“Bad books on writing tell you to "WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW", a solemn and totally false adage that is the reason there exist so many mediocre novels about English professors contemplating adultery.”
‘Poised’ I think is the word. There’s a fair bit to appreciate about this book, but I think ‘appreciation’ is probably the strongest reaction it’s possible for me to have. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: not every novel needs to be a crash-bang-whizz spectacle of action and destruction, but there’s a fine line between delicate and insubstantial, between introspective and self-absorbed, between subtle and just plain dull.
And, as you can probably guess by now, not all of this kept on the right side of that line. To be fair, this was a much quicker and less demanding read than I was expecting, and if I were to revisit it when I too am an old man having unbecoming thoughts about my secretary and my daughter-in-law while contemplating the imminent arrival of death then I might be far more forgiving of the whole affair, but as it stands it does all feel pretty self-indulgent.
It’s not like the unwarranted lauding of the mundane preoccupations of older middle-class men is a uniquely Japanese quirk – I refer you to the oeuvres of Ian McEwan and Phillip Roth, among many, many others – but in conjunction with what I suppose I’m obliged to refer to as ‘traditional’ Japanese reserve and ambiguity, frankly it just comes across as a bit trite. The language is very clean, but that’s about as highly as I’m able to praise it (though I’ve been subjected to enough shoddy prose of late to reaffirm that clean writing definitely isn’t something to be undervalued), and given that this is essentially a character-study (with occasional shades of State of the Nation splashed about) you get bugger all else in the way of plot or narrative drive so have little choice to but to work with it on a symbolic level. Everything means something else. Isn’t it just so subtle and artful?
I dunno. It all feels a little contrived; if it’s all about the symbolism then frankly you may as well dispense with the façade and address the issues directly. Ooh, he’s having another meaningful dream. Ooh, he’s losing his hair, what could that signify? This one’s going grey, this one went mad plucking his hair out, and this one still has a full head of it. So much hair. So much hair and tits. Tits and hair. Because another thing that makes The Sound of the Mountain slightly harder for me to appreciate is just how misogynistic it is, and in that ingrained, servile, taken-for-granted way that is exponentially worse than straight-up sexist abuse; the values dissonance engendered by both time and culture goes a long way to colouring aspects you might have otherwise regarded more leniently. It does, however, make me view 1Q84’s freaky obsession with Fuka-Eri slightly less harshly, as it appears Murakami was just tapping into an established literary tradition of aged men with unnerving fixations on unsuitable breasts.
I’ve been fairly negative about this so far, haven’t I? In all honesty I can see why this has achieved the status it has, but (irony alert) I think that has as much to do with what it represents as what it actually is. It’s a well-crafted but relatively thin meditation on death and aging set in a very specific section of a society that very few people would ever have had access to (but which conveniently encompasses a significant proportion of the most influential: no one likes talking about old men quite like old men); it thus fulfils the dual criteria for a ‘classic’ in that it addresses a universal theme while presenting a veneer of slight inaccessibility, which then allows readers/teachers/students to feel all pleased with themselves when they inevitably penetrate beyond to unpack its ‘mysteries’.
Look, I’m having a frustrating day, all right? I actually felt fairly well-disposed to this book while I was reading it, but in writing it up I seemingly can’t get away from my more negative reactions. On another day I might be able to be more complimentary but today, unfortunately, is not that day. Ah well.