A new Murakami is nothing short of a gift. I’ll never understand quite what’s going on in that man’s mind, but I’m glad he gives us a chance every once in a while to peek behind the curtain. That said, I am not a fan of this newest venture.
Plotwise, I can’t say this book worked for me. It felt strongly derivative of his early Wind-up Bird Chronicle, but Killing Commendatore is a deeply watered down, white-bread substitution for that master work of genius. I won’t even go into all the ways these books are similar here, but it is pretty striking. If you’re considering reading a Murakami for the first time, put this one down and go get a copy of that. You can thank me later.
The plot winds around and around this pit behind the rented house where the unnamed narrator is staying without ever really hitting on the importance of the pit itself. I mean, I GET IT: it’s a metaphor for rebirth—he doesn’t even try to hide that one, just wait for it. I almost laughed out loud. But what does it mean? For the character? For the plot? In the end, it doesn’t seem to matter.
Similarly, the narrative winds around and around a painting found tucked away in the attic of this house. There is all this historical background that we learn about the painting and the person who painted it, but all that strangely doesn’t seem that important. Rather it is just the image on the painting itself that is important. But I still couldn’t figure out the purpose. Or its connection to our narrator.
Yes, it’s about the journey. It’s an interruption in the narrator’s life and all of his neuroses, fears, and obstructions are getting out in the open before he can get back to normal life. But what if the journey that’s undertaken isn’t a journey at all? What if it’s metaphorical? What if it’s just a history lesson that doesn’t have any real attachment to the forward progression of the plot? What if it’s just pages and pages of nothing going nowhere only to lead back to the beginning? Is that the point? For it to go on and on and mean nothing at all in the end? Sweet Jesus, I hope not.
The most compelling parts of the narrative for me were the descriptions of painting and the portraits, especially as the main character thought about the creative process and what it meant to be a creative person. I could see the parallels to writing or dancing or playing an instrument or another creative act in this, and it felt as though Murakami was digging deep into the reason we crave creativity and where it comes from. I wish there had been more interior exploration of that.
On a character level, I found it lacking. The main character, an unnamed artist going through a divorce, is standard Murakami fare, but I found him and his lackadaisical sleeping around, record listening, and careful meal-preparing more than a little bland and lifeless. And none of it is new. It’s all just rehashing what we’ve seen from Murakami before.
The characters in the book in general tend toward misogyny and the objectification of women, which is off-putting in general, but especially when it isn’t a specific part of the plot that is purposeful, discussed, or resolved. The one female character we get to spend any real time with is a precocious young girl who is so weirdly and overly obsessed with her (lack of) breasts that they might as well be her only feature. How sad. There are other, certainly more natural, ways to go about showing the coming-of-age period for a young girl that wouldn’t involve constant conversations about breast size with a strange man three times her age. It just felt gross and like a total waste and a complete missed opportunity for an interesting development of a character, and a female character at that.
Am I just not getting it? Looking back at the description from the publisher, this book is supposed to be an homage to The Great Gatsby. Does someone want to explain THAT to me? I am not digging deep enough I guess. It’s really bumming me out that I just don’t get this book. Am I looking too hard at the plot of a book that is supposed to be idea-based? With capital “I” Ideas holding it up at all four corners rather than silly conventions like narrative structure, character, and dialogue? Perhaps. But being a fan of Murakami’s work in general, I think it’s fair for me to think this book is a failure, even if it is supposed to be about Ideas instead of a story.
The Ideas themselves felt unfinished, underdeveloped, and left floating and untethered by the end of the book. What was it all for? The surrealism/magical realism, the history lesson, the father/child conundrums, the painting, and the pit.
Maybe I need to spend more time with it. But for me, an underdeveloped plot and boring characters can’t be saved by a bit of surrealism and Ideas. Especially when we’re dealing with 700 pages.
My thanks to the publisher for my copy of this book to read and review.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.