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New Yorker Review: "Scheherazade" by Haruki Murakami

Issue: October 13, 2014

Story: "Scheherazade"

Author: Haruki Murakami

Rating: $$$

Review: One does not simply "walk" into Mordor, and one does not simply "review" a Haruki Murakami story. It's difficult for me to explain precisely why that is. Let's start with the simple fact that Haruki Murakami is an enormously gifted and successful writer who has published dozens of books and is known and loved all over the world, especially by serious readers. He's easily one of the greatest living long-form prose fiction writers alive today. For that reason alone, I feel a little small as I step up the bat to review this story.

The other reason it feels strange to review a Murakami story is that, quite simply, he doesn't write as though he's submitting his stories and characters for anyone's approval. His stories just are. They exist. It would be like trying to review a tree or a mountain. He takes time and care with his stories and that time and care bleeds through every word and sentence. His prose has a characteristically pleasing sort of deft lightness about it. Furthermore, his characters are real. Even as he weaves some of that all-too-tricky and very un-North American magical realism into his stories, his characters remain vividly drawn and, above all, believable. Hell with believable, they actually exist. Or at least that's what I come away feeling like when I read his stuff.

So, for the above reasons, I will simply discuss what I liked about this story. That will have to suffice, since I don't have the hubris to break it apart bit by bit and say how I wish this or that character had done this or that, etc. and, more importantly, I can't find anything wrong with it. I'm not even a Murakami fanboy or anything. I don't even think I've finished a whole book of his. But recognize game.

In "Scherezade" Murakami uses my pet favorite overused modern-day literary device: meta fiction. In the story, the main character, Habara, is a shut-in who is carrying on an affair with his home health aide, whose name he does not actually know, but whom he refers to as Scherezade because she tells him stories after they have sex. They have a very regimented affair, seeing each other only on one day per week and only for long enough for them to have sex and wallow in the after-glow for a bit. Habara's life is simple and, though he knows little about his lover, he can sense that he satisfies some need in her, beyond the obvious.

The "meta" part comes in as Scherezade tells Habara a multi-part tale about herself as a teenager, breaking into the home of a boy on whom she had a major crush. Though she never talked to the boy in school, and he never seemed to notice her, she breaks into his home repeatedly until his mother (presumably) changes the locks and she can no longer carry out her clandestine creeping. She quickly loses interest in the boy and her story ends.

Mind you, this story all takes place within the context of Habara's somewhat antiseptic and yet
mutually salubrious affair with her. And somehow the story aids Habara's understanding of Scherezade and why he will never be close to her. He occupies a very specific role in her life, and that role will never expand. At some point, something will happen which will make their affair impossible, and it will cease. Habara seems to know and grasp this without having to ask Scherezade, which is good, because one senses that the asking itself might drive her away.

Having tried and failed to read at least two of Murakami's novels (again, don't let that diminish the quality of his writing, I just personally prefer something a little snappier at this phase in my life) I can unequivocally say that I vastly prefer Murakami as a short fiction writer. As I alluded to above, Murakami is a real "reader's writer." Meaning that his books are for people who enjoy steeping themselves in a long, slow, rich, narrative for many hundreds of pages at a time, people who read with the patience to allow the story unfold strictly at the author's pace. I don't read a lot of long-form fiction these days (my avocation as a short-fiction reviewer keeps my fiction cup pretty full) but even when I did I found it difficult to summon the patience to complete those kinds of books. However, it's great in small doses, like what we have here, and if you're looking to dip your toe into the vast Sea of Murakami, I highly suggest you start with a short story. Having said that, I'm determined to go back and summon the patience to stick with one of his novels soon. I have a feeling I'll be ready soon.

Comments said…
WHAT?! A NEW MURAKAMI BOOK!?! Dear Santa, . . .

Also, who cares what DB says. This counts.
Anonymous said…
Wait, this isn't your review? Okay, I take back my last comment.

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