RAINBIRDS by Clarissa Goenawan
Soho Press, March 6, 2018
Rainbirds by Haruki Murakami – sorry, Clarissa Goenawan – is about a man who attempts to investigate the murder of his sister by traveling to her home in Akakawa. It’s also the most derivative book I’ve ever read.
Look, I don’t usually mind when the influence of another author is clearly present in a novel. Writers are influenced by other writers, this is how art has always been created. If We Were Villains is like The Secret History; The Book Collector is like Rebecca. It happens. But where the novels I just cited each have their own voice, their own distinctive characters, their own intriguing stories to tell, Rainbirds just… doesn’t. My main problem with this book is that I’ve read it before, but it was called The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle then.
I do like Murakami, but I have to admit there’s a certain formula to his novels. Clarissa Goenawan follows that formula to a T. There’s the apathetic, attractive-yet-disinterested protagonist, Ren (Toru Okada, Toru Watanabe), the fiesty young loner girl who captures his interest, Seven Stars (May Kasahara, Midori…), and several alluring women who wallpaper the background of the novel, all of whom confide inexplicably in the protagonist and share their life stories with him. The Apathetic Everyman protagonist is searching for something, but he isn’t quite sure what, and he needs to be drawn into the lives of these random strangers in order to achieve clarity, in some roundabout way. And there’s also a sort of magical realism influence where the atmosphere is just a bit odd and we have to listen to characters relay their dreams in exhausting detail.
I mean, even the chapter headings are like this:
World and the
Woman with a Mole
on the Back of
This isn’t a ‘fans of Murakami will love this novel’ situation, it’s just… why don’t you just read Murakami instead?
Anyway, even the tone of the novel is trying very hard for the elegant simplicity that Jay Rubin achieves in his English language translations of Murakami, but here it comes off as sophomoric rather than intentionally artful. Sentences like “The day my sister died, a part of me died, too” and “I was shocked to find her in my class. Was it fate?” and “As I was flipping through one of the books, a piece of paper fell out. Something told me it might be important” caused more than a few eye-rolls.
As for the story itself, there is nothing original or noteworthy here. It’s not really a mystery, or a thriller, or an introspective character study (that would be a stretch, since Ren has literally no personality), or the exploration of small-town Japanese culture that it claims to be. It’s just a collection of quirky characters telling Ren their stories while he sleeps with a bunch of different women (even though he has a girlfriend the entire time) who are inexplicably drawn to him, even though he has all the charisma of soggy cardboard. Here’s where Murakami’s influence really began to annoy me – I feel like there’s an undeniably masculine thread to all of his novels that Clarissa Goenawan was in a perfect position to subvert, as a female writer, but instead she gives us a thoroughly uninteresting male protagonist and tells us to root for him without giving us much reason to.
The atmosphere was nice and it held my attention the entire time, and I certainly didn’t hate this passionately enough to warrant a 1-star rating, but I’m just… not sure what I was supposed to take away from this book aside from the knowledge that Clarissa Goenawan is a massive Murakami fan.