I’m a big fan of narrative-style history books, and it’s always fun to see a heavily researched piece of history that floats along like a novel. The problem with Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City is that it fails, at times, to feel like a strong account of historical events. The book follows two and a half storylines that intertwine, if only geographically, but never intersect. The backdrop is the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893, a now forgotten event that transfixed the world at the time. Daniel Burnham is the renowned architect of the Fair, beset by meddlers and bureaucrats; H. H. Holmes, whose torturous schemes are at times hard to fathom in their cruelty, is a serial killer who haunts Chicago during the Fair; and Patrick Prendergast, to whom the book only gives over two dozen or so pages, is an increasingly delusional man whose obsession with Chicago’s showy political scene leads to tragedy. The plotlines in the book are fascinating, both because Larson lends them a cinematic flair and because there is a continual sense of wonder that history has managed to forget such vibrant characters. Despite, or perhaps because of, Larsen’s ability to craft such a readable story, the book does inspire some raised eyebrows at times. A scan through the notes at the end of the book reveals the times when Larsen speculates about his characters in the absence of hard facts. While I don’t necessarily disagree with this practice, these moments in the book tend to feel transparent. Likewise, the structure of the book is a bit flimsy as the three characters within share little but being in the same city during the same period of time, and the strenuous effort put forth by Larsen to connect these three characters tends to detract from the stories themselves, as each character is certainly worthy of his own book (even the poor, bewildered Prendergast). Despite these flaws, the book was still a delight to read, especially on my daily rides on Chicago’s elevated trains which still snake through the city as they did when the World’s Fair was held here in 1893.
Whether or not you like Haruki Murakami’s newest novel, After Dark, will probably depend on how many of his previous books you have read. If you’ve read two or less, you may enjoy it. If you’ve read three or four, you will almost certainly find it tedious. If you’ve read five or more you’re incorrigible and nothing I say here will deter you.For my part, I’ve read so much Murakami, it has ceased to be fun. I’ve read all of his books in translation, less Kafka on the Shore and South of the Border, West of the Sun, and several of his yet to be translated books in the original Japanese. My first journey into the curious land of his prose was Norwegian Wood, and liking it, I found myself drawn to his other novels, the best of which, Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Windup Bird Chronicle, and Dance Dance Dance, more than made up for the tepid performances of books like Sputnik Sweetheart.As in all Murakami novels, After Dark’s plot is irrelevant. Nothing happens for a long time, then something creepy and inexplicable happens, then the book ends for no apparent reason, leaving any semblance of story unresolved. In the past, the pleasure in the majority of these books (with the notable exception of Dance Dance Dance, which adopted the form of a supernatural thriller) came from Murakami’s almost uncanny ability to create atmosphere and capture physical longing – whether for a piece of cucumber wrapped in seaweed or for a lover’s touch – with palpable virtuosity.The problem confronting Murakami’s readers has always been that, despite his otherworldly talents, he has nothing to say. Nothing of any real interest or significance, at least. Although his stories often hint at a metaphysics of unreality, the books are mostly surface and, unlike one of his professed influences, Raymond Carver, seem to lack any insight into the human condition (or any other condition, really). Instead, they content themselves with cataloging the discontents of the modern age, particularly the alarmingly numerous forms of ennui, all of which, after three or four volumes, begin to bear a striking resemblance to one another.While this was all well and good when Murakami started his career, with After Dark it seems he has become so enamored of his own abilities that he has ceased to care whether what he has chosen to show us actually matters. Or is even interesting. The more I read Murakami, the less his work resembles genius, and the more it comes to resemble a symptom of autism or obsessive compulsion. As Murakami translator Jay Rubin notes in his biography Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, around the time Murakami finished A Wild Sheep Chase, he began to obsess over his writing, fearing that he might die before finishing the book, a thought he apparently found untenable. His anxiety led to a major overhaul of his life. He quit smoking, began to exercise regularly, changed his diet. Over time, his books have come to reflect this obsession with writing and not necessarily in a positive way. As Rubin explains it, Murakami works not because he has an idea for a book, but because he feels compelled to write. It’s suggested that he often sits at his desk, writing whatever comes to mind, until the glimmerings of a story appear. Those who are familiar with Murakami’s novels can see this process at work. Often, the first fifty to one hundred pages of his books feature characters loafing around, looking for something to do, a reflection, perhaps, of Murakami’s own mental state. The result is a presumably faithful depiction of his inner life with an ironic lack of self-awareness.After Dark is no exception: characters loaf, they engage in small talk, and something weird happens on TV (but not nearly as weird as “Flavor of Love.”) The one major departure from previous novels is the style, which is somewhat reminiscent of a screenplay. The story is told in first person plural, complete with metafictional references to points of view and what seem to be camera directions. The end result could be pitched as Eraserhead (IMDb) meets Before Sunrise (IMDb), minus the good parts. If it weren’t for Murakami’s oath to never allow his works to be filmed (which I see has been broken, with the release of Tony Takatani (IMDb)), I would wonder if the book wasn’t an attempt to salvage a failed screenplay.Until recently, a few short stories and Kafka on the Shore represented the totality of Murakami’s efforts to separate himself from the first person novel, the protagonists of which were all thinly veiled versions of Murakami himself, a cosmopolitan pasta aficionado with a love of jazz, Stendhal, and Dostoyevsky, and a cool, rootless detachment from all things Japanese. While Murakami should be applauded for his attempts to expand his range, they have, so far, only brought attention to the areas in which his work is most deficient: dialogue and his brittle attempts at symbolism, a personal mythology consisting of, among other things, cats and mirrors that does not fare well when set loose from the idiosyncratic workings of his first person narrators’ minds. The dialogue in After Dark is particularly bad, with one character addressing a girl with the line “What’s a girl like you doing hanging out all night in a place like this?” (The line is delivered in a bar and with a complete lack of irony.) Granted, the translation might be at fault, but Jay Rubin has done an admirable job with Murakami in the past, leaving us to assume the source material didn’t leave much to work with. The story’s alternations between the dully inscrutable and the ploddingly mundane seem to confirm this.All of which begs the question, where does Murakami go from here? With the combination of his enormous popularity in Japan and critical acclaim in the United States and abroad, he could never write another word and still be guaranteed a roof over his head and a place in the literary pantheon of the 20th-ish century (at least for the foreseeable future). And writing one, or even a handful, of good books puts a novelist under no obligation to produce another. Yet, if the Murakami Rubin has shown us is the real one, we can expect he will continue to release novels until the day he dies (and if one takes into account his considerable back catalog of yet to be translated works, much longer). Will he insist on sticking with what he knows or will he find some way to transfer his preoccupations and considerable skills into a broader fictional universe? When you find out, let me know.