The Bad Sex Award, presented by The Literary Review since 1993, is perhaps best seen as the high-minded equivalent of cinema’s Razzie Awards. While the latter is more unabashed in its celebration of the horrible and unredeemably bad, candidates for the top award in the literary bad sex award rarely seem willing to accept the accolade with perspective and a sense of humor. A few contenders will usually comment (with humor) about being honored to have been nominated, but serial nominees (like Haruki Murakami) tend to remain silent.
Haruki Murakami has been atop the heap of strange and complex and alternate reality fantabulists since 1979. The English translations of such novels as A Wild Sheep Chase (1989), Hard-Boiled Wonderland at the End of the World (1991), Kafka on the Shore (2005), and 1Q84 (2011) cemented a world where nothing is ever as it seems. Detective noir mixed with American and British pop music and smoky jazz clubs and lost romance, to life after earthquakes and non-fiction about the Japanese underground. Murakami certainly knows how to establish a strange world that can never be mistaken as anything but his own.
With all this as an establishment of credibility, the mind still drifts to Murakami’s Bad Sex Award nomination for Killing Commendatore. (For the record, he lost out James Frey’s Katerina.) It wasn’t just the extended passage that offended. Bad taste in sex scenes is more offensive for its foolishness than anything else. The hero (unnamed, as usual for a Murakami book) is a painter recently estranged from a woman named Yuzu. In a dream (that the reader eventually is led to suspect might not be a dream) the narrator approaches a sleeping Yuzu, taking his time. “There was no resistance, no sound… She might be deep in a dream, I thought… It could be a terrible shock if she woke up in the midst of the act and saw who it was… though asleep, she was responding to our lovemaking with more passion than ever before.”
The scene is more disturbing in its implications of an ideal union between our hapless hero (a portrait painter) and an unconscious woman than in its clumsy descriptions of a late night assignation. More concerning is the man’s pre-occupation with a 13-year-old girl who is modeling for him. Early in the novel he speaks of the sudden loss of his 12-year-old sister. She’d had a congenital heart arrhythmia. She was at the cusp of puberty. “Her heart might have problems, but her flesh continued growing nonetheless.” The young model, Mariye Akikawa, who may or may not be the daughter of Menshiki (a white-haired man who has commissioned our hero to paint a portrait) is a flesh and blood temptation for our narrator, and the conversations they have quickly become disturbing, and probably not in the ways Murakami had intended:
“‘I can’t help thinking about my breasts,’ Mariye said after a while. ‘That’s all I think about, pretty much. Is that weird?’
‘Not particularly,’ I said. ‘You’re at that age. When I was your age all I thought about was my penis…”
Unbelievably, the conversation goes on, and it’s one of several that the grown man has with this teenaged girl. Where is this going? What purpose is it serving? This 13-year-old seems to exist only to stand as a living reminder of the narrator’s lost sister. The sex is not only bad, clumsy, laughable, adulterous and offensive in Killing Commendatore — it’s ugly. Our narrator is drifting when we first meet him. He is 36 years old, a former portrait painter, his marriage is over, and there’s no aim to his life. He lands himself a position in a large mansion, painting Menshiki’s portrait and teaching two painting classes in order to sustain himself. He discovers Tomohiko Amada’s painting, “Killing Commendatore”, and from that point he realizes his life is about to change forever. There are long passages here (necessary and effectively rendered) where our hero simply spends days studying the painting, trying to understand each strange corner. It’s a merciless, bloody, Japanese interpretation of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, an opera that opened with the scene of a Commendatore being killed and the men depicted are characters seen from a Japanese perspective.
It’s a simple premise that gets dragged through tedious variations of the same theme. Perhaps it has to do less with the effectiveness of the translation (by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen) than the sheer magnitude of the premise. Perhaps there was much lost when it became a single volume translation of the two original Japanese books. (This volume is separated into two parts: “The Idea Made Visible” and “The Shifting Metaphor”.) More often than not, the reader will read the end of one chapter only to have lines repeated at the start of the next chapter, like a TV procedural closing one scene with as line of dialogue, fading to commercial, and starting with the same scene once the new “chapter” begins. Additionally, some of the narrative is first year creative writing clumsy:
“The following Sunday finally came. A lot of things happened that day. It turned out to be a hectic day.”
The reader might find it difficult to forgive the clumsy and thick narrative style. Better (as always with Murakami) are the reflections on painting, on process. Murakami is asking us to believe the exaggerations, to embrace the world built within the mansion. There’s a mysterious bell ringing from beneath the shrine. A two foot tall man dressed as the Commendatore from the painting appears periodically to taunt our hero, to lead him towards where he’s supposed to be. It’s more than a little heavy-handed to have your strange little character tell your readers how they are supposed to feel now that they’ve passed through the looking glass and into the horror of the painting, but Murakami has always worked on deeper levels. In more ways than one, the reader could see this monologue from the Commendatore as yet another element from the EMU (Extended Murakami Universe):
“The truth is a symbol, and symbols are the truth… grasp symbols the way they are… I am telling you this for your own good. Better to give up… If that painting wants to say something, then best to let it speak. Let metaphors be metaphors.”
While critics have focused on the offensive non-consensual assignation scene (and ignored the pedophilia) there has also been an element of Gatsby hovering above Killing Commendatore. There’s a great deal of credence to this idea. Our hero is obsessed with Waturu Menshiki, the white-haired mysterious stranger who lives in the mansion across the way. Our hero observes: “…the building floated white in the distance like an elegant ocean liner sailing the night sea.” Menshiki stares across the valley at a house where the 13-year-old lives. It’s all about longing and mystery and whether or not this girl is his daughter. Our hero might not be F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Nick Carroway, but he’s close to it, looking at Menshiki like some sort of unattainable symbol of achievement reached and purpose yet unfulfilled.
Killing Commendatore is a descent through a well into a magical world that’s almost a beat-by-beat replication of an earlier descent in his 1995 novel, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. The strange little characters surface, but they seem to have been done better by David Lynch in Mulholland Drive. The fantasy and fantastic elements are effectively (if not redundantly) rendered, but the stronger elements are always in the reality, the reflections of the creative process. Here, the narrator reflects on painting:
“An image of color I should add came to me… the color was like that of a tree with its green leaves dully dyed by rain. I mixed several colors together and created what I wanted… even if it doesn’t turn out as a portrait… I could think about the next step later on… like a child, not watching his step…”
It’s in this mix of realism and outlandish, redundant magical realism for the sake of it that will test the readers’ patience. Murakami’s novels and stories are resplendent with everyday sensations: rain, swimming, cool jazz and rich Italian dinners. A common theme for all his characters has been escaping from the despair of their lives, one way or another, by any means necessary. For our narrator the goal is to embrace “…the courage not to fear a change in one’s lifestyle, the importance of having time on your side.” The problem with Killing Commendatore is that Murakami starts not only with the assumption that we’ll have unlimited patience, but also that time is never of the essence. This is a typically thick Murakami novel, but the Bad Sex element is problematic and the unwillingness to tame the trademark Murakami fantasy in favor of more poetic realism is frustrating. The stale repetitive transitions can only suggest that a series of carefully rendered graphic novel adaptations will be a better way to adapt this story and trim some of the more unfortunate plot elements.