Saturday, June 21, 2014

Review: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

I started reading Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991) because I really loved Murakami's Norwegian Wood (2000). Honestly, that book devastated me it was so sad. Very Japanese. It was Murakami's only "realism" novel. I became a Murakami fan right away. Not sure if there is a term for us - perhaps minikami, or kamikaze. I read the free Kindle sample a few years ago and loved the opening, my first taste of Murakami in his element. So about a month ago, I started Hard-Boiled. (I read several books at the same time because I get bored, or maybe it's some mild version of ADD.) Here's my review - of course, there are spoilers.

First, some background on Murakami and the novel. The book was originally published in Japanese in 1985. It is Murakami's fourth published novel. It was translated into English in 1991 by Alfred Birnbaum, whose fluid translations I tend to favor over the more logical ones of Jay Rubin, translator of Norwegian Wood, for instance.

There are really, appropriately, two stories here. The first, Hardboiled Wonderland, is about a hardboiled data analyst who gets sucked into this strange and, at times, incredible infowar, involving weird fish-insect-things called INKlings; Semiotics; Calcutecs; an disinterested, genius old scientist; and his chubby granddaughter. The other is set in a timeless landscape called the End of the World, filled with unicorns, a giant enclosing wall, a Gatekeeper, and a talking shadow. The two represent not only the duality of death and perpetual life but also the conscious mind and mindless existence.

The stories are beautiful, but, of course, the sum is greater than the parts. By the end of both, I was struck by an overwhelming feeling of appreciation for life, which was nice because for most of the book I was horrified by the idea of the protagonist being trapped in a mindless eternity. It made me think a lot about death. I mean, at some point we're all gonna die. Sorry. It sucks. But it seems remote, distant. However, for the protagonist, it's very real: he finds out he's going to die in about two days. Most people would freak out, I think. But he doesn't really seem to care too much. At least, that's how it comes across. But when we read his final day, I, at least, am struck by his appreciation for the little things. He eats popcorn, feeds the pigeons, listens to Bob Dylan, and lies back in his car in the sun. Of course, there's one other thing he does: he makes a real human connection with the librarian. Call it love or whatever, it was real emotion, human to human. And that's what makes eternity livable for him, that he has a piece of her mind with him always. They are memories. No one can take them away from us. No one can take away how someone else makes us feel and the connections we've made with people - because, really, that's the only thing that matters. Everything else collects dust and withers, forever lost, to be washed away by rain.

It also made me think about the possibility of living forever. That's the nature of the End of the World, an artificial place created in the protagonist's mind. Having lost his mind, the protagonist is essentially stuck there without death, without life - only existence. What could make something like that livable? There are plenty of people predicting immortality for humans in the future. In fact, at the very end, the Old Man's granddaughter says she's going to freeze the protagonist's body after he dies - hopefully, so he can live forever in the future. This element is not simply made up. Cryogenics is a real field of science, and there have already been plenty of people who have signed up and who have been frozen with the hope of being resurrected in the future. I've wondered myself if that is a good thing, or would I just prefer to die. Here's the dilemma: I'm afraid to die and I'm afraid of living forever. But one of these is going to happen for sure no matter what - there's no escape. But reading this book, it made me realize that both are OK. They're only unpleasant if you make them. No one will force you to live forever. And if you're a believer, or if you plan on freezing yourself, or if you follow Raymond Kurzweil's ideas, then you might not necessarily die. If life is pleasant, then live in the moment. Don't think about a thousand years from now. A thousand years from now doesn't exist. Live one day at a time. And as far as dying goes, it's your escape, or your final act, if you wish. If you feel like you lived a good life and you're satisfied, than why not end? It seems like the natural thing to do.

Overall, yes, I would recommend this book to the kamikaze out there. It's highly entertaining and hilarious. I didn't know Murakami was this funny. If you love science fiction or fantasy, each story has one of these elements, then you're very likely to love this book. If you like Japanese literature, you'll like this, too. (Murakami has been known to be more "Western" in his writing style than traditionally Japanese, but I always find him to be a balanced blend, maintaining a Japanese identity with his Japanese themes of suffering and compassion while appealing to Westerners with his humor, taste for speculative adventure, and focus on individualism.)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Goals for Writing Sessions

There are essentially three ways of prioritizing your writing sittings. Mostly, I hear of two of them only, forming a binary that is hard to escape from mentally. What are they?

The first is to orientate your sittings around the goal of word count. That is, every day or every week, maybe every month, you have a certain word count you want to achieve, say 2,000 words a day or 10,000 words per week. The pros are that this gives you a real result that can't be faked. (I suppose you could just type "blah blah blah" over and over again - but really who does that?) This goal also gives you a lot of flexibility. You could hammer out all the words in a few minutes, depending on the gaol, and then be free most of the day - the best part about being a writer! Or you could write and then return later after a break. What's also good about this technique is that it gives the writer an incentive to, well, write. This is often the hardest part about, uh, writing - putting words down. We often filter ourselves, demanding perfection or something damn well near it. But it also makes us reluctant to write anything down. This idea, at least, seems to free us from that perfectionist filter.

Now the cons. For me, I spend most of my time editing or coming up with different scenarios or restructuring or developing characters and so on. This unfortunately doesn't count. Or if it did - if I counted the words added to, say, character sheets or an outline, it would be very frustrating because I often delete a lot and then add a lot, delete and then add. In fact, I'm a strong proponent of Hemingway's iceberg theory, basically that the more you take out from a story, assuming it's unimportant, the stronger it becomes. So I delete a lot. I'm also not very verbose - something else that I've learned from Hemingway and others. I don't slow sentences or scenes down - unless for some effect. So, although this principle adds a lot of words, which can then be deleted later, I fear that I would be wasting a lot of time because a) I need a lot of time to develop characters, the scenery, the plot, etc. and b) I would develop threads of story that are spur of the moment and not well thought out.

The other main way writers tend to orientate their sittings is with a time goal. Maybe you write for two hours a day, if you're the busy type, or twenty-five hours a week. Again, there's a lot of flexibility here because you can complete those hours whenever you feel like it - all in one sitting or throughout the day whenever you have time. The idea behind this way of thinking I think is quantity over quality. I personally have been using this strategy as of late because of the aforementioned writing habits of mine. I do favor this over the former approach because I think that any time spent thinking, structuring, tinkering, and/or writing should count.

However, there is one significant drawback: wasting time. I've often been tempted to sit there and do nothing or prolong the process simply to meet my time quota. Yes, there are ways of preventing this sort of thing on a conscious level - by keeping a timer, for instance. However, the important point is not to have that incentive at all - because, at some point, subconsciously, you are going to be influenced by it, and time is, almost undoubtedly, the single most important aspect of a writer's life.

There must be a better way. For me, I think I've found one, though some may argue it is a variant of the time goal. What works best for me is to write based on specific goals per session - that is, to finish some segment, a sizable chunk, of story or novel per day. It depends on where you're at in the writing process. If you're editing, as I often am (I'm on the fifth draft of my first short novel), then you goal might be to finish editing one chapter a day. If you're writing an outline, then maybe your specific goal is to write a general outline of the whole novel by the end of the day. Then it might be to do a more specific outline for each chapter per day. Not only does this approach afford you flexibility - you after all know what you can accomplish per day or per week - but it gives you tangible results. It works well for me, pushing me while letting me know I'm making progress. The only drawback is that you have to set the right specific goal: it has to be specific, challenging but doable. That is how you grow as a writer - or, as everyone else seems to call it, waste time. Speaking of that, I'm done. For now.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Short Story: A World Inside

My short story "A World Inside" is now up at Piker Press. I wrote it while completing my MFA program at City. So, it's about my early failures at writing. We all have to face our faults, one way or another. This one's a little depressing, but I was feeling a little dark at the time. I'm happy now, I swear.