Tuesday, March 03, 2015

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

For some readers, a book with a connection to the world of books is immediately appealing. Have a major setting in a library or bookstore, throw in an author as a major character, make the maguffin some old book with secrets that must be retrieved, and those folks are in line immediately to plunk down their nickels.

Full disclosure, here: I'm talking about myself. I may be talking about you as well, but you'll have to decide that one yourself.

So a slim book from Haruki Murakami called The Strange Library was obviously going to be catnip to me and people like me. First, the whole library thing. Second, it's short: a quick read. (Shorter even than I expected: I didn't count words, but it took substantially less than an hour to read. It might well not even reach novella length.) And add in that this library is "strange," too -- well, how could I pass it up?

The Strange Library is deeply Murakami-esque, with a passive young narrator -- a schoolboy visiting his local library one day -- when he gets sent into a surreal landscape, and trapped in a place where the normal rules don't apply. Our young man is just looking for some books, and follows the directions he's given -- go to this room in the basement, and then follow the requisite nasty librarian to the "inner room" to read the chosen books, where things go wrong. It's so short that saying much more than that about the plot probably would give away everything, but the back cover mentions "a mysterious girl" and "a tormented sheep man," so it's fair to note that this boy is not entirely alone.

The Strange Library is concentrated Murakami, which means it comes very close to being complete nonsense and is redeemed primarily by his matter-of-fact tone (as rendered in English by translator Ted Goossen). Any attempt to justify the plot or setup will fail immediately; this is a book about atmosphere and feeling and fine sentences rather than about things that actually happen or could happen. Frankly, it's not terribly satisfying for those reasons: Murakami works best when he has more space to spin his quirkly alternate worlds, and his readers have time to settle into those worlds and live within their unspoken rules for a while. Strange Library, on the other hand, is more of a sketch, over almost before it starts. It's best left to those who are already Murakami fans.

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