Friday, July 12, 2013

Popular Hits of the Showa Era

      Okay, the rundown is as follows: This is a wonderful satire of two groups of disaffected people who somehow find their way in the world through karaoke and murdering each other. While this is well-written, it's more about the relationships between the two groups, whose dwindling members are experiencing life and bringing each other closer by slowly picking off the other side. The murders are a very small part of it. The characters are overly-cartoonish and sociopathic, but if you can get beyond that, then there's a rich, very twisted comedy hiding between these covers, and one I suggest people read.

           On the other hand, the characters are all cartoonish sociopaths with no real moral compass, the novel doesn't give us anyone to root for on either side, and the whole thing seems a little too over-the-top for its own good. It's like a roadrunner cartoon disguised as social satire. When the devastating consequences of the actions taken in the book finally come to a head in the final chapters, it comes as something of a shock-- no one's really been chastised for their behavior before now, they've merely existed in a cartoon, and to suddenly have psychological and physical consequences reached at that point kind of seems needlessly cruel. Even for characters as unsympathetic as this.

            But in the end, I enjoyed it. As nasty and twisted as it was, it's an interesting way of looking at the social issues in an urban environment, and a good satire of those "life-affirming" books where the heroes are brought closer together by some kind of event. Also, I didn't quite see the ending coming, and that's always a plus as far as I'm concerned. More as always, this time with spoilers, below.

"Dumkopf! We blow them all up!"

              The first time I found this book, I was in Honolulu. I'd thought about picking it up, as it was about karaoke and my "release valve" at the time was to get drunk, headbang a lot, and sing karaoke to songs by She Wants Revenge and A Perfect Circle. I debated picking it up, but eventually dawdled and settled for the ebook copy. Which I then proceeded not to read anyway, as there was too much going on for me to settle down* and read many books. When I came home, I couldn't find the book at any libraries nearby, and got into my usual pattern of reading books for the purposes of review, rather than reading books for pleasure and then reviewing them after I finished them. But eventually, the library furthest from my house finally came through, giving me ample opportunity to pick it up and finally, finally read the damn thing. And it, it's not the book I expected, but it's still an amazing book.

                Popular Hits of the Showa Era follows six young men, all with personalities somewhere between cartoon characters and outright sociopaths as they engage in several nights of partying and singing karaoke. The festivities begin one night when, during the nightly party (an event where everyone brings snacks and hangs out with each other, lost in their own little worlds), a woman begins undressing at her window in full view of the group. This, for some reason, energizes the group and brings them closer together, and that night they give an energetic karaoke performance on the beach near their hometown of Chofu City. With the new energy and feeling the group has, one of the members becomes so invigorated that when he goes off alone to walk home, he stops along the way to slice a woman's throat and leave her to die. 

 And then things get weird. Um...weirder. 

             The woman, an unmarried middle-aged woman named Midori, was part of a similar group of six thirtysomething women called the "Midori Society" for their shared first name. Upon discovering that one of their number was killed by a young man, the five of them carefully plot and execute their revenge, At the same time, the young man is celebrating with his five friends, telling them he feels like a real urban hunter for slicing this woman's throat. The two groups collide over a series of eye-for-an-eye murders, each death bringing the surviving group members closer together, their karaoke nights turning into both parties and war councils as they plot the demise of whoever killed their friends. This culminates in an impossible and ridiculous finale that I really don't want to ruin for you, but let's just say that you can eventually see it coming and it's so absurd that it belongs in a cartoon more than any book. 

             But the book isn't really about that. It's about how these people are brought closer together and how their own bizarre insularity and antisocial tendencies eventually cause catastrophe. The book plays out as some twisted life-affirming bonding scenario where the groups come closer together over hating and murdering the hell out of each other until it reaches a certain boiling point and the whole odd structure comes tumbling down. It's less about a series of murders set to catchy pop tracks sung by amateurs, and more a critique on society. And at its core, it's about severely damaged people who come together...and really perhaps shouldn't be coming together. And Murakami knows just how to make it interesting.

              I suppose the thing I like most about this book is once again the feel. Murakami's good at doing a feeling, and he keeps the tone just on the side of terrible to know that what these people are doing is very, very wrong, but also just enough that we enjoy it. It's like some kind of demented cartoon, a kind of literary Love Your Neighbor. The characters are all kinds of demented, and as their numbers dwindle they get more and more grotesque and cartoonish. Even the book itself contorts to fit its protagonists, becoming more and more of a parody of the kind of books one might find. A continuing segment about a young woman who sees ghosts becomes a running gag about a wall that the young men feel supernaturally compelled to urinate upon. A character described as having a "terrifying face" causes characters to react with petrifying levels of fear. And of course, the ending mirrors a final burst of explosive mania, the characters' emotions finally coming to a head and destroying everything around them because they couldn't control them. And one of my favorite scenes occurs when the protagonists go to buy a gun to take out one of the Midoris, and go to a hardware store where a man tells them he's only selling them a gun because they're "the right kind of people". 

                The imagery also supports the tone and feel of the book. At first, the images are somewhat basic...the first two murders, while unusual in their execution, are sparsely described. The later murders escalate, and are described in loving detail. Both the young men and the Midoris are described in such a way that they feel more like people wearing exaggerated masks than actual humans, which helps lessen the blow of the gruesome things the two groups do and say. There's a much-needed air of detachment around the imagery, but at the same time it manages to be fairly visceral and disturbingly graphic, sometimes even pairing romantic inclinations with the violent intents of its inhabitants. 

              And finally, the themes and the way Murakami conveys them are also excellent. In the book, without giving too much away, Murakami manages to poke fun at both the disaffected nature of urban life, and the generation gap, all while using cartoons and tropes to further his goals. At one point, the Midoris discriminate against recurring character Junior College Girl simply because she's young, saying that she's probably promiscuous, just because she's younger than them. Similarly, the young men discriminate against the older women, thinking because they're in their thirties and alone, they must desperately need men (to their credit, the Midoris aren't really helping the case that they don't). It's no mistake that an older man gives the younger men their Tokarev for the book's third kill because "They look like nice young men" (para.). Even the last kill is motivated a little by youth-- the surviving young men launch one last all-or-nothing attack on their enemies. It's this attention to the point he wants to bring across-- all while telling a good story, mind-- that pushes Murakami that little extra ways over the edge. 

             But the book is not without its faults. The disjointed narrative and occasional magical realism most of Murakami's works suffer from is here in force, and the ending, where realistic trauma suddenly ensues on the part of the survivors, followed once again by an over-the-top climax, feels a little like cheating. Also, both sides get off far too easy, as their seemingly premeditated acts of violence are carried out with very little thought to getting caught. The ending leaves very little resolved, preferring to end on simply a shrug and a question when it should have had a more resolute statement. 

              But in the end, those aren't the point. The point of the book is the struggle, the journey, not the destination. Wanting a resolution in a Ryu Murakami book kind of seems like the wrong thing to do, honestly, and the book, despite its minor stumbles, is quite good. If you have some time, get this out of the library or inter-library loan it. It may not be worth buying after a read, but it's at least interesting enough to deserve a look.

Damned by Chuck Palahniuk

Invisible Monsters: Remix by Chuck Palahniuk

Donnybrook by Frank Bill
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
Drood by Dan Simmons



*I still have to reread and possibly finish the review of The Pilo Family Circus at some point. 

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