Wind/Pinball Review

It finally happened. After years of letting them fade into obscurity, Haruki Murakami brought Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball,1973 stateside. For longtime English-speaking fans, the 2015 release of Wind/Pinball was a dream come true; finding translated copies of these novels was almost impossible. The fact that they were were the first two entries in Murakami’s “Trilogy of the Rat” made things even worse. While it wasn’t necessary to read them before A Wild Sheep Chase, having some background on the unnamed protagonist and the Rat would’ve been helpful. Now that the full story is here, Western readers can finally get the experience as it was meant to be…for better or worse.

For those of you expecting another round of Murakami’s bizarre shenanigans and magical realism, be prepared to reign in your expectations. Wind/Pinball were his first two novels, and it shows. Hear the Wind Sing is about the college-aged narrator coming back to his hometown during summer break and spending time with the Rat, his longtime friend and binge-drinking partner. The novel tries to encapsulate the sense of change and budding maturity of a young twenty-something. The narrator gradually realizes that the summers of his youth are long gone, and how much of his life he took for granted. He tries to track down a former high school classmate, but fails miserably. He’s had three previous girlfriends, yet can barely muster any memories of them. He attempts to romance a young lady – who, of course, has only nine fingers – but the relationship barely goes anywhere. We’re only given a glimpse of the girl’s issues towards the end of the novel (she’s practically a precursor to Yuki from Dance Dance Dance), but little else. Murakami’s female characters are often regarded as shallow satellites to the protagonists, but it’s especially obvious here.

Considering that Hear the Wind Sing is the first entry in the “Trilogy of the Rat,” it’s no surprise that its namesake is the more interesting of the two main characters. Unlike the narrator, the Rat has yet to take the first few steps into adulthood. While all of his friends are off studying at the universities, he spends his time getting drunk and avoiding responsibility. He uses alcoholism to drown out his sense of loneliness. Despite coming from a wealthy family, he loathes being rich and considers himself a social outcast. Like the narrator, he confronts some harsh truths: the times are changing, his friends are leaving him behind, and he needs to be able to connect with people beyond drunken debauchery. It’s rather telling that the narrator introduces the Rat as a “virtual stranger to books,” yet he’s seen reading literature in almost every scene he appears after. Whether this is a result of the Rat’s curiosity towards novels or an attempt to strengthen his friendship with the narrator remains ambiguous. Regardless, his character development adds flavor to an already bittersweet story.

The Rat’s issues are taken a step further in Pinball, 1973. Thanks to his wealthy background, he’s able to spend every day at the bar and have drunken flings…but they’re not as fulfilling as actually living. He’s well aware that life is passing him by, and he has yet to find a purpose. There’s a vague notion that he needs to leave town and find his own place in the world, which is nicely illustrated with Rat’s association with the town’s waterfront. As a child, he used to go down to the beach every night; there was a beacon that would turn on at sunset, and he could sit on the pier and watch the waves. However, his current girlfriend undermines his nostalgia. She lives in an apartment near the beach, but loathes the location. She’s complains about the ocean and shuts the blinds on her window, thus cutting the Rat off from the allure it gave him. It’s foreshadowing their doomed relationship, as well as the Rat’s ever-growing wanderlust. While his decision seems obvious (and a foregone conclusion to English-speaking fans who read A Wild Sheep Chase first), his character development is satisfying.

The narrator’s storyline is a little less straightforward. He’s already made the transition into adulthood, but gets a serious case of nostalgia. His focus is on a pinball machine called Spaceship, which used to be part of the bar where he and the Rat frequented. He goes to great lengths to explain the appeal of playing pinball. The dazzling lights, and the rush of a well-played game, the satisfaction of a new high score…and the inevitable burnout. Anyone who has grown up with video games will understand the sentiments all too well. However, it was something more for him; he describes as an obsessive love affair; it is intense, costly, and ultimately fleeting. He also has to face the unfortunate reality: reliving your past isn’t as easy or fulfilling as it sounds, and most people won’t share your passion, let alone even know what you’re talking about. The narrator goes to great lengths in his search for Spaceship, but recapturing those moments is something else entirely.

Pinball, 1973 also serves as the starting point for Murakami’s signature elements. Anyone who’s read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle will perk up when the narrator mentions wells, and the name (and fate of) “Naoko” ought to give Norwegian Wood fans a jolt. There’s even a pair of identical twin girls – called 208 and 209 respectively – who inexplicably live with and interact with the narrator, yet he never questions their origins and possibly otherworldly existence. It all seems like typical Murakami, but not as structured or developed. Some of these aspects, much like the love interest from the first book, feel tacked on at best. Aside from providing the narrator a little emotional depth and some surreal conversations, they add little to the story. If anything, they’re the rough drafts of the stuff we’ve come to expect from the author.

They don’t make these novels necessarily bad, though. Every author, no matter how popular they are, has to start somewhere. Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 were Murakami’s first attempts at storytelling, and it shows. They’re not perfect by any means, but they do well at capturing the loneliness and confusion of someone coming of age. Longtime English-speaking fans will be glad to finally get the missing pieces of the Trilogy of the Rat and read the story as it was meant to be seen. Though far from Murakami’s finest, it’s still an interesting look into a great author’s humble beginnings.

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Lots Of Books, Not Enough Shelf

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about reading. Specifically, what books you’d reread if you have enough free time. Looking at my shelf…Well, it’s probably better to make a list. Consider these:

As you might guess, I have a thing for postmodernism and strange, but incredible narratives. I’ll gladly take another spin with Judge Holden, Charles Kinbote, and Randall Flagg any day of the week. I’ll always enjoy the blending of reality and magic, be it a house that is bigger on the inside than its outside, ancient deities trying to make in the modern world, or a library that stretches into infinity. The comedy and tragedy of characters like Yossarian and the staff of the 1985 Peoria IRS are both hilarious and tear-jerking every time.

Oh, nostalgia. Maybe I’ll go another round with these soon…

Overnight In LAX

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about passing time. Specifically, passing time when you’re stuck in an airport for more than six hours, and you’ve got no electronics to fall back on. This exact scenario actually happened to me on the way back from Aruba in 2013. Due to how the connecting flights played out, I was stuck at LAX from midnight to about 8:30 AM. And I’ve posted pictures to prove it. As you can probably imagine, being alone in an airport all night isn’t fun. Actually, it’s kinda creepy. All the stores were locked up, and I was the only human being in that area for quite a while. I’m the type that loves solitude, but I was getting some serious Langoliers vibes after a couple of hours.

I’ve never been the type to depend so much on electronics for boredom. My iPod gets some time, but I tend to leave it off to spare the battery, or if I’m exploring someplace new. Though I work primarily from a laptop, I never take it with me while I travel. I didn’t even get a smart phone until about a month ago, and I’ve made maybe ten calls on it since. When I was in LAX, I still had a flip phone from 2003. I also had my 3DS, but I was saving its remaining power for the rest of the flight home. Instead, I did something far more engrossing: I read. I read for hours. I’m used to doing so on cramped, loud subways and buses, so reading in a silent airport gate was a godsend. A janitor crew came by at some point, but ignored me. I burned through American Gods and most of Norwegian Wood, then eventually fell asleep. You’d be surprised how comfortable those chairs can be. I woke up to the sound of someone opening the security gate at the Starbucks down the hall. Half an hour later, and my once-peaceful world was overrun with weary tourists and screaming kids.

It was good while it lasted.

Daily Prompt: Fear Factor, Or: Rejection VS Individuality

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about fear. Namely, what do you fear. Don’t be fooled by anyone who claims to be fearless. They’re either covering up insecurity, a computer, or an alien. Maybe all three. Everyone has a fear; it’s one of the defining aspects of your humanity. It’s a natural, instinctual response your body has to perceived threats. It’s just a matter of exactly what it is. For me, it’s nothing tangible. I don’t fear death, the dark, insects, etc. I mentioned recently that my fear is living a meaningless existence. Life is inherently meaningless; it’s up to each individual to find their own meaning. Putting that into practice is not only hard, but scary as well. What do you do when the whole world is out there, and you don’t have a dream? The scope of it is downright terrifying.

While this kind of fear works well for philosophical discussion, this particular prompt calls for something a little less…overarching. So, how about something a bit more intimate: Rejection. I’m not talking about the romantic kind; given the amount of barely-averted looks and flirts directed toward me, I wouldn’t have any problems…if I actually tried going with it. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a textbook introvert. I’m really shy and I try to avoid being in large groups of people. Not because I necessarily despise them, but because interactions are tiring, and I never know what to say. Hey, let’s see you bring up the psychologically manipulative set designs of The Shining or the recurring themes in Haruki Murakami’s novels the next time you’re chatting a party. By all means, go ahead. All I get those confused stares, a request to speak up, or a lingering sense that I never should have opened my mouth in the first place. I get through it with a (hopefully) charming smile and heavy doses of sarcasm. A lot of people find it endearing. Others ask me what planet I’m from. I scramble for the quietest corner, take out the book I smuggled along with me, and leave my horribly awkward real world behind.

But why?

It’s a lot easier to close yourself off from what you fear. Since I dread rejection so much, then why bother interacting with people at all? Oh wait, that’s right! Social interaction is the core tenet of human civilization. Can’t get around that one, can I? Well, technically I can, but it’d cost me my sanity. Pretty sure that’s something you want to hang on to. So since shutting everyone out isn’t feasible, that means dealing with the fear in question. How exactly am I supposed to do that? That’s not a rhetorical question; I really don’t know. It’s been a part of me for as far back as I can remember. A lot of my elders were – and still are – religiously conservative. Look, I’m not going to start a debate about this. I have no problem with religion; some folks need something to believe in. But when you use religion to oppress and slaughter people who don’t share your views? Yeah, humanity doesn’t exactly have a spotless record. Now, imagine trying to be the model son raised by conservative, often absent parents. Sound difficult? Try doing that with an independent streak as big and deep as mine. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not very fun. I was the kind of kid who’d always ask the difficult questions, the one who wanted everything explained in non-sugarcoated detail. The phrase “Because I said so!” was never good enough for me, and I refused to accept excuses. Many adults found it irritating, and it hasn’t won me many fans in my adult life. There are some at my church who still won’t even look at me.

Well shucks, I’m so sorry that I can’t just play along. That must be such an inconvenience.

I’m not trying to be rebellious. I’m really not. I just need to experience the world on my own terms. New ideas and concepts are fascinating, but not necessarily feasible for me. My concern isn’t so much about religious beliefs, laws, structure, etc. The only thing that matters is if it works. And a lot of what does work for me doesn’t do so for the people in my personal and professional life. I’d been rejected, bullied, and dismissed so many times growing up that I learned to expect it. Trying to conform to others’ expectations left me an emotional wreck. I’ve let myself become less restrictive, though. My contempt for gender roles is probably the most noticeable result. I’ve got enough long, curly hair to resemble a young Robert Plant or Dustin Hoffman’s Captain Hook. I rock the androgynous look. A lot of women find it fascinating and ask me about it, but others just frown disapprovingly or assume I’m transgendered. I stopped caring years ago. If I’m in a suit, I’ll occasionally get asked if I moonlight in a heavy metal band. I’m one of the few people on either side of my family that actively reads and writes. People think I’m weird because I don’t spend my free time on Facebook, clinging to my phone, watching sports, or going bar-hopping. I don’t know anyone else my age that doesn’t drink. You try being the only sober person in at a party. Or how about hearing the phrase, “Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” Gee, I don’t know. Maybe because it’s hard to trust people when you’re an outcast.

Just saying.

Gah, what a mess. I need to work on the self-confidence thing. How do I get over social phobia? There’s got to be a niche for me out there somewhere. If not, I’ll just have to carve out my own. That’s got to count for a little bit of courage, right?

Daily Prompt: Playtime, Or: Work Hard, Play Hard!

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is about playtime. I’m going to assume that this refers to when I’m at home, and not traveling abroad. This one’s actually kind of tricky for me because I tend to combine play and work. I’ve mentioned before that I’m a prolific amateur game reviewer. Video games have been a part of my life from the start; I learned how to play Yars’ Revenge and Kaboom! before I could run. I didn’t have many games growing up, but I started building a collection once I entered college. Between all the on-disc anthologies, ports, and stuff I’ve acquired from publishers or acquaintances, my library includes somewhere around 800 titles. Over the years my tastes have refined; I look at everything I play with a critical eye, and it’s certainly not limited to just 7-9/10. The company or gaming platform is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is if it works, and how well. I also don’t play into the politics that a lot of mainstream review sites have succumbed. Getting free swag and advertising is nice, but that has no impact on the game itself. A good product should be able to stand on its own.

Also, I always actually play the game I’m reviewing. Some reviewers play only a few hours before making their decision, which means that any important storyline twists or gameplay developments (I’m looking at you, Mass Effect 3 and God Hand!) are overlooked. A lot of reviewers are pressured into covering games as quickly as possible; I recall one holiday season in which five AAA titles (each of which was at least 20 hours long) showed up on my doorstep in a week. How is a person supposed to deal with that kind of workload in a timely manner without sacrificing quality? What’s worse, some game studios use such biased review scores as way to determine the bonuses – and livelihoods – of its designers. Review scores are not objective, so basing an entire studio on them is impractical, if not dangerous.

No wonder the game journalism world is such a mess.

Wow, rereading that was pretty depressing. For a second there, I wondered why I even bother reviewing. It’s because I don’t have to deal with the same kind of pressure as the mainstream guys. I’m not getting advertising, the swag is relatively limited, I can cover more obscure stuff, and I’m not constrained by time. That way I can approach the game at a better pace, figure things out, and come up with something that isn’t a rushed, overgeneralized excuse of a review. I don’t think it’s possible to fully quantify an experience with just a numerical score. Instead of focusing on the #/10, I focus on purely persuasive writing. That’s what reviews are, after all. If I can argue my perspective well, then a number tacked on at the end isn’t needed. I’ve conveyed my idea, and it’s up to the reader to use his/her own reasoning to agree or not. I’d like to think people have enough rational thought not to be swayed by just a number, even I am disappointed constantly.

Enough about reviews. I can go into that later. When I’m not reviewing a game, there are a few old standbys that I always fall back upon. I love puzzles, so the Professor Layton series is always a pleasant distraction. I’m practically obsessed with any game that uses nonograms as well. I fell in love with Persona 4 partly due to its adherence (and accuracy) to Jungian psychology. I start up a new game of Symphony of the Night just so I can explore the castle – which is still one of the greatest works of art in gaming history – and try to find some little detail I missed the last time. Chances are, I will. Not to mention its amazing soundtrack, which I will be posting here all too soon. While Metal Gear Solid 3 is a superior game from nearly every standpoint, I have a soft spot for MGS2 and its use of postmodernism. You could teach a course on postmodernism with that game. However, the top spot on my most-replayed list is Street Fighter III: Third Strike. I’ve been playing it frequently since its online release in 2011, so much so that I’m currently the 8th ranked Chun-Li on PSN. Seriously, look me up.

Gaming aside, I usually read and/or study. I spent this summer reading through Haruki Murakami’s bibliography. I’ve been making a lot of headway with the works of Umberto Eco, David Foster Wallace, Alice Munro, Roberto Bolaño, H.P. Lovecraft, Cormac McCarthy, and Gabriel García Márquez. I also acquired all three volumes of The Graphic Canon, which is absolutely stunning in its range and style. I’m also a fan of the annual Best American Series, particularly its short story volumes. There are far, far more examples I could post, but I’d be typing this entry all night. I’ll post a full list of my list here soon (pretty sure it’s around 600 physical books by now), but I’m open to any suggestions. That goes both ways, too; given my obsession with books and criticism, my foray into literary reviews is inevitable.

When I’m not reading, I’m typically watching movies or anime. I’ll say this right off: if you want to get someone interested in anime, have them watch Cowboy Bebop. This was my generation’s introduction to the genre, and what an introduction it was. Interstellar bounty hunters, film noir, crime drama, science fiction, mystery, action, comedy, clever writing, superb voice acting…this has it all. Even if you don’t watch it, listen to the soundtrack by the legendary Yoko Kanno. Trust me. If you like something a bit more subtle in its surreality, check out Haruhi Suzumiya. A brash and self-centered high school girl wishes her life was full of adventure. What she doesn’t know is that she can warp reality, and that her friends are aliens, time travelers, and espers. What happens when someone has the power to rewrite the universe and doesn’t know it? Things get…interesting. Same goes for Death Note, which focuses on a villainous protagonist that gains the power to kill anyone with a few pen strokes, and the famous (but eccentric) detective determined to catch him. I’ve also made a point of finding Hayao Miyazaki’s films, and I’ve yet to be disappointed. On the 3D side of films, I’ve got a huge soft spot for The Shining, so much so that I can quote pretty much any scene verbatim. Same goes with Jurassic Park, The Silence of the Lambs, Apollo 13, The Thing, and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

When I’m not doing all that…well, I’m trying to learn how to draw using an digital tablet. It’s really hard, because I’m much more used to brushes and paints.  I wish I was good enough of an artist to make my own web comic, like El Goonish Shive. Or even a graphic novel adaptation, like Don Quixote. I don’t have the screen presence to become the next Nostalgia Critic, but I can snark Rifftrax-style with the best of them. Nor do I have the voice (and amount of friends) needed to copy Two Best Friends Play. Oh, and you may have noticed I have a thing for LEGOs

What do you do for fun?