateur magazine, the book groups together 57 articles  on vasty diverging topics. Each writer uncovers signs, finds meaning, like a contemporary Roland Barthes, in society as it presents itself to us today. Nostalgics of Barthes’ original Mythologies series will find the Smart, Google, the Euro, the 4WD and the Polish plumber discussed here with poise and lyricism.

Naturally, not every article has the same power, just like not every subject captures your imagination, but the editor has managed to create a feeling of whole, a blend, which gives the ensemble a specific flavour. It encourages you to view the world with the eyes of a child and the mind of a poet. It helps to know France somewhat, but if you do not, the book could also be considered as an escapade into the psyche of the contemporary man, even if the views are not always universally shared.

What is perhaps surprising, is that although the book is not even two years old, many articles already seem dated. A cynical article about the merits of speed dating seems a world away since online dating websites, such as Meetic, have now been stock quoted for several years. And the death of prose with the onslaught on mobile text messaging sounds overly pessimistic when most people now think the popularity of email has saved writing from a death by telephone. And a beautiful article about the silent photo consumer icon Kate Moss which depends on her silence… but it is not true – she is not silent. At least not anymore. It is there that we notice the difference between an article in a magazine and a book, where the former can reside unabashed in the present, the latter has the pretension to span through time. After all, we would not bundle daily stock quotes or celebrity gossip into books to arrange them between our collected works of Dickens and the Lonely Planet.

But not all the articles are time-stamped like bananas on a kitchen counter. As we are taken to an article about the Nespresso capsule, we are confronted with a remarkable marketing analysis, with the capsule as the emblem of right wing economics. The analysis of the nicotine patch is touching, with the author laying a parallel between the poison which bonds us together in happiness and the solitary sadness of the requirements of health to wash it away again. And the effect of the 2006 purchase of the European steel giant Arcelor by the Indian heavy-weight Mittal on the French psyche, as a confrontation of the history of industrial France with the globalized economy.

The articles are as varied as they are insightful and funny. When Frédèric Beigbeder writes about the GPS, he notes: “Every time someone switches on his mobile phone or his GPS, he can no longer hide: we can send him missiles, the police, or his wife.” Of course we should ask him who the “we” is that he thinks can read his GPS, but the joke remains for the consciously paranoid. Or when Jacqueline Remy dryly describes the development in women’s handbags: ”Its size has grown with women’s rights. Sometimes it’s heavy.” There is much to think along with and much to laugh about in this eclectic study of the world around us. A world so close it is often overlooked. Do not miss out.

NB Translations are my own.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Pleasures of WorkThe Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

Alain de Botton :: UK :: Hamish Hamilton (Pinguin Group) :: April 2009

Standing at a party with drink in your hand, leaning against the mantelpiece, you find yourself listening to someone trying to explain what they do for a living. As the description drags on into details of a procedure you know nothing about, you make a conscious decision to just remember the name of the company and  that it was something administrative, and, embarrassing as it would be if you were caught, to just stop listening.

Working life has become exceptionally specialised in our global complex economy, making us knowledgeable in our field but necessarily making all our results a group effort, reducing much of the honour of success. Often it is hard to see the big picture of what is going on around us. In his latest book, Alain de Botton tries to bring us a little understanding of the interaction of the little picture with the big one, sketching the functioning of the economy for the working man.

The book has no grand argument. The ten case studies are presented as near independent expeditions, from tracking a tuna fish from its capture in the Maldives to a plate in Bristol, to biscuit manufacturing and from tree painting to accountancy. He follows people on the job, to walk alongside them, to see what they see, trying to understand the world around them. As he observes and describes, the case studies are accompanied by photographs of Richard Baker, making the whole work as much a photographic essay as a book.

Work is, he explains us, together with love, at the heart of our lives, but making it meaningful is not quite as easy. De Botton’s musings give us an appealing answer when he suggests work can become meaningful “whenever it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering in others.” It is perhaps a pity that the book is not a series of case studies of the maxim, but the idea does transpire through the pages.

It is fascinating to read De Botton. His wit and philosophical outlook are applied to the world around him as he finds it. He is overwhelmed by the complexity of the world economy as someone discovering it for the first time, but as the details of each outlook unfold, he shares his wealth of understanding and insight, inter sped with comments of a more personal nature (In the Maldives he remarks that there is an uncanny physical resemblance between the president of the Maldives and his late father).

As we are carried along through the melancholy of the working lives of different people, De Botton reaches several insights. About society he remarks that it puts unrealistic expectations of our working lives as slogans before our eyes, provoking a collective dissatisfaction with ourselves. He says we feel a shame at not having given in to the call to discover our hidden talents or possibilities for development in this world, and have condemned ourselves to the mundane life which we lead, a life which does not correspond to the one we could have had if we only had pushed ourselves more (if we believe the slogans). It is an observation which would put career orientation at the heart of our lives.

Tragically, I think he is right. Tragically, because so many people  work to earn money and remain stuck in a work routine.  They do not get around to a self-analysis, and a search for possibilities as they  have their minds preoccupied with other matters and do not readily see how they could move ahead in their professional lives anyway. De Botton looks on as the well-meaning intellectual who can never really understand his subject, because no matter how hard he tries, their differences are just too great.

This comes back later on as well, when Alain de Botton remarks that people no longer travel to see the marvels of how things are done differently elsewhere, or to see the origins of products they use, or the marvels of local technology – people today only travel for fun, for the consumption of cultural goods, the entertaining part. He makes a good point (which comes back in his other work and in his School of Life) but I think the origin of the problem comes forth from the clash between the world outlooks of a poetically inclined philosopher and a corporate accountant or a fisherman.

Notice that that is the result of the overspecialising, that people no longer over see the world around them. The Renaissance Man no longer lives. People on holiday can choose to either see what their professional life is like in the other country (presumably about the same as in their own country or they have already seen it with a seminar of some sorts), or just enjoy their time away, forgetting about the complexities of work and the economy by staring at the waves and tasting new wines.

Another effect of this economic complexity, is that we can no longer really follow its importance. If a certain foreign multinational decides to use some component rather than another, the consequences can be the booming success of a company producing some seemingly unrelated product in your home town. The workings of the economy as water springing up at the other end of the house from a leaking pipe, condemns people to read about other issues because the laws and contracts companies sign are just too abstract to understand how it relates to you.

It seems as if over-education, or at least over-specialization, has led to and estrangement and an under appreciation of the rest. There is a dominant sadness or melancholy in the poetic descriptions of people at work and the trouble with “meaningfulness” is evident. The project is important to our era and commendable, even if his method brings about painful omissions – he stumbles upon a factory full of widows and does not elaborate! This is perhaps not his strongest book to date, but it is an insightful, wise, adventurous and witty read.


de botton

Alain de Botton was born in 1969 and is the author of essays on themes ranging from love and travel to architecture and philosophy. His bestselling books include The Consolations of PhilosophyThe Art of Travel, Status Anxietyand The Architecture of Happiness.

After Dark

afterdarkBook :: After Dark (アフターダーク ) by Haruki Murakami (Japan) :: Alfred A. Knopf (US), May 2007
In a contemporary Japanese urban setting, presumably Tokyo, Mari Asi, an introverted young 19 year old, misses her last train home on purpose, preferring to spend the night reading in the anonymity of the night. Mari suffers under the weight of a secret, one she can not deal with. Throughout the night, she is confronted with others who all bear a cross. Through the common loneliness of the night, she finds some solace, some strength to deal with the reality of day.

What is remarkable about After Dark, is the uncommon narrative – not only does the novel follow the night chronologically in “real-time” (roughly, depending on the speed of your reading), but the author addresses the reader personally, taking him or her by the hand into the scene, as if our eyes are fixed to a floating camera which can be moved around. He does not hesitate to remind us of our helplessness as a fly-on-the-wall investigating the scenes but powerless to help the characters. We are taken along a tour of details both relevant and not, finding clues as to the scenes we are witnessing. The narrative-form has both an intimate and distant effect, as we find ourselves in the story but somewhat removed from the characters. These scenes are alternated with metaphysical scenes, which conjure the fear and estrangement of the hidden mirror-world of Mari. These scenes are not the uncompromising success of the book, but they do bring us closer to the thoughts and worries of Mari.

On her nightly escapade, Mari bumps into a vague friend of her sisters, the skinny, trombone-playing Takahashi who, at his turn, has her help-out the big ex-pro-wrestling love-hotel manager Kaoru. The night-time exposes the roughness of life and the kindness of strangers as only a tired darkness can. The night is portrayed as that slow time in which reality mixes with illusion, where secrets are guarded as crown jewels or given at the whim of the moment. It is a time where normal rationality does not play. It is a world with but a vague similarity to the daytime, marked by the shadows of the insomniacs. It is a time and place where the remaining working souls labour to their hearts content, and the others are freed from the constraints of productivity to linger or play. It is a calm but cruel world frozen in prose in After Dark.