"A Shinagawa Monkey" by Haruki Murakami

New Yorker fiction -- February 13 & 20, 2006 issue

yellow light
Whatever Haruki Murakami has been smoking, I'd like a case of it sent to Earth Goat for "testing." This is another of his curious modern folktales/fairy tales/magic realist stories. I'm not sure what to make of it. I had no idea there were wild monkeys in Japan, let alone marauding troops of them. But this seems to be the case. As the article states,

Monkeys have long been a problem in rural Japan, where they damage crops, swipe food from grocery stalls and even bite humans. Rising monkey populations have prompted more frequent forays out of the forests and into farms and towns.... The monkeys, a species of macaque, are one of the most common wild mammals in Japan.

Murakami takes this phenomenon to another level, in which monkeys have become like leprechauns or elves, who steal personal items from folks and explain themselves when captured. A fairly cool idea. My problem is that the idea is not really developed in an innovative way, but rather trotted & plotted out by rote, in nice prose (do we thank Murakami or the translator, Philip Gabriel?), leading to a pretty standard denouement. In fact, it ends like a cliche detective story, with the seized culprit confessing, asking for mercy, a good cop and bad cop (literally hitting his own palm softly with a nightstick) standing by, and the innocent but likeable victim getting to press the perp for details and tie up all the loose ends. You wouldn't have to change much for this to be an episode of "Columbo" or "Scooby Doo." And that can't be totally a good thing.

Still, though, there was something about it, having to do with the deadpan treatment of impossible events, that I found appealing. To me, Murakami is a very good writer who hasn't found the perfect vehicle for his talent yet. Something worthwhile is being orbited in his stories. Maybe he finds the mark in one or more of his seven novels, but I wouldn't know because I haven't read them. If anyone has, I'd be interested to hear more about them.


C. Max said...

I've only read a couple of his novels (and not Wind-Up Bird Chronicle which many say is his best), but of the ones I've read, Norwegian Wood is excellent in that Murakami doesn't let his wacky surrealism take center stage. Instead, he uses it more to set the mood in what is otherwise a pretty standard coming of age story. (But, of course, I'm a sucker for coming of age stories.)

Grendel said...

Thanks, c. max. Maybe I'll pick up Wind-Up Bird or Norwegian Wood and have a look. NW sounds similar to this story, in that the magic part is kind of background. Like, why does this have to be a monkey? The monkey says he's forced to go undergound and is driven by need to steal stuff. But it could easily be a poor person or something and make the same point.

kclou said...

Okay, I've always received an Emperor's New Clothes vibe from Murakami.

I've read his novels, I've taught his novels, I've read his stories, and he consistently disappoints. I've given him many more chances than I give most writers because so many people whom I respect like him so much. I don't get it. His last story in Harpers (this was, I think, over the summer) was so lame I literally (if melodramatically) hurled the magazine across the room, swearing off the man for good. Maybe it's a translation issue. No idea.

I've considered in the past making this a full post--writers who elicit an Emperor's New Clothes feeling in others--but this is easier.

C. Max said...

I don't know if I'd say that Murakami constantly disappoints, but, for a writer as famous as he is, he is incredibly uneven. Some of his stories are fantastic, but others are so bad I have to think they only get published because the New Yorker is somehow obligated to publish several Murakami stories a year. In particular, I'm thinking of that ridiculous "Spaghetti" story from a few months back.

SER said...

I tend to like Murakami's novels but almost always (and perhaps actually always) dislike his short stories. I believe I had this discussion with Sam and Lila, and one of them (I think) summed it up by saying that he's kind of a lazy writer. That seemed to capture it for me. Even though I like his novels (esp. "Hard-Boiled Wonderland & The End of the World," as well as "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle"), I think they're somewhat lazy - it's just that you can get away with that more in a novel. His novels strike me as imaginative, charming, and engrossing, whereas his stories often feel gimmicky and shallow to me.

Interestingly, I find that while both of the novels I refer to above have somewhat unsatisfying endings, I am much more willing to forgive this deficiency than I am in other books. I guess it's because their imaginativeness and charm still outweighs the diappointing endings in my mind, and I find that I still think of them very fondly, even though the endings didn't live up to what preceded them.

SER said...

Please ignore multiple typos and violations of grammar in the above post.

kclou said...

I agree with SER (and Sam/Lila) on the lazy note. The charm that SER is talking about--and many others feel--is just absent for me. Imaginative, certainly, but lacking in charm (and substance). This is why Murakami and I had to break up: the spark was missing.

End0fTheWor1d said...

Ever since I read Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, I was hooked on Murakami's work. It is by far the best and most thought-provoking book I have ever read, and it astounds me that Murakami wrote it in 1984, the same year I was born. Every book I have read since then of his hasn't been as good, to me at least, but they have all captivated me. He may not be the most consistent writer, but it is obvious, and clear, that he is a great one. Haruki Murakami for life!

Ryan said...

I'd just like to recommend to everyone Murakami's work of non-fiction, "Underground," which is his best work to date. I never was a fan of his until I read this, and now I'm rereading all of his earlier works with the realization that what he explores in "Underground" is exactly what he is exploring in all his other works. -Renaldo, www.beholdmyswarthyface.com

Chuck McMahon said...

Monkeys are a frequent visitor in Japanese proverbs: "Saru mo ki kara ochiru" is a common phrase -- "monkeys also fall from trees" -- used to express how even professionals can fail. There are also expressions for cleverness -- people literally taking on the disguise of monkeys is the proverb.

I have to admit that knowing this, I was still initially taken aback by the appearance of a talking monkey in this story. Then I bridled at the idea of an easy metaphor -- a monkey on one's back.

But ultimately, since the story had more to do with analysis than it did (literally) with monkeys, I bought the monkey -- mostly as an invocation of Jung. In "The Phenomenology of the Spirit in Fairytales," Jung speaks of how the old man appears (or leprechaun, or whatever) when the protagonist is at a crossroads. What is important is not that a monkey is stealing name tags, but that a woman comes to the root of her problem -- that she was not loved and consequently that she does not love. This is by no means an easy task to bring out in any story without sounding like Rod McKuen (who apparently wrote his own Wikipedia entry --check it out). But through the device of the monkey, somehow this revelation can be made without scraping the syrup of the page.

I will admit that I read all Murakami's work. I started with "Norwegian Wood" first and loved it. "Kafka on the Shore" is probably the most satisfying. So I am, more or less, a fan. Having spent some time in Japan, I will also add that it is culturally a very different place (if I can state the obvious) and therefore the milieu from which these novels gestate, despite the surface of western intelligibility, is also not available in translation. One always hopes that what's valuable in a work of literature will transcend its place of birth; but when I read "emperor's new clothes" critiques, I am compelled to wonder if it's a lazy writer or a lazy reader.