On the Globalization of Literature: Haruki Murakami, Tim O’Brien, and Raymond Carver
On the Globalization of Literature: Haruki Murakami, Tim O’Brien, and Raymond Carver
Reiichi Miura considers the worldwide reception of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and charts a course for a fiction where nationalism loses relevance.
Postmodernism of Globalization
I am a teacher of English and American Literature at a university in Japan, and last term I had a class on American Literary History for the undergraduate. Since I was teaching the subject for the first time, in order to check the students’ general knowledge, I asked them to pick out the names of American authors they know. There certainly were Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Yet, there also were such names as Paul Auster, John Irving, Tim O’Brien, Raymond Carver, Richard Powers, Steve Erickson, Steven Millhouser, Stuart Dybek. All of the students mentioned at least one contemporary writer; only about half of them knew the canonical authors. Some Japanese who consider themselves avid fans of American literature recognize Dybek, while I assume that very few students in American literary history in the States know him. When most of Erickson’s books were out of print in English, you were able to find his translation in most of the large bookstores in Japan. Though it is probably not true to say the size of the readership for Erickson is large, a typical Japanese college student recognizes Erickson instead of, say, Hawthorne.
This is surprising and not surprising. For this clearly shows, I believe, a certain notable aspect of how the literature of the United States is introduced, received, and consumed in Japan these days. This literary phenomenon, if I can use this word, has been continuing now for about two decades. Some might be tempted to argue, when baffled by the phenomenon, that the partial knowledge of college kids is owing to the consumerism of the publishing world or cultural industry, but while I agree with the point that this phenomenon is fundamentally interrelated with consumerism, I don’t agree with the opinion that the problem lies exclusively in the publishing world. I use the word phenomenon because the problem does not seem to me to lie in a certain author’s popularity, whether Erickson’s or Hawthorne’s, and neither does it seem in principle to concern specific countries. What is happening here are some deep and irreversible changes in the relation between literature and nationality: profound changes in the aesthetic value of literary text and subsequent changes in its relation to the reader. What causes this is a trend, one might say, of consumerism, but it is not superficial, since it corresponds to the changes in the world system at large.
In this paper, I hope not to make any decision on the value of the changes. I would just like to describe what is happening as impartially as I can. What I am tacitly trying to deal with through the example of my students is the new articulation of postmodernism shown in Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire and what that analysis means to our conception of literary value. To argue this problem more clearly, I’ll now focus on a contemporary Japanese author: Haruki Murakami. He offers to us a typical or even symbolic case for the literary changes that have taken place in the passage from late modernism to postmodernism.
Modern Japanese literature began after the Meiji restoration in 1868. Japanese then eagerly wanted modernization and westernization of the country, and in that process, it was unanimously agreed that modern culture in the Western sense, including literature, should be forged in Japan. So modern Japanese literature had been always trying to learn from a European literature that was (or was supposed to be) more developed and sophisticated; its history is the history of digesting the secret essences of British, German, French, Russian literature. During those years, however, American literature never played the role of Great World Literature to be followed. It was when Murakami appeared in the 1980s that the literature of the United States became the most popular and influential foreign literature in Japan. Murakami is generally regarded as the central figure in the recent boom of contemporary American literature in Japan. Though it seems almost impossible to measure correctly how Murakami is responsible for such a complex phenomenon, I can safely say that Murakami’s popularity and the boom are twin phenomena that can’t be separated from one another.
My students know not classic canons but contemporary works, since American literature has become something cool and fashionable, new and postmodern since Murakami appeared. It has become cool and fashionable because Murakami is new and postmodern. One good example is found in a chain of bookstores which decided the color of the boom. It is called Parco bookstore: Parco is the name of a big department store chain in Japan, which focused exclusively on fashionable garments when it emerged in the 1980s, but then began to sell books. Eventually they began to sell American literature which, in turn, became quite fashionable. The bookstore is located on the top floor, or sometimes the underground floor, of the building that tenants Chanel, Louis-Vitton, Gucci, Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake, Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein. Though I really do not know the equivalent in the States, it is probably as if a bookstore appeared in Barney’s New York. The bookstore allots a very small shelf to traditional Japanese literature and banal everyday books such as how-to’s and self-help’s. Large shelves are given to the translations of foreign literature, mainly American, and probably for the first time in Japan, the translations are put side by side with the original English paperbacks. Parco did good marketing research to find such a large readership for foreign literature, a consumer base whose nature basically coincides with that of American Pop music. The marketing strategy set its focus on youth culture successfully, so that contemporary foreign literature became cool. It’s cool in the sense that to bring the book with a brand outfit is cool; if it’s cool to bring the translation, to bring the English paperback is still cooler, though you might not be able to read it.
This is a cynical and critical description of the phenomenon, where novels are consumed in the same way as pop tunes are. When Murakami seemed to lead the phenomenon, he naturally was often criticized as being a sorry example of cultural colonialism: his popularity being the showcase of Japan’s defeat by American cultural imperialism. What makes Murakami distinguished in the whole history of modern Japanese literature is, however, the newness of his attitude toward foreign - that is, in his case American-literature. As explained above, almost all of modern Japanese novelists found their role model in Great European literature; to speak of colonialism, modern Japanese literature is always colonized from its inception. Murakami by contrast found his colleagues, more or less his equal contemporaries, in the authors in the States. In effect, his literature is regarded from the first as somehow American. Speaking metaphorically, Murakami is a Japanese author who writes American novels. It is only natural that he is regarded as the central figure in Japan’s boom of contemporary American literature.
So what is this “Americaness,” an abstract Americaness that cannot be a matter of locality and cannot be what we usually call cultural identity, either? Murakami was born as a son of teachers of Japanese literature, and he lived in the States only after he established his reputation as novelist. Even so, from the very earliest stage of his career, he started translating Raymond Carver, John Irving, and Tim O’Brien among others. As he says, he was translating F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of his most respected authors, and Truman Capote for his private pleasure before he started writing fiction. Haruki Murakami and Motoyuki Shibata, Honnyaku-yawa (Tokyo: Bungei-shunju, 2000) 56-59. Most notably, as he also says, he wrote his first novel (whose title comes form a passage by Truman Capote), Hear the Wind Sing, partly in English first and then translated it. Ryu Murakami and Haruki Murakami, Walk, Don’t Run: Murakami Ryu vs Murakami Haruki (Tokyo: Kodansha, 1981) 25-26. When he translated Tim O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age later, he wrote:
While translating this, I repeatedly said, “Yes, you are right.” It was as though I were encouraging the author. Naturally, whatever I might say would never reach Mr. O’Brien. And yet, I could not help but keep on saying so: “yes, you’re right.” Haruki Murakami, “Yakusha-Atogaki,” Tim O’Brien, The Nuclear Age, Vol 2, trans Haruki Murakami (Tokyo: Bungei-shunju, 1989) 368. My translation.
Just after Raymond Carver died, the project of The Complete Works of Raymond Carver, all translated by Murakami alone, got underway, so that Japan became the first country to publish the complete works. Of course, Fitzgerald is not Murakami’s contemporary; he treats Fitzgerald as his respectable mentor rather than a literary colleague. But to think of the 80s in Japan, when Murakami established his reputation, as the period when economic prosperity was soaring up incredibly or even ridiculously, we may see what Murakami and the author who coined the term “Jazz Age” share. Murakami’s attitude toward American literature is very peculiar, being different from any preceding Japanese attitude; he finds in the States not his fathers but his brothers, or at least fewer fathers and more brothers, and, in fact, he does not find either of them in Japan. Then what does America mean to him?
I am not arguing here that Murakami and contemporary American authors are reaching equal aesthetic excellence or that Japanese literature at last reached the world-wide standard of literature. Neither, for that matter, am I trying to decide which is better, contemporary Japanese or American literature. What I would like to point out instead is that Murakami’s readership, probably subconsciously, considers Murakami and contemporary American literature to have something in common, and that Murakami himself is also likely to think the same. Yet, the essential factor is not the United States itself. Insofar as what is being argued here causes radical changes in the reception and consumption of literature, the Americanism many think to be found in Murakami is something radically different from what the word traditionally means. Since the terms of colonialism and imperialism are invalid to explain Murakami’s unprecedented relationship with “Americaness,” we must reconsider the idea of nationality on which the ideas of colonialism and imperialism are founded.
The resemblance between the phenomenon I described first and Murakami’s readership makes it clearer that nationality means very little for both Murakami and his readership. He is translated in more than fifteen countries and tremendously popular in some of them. In Italy and Korea, he was repeatedly on the best seller list; in Germany, a prestigious literary review TV program discussed his literary value; in mainland China, his complete works have started being published; and in the States, as you might know, when he was first translated, A Wild Sheep Chase was on the front page of New York Times Book Review, and Jay Rubin, the Harvard professor who is his translator, published a book on him last year. Even in my university, not a few foreign students, mainly from Asia, come to the graduate school to study Murakami.
On the other hand, the resemblance between the phenomenon and Murakami only naturally leads to some distaste for Murakami among traditional academics. For example, as Jay Rubin accurately sums up, Masao Miyoshi
regards Murakami as a cynical entrepreneur who never wrote a word out of such old-fashioned motives as inspiration or inner impulse. To frighten off skittish academics who might be tempted to take Murakami seriously, he warns, “only a very few would be silly enough to get interested in deep reading.” Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words (London: Harvill Press, 2002) 7.
Miyoshi shows the typical late modernist aversion toward Murakami’s literature, which I will discuss further in the next part. He is correct to the degree that to appreciate Murakami necessarily entails revising the meaning of “deep reading.” But if the reason for Murakami’s enormous popularity can be explained simply by his being an “entrepreneur,” we also have to explain how a work attains entrepreneurial success in the global age.
Of course, there have been several Japanese authors who have achieved a more or less world-wide reputation: Soseki Natsume, Junicihiro Tanizaki, Yukio Mishima, and the Nobel award winners Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe. Murakami is exceptional, however, in the sense that those other authors were already domestically considered to be the best when they got their international reputation. They got the chance of translation to begin with because they were seen as the best and representative of the Japanese literary scene. So when they are read in translation, they are supposed to represent Japanese culture: they were the cultural ambassadors of Japan, as it were. They represented nationality - so, I believe, they never gained better evaluation or more readership abroad than at home. Murakami, by contrast, is comparable to the cases of Steve Erickson and Stuart Dybek in the sense that the reception grows regardless of nationality: nationality has become an irrelevant parameter for them.
When being international thus means being freed from domestic limitation, their reception loses its center, making problems even for interpretation: if Murakami is tremendously popular in Italy, at the same time that there exists some antagonism to Murakami’s trendy text in Japan, it actually becomes very difficult to decide whether Japan or Italy appreciates him more. To repeat, I am not trying to fix the true literary value of Murakami. What I rather want to say is that we used to think in principle the domestic evaluation of an author in his home land is the most correct, which logically entails the belief that the original is the most valuable text. But if translation gains more readership and appreciation, how are we able to say that the original is more valuable than the translation? In the appendix of his study on Murakami, Jay Rubin reports Murakami’s global reception and the problems on the accuracy of translation. The controversy in Germany, which was started by the fact that the German edition is a double translation from the American edition, and Murakami’s attitude toward it is quite suggestive for my argument. Rubin, 273-289. We have to say that a new community of interpretation has appeared when we try to appreciate the phenomenal global popularity of Murakami through translations. More significantly, the nature of Murakami’s literature positively commits to this deconstructive waning of the correct (domestic) interpretation. If all art aspires to the condition of music, Murakami writes a novel as if it were a pop tune. Japanese love the Beatles songs even if they do not understand the lyrics.
And it is exactly in this sense that Murakami is seen as a Japanese writer writing American novels: if what his works achieve is international cultural conquest in accordance with globalization, he might as well be seen as rather more “American” than Japanese and still more “American” than some American authors. Of course, the whole irony lies in the fact that his being American here does not entail the commitment to the proper American culture, whatever it is. If he is very much “Americanized,” and if his works are made according to the logic of consumer goods, they are made not for the American market but for the global market, as his international popularity proves. The problem of reception across various countries is certainly not only one of aesthetic values: economic, social and even political factors cannot be neglected. Because of this, I believe, Murakami places his priority on the publication of more translated editions, or on his reaching more and more various audiences, over the accuracy of translation, as is shown in Rubin’s appendix. Not only does this attitude agree with the global nature of his novels, but, I suggest, the commitment to this globality of his effects the development of his theme in the various feedbacks in the informational age. When he writes globalization in the sophisticated form of his allegory, he at the same time is the one who lives in that globalization. Yet, the reason why I believe Murakami - and the American authors he translates, for that matter - exemplifies the postmodern and global condition of literary reception is that his novels aesthetically show what is happening to postmodern literature.
Arguing that postmodernity means the tendential tapering of nationality and national boundaries and the corresponding globalization they call Empire, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri indicate that although postmodernization is apparently led by the hegemony of the United States, it is essentially different from what we used to call Americanization with the implication of cultural colonization. Since the postmodern dominance of Empire means the decline of national sovereignty, the States is no exception; even she is one of many nation-states that are victimized under the Empire:
The United States does not, and indeed no nation-state can today, form the center of an imperial project. Imperialism is over. No nation will be world leader in the way modern European nations were. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 200) xiii-xiv. Further references to this text will appear in the text with parentheses.
According to Hardt and Negri, it is wrong to assume that postmodernity is American in the sense that “modernity was European” (xiii). On the other hand, however, in the section named “Network Power: U.S. Sovereignty and the New Empire,” they offer a detailed reading of the U.S. Constitution to locate the origin of Empire in it: “The contemporary idea of Empire is born through the global expansion of the internal U.S. constitutional project.” They say:
The U.S. Constitution, as Jefferson said, is the one best calibrated for extensive Empire. We should emphasize once again that this Constitution is imperial and not imperialist. It is imperial because (in contrast to imperialism’s project always to spread its power linearly in closed space and invade, destroy, and subsume subject countries within its sovereignty) the U.S. constitutional project is constructed on the model of rearticulating an open space and reinventing incessantly diverse and singular relations in network across an unbounded terrain. (182)
To sum up, they argue that although the origin of Empire could be found in “the U.S. constitutional project,” the nation-state of the U.S. cannot be the deciding center of Empire since the growth of Empire by nature involves the erasure of the national sovereignty. And to understand this hypothesis, it is also imperative to understand that the project works to “rearticulate” space and “reinvent” relations in terms of network. Namely, if we focus on the cultural side of the globalization by Empire, what matters here are changes in the system, habits, and perspectives in representation. What I called Murakami’s abstract “Americaness,” partly following the early criticism on him, is, I believe, the effect that appears when his novels reflect what Hardt and Negri point out.
One of the most evident characteristics of Murakami’s is that the “culture” his works deal with is always the consumerist, pop, and youth culture after the 60s - such as pop songs, TV programs, fast foods, cars - that is mainly seen as more or less “American.” And Hardt and Negri thus define Empire in the first place:
Empire is materializing before our very eyes. Over the past several decades, as colonial regimes were overthrown and then precipitously after the Soviet barriers to the capitalist world market collapsed, we have witnessed an irresistible and irreversible globalization of economic and cultural exchanges. Along with the global market and global circuits of production has emerged a global order, a new logic and structure of rule - in short, a new form of sovereignty. Empire is the political subject that effectively regulates these global exchanges, the sovereign power that governs the world. (xi)
So what Murakami has been trying to describe in his works should be seen as the “irresistible and irreversible globalization” by Empire, which has been considered in the colonial context to be the Americanized youth culture. Actually, in my opinion, the predominant theme in the entire body of Murakami’s works is this depiction of globalization as the process of the advent of Empire (although it is possible to pin down the respective subject matter in the more traditional sense in each of the works, such as initiation, loss in the contemporary world, representation of history and so on, the subject matter should be regarded as a kind of subtheme that functions to constitute the entirety of the novel, which as a whole depicts globalization).
Therefore, Murakami’s abstract “Americaness” should not be argued merely in terms of either the choice of or preference for the “culture” to be depicted: to decide between pop culture or more traditional Japanese culture. He is rather compelled to relate what he relates, when someone who is aware of globalization finds that the entirety of culture is transforming as “Empire is materializing.” Murakami’s “Americaness” concerns changes in the most basic element on which every novel is founded: representation of reality, or what is determined as “reality.” Hardt and Negri explain these changes with reference to Foucault’s conception of “biopower”: “the biopolitical context,” which they say is “completely central” to their analysis, “is what presents power with an alternative, not only between obedience and disobedience, or between formal political participation and refusal, but also along the entire range of life and death, wealth and poverty, production and social reproduction, and so forth” (26). Put simply, when the advent of Empire changes our world-view, or our ontology and epistemology, only natural is the need for the new way of writing a novel and the novel that is written in that way. Concerning the fact that a new form of narratology is needed if we admit the existence of Empire, Hardt and Negri say
the biopolitical power of Empire causes a radical transformation that reveals the unmediated relationship between power and subjectivities, and hence demonstrates both the impossibility of “prior” mediations and the uncontainable temporal variability of the event. Throughout the unbounded global spaces, to the depths of the biopolitical world, and the confronting an unforeseeable temporality - these are the determinations on which the new supranational right must be defined. Here is where the concept of Empire must struggle to establish itself, where it must prove its effectiveness, and hence where the machine must be set in motion. (26)
Obviously, the whole paradigm shift Empire would bring about is beyond the scope of this paper. Yet, at least, I would like to note that what Hardt and Negri observe in terms of power and subjectivity can be applied in order to articulate the author’s control of the text and narrative, when Murakami’s works oftentimes emphasize its accidental sequence-formation of events. Below I focus instead on the ideas of home and of the borderline between the inside and outside, which in Murakami’s and his contemporary American authors’ works show the very significant changes in the tug-of-war between the traditional and the global. After articulating Murakami’s contrast with the traditional or late modernist literary norms, I would like to make just a brief sketch about this problem. Here again, Hardt and Negri seem fairly insightful on the topic George Lukács once valued as the consummation devoutly to be wished: home.
The domains conceived as inside and outside and the relationship between them are configured differently in a variety of modern discourses. The spatial configuration of inside and outside itself, however, seems to us a general and foundational characteristic of modern thought. In the passage from modern to postmodern and from imperialism to Empire there is progressively less distinction between inside and outside. (186-187)
Japan’s “Pure Literature” as National Literature
One of the good points found in the hegemony of Empire, as Hardt and Negri say, is that the predicament of postcolonial condition could be fundamentally solved only after Empire comes, virtually making nationality lose its relevance: “[W]e insist on asserting that the construction of Empire is a step forward in order to do away with any nostalgia for the power structures that preceded it and refuse any political strategy that involves returning to that old arrangement, such as trying to resurrect the nation-state to protect against global capital” (43). Yet, of course, they do not identify Empire as the utopian: “Flirting with Hegel,” as they say, they indicate that “the construction of Empire is good in itself but not for itself ” (42). It is good in itself because “the construction of Empire and its global network is a response to the various struggles against the modern machines of power, and specifically to class struggle driven by the multitude’s desire for liberation;” it is not good for itself owing to the fact that “[t]he geographical and racial lines of oppression and exploitation that were established during the era of colonialism and imperialism have in many respects not declined but instead increased exponentially” (43). The former pointing out the international multitude’s resistance against national regimes and the latter observing the violence of globalization, both the good and evil of Empire hinge upon the decline of national sovereignty as the quintessential sign of the passage from late modernity to postmodernity.
What renders Murakami’s case symbolic with respect to the relation between literary postmodernity and nationality derives from the colonial nature of modern Japanese literature. Put more specifically, Murakami’s marked as well as peculiar nature is correctly understood only when he is situated in Japanese literary scene at that time: the period after WWII till around the end of the 70s when novels are strictly categorized into two groups of jun-bungaku or not. Jun-bungaku means pure or sincere literature: bungaku means literature, and jun means pure or sincere. The categorization of jun-bungaku or not roughly corresponds to the distinction between literature and fiction. Jun-bungaku is serious literature that is artistic and has high aesthetic and literary values. What are not jun-bungaku are all science fictions, mysteries, entertainments, page-turners, and best sellers. The categorization was and could be strict because at that time jun-bungaku always did not sell, and so one did not have to think about the annoying problem of “literary” best-sellers.
Haruki Murakami started as a jun-bungaku writer in terms of his editor and publisher, but, from the very start, the nature of his text is so different from other jun-bungaku ones: he started as literary hybrid, as it were, being a symbolic author of the postmodern and post-colonial age. There clearly was a certain anti- jun-bungaku gesture in his first novel, where the full chorus of The Beach Boys’ “California Girls” appears in the text, and whose sub-plot is a biographical description of a fabricated American science fiction novelist named Derek Heartfield. It is this gesture, which has been more or less continuous throughout his career so far, that makes him somehow unrepresentative of the Japanese literary scene whose mainstream is nothing but jun-bungaku. In this context, Murakami’s enormous popularity construes a critical paradox: he is unrepresentative simultaneously in spite and because of his popularity. These characteristics are basically seen as, for one thing, an example of American cultural invasion into Japanese youth culture, as noted above, or as, elsewhere, a variation of postmodernism. What I would like to emphasize is that this depiction of postmodern globalization is virtually seen also as cultural anti-nationalism, which becomes clear when we consult some essays by Kenzaburo Oe, the Nobel Prize winner of ‘94 and Murakami’s elder by a generation. Murakami’s anti-nationalism turns a tangible subject matter in his The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, where the Nomonhan incident during the WWII is set at the core of the narrative.
Oe’s lecture called “Japan’s Dual Identity: A Writer’s Dilemma,” presented at a symposium on Third World literature held in 1986 at Duke University, begins with the line: “I come to you today as one Japanese writer who feels that Japanese literature may be decaying.” Kenzaburo Oe, “Japan’s Dual Identity: A Writer’s Dilemma,” Japan, The Ambiguous, and Myself: The Nobel Prize Speech and Other Lectures (Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1995) 59. Further references to this text will appear in the text with parentheses. What is decaying for Oe is of course jun-bungaku, which he defines, for one, as “literature that has, as it were, passively cut itself off from the products published by the mass media” (65). Since, according to the definition, jun-bungaku by nature doesn’t sell, the decay Oe refers to cannot be the problem of popularity. What he laments is the absence of any heir to the tradition he belongs to: he identifies himself as the last prophet of jun-bungaku. In fact mentioning Murakami, he correctly finds a certain rupture between Murakami and his tradition: “unless ways are found to fill the wide gap” between Murakami and his tradition, there’s no revival of Japanese literature and even culture. Rubin also argues for the comparison between Murakami and Oe, as well as their personal relationship. Rubin, 6, 39, 114-15, 230-31, 234-6.
Oe’s argument is beneficial as regards its clear definition of Jun-bungaku ‘s tradition. He finds its direct origin in Japan’s “postwar school,” a very influential movement after the WWII. The fundamental characteristic Oe points out about the members of postwar school is this: “There were people who had to endure silence while fascism prevailed prior to and during the war years. Their pent-up frustrations were released in a burst of activity that formed them as intellectuals” (68-9). The postwar period is so significant since, as Oe says, the “defeat in the Pacific War…was, needless to say, the most important event in the history of the country’s development since the mid-nineteenth century” (70). And what made the postwar writers so excellent is the fact that “each of these writers was either a researcher in some special field of interest or at least a very careful reader” of such texts as Marx, Dostoevsky, and French Symbolism (69). When we read Oe’s claim (where he is implicitly criticizing Murakami) that postwar jun-bungaku “was a literature that set out to deal squarely with the needs of intellectuals” (67), we are able to understand the basic framework of the postwar school as Oe illustrates: it was the intellectual movement, where the intellectual correctly found the most significant national theme, that is, ressentiment for the Defeat in the wrong war and the recovery from it.
Elsewhere, Oe thus defines the role of literature in general: “insofar as man is obviously a historical being, to create a model of a contemporary age which encompasses past and future, a model of the people living in that age as well” (66). The essence of literature, for Oe, includes the transcendence of time, but it seems that that of space is something he never thinks of. Of course, the neglected national limitation is the effect of a historical necessity. If Murakami’s works are more global, which has its own merits and demerits, globality is another effect of another historical necessity. Oe makes it clear, however, that when the excellence of postwar literature lies in their function of digesting Western knowledge for Japanese use, the nature of their literature is undoubtedly culturally colonized, and, I believe, even the idea of “intellectual,” or the framework that decides what is intellectual and what is not, is presupposedly decided by a national framework that is colonized.
The title of Oe’s lecture probably comes from this mistaken belief:
I can think of no people as much in need of a means of self-recovery as the Japanese, neither in the third world nor the first; no other people whose culture is such a strange blend of these two worlds. (100)
While Oe in a sense correctly depicts the global problem of postcoloniality, he at the same time falls into the pit of the “Japan is special” argument. It is, on the one hand, just a variation of the mentality that wants to locate Japan outside Asia, which he criticizes in the beginning of the lecture; on the other hand, it also shows more directly his national ressentiment that even when Japan prospers as much as the States or any other country, Japan is never yet a developed or advanced country. Japan must be - and, actually, always is in his perspective - special, unique and exceptional for him, which yet is only because he thinks of Japan as his own country. In other words, this tacitly shows that nationality, or the sense of belonging to a nation-state, is crucially indispensable to his literature and the framework of his every thought. The tremendous importance of nationality only results in his love-hate relationship with Japan.
Oe puts the blame for Japan’s intellectual, or cultural and literary, decline on postmodernism or post-structuralism. In a sense, again, he is correct because the decline of his intellect, his culture, and his literature results from nothing but postmodernization, and postmodernization means the waning of the significance of national frameworks. He believes that “intelligent members of their generation during the late 1970s and early 1980s were keenly aware of the decline of Japanese literature and, on the rebound, fell head over heels for the new cultural fashions from Europe and America” (92). Shortly after this, he also says: “one can say that they were not truly intellectuals as such but merely young Japanese following a subcultural fad that swept through an average, urban consumer society” (93). In contrast to this, Japanese anthropologist Masao Yamaguchi is praised by Oe because he “substantiates his unique cultural interpretation of Japan’s particular circumstance” (89). Here, Oe believes, contradicting his own earlier argument, that it’s basically a shame to import Western knowledge, and that Japan should have its own philosophy.
As far as can be deduced from Oe’s essays, the basic characteristics of his late modernism is to be epitomized as follows: (1) the keen demand for the national intellect is actually seen as a variation of the international demand for the cultural, political, and economic participation of Japan as an economic power; (2) in the elitist definition of literature, literature means something written by a representative man of the intellect; (3) although he believes in each and every human being’s singularity, there should pre-exist a homogeneous matrix, namely nationality, to be represented by the intellect, where a nation-state becomes something singular seen from outside and homogeneous seen from inside; (4) this paradox of singular identity of the nation makes the literary themes of late modernism variations of the love-hate relationship with the national community. In other words, when a novel does not deal with something that resonates with the national theme, it is regarded as shallow; (5) the love-hate relationship with the national takes the form of the paradox of pro-modernization and anti-westernization (thus, where he admits the importance of learning to appreciate the value of high literature as art, he must also admit the goodness of modernization in the largest sense; but where Japan should be unique, however, he is not able to admit westernization); (6) in this paradox, anti-nationalism eventually becomes a form of nationalism in the sense I’m using the word (though Oe is never a nationalist in the usual sense, his literature essentially depends on the national framework, identifying Japan as his world; and what Oe irritates is in fact that the national framework, which has been deciding the content of THE literary theme, is losing its relevance in contemporary literature). Which ends in his demand for the representative intellect in (1); and (7) in the paradox of the singular national identity, literature always should search for something that does not exist in the first place, which I would call heroic, but in this paradoxical formation, literature becomes something to be protected, something always under the threat from the outside just like a country under the threat of a war. This is the reason why, for Oe, as is always the case with late modernists, literary culture is always something declining, decaying.
Hardt and Negri explain the reason for my expansion of the meaning of “nationalism.” The logic working in Oe’s thinking is something clearly comparable with that of ethnic nationalism, for which the most prominent articulation would be found in Sartre’s “Black Orpheus” quoted in Empire:
The unity which will come eventually, bringing all oppressed peoples together in the same struggle must be preceded in the colonies by what I shall call the moment of separation or negativity: this antiracist racism is the only road that will lead to the abolition of racial differences. (130)
Oe’s clinging to the national singularity is something to be transcended since for Oe every human being is singular (it is illogical to think that a mass of singular humans have a common, shared singularity distinct from another mass), though Oe seems to fail to emphasize this. His argument is to be completed by the Sartrean negative dialectic through which the set of paradoxes observed above is to be transcended. In this sense, what I call Oe’s late modernism is regarded as another name for his existentialist tendency.
Hardt and Negri, however, dispute the relevance of the Sartrean negative dialectic in the postcolonial era, declaring that ” Reality is not dialectical, colonialism is ” (128):
Despite the coherent dialectical logic of this Sartrean cultural politics, however, the strategy it proposes seems to us completely illusory. The power of the dialectic, which in the hands of colonial power mystified the reality of the colonial world, is adopted again as part of an anticolonial project as if the dialectic were itself the real form of the movement of history. Reality and history, however, are not dialectical, and no idealist rhetorical gymnastics can make them conform to the dialect. (131)
Oe in vain finds the only possible future for Japanese literature in the dialectical bridge that fills the “wide gap” between his tradition and Murakami, whereas the true relation between Murakami’s postmodernism and Oe’s late modernism is rather the global defaulting of national thematics than the latter’s sublimation into the former. Whether History is dialectic or not in truth, the argument of Hardt and Negri clearly explains the reason for and formation of Oe’s nationalism, or his subconscious presupposition of the ideally homogenous community for literature, and its failure.
More specifically, Hardt and Negri thus explain the limit of the strategic essentialism of “nationalism” in the Sartrean negative dialectic:
The very concept of a liberatory national sovereignty is ambiguous if not completely contradictory. While this nationalism seeks to liberate the multitude for foreign domination, it erects domestic structures of domination that are equally severe. The position of the newly sovereign nation-state cannot be understood when it is viewed in terms of the rosy U.N. imaginary of a harmonious concert of equal and autonomous national subjects. The postcolonial nation-state functions as an essential and subordinated element in the global organization of the capitalist market… The entire logical chain of representation might be summarized like this: the people representing the multitude, the nation representing the people, and the state representing the nation. Each link is an attempt to hold in suspension the crisis of modernity. Representation in each case means a further step of abstraction and control. From India to Algeria and Cuba to Vietnam, the state is the poisoned gift of national liberation. (133-34)
Oe’s late modern writings always presuppose the national system and perspective of representation, which results in the haunting habit of referring to the national. Murakami’s postmodern writings, on the other hand, start with the failure of the national system. In so doing, Murakami’s “euphoric” and apparently apolitical writings, as exemplified by the quotation of “California Girls,” at the heart thematizes the paradigm shift in the system of representation, which could be argued only in terms of the political when, as Hardt and Negri point out, the constitutive power of Empire is biopolitics without the outside. When reviewers sometimes find the “healing,” “soothing,” or “comforting” character of Murakami’s novels, this could be understood because the novels depict the reality of Empire’s globalization liberated from the compulsory - compulsory and now dysfunctioning - framework of the national mythologies. About the list of English reviews on Murakami, see: http://www.murakami.ch/.
The Aesthetics of the Literature of Globalization
Referring to Octavio Paz’s observation, Oe admits that there already exists a certain kind of international subculture or youth culture which connects such megalopolises as New York, London, Paris, Moscow, Berlin, Mexico City, and Tokyo. Oe Kenzaburo, “Sekaibungaku-wa-nihonbungaku-tariuruka?,” Aimaiana-Nihonno-Watashi (Tokyo: Iwanami-shoten, 1995) 210. The lecture’s title means “Can the World Literature be Japanese Literature?.” The book is the Japanese edition of his Nobel Prize speech and other lectures. The palpable existence of this new-fashioned international cultural network should be associated with Murakami’s readership. Though Oe and Paz identify the culture as that of the young, “young” only could mean “new” in this context. The sense of immaturity they find in the new global culture, which may be deduced, for example, from the fact that the one who enjoys the culture does not fight for the country, is only a paraphrase of the new global culture’s amputation from the framework of the national. The culture is seen as immature, to cite another example, when the participants do not go vote in elections; yet, they are just more interested in volunteer works, NGOs, and economic dominance, all of which more or less transgress the nationally organized system or hierarchy of representation, than voting, or the national framework of representation.
By arguing for this reading of Murakami along with the authors he translates, I will point out that these authors can be seen as colleagues because of their common tendencies and that one of the common tendencies is the radical decline of the significance of home as the place one should belong to, resulting from the decline of the national. Notably, these declines are depicted as irrational or emotional rather than rational or logical (in this sense, they are not pro-globalization). When they thus illustrate the discursive tug-of-war between nationalism and globalization, the subjectivity in their works necessarily emphasizes its irrational, that is, habitual and corporeal, formation. The globalization of literature, I suggest, takes the form of the corporealization of subjectivity: the naturalized myth of nation, or what they call ethno-history, can critically be thematized only by way of the uncontrollable autonomy of the body. In consequence of this, aesthetically, what is most obvious in those I argue below is the deconstructive nature of reality they depict: reality appears as something undecidable as to its meaning, and the sequence-structure of events becomes only coincidental, where the value of realness is vested in what is more properly called the intrusion of the real rather than reality. Although this clearly is beyond the scope of this paper, when Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick explains the formation of the successful male rivalry through the Oedipus scenario in terms of homosocial/homosexual bonds, I would argue that what she actually finds is the formation of the national space as the homogenous modern community. My use of the Lacanian terminology in order to explain what I call deconstructive realism is because the intrusion of the Real is nothing but the occasional, and structural, threat to the Symbolic and Oedipal order. I call this nature of “reality” found in some contemporary authors “deconstructive” because, when what a novel depicts becomes meaningless fragments of the real that shatter the very idea of reality, its text necessarily turns undecidable as to its correct interpretation. The waning of the correct interpretation, then, must be a correlative of the global consumption of literary texts. These are what to be found in, besides Murakami, Tim O’Brien, and Raymond Carver, or Murakami’s translation of Carver.
It is rather easy to find the symptoms of waning national framework in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The book is a collection of serial short stories on the Vietnam War which are loosely connected with one another. The theme of the book is easily interpreted as the unrepresentability of that devastating war. The loose structure that prevents its reader from finding any coherent image of the war surely serves well for the theme. The impressive narrative of the war offers something we could call deconstructive realism, where every detail is too vivid to have definite meaning, as it were:
It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush in a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move… It’s not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Tim O’Brien, “How to Tell a True War Story,” The Things They Carried (1990: London: Flamingo, 1991) 77. Further references to this text will appear in the text with parentheses.
The true reality of the war is something undecidable; when it becomes so, the narrator has to turn our attention (more or less) to the physical response.
The unrepresentability of war can be seen as a kind of traditional theme since, for example, Paul Celan’s well-known observation on the impossibility of poetry after Auschwitz. Yet for O’Brien, what makes the Vietnam war unrepresentable at the core is the undecidability of the meaning of the war. In a story called “On the Rainy River” where the protagonist Tim unwillingly decides to go to war, he states that he was against the war as college kid before being drafted: “In June of 1968, a month after graduating from Macalester College, I was drafted to fight a war I hated” (39). When he is forced to go, he falls into a certain splitting apart of the self, and he feels that he cannot decide anything, from which all the narrative of the book starts: “Most of this I have told before, or at least hinted at, but what I have never told is the full truth. How I cracked” (44). If he believes in nationality and he regards himself as a full citizen of the States, he might go to the war, and if he still finds himself against the war, the opinion might clearly fix his distance from the country. What O’Brien shows is neither of this: “The only certainty that summer was moral confusion” (40), which results in the ironic conclusion of the story, that “I was a coward. I went to the war” (55). The “moral confusion” derives from the hero’s realization that whether or not the government is wrong is irrlevant: for that matter, even asking whether or not the war itself is wrong is meaningless. Exactly what he confronts is the invalidity of the national framework of representation that decides the meaning of war and, subsequently, each and every one of his actions.
Furthermore, this change leads to another one in the meaning of home or homeland. The final factor that compels the hero to go, while pondering the possibility to escape for Canada, is the “embarrassment” he imagines he will feel if he doesn’t go: “All those eyes on me - the town, the whole universe - and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment” (54). He thinks of how the townspeople, including his family, will look at him if he fails to go: “What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame. I did not want people to think badly of me” (48). He is forced to go by the others’ eye, which his hometown sets on him. The rhetoric implies the fact that in the final instance, the hero finds himself not belonging to the hometown. For him, home is neither where he truly belongs nor where he can go back for ease and comfort. While George Lukács formulated the idea that every modern novel concerns the recovery of the lost home, O’Brien’s work somehow gives a crucial twist to the theme. He further develops this theme in his next novel, The Nuclear Age, where the conscientious objector who went to Canada to evade the draft obsessively builds a ridiculous nuclear shelter in his house after he returns the States. He tries to make his true home in the nuclear age inside his house - only in vain, for of course the shelter cannot be the place he belongs to.
Home becomes a strange place. Murakami’s masterpiece Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World shares the same motif. It is a kind of science fiction novel situated in contemporary Tokyo, where cryptology has much progressed and attained more significance in the informational age. The plot revolves around the newly invented ciphering system that uses human brains as the cipher key. A method to map and even rearrange the contents of one’s subconscious is invented by a genius scientist called the Professor, which makes it possible to code and decode information through one’s brains while its owner is unconscious: birth of the ultimate cryptology. Yet, among the twenty-six on whom the new system is experimented, the hero of the novel is the only survivor, which is the governmental secret. No one can find the reason the rest have died; suggested is that the hero’s fitting to the system concerns the contents of the rearranged story of his subconscious. Its title “The End of the World” - a quote from the song, “Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?,” is the epigraph of the novel - since his “core consciousness” or “the vision displayed” in his “consciousness is the End of the World” (270).
The novel consists of two parts: “The End of the World” part and the “Hard-boiled Wonderland” part. Each part appears by turns: odd number chapters are “Hard-boiled Wonderland,” and even number are “The End of the World.” In the former, what is told is the adventure of the hero involved in the governmental information war; the latter describes the hero’s inner world of “The End of the World.” Though the author successfully achieves delicate literary resonances between the two parts through the use of imagery and word play, they basically are two separate stories that do not incorporate one another. For, while the former follows realism with many trivial references to Tokyo, what the latter relates is a fantasy of “a town, surrounded by a wall” where “there’s no time, no life, no death” (270). Meaningful in the depiction of The-End-of-the-World “town” is its dependence on the Western imagination: in it unicorns are herded and an accordion is played, both of which play the symbolic role, and details such as clock tower, oil lighter, stove are always western, when the world is more or less anachronistic. The same image strategy is used in a slightly different form in Hayao Miyazaki’s successful “japanimation” Spirited Away. Although Murakami’s imagery is almost exclusively Western, Miyazaki intentionally mingles both Eastern and Western factors in it. Both, however, gain a strong appeal when they tell that one’s “inner world” pervades the national framework of cultural imagination, which I believe one of the main reasons for their international, or global, success. In Murakami’s cultural imagination, the walled “home” town of “The End of the World” is occidental rather than oriental in spite of its being one’s “core consciousness.”
The walled town is a “home” town that lies at the center of the novel, since the novel’s evident subject matter is the mystery of subconscious, or “consciousness,” and the recovery of the true self. The hero in the “Hard-boiled Wonderland” part in the end falls into coma, being swallowed up into The End of the World because of the internal break-down of the ciphering system in his brain. The Professor, part apologetically, emphasizes that the coma the hero cannot avoid is far from the usual coma or death, for “The End of the World” is not actually the world’s end: “Your existence isn’t over. You’ll enter another world” (271). Entering “another world” is, echoing some New Age rhetoric, seen as a way of self-realization: “It’s peaceful world. Your own world, a world of your own makin’. You can be your self there. You’ve got everythin’ there” (286). The hero, however, rejects the Professor’s (mock-)scientific plan for self-gratification since, as he says, “I may not be much, but I’m all I’ve got… But, strange as it may seem, I’m not entirely dissatisfied with this life… But, whatever the reason, I feel pretty much at home with what I am. I don’t want to go anywhere” (273). In contrast to the real world where the hero lives, which is an incomplete world being real insofar as he “may not be much,” the walled town of “The End of the World” is a variation of home: where one truly belongs, where one retrieves one’s authentic self. When this becomes clear, however, the hero refuses to return to that home.
The complex nature Murakami gives to the idea of home becomes clearer in the end of “The End of the World” part. It ends with the final split of its protagonist’s self: “I” and “my shadow.” The “I” helps the escape of his “shadow” from the walled town to its outside, while the “I” at the last moment decides to remain. The split derives from the two different attitudes toward the idea of home. Trying to persuade the “I” into going together, the “shadow” says: “[Y]our rightful world is there outside,” and yet, “[y]ou won’t listen, will you?” (399). The “I” insists on remaining because of his sense of “responsibilities” for the town of his own making, which he finally learns: “This is my world. The Wall is here to hold me in, the River flows through me, the smoke in me burning” (399). Both of the split selves understand that to remain is an inevitable moral judgment which in effect results in nothing good, since the town is the self-contained world of the unchanging where “here there is everything and here there is nothing” (383). The “shadow” says, “You’ll be trapped for all eternity,” to which the “I” replies, “as I remember [the outside real world], I may find the key to my own creation, and to its undoing,” but the “shadow” disagrees: “No, I doubt it. Not as long as you are sealed inside yourself” (399). The difficulty in distancing oneself from home, well depicted with all accompanying nuances, gives the ending the sophisticated sentimentality that is one of Murakami’s strongest merits. For all the nuanced grieving, the novel’s message is clear: home, which, self-contained, contains all the paradoxes of everything/nothing, is something that must be rejected. Home should be conceived of as strange since, if the invention of home is that of the only place one could return, to return there is self-defeating.
Murakami’s novel is thus read as allegory of the conflicts between globalization and nationalism. When one considers Raymond Carver’s minimalist or realist depiction of home, however, one has to notice that the critical perspective toward home is not so rare, if not altogether mainstream, in history. The reason the meaning of home is to be related to the matter of globalization is the deconstructive nature of reality the de-centered home eventually entails. In O’Brien’s case, this structure is evident thanks to the thematizaton of Vietnam war, where the intriguing relation between the meaning (of the war) the national framework of representation gives and the idea of home is drawn in a clear profile. In the myths of the national, home is significant because it should hold the center of representation, which is, as for Murakami, shown by the fact that the plot in a sense parodies the narrative of the search for the true self, where to identify the town as home means to decide its rejection. A narrative turns into its parody when search transforms into rejection; when the meaning and value of home changes, and the whole ideology on which the novel stands does so as well. In other words, Murakami’s global popularity, it seems to me, depends largely upon its correct depiction of the national framework’s losing its validity, which decides the meaning of home, when home becomes the literary battlefield of globalization versus nationalism. Home is the symbolic locus on which the order of representation hinges in so far as the cultural side of globalization gradually erodes the national framework of late modernism. Therefore, the new treatment of home found in O’Brien, Murakami, and Carver only naturally results in the new representation of reality as well as subjectivity.
As for Raymond Carver, it seems only natural that nationality hardly becomes a significant topic in his writing since his minimalism or “dirty” realism focuses on the life of poor white whose poverty renders them separate from anything as grand as nation. Though the absence of the national itself is not something worth pointing out, Tom Wolfe’s criticism on minimalism, together with postmodernist metafiction, which lamentedly faults the postmodern lack of reference to grand narratives, can be considered, like Oe’s, to be aimed at its lack of the national framework. After carefully arriving at the judgment that “[m]any of these writers were brilliant,” he says:
But what was this lonely island they had moved to? After all, they, like me, happened to be alive in what was, for better or for worse, the American century, the century in which we had become the mightiest military power in all history, capable of blowing up the world by turning two cylindrical keys in a missile silo but also capable, once it blew, of escaping to the stars in spaceships. Wolfe’s other well-known criticism on the labefaction of contemporary novel is entitled as “Why They Aren’t Writing the Great American Novel Anymore.” Evidently, his emphasis on documentation is now inherited in many brilliant literatures on the realities of ethnic minorities that try to record the unheard voices of subalterns, though the frame of nationality they use is basically not American. Tom Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-footed Beast: A Literary Manifesto for the New Social Novel,” Harper’s (279 Nov, 1989) 50. Tom Wolfe, “Why They Aren’t Writing the Great American Novel Anymore,” Esquire (78 Dec, 1972) 152-158, 271-280.
The facts Wolfe observes are all correct, but the “we” for him means basically American, for better or for worse. When one follows his direction for the “new social novel,” the novel happens to refer always to the national topics. Escaping from the national through the depiction of the poor, Carver finds a more global, if not universal, version of realism.
What makes Carver notable as a contemporary writer, and representative of minimalism, is his difference from socialist realism. Often repeated in the criticism and reviews of his work is the vividness of his depiction of the lives of the poor and its political meaning. As one critic explains,
He [Carver] added to our literature an original body of work that gave voice to a world that had, until him, no voice of its own, a world of working-class tract homes and the quiet and powerless families who live in them, a voice that strove to win a struggle with silence. Lewis Buzbee, “New Hope for the Dead,” William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll, eds., Remembering Ray: A Composite Biography of Raymond Carver (Capra Press, 1993) 115.
In this sense, when you read only writings on Carver, not his text, he strongly resembles socialist realists: those who write on the reality of proletariat in order to criticize capitalism’s failure and praise the value of labor itself. Regarding this, then, Carver’s difference from socialist realism, we are able to say rhetorically, is illustrated by the point that his text makes the reader imagine: even if his people were rich, they would live the essentially same life. The point of Carver’s persuasive realism consists in the fact that the reader finds that being poor has become the fixed identity for his people, though they didn’t choose to be poor themselves: namely, he succeeds in depicting poverty as culture or cultural identity. It is exactly this success that makes it possible, as Wolfe criticized, to depict the lives of the poor successfully without any reference to the grand narratives including nationality or the economic structure of the States. The success of this “culturization” of poverty entails two points shared by O’Brien and Murakami. One is the waning of the idea of correct interpretation of the text; the other is the depiction of new subjectivity that is corporeal, or subjectivity that belongs to the body instead of the mind.
In spite of its exceptional popularity, Murakami’s translation of Carver is often criticized for its bleaching out of the working class color in the original text. Quoting Hiromi Hashimoto’s Japanese article, Rubin also argues Murakami’s translation of Carver. Rubin, 77. Since Murakami’s Carver is narrated through the almost same voice as Murakami uses in his own novels, the protagonist in the translation is naturally supposed to be speaking as if he were just not working, and poor even though he is a university graduate, which is the case for Murakami’s protagonists. While the delicate problem of voices falls more or less within the subjective judgment of critics, another clear factor that effects this bleaching is to be found concerning proper names: when Carver’s people drink Teacher’s, for example, American readers always guess the nature of their living from the fact, and yet, Japanese readers are not able to find the key for the kind of economic implications that are delicately scattered in Carver’s text. Of course, this is more or less beyond the translator’s scope, which is to say, any translation, if not Murakami’s, which virtually works to accelerate the bleaching out of the economic hard facts, since the economic implication of Teacher’s is always diluted when the work is read in other countries. This concerns the new and distinct essence of Carver’s minimalism on poverty. Hardt and Negri suggest that the figure of the poor is the only possible candidate for the future resistance to Empire, and Murakami probably intuited the meaning of Carver’s strategy (156-59). Yet, I am not sure if Carver’s works can be really regarded as the resistance to Empire when they, as argued, work basically to culturize poverty and to function as something that can be called the identity politics of the poor. They must be the first step to the postmodern articulation of the poor.
The point I would like to make is that this kind of negligence of the details in Murakami’s translation is in a sense the correct reading of Carver: where I already suggested the possibility that misunderstanding is a correct reading in case of the global reception of Murakami, Carver’s case actually shows the possibility that negligence of details could be seen as the postmodern sophistication of Carver’s “realism.” However much of Murakami’s translation might bleach out the “real,” ie., social and economic, details, it is correct as far as it depicts Carver’s depiction of poverty as autonomous “culture.” For if his merit lies in the culturization of the poor, then this must mean the negligence of the base structure or hard fact that makes them poor. The Japanese readers of Carver read his translated text as if he is really writing their own lives, which explains his popularity in Japan. The Japanese misunderstanding of Carver is a correct reading of Carver in a certain sense, for the true merit of Carver does not lie in the economic hard facts of poverty as far as he is not a socialist, or even social, realist. The essence of Carver’s so-called minimalism is to be found in the fact that he invented the way to describe poverty regardless of its social context. Namely, what Carver writes as poverty is seen as the global situation even though he uses the States under the Reagan administration as his material.
The waning of the significance of the correct interpretation, which in fact means the paradigm shift of the parameter that decides what is reality, is also found in O’Brien and Murakami. While Carver’s realism becomes deconstructive when it thus effaces the value of “correct” details, O’Brien’s novels always focus on the undecidability of the meaning of reality even after The Nuclear Age: a good example is In the Lake of the Woods, where to read is for the reader to participate in the text to reconstruct the truth in vain. More revealing is Murakami’s Hard-boiled Wonderland and The End of the World. The “Hard-boiled Wonderland” part of the novel, as I said, depicts the contemporary life of Tokyo with the network of commuters, hamburger shops, TV programs, and fancy Italian restaurants. When it is juxtaposed with “The End of the World” part, where what brings about the ultimate coma of the hero progresses little by little, every detail in the real Tokyo somehow loses its reality and meanings, to the degree that the message of the whole text finally proves to be the irrelevance and meaninglessness of contemporary life. When the two plots are shown as separate, the surface plot of “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” foregrounds its superficiality, since the “meaning” of the surface plot lies in its disjunction from the deeper one of “The End of the World.” Of course, the final ideology of the novel consists in the message that the real of meaninglessness and contingency is where the hero should and would like to belong, since “I may not be much, but I’m all I’ve got.” In this sense, Murakami’s strategy to parody the deep/surface structure through the double plot of the novel succeeds in making the real of contemporary Tokyo at the same time meaningful and meaningless. All the same, the novel, in the last instance, is open to undecidability and numerous possible interpretations to the degree that it is a critique of the hierarchal deep/surface structure at whose center lies the privileged home.
The waning of correct interpretation is the actual instance of sliding signifiers or the play of signs. The post-structural and postmodern sign theories are not to be understood as referring to some mythical phenomenon. As Hardt and Negri depict the advent of Empire as fundamentally based on economy’s transgression of national boundaries, the play of signs is to be seen as the fundamental change in the order of representation, and furthermore of “reality,” when the hierarchy in the national framework has become irrelevant and a new global, postmodern system and hierarchy is to be sought. To repeat, I am not arguing these changes are by nature good: I merely believe that this is what is really happening in the globalization of literature. As the Professor in Murakami’s novel says, “Evolution’s always hard. Hard and bleak” (49).
I can draw just a short sketch about what I think is regarded as real in the postmodern representation. As, in Carver, economic hard facts become irrelevant through the culturization of poverty, but what makes his writings real is the depiction of bodily actions, that is, the raw material of realism when all the grand narratives are supposed to be meaningless. For example, the social pressure that makes Carver’s people indulge in drinking does not appear in his fiction. Yet, it is substantiated in the form of the body: that is to say, alcoholism is his recurrent theme. The typical example is to be found in “Where I’m Calling From.” Raymond Carver, Where I’m Calling From: Selected Stories (New York: Random House, 1988) 278-296. What Carver depicts in the process of culturization is what Pierre Bourdieu called habitus or what Judith Butler calls gender in relation to Bourdieu’s concept: the individual corporealization of the social structure. Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 1984). Judith Butler, The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1997). As the social structure is naturalized on the surface of the body, it becomes real since it appears as natural; something that cannot be naturalized on the body, namely the grand narrative, disappears from the framework of the novel. The same can be said about O’Brien: as I mentioned, the protagonist in The Things They Carried decides to go to the war because of “embarrassment.” When the conclusion of “On the Rainy River,” “I was a coward. I went to the war,” appears, he makes it clear that the protagonist’s decision goes against his intellect, his rational thinking, or his political belief. At the ultimate instance, he has to follow the irrational force which, being separate from his mind, he finds in himself. It is his habitus, his gender that constructs him as a social being. Even in Murakami’s case, what makes the novel distinct from a regular spy thriller or science fiction is the plot that the ciphering system is part of the hero’s brain. His ultimate coma is the triumph of the subconscious over the conscious self, which hates to be swallowed into the homeland. Postmodern novels guarantee their own value by way of their ultimate appeal to habitus, the naturalized gender norm, which works autonomously regardless of rational thinking. The appeal is the parameter that guarantees the postmodern novel’s realness. As I have shown in the case of Oe, the late modern novel’s ultimate appeal to nationality does not mean that the novelist is nationalist: An anti-nationalist novel can be the late modern national novel in my sense. By the same token, postmodern novels can be either pro-gender or anti-gender. In either way, their appeal to habitus, or something autonomous and inexplicable as they work against reason, is the basic paradigm that makes a novel postmodern. This observation about literary postmodernity agrees with, or, in fact, more or less derives from, Walter Benn Michaels’ recent argument which will be published under the title of The Shape of the Signifier. Michaels argues that, developing his provocative “Against Theory,” our “post-historic” condition is situated by the (wrong) view that sees signs not as the object of interpretation but as that of experience. I would like to thank for the invaluable advice all the participants of the presentation of the original draft of this essay.