Murakami Haruki: The Simulacrum in Contemporary Japanese Culture, by Michael R. Seats, 2006, 384 pp., $70 (cloth)

Haruki Murakami’s novels have much in common with potato chips. Both are often addictive and both are often ultimately unsatisfying. Yet one can’t help but buy another bag of chips at the supermarket and another Murakami novel at the bookstore. Such is his appeal.

Potato chips contain few surprises, and the author’s tales are at once predictable and surreal — an anonymous narrator, whose knowledge of jazz and classical music approaches that of the idiot savant, chronicles the minutiae of his daily routine of brewing coffee, drinking beer and making pasta while mulling his alienated state. Then he gets a strange message or urge and embarks on a bizarre quest, involving mysterious characters, for some trifle like a pinball machine or an odd sheep. When the adventure is over, there is no grand resolution. In the end, his musings tend to hang together like a line of laundry drying in the wind. And that’s that.

Until the next bag of chips.

Of course, Murakami’s oeuvre is far more than a mere amuse-gueule. His stories have been described as mesmerizing, offbeat and effortlessly readable, and have also tapped into a fundamental desire in readers. What else can explain his stratospheric success in Japan and overseas as the country’s greatest literary export?

Michael Seats, a lecturer at City University of Hong Kong, notes this runaway success is a “Murakami Phenomenon” of marketing and media. His scholarly study “Haruki Murakami: The Simulacrum in Contemporary Japanese Culture” attempts to situate that popularity in the context of current cultural forms of representation in Japan. Seats points out that there have been only a handful of long critical studies of Murakami in English.

While his rigorously argued text forms a valuable addition to the academic discourse, it is sadly abstruse and generally impenetrable to the layman. Unless you’re familiar with Kantian aesthetics and postmodern critical theory, much of this book will be incomprehensible.

This is regrettable because many fans of Murakami’s vexing fiction would appreciate Seats’ insightful analysis. Indeed, scholars such as Matthew Strecher have tried to produce accessible yet serious critical writing on it that goes beyond the average magazine article.

Seats would rather maintain a scholarly discourse. His argument is that Murakami’s oeuvre attacks Japanese literary modernity by showing that the concept of the narrative subject (as in the Japanese “I-novel” of first-person development) is untenable, and that representation itself is fraught with difficulty.

Murakami has waged a critique of traditional notions of meaning and identity in the Japanese novel, deploying a range of literary modalities such as allegory, pastiche and metafiction. Seats frames his analysis with a familiar postmodern idea: the simulacrum as developed by Jean Baudrillard, who described our world as a plethora of copies and signs whose originals and meanings have been lost.

For instance, Seats suggests that Murakami’s “Pinball, 1973” (1985) is not simply a nostalgic search for a particular pinball machine that the narrator played obsessively; it is its own simulacrum and allegory, one in which vanished commodities stand in for the unspoken deaths of loved ones. The narrator’s inability to express this loss, which is also a collective loss of Japanese modernity, is symptomatic of the postmodern destruction of “referential meaning,” as Seats suggests.

Though a thorough grounding in critical theory is required for readers, Seats’ study is a provocative analysis of Murakami through the lens of the simulacrum. While Murakami is a deeply affective mirror of postmodern malaise, his work has also helped expand critical thinking about contemporary Japanese literature. If nothing else, Seats makes a convincing argument that there is far more than meets the eye in Murakami’s fiction. Exasperating, mundane, yet shocking, it’s the perfect stuff for a postmodern addiction.

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