Murakami noodling

murakamiI remember feeling rather cheated the first time I realised the writer of the book I was reading was making the plot up as he went along. It may have been Jack of Shadows (which I read because of the excellent Hawkwind song of the same name), but it was definitely Roger Zelazny. Zelazny, for me, has always been a bit of a variable writer, a little too pleased with his own facility to really knuckle down and tell a story properly, though he does occasionally tell a good one. (“Tower of Ice” from Divlish, The Damned, for instance.)

I’ve nothing against writers making their stories up as they go along, it’s when it’s obvious, when they’re just noodling on the page because they don’t know where to take the plot next. The trouble is, in fantasy, it’s all too easy to get away with this by simply throwing a few monsters at the heroes, or, in the case of horror, just providing a scary moment which doesn’t really move the plot along.

But there’s one writer who really can pull off a good bit of noodling, and that’s Haruki Murakami. Murakami seems to write by just starting with an intriguing beginning and following it along till it goes somewhere. If it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, he doesn’t throw exciting but empty events at the reader in the hope it’ll keep them occupied till he thinks of something. Instead, he sticks with it, paying minute attention to his characters carrying out some quiet but concentrated task, such as preparing spaghetti or building a fire out of driftwood. His is the pressure-cooker approach to writing: he’s content to sit back and write till he, and his reader, are fully adjusted to the tone and pace of his imagination. And then, when that connection is made, something happens. Dance, Dance, Dance is the book where this is most evident — a book he says is his least satisfactory but was the most fun to write, and which I quite enjoyed simply because of that very adjustment to a slower, quieter pace. Murakami’s tales are often about a tense, quirky build-up to a sudden, sometimes violent, event — or sometimes just the suggestion of an event, as in “UFO in Kushiro” (from After the Quake) where, after a rather rambling conversation between a man and a woman, we get, right near the end, and out of pretty much nowhere: “For one split second, Komura realised that he was on the verge of committing an act of overwhelming violence.” And then it’s over, the moment’s past, and after all that tension, there’s a feeling of something frightening and mysterious having been averted, or having happened entirely hidden away in his character’s psyche, just as you get in the best moments with David Lynch.

I think with any sort of creative activity (and that includes reading as well as writing), there’s a transition you have to make from your everyday mode of thinking to that slower, quieter mindset in which things start to flow. Sometimes part of the transition is made actually on the page, but even still there are writers who can carry it off, and writers who can’t.

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