Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Study Guide: Murakami Haruki: "TV People" (1990)

Murakami Haruki: TV People (1990)[1]

*To read the story in the original Japanese, click here.
*To read Alfred Birnbaum’s English translation, click here.

Murakami Haruki (1949- ): Murakami Haruki is the most widely translated Japanese novelist of his generation. Murakami’s first novel, Kaze no uta o kike (1979; Hear the Wind Sing), won a prize for best fiction by a new writer. From the start his writing was characterized by images and events that the author himself found difficult to explain but which seemed to come from the inner recesses of his memory. Some argued that this ambiguity, far from being off-putting, was one reason for his popularity with readers, especially young ones, who were bored with the self-confessions that formed the mainstream of contemporary Japanese literature. His perceived lack of a political or intellectual stance irritated “serious” authors (such as Ōe Kenzaburō), who dismissed his early writings as being no more than entertainment. Murakami’s first major international success came with Hitsuji o meguru bōken (1982; A Wild Sheep Chase), a novel that acquires an eerie quality from the mysterious sheep that comes to possess the narrator’s friend, known as “the Rat.” The narrator and the Rat reappeared in Murakami’s next important novel, Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando (1985; Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), a fantasy that was successful with the public and was the winner of the prestigious Tanizaki Prize. One of Murakami’s most ambitious novels, Nejimaki-dori kuronikuru (1994–95; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), represents a departure from his usual themes: it is devoted in part to depicting Japanese militarism on the Asian continent as a nightmare. Andāguraundo (1997; Underground) is a nonfiction account of the sarin gas attack carried out by the AUM Shinrikyo religious sect on a Tokyo subway in 1995. The novel Supūtoniku no koibito (1999; Sputnik Sweetheart) probes the nature of love as it tells the story of the disappearance of Sumire, a young novelist. Subsequent novels include Umibe no Kafuka (2002; Kafka on the Shore) and Afutā dāku (2004; After Dark). Several short-story collections, including Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2006), translate Murakami’s stories into English. He also wrote a memoir, Hashiru koto ni tsuite kataru toki ni boku no kataru koto (2007; What I Talk About When I Talk About Running), which centers on his love for marathon running. An experienced translator of American literature, Murakami also published in Japanese editions of works by Raymond Carver, Paul Theroux, Truman Capote, Ursula K. Le Guin, and J.D. Salinger.  (Encyclopædia Britannica)

Study Questions

1. Describe the first-person narrator. Where is he located (temporally and spatially)? Who is the “you” whom he repeatedly addresses? Describe his tastes/interests, job, marriage, relation with supervisor/colleagues, mental state, eccentricities, etc. Is he a “reliable narrator”? Why does he refer to himself as a “modern-day Luddite”?

2. Describe the “TV People.” How does the narrator respond to them, and they to him? Do they actually exist?

3. How do the TV People disrupt the narrator’s normal sense of reality, eventually causing his world to crumble? Are the TV People to be read as a symbol/metaphor for something? If so, what?

4. How do the narrator’s colleagues respond to the TV People? What happens when the narrator brings up the subject of the TV People with one of his colleagues? Why this response? Is everyone “in on it,” as it were?

5. Describe “the wife.” Describe her personality, tastes, job, relation with husband, etc. Why doesn’t she say anything regarding the new TV?

6. Discuss the function/significance of the motif of the ticking clock.

7. Describe the sudden shift of mood that begins on page 210.

8. Discuss the possible causes for the wife’s absence/disappearance in the final scene. According to the TV People, what has happened to her? Why do they know? Explain the TV People representative’s comment: “It’s gone too far. She’s out there.”

9. Discuss the narrator’s dream (described on page 212) and its significance.

I dream about a meeting. I’m standing up, delivering a statement I myself don’t understand. I open my mouth and talk. If I don’t, I’m a dead man. I have to keep talking. Have to keep coming out with endless blah-blah-blah. Everyone around me is dead. Dead and turned to stone. A roomful of stone statues. A wind is blowing. The windows are all broken; gusts of air are coming in. And the TV People are here. Three of them. Like the first time. They’re carrying a Sony color TV. And on the screen are the TV People. I’m running out of words; little by little I can feel my fingertips growing stiffen. Gradually turning to stone.

What is the raw material, manifest content, and latent content of this dream? Does the narrator actually awake from the dream, as he thinks? Or is he still asleep and dreaming through the final episode? Explain.

10. Is the final episode a dream, a hallucination, or reality? What is the meaning of the “airplane” that is being built by the TV People in the TV? Why does the narrator’s hand begin to shrink in the final lines of the work?

11. Discuss the final lines. Will the phone ring, as the TV People have predicted? What is a likely conclusion to this story? Why does Murakami leave us hanging in suspense?

Further Reading

1. Michael Seats. Murakami Haruki: The Simulacrum in Contemporary Japanese Culture. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2006.
2. Japan Foundation. A Wild Haruki Chase: Reading Murakami Around the World. Berkeley, Calif.: Stone Bridge Press, 2008.
3. Matthew Strecher. “Magical Realism and the Search for Identity in the Fiction of Haruki Murakami,” Journal of Japanese Studies 25.2 (Summer 1999): 263–98.

[1] First published in Bungei shunju January 1990. It originally appeared under the longer title TVピープルの逆襲 (TV pīpuru no gyakushū, literally "The TV People Strike Back"); it received this shorter final title for all further appearances. Birnbaum's English translation originally appeared in The New Yorker September 10, 1990.

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