A Look At The First 3 Chapters of Murakami’s New Novel, Killing Commendatore

Last Friday, after work, I met my wife at a bar for a drink and cheese. Out of nowhere, she told me she had bought me a book. The new Haruki Murakami novel, though she didn’t know what it was called. She really bought it because it was the only way for her to get a tote bag that she liked which depicts a black cat (like our own black cat) reading a copy of the new book, Killing Commendatore. First, I was thrilled to have the book, and second, my wife loves totes. She probably has about fifteen of them of them. It drives me crazy. “…they’re in my tote,” she tells me when I’m looking for her keys so I can take the car and make a milk run.

My eyebrows raise. “Which tote?”

Things have disappeared. Things have materialized in those totes. Trust me.

See the source imageAnyway, I eagerly sat down with Murakami’s new book and started to read. At first, I was a little put-off. Many of the themes and ideas in this new book are similar to those found in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and while that is one of my favorite books ever, I want to see one of my favorite authors do something new. He did.

I’ve only read the first three chapters (as well as the prologue) because I couldn’t quite tell what Murakami was doing with the chronology of his piece. He has a collection of themes he introduces all of which take place in a different time frame, all in the past, but some more so and some less. I was wondering if there was any kind of rhyme or reason to it. It was clear to me that the narration was leapfrogging through time, then taking a step back, then leapfrogging again. If that sounds confusing, it is. I read chapter 3 last night and then sat down and made a graphic organizer so I could understand what Murakami was doing with time. Here’s a simplified version of what I thought was going on.

Leap frog_ Killing Commendatore

That probably seems confusing. It is, and furthermore, I don’t it’s this systematic. But what I’m trying to get to is that each scene is pushing the story forward, then picking up somewhere in the past, i.e. in between scenes or ideas that you’ve already heard about. Sometimes the narrator even repeats the scene and ideas and some of the same words as the first time you’ve read it.

Below is a table I made to organize my understanding of this book–or at least the first 3 chapters of it, I didn’t even take the prologue into account. I likely will at some point.

COLOR CODED KEY:

Green = Concerning anything the narrator did once he first got to the mountain house.

Brown = Anything about his wife wanting to separate.

Yellow = Anything to do with teaching painting and sleeping with married women.

Light Blue = Anything that came before the immediate story, i.e. flashbacks.

Dark Blue = Anything to do with the narrator trying to escape his own situation.

Red = Anything to do with the narrator leaving his past behind.
Killing CommendatoreAs you can see, the top table is the way this information is presented in the book, the bottom table is the chronology of when and what happens. You may notice that ideas are touched on twice. For instance, the wife tells the narrator she wants a divorce twice, not literally twice, but the narrator tells us twice in vastly different spots in the book. Four sections separate that once instance told twice. More extreme is the fact that he brings up sleeping with two married women who he taught art to in the fourth section, but also in the fifteenth section.

the lack of chronology in this piece makes me think the time isn’t of much import to the narrator, though to the author it was obviously of much importance, as he took a lot of time to mix the timeline up so much.

I’m thinking I will continue this timeline and color-coded method throughout the book. I’m expecting to see a pattern of some kind, but I’ll just have to read on and see.

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On Narration

Yesterday I had a long Twitter conversation with Ann Leckie, author of Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy. This was a privilege in and of itself, and I am amazed she took so much time out of her day to have such a discussion. The discussion was on omniscient narration, both the pitfalls and the perks of the construct.

In this discussion we touched on the aspect of tension in fiction, and more importantly, in F&SF. I mention that I thought a lot of tension comes from the concealment of knowledge from the writer. Leckie, on the other hand shot this idea down. She said that tension comes from caring.

 

But then–that brings up how caring about a desired outcome works at all. If you’re told the story is a happy story from the very beginning and that everything ends up alright–how can you care about the actions in between the beginning and the end of the story.

This is the difficulty in writing with an omni narrator. It is more difficult to discern the information that the reader needs, from what they want, to the effect it has. I’m not saying writer’s shouldn’t use it, I’m saying it needs to be done with extreme care.

I think this is especially true for F&SF genres, that the “what happens next?” question is so important that if it’s given away by, lets say, an omniscient narrator, it dispels all tension. I can only relate it to watching a soccer game I already know the results of. It’s a total snoozefest and I’ll turn it off, or put down the book.

Of course, this is omniscient narration at its worst. There are ways to preserve tension with it. It’s just difficult to do.

Of course omniscient narrators don’t always ruin the plot for readers. Tolkien wrote LoTR with an omniscient narrator and it works great. But the largest issue I find in omni narration is the distance it builds between the characters and the reader. As soon as the narrator describes something that the protagonist(s) don’t know or couldn’t see–it removes me, as a reader, from the experience, and instead I feel like an observer, not so much within the story. And this can remind me that I’m sitting on my couch instead of actually living through the adventure. Like Leckie I think tension comes from an investment in characters, and if I don’t feel intrinsically connected to those characters because I’m being taken on a journey away from them to see events unfold that they can’t know about it’s easy for me to feel as though the actions of those characters are stupid because, with the information I have, I’d do something else. But since the characters don’t have that information we can’t experience the same thing, and so I’m not as connected as I want to be or should be. And this is why omni narration is so, so difficult to pull off.

Charity by Charles Baxter (Fiction Breakdown)

It’s been months since I’ve posted any news. But for those at all interested, I’m alive and well. I believe I am nearing the time at which I will be more consistent with my blogging, as it is something I enjoy greatly, though once I return I am afraid it will probably be a weekly practice rather than daily. I simply have other obligations.

For this entry, I’d like to share a breakdown of a short story I read just yesterday. This kind of breakdown is something that was introduced to me by one of the faculty in my MFA program, and if this feels a little too MFA-ish than it’s probably because it is. For those who enjoy dissecting fiction, for those who seek to understand why it works, and why it is or is not fulfilling, read on.

I’ll start with this graphic I created (I apologize for the resolution):

Charity by Charles Baxter (BASS 2014)

 

Base Situation:

The story starts with Quinn newly arrived in the United States after some time spent in Ethiopia. While he was squeaky clean before he picked up some type of contagious arthritis, and though he’s in some trouble now, he still thinks he’ll find his way out. That’s where he is physically. Emotionally, he’s optimistic about his boyfriend whom he met while abroad. They are separated by distance.

Initial Event (or Inciting Incident):

This puts the story in full motion–sure you could argue that the inciting incident is Quinn’s contraction of the arthritis, but that’s summed up so quickly in the piece, I don’t see the story starting until he runs out of painkillers and has to visit a drug dealer in a shady bar.

Conflict:

The visit to the drug dealer spawns conflict, as Quinn doesn’t have money enough to pay for the painkillers he needs to feel human. As a result of this he mugs someone in the middle of the night. Once he takes the painkillers Quinn understands how much shit he’s in.

And this is where the whole story goes sideways–the reader hasn’t actually been in Quinn’s PoV at all. We’ve been listening to someone named Harry tell the story of what he’s been able to put together of what happened to Quinn. Oh, and Harry is Quinn’s boyfriend. So Suddenly the reader takes a step back and there is another. . .

Initial Event (or Inciting Incident):

. . . but this time the inciting incident spurs Harry on within the story, because quite suddenly, Quinn disappears.

Now, I think this is what makes this story tick. Both Harry and Quinn feel like very real, very complex humans because we see an inciting incident for both of them, which makes readers think about inciting incidents for everyone in a fictional world. Stories are happening everywhere and this piece hints that inciting incidents aren’t isolated. The whole world is ruled by cause and effect.

S0. When Quinn disappears Harry takes up the story in his attempts to find his beloved. We get a scene of Quinn when he was well, and why Harry falls in love with him–important backstory. Because we’ve already seen Quinn fall, this flashback is in place of the rising action of the story. It builds tension like few backstories I’ve ever seen, because we feel and see the love Harry has for Quinn and we want Quinn to be okay.

Climax:

In response to Quinn’s Disappearance Harry goes and confronts the drug dealer that Quinn had gone to see. It’s a tense moment because we don’t know how the drug dealer will take to a gay man asking questions–but in due course we find that Harry is pretty bad ass.

Critical Moment:

Following the drug dealers tip, Harry finds Quinn completely out of his mind near the river. This is a critical moment because it is in this moment that Harry realizes that Quinn is a different person than the one he fell in love with. He wishes Quinn was his old self, but he suspects that’s impossible.

Falling Action:

Harry returns to the drug dealer and beats the him up for what he had done to Quinn–getting him addicted to painkillers. Then Harry takes Quinn to Seattle and gets him on his feat. At this moment readers wonder if Harry can learn to love the real Quinn; the one that exists now.

Resolution:

Quinn attends meetings for addiction. He and Harry talk all the time. Harry has Quinn over for dinner and Quinn says some things that make Harry realize that Quinn doesn’t believe he’ll ever be good or whole again. There’s no “recovered” from something like this just “recovering” forever.

Quinn brings it full circle by invoking an Ethiopian toast, by upending a drink on the floor. Harry does the same–the toast is one that is given to signify leaving the past behind. For the two characters here, it signifies leaving their old selves behind–and once and for all, Harry understands he can’t ever go back to loving Quinn.

That’s my breakdown of this story–if you are interested in reading it you can find it in The Best American Short Stories 2014, edited by Jennifer Egan. It’s full of great stories, and a couple duds, but what collections aren’t? If you have anything to add, please, leave a comment and I’ll respond promptly.

Happy reading.

A.