Searching for meaning in postwar Japan

February 03, 1994|By Mike Hale | Mike Hale,Knight-Ridder News Service

The nameless, faceless narrator of "Dance, Dance, Dance" -- the third of Haruki Murakami's best-selling novels to be released in English -- lives in a Japan that suffers a severe culture deficit with the United States. He takes his breakfasts at Dunkin' Donuts, his dinners at American-style steak houses, and sees Spielberg movies in between. The background noise of his life is a mix of jazz, Michael Jackson and the Talking Heads.

The book he inhabits will feel familiar to U.S. readers for its style, too. Mr. Murakami has sold millions of copies of his (relatively) literary novels in Japan by dressing up tales of thirtysomething angst with language and devices borrowed from American hard-boiled fiction -- Jay McInerny as told by Raymond Chandler. Reading him is a little like watching the early movies of Truffaut and Godard, in which the tough-tragic poses of Hollywood films are lovingly preserved.

Underneath the American trappings, though, "Dance, Dance, Dance" and Mr. Murakami's other translated novels -- "A Wild Sheep Chase" and "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" -- share a feeling more typical of Japanese and French fiction: an anomie, a kind of intense listlessness, in which the importance of people and their actions is never clear and the passage of time becomes an obsession -- the only provable thing.

Mr. Murakami's subject is the spiritual paralysis of postwar, profit-driven Japan, and his Everyman narrator searches for meaning in fits and starts. His accidental breakthroughs are secondary to long nights of driving, occasional, exquisitely delayed sexual encounters and sleep. Meaning, when he finds it,

doesn't amount to much -- be good, cherish the past, protect the environment. The search is what matters.

"Dance, Dance, Dance," first published in 1988, is a sequel to "A Wild Sheep Chase," the 1982 novel that made Mr. Murakami famous. "Sheep Chase" was written at the end of a seven-year period when he managed a jazz coffee shop in Tokyo. (He's been a full-time writer since, and is currently writer-in-residence at Tufts University in Cambridge, Mass.) It was a charming, romantic book that really felt as if it had been written behind the counter of a dark club, scribbled between taking orders and puffs on a cigarette.

In "Sheep Chase" the nameless narrator was 29, and the '60s -- hTC had been a part of the "movement" at Waseda University -- always hovered in the background. Their fleeting promise served as a criticism of soulless modern Japan, and as fuel for the narrator's quest: a search for his own soul, in the form of a sheep with supernatural powers, in the snowy mountains of Hokkaido.

In "Dance, Dance, Dance," the narrator returns at 34, and the search is on again. He's looking for authenticity, for something to connect him to a reality that's constantly being eaten away: by his job as a free-lance writer, churning out meaningless copy for women's magazines; by the whole of "advanced capitalist society" in Japan.

He sets out looking for a character who disappeared at the end of "Sheep Chase," a woman he hears crying in his dreams. The journey takes him back to Sapporo in northern Japan, to a hotel that was one of the scenes of "Sheep Chase," and to Hawaii for a short idyll on the beach at Waikiki. It involves him with a childhood friend who's now a rich, but miserable, film actor; a beautiful, spoiled and clairvoyant 13-year-old girl; an assortment of expensive prostitutes, and a murder mystery.

But it doesn't involve the reader, at least not as completely as "Sheep Chase" did. "Dance, Dance, Dance" deploys the same devices -- a blurry line between dream and reality; an eerie parallel world of dim hallways and pitch-black rooms into which characters step without warning. And it brings back the Sheep Man, a fleece-covered inhabitant of the other world who holds reality together, keeping alive everything that isn't "war, civilization, the law, the system."

But the novel is flat -- longer, less messy, less engaging than its predecessor. "Sheep Chase" made a connection between the narrator's longings and a vision of an earlier, simpler, more complete Japan. That's missing in "Dance, Dance, Dance," and nothing has replaced it. The spirit that seeped out of the industrialized world during the '80s is missing from Mr. Murakami's end-of-the-Reagan-era novel, as well.

But there's still a lot to like. Mr. Murakami's descriptions of nighttime Tokyo, of the Japanese landscape speeding by outside a windshield or train compartment, are poetic and concise. He also has a knack for capturing the tentativeness and contingency of modern urban life, the meals taken in nameless bars and the relationships poised between sarcasm and tenderness. He's still in his 40s; there's time for his vision to catch up with his talent.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Dance, Dance, Dance"

Author: Haruki Murakami

Publisher: Kodansha International

Length, price: 393 pages, $22

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