Thursday, March 25, 2010

Book Review Revisited: Ryu Murakami, In the Miso Soup (1997)

I recently reread Ryu Murakami's
In the Miso Soup, which I reviewed here in October 2008. Here is what I said in that review:
In the Miso Soup reminded me quite a bit of Gil Brewer's classic A Killer Is Loose (1954). Both books are narrated by an Ordinary Guy whose fate becomes entangled with that of a Roaming Homicidal Maniac. Both Brewer and Ryu Murkami invite readers to partcipate in Ordinary Guy's attempts to make sense of Roaming Homicidal Maniac, though in the case of Murakami, there is just as much time spent with Roaming Homicidal Maniac trying to make sense of himself. And this leads to my major complaint about In the Miso Soup: I have no problem in theory with books that become increasingly ponderous as they progress, but in this case that pondorousness comes at the expense of nearly everything else. The climax of the novel, such as it is, consists of Roaming Homicidal Maniac blathering on about his life story for 25 pages or so. And that's not much of a climax. Grade: C+
The occasion for my second reading was teaching the novel in a class on American and Japanese noir. Though I think this novel is far from perfect (obviously, given my original review), it nevertheless did seem perfect for this course, which is, in part, an examination of the congruences and differences between American and Japanese cultures, as seen through the lens of noir. In the Miso Soup seemed ideal for this purpose because the novel's Roaming Homicidal Maniac is an American who is (literally) cutting a swath through Tokyo, and the cultural issues raised by an American serial killer in Japan are never far from the forefront of the narrative.

On the whole, my second reading of the novel deepened my appreciation of Murakami's work, as sometimes happens when I have to reread a novel and think about it for the first time as a teacher. Ironically, this is the opposite experience from that which students have traditionally reported in English classes down through the ages: "I liked reading the book, but then when we had to sit in class and analyze it, that just ruined it for me." Responses like this tend to be driven by two factors: (1) bad teachers and (2) students who prefer not to think about what they read. Regarding the second, such students tend to resent even more strongly being made to think about
movies, which to them can be sacrosanct to the point that analysis seems a betrayal of the spirit and purpose of filmmaking. ("Why are we trying to find things in movies that aren't really there? Movies are just made for entertainment!") In any case, I hope that I'm managing at least not to ruin anything for my students. In the case of Murakami, Japanese culture is just alien enough to them that the act of analysis perhaps seems worthwhile. Whether I ruined Charles Williams for them, though, is another matter entirely. . . .

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