The End of Oulipo?

The End of Oulipo? My book (co-authored with Lauren Elkin), published by Zero Books. Available everywhere. Order it from Amazon, or find it in bookstores nationwide. The End of Oulipo

Lady Chatterley’s Brother

Lady Chatterley's Brother. The first ebook in the new TQC Long Essays series, Lady Chatterley's Brothercalled “an exciting new project” by Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent. Why can't Nicholson Baker write about sex? And why can Javier Marias? We investigate why porn is a dead end, and why seduction paves the way for the sex writing of the future. Read an excerpt.

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Translate This Book!

Ever wonder what English is missing? Called "a fascinating Life Perecread" by The New Yorker, Translate This Book! brings together over 40 of the top translators, publishers, and authors to tell us what books need to be published in English. Get it on Kindle.

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Naked Singularity

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Life A User's Manual by Georges Perec

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Interviews from Conversational Reading

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See this page for interviews with leading authors, translators, publishers, and more.


  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante September 16, 2014
    Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is […]
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić September 15, 2014
    As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored […]
  • The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar September 15, 2014
    At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik […]
  • Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories September 15, 2014
    Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of "The Unseen," experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to enterta […]
  • Berlin Now by Peter Schneider September 15, 2014
    In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in […]
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente September 15, 2014
    In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a […]
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner September 15, 2014
    “It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but […]
  • Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though […]
  • An Interview with Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fict […]
  • The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu September 15, 2014
    In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quali […]

Translation and Murakami

As a sort of act of research, due diligence, and, I admit, masochism, I decided to read all the 1Q84 reviews, now that I’ve made up my own mind about the book. I’d expected Sam Anderson’s NYT Magazine profile to be pretty bad, but I didn’t realize exactly how bad it could become until I read this:

You could even say that translation is the organizing principle of Murakami’s work: that his stories are not only translated but about translation. The signature pleasure of a Murakami plot is watching a very ordinary situation (riding an elevator, boiling spaghetti, ironing a shirt) turn suddenly extraordinary (a mysterious phone call, a trip down a magical well, a conversation with a Sheep Man) — watching a character, in other words, being dropped from a position of existential fluency into something completely foreign and then being forced to mediate, awkwardly, between those two realities. A Murakami character is always, in a sense, translating between radically different worlds: mundane and bizarre, natural and supernatural, country and city, male and female, overground and underground. His entire oeuvre, in other words, is the act of translation dramatized.

If you know anything at all about translation, that simply makes no sense. At its most basic, translation is about producing equivalents in different languages. But the relationship between, say, English and Russian is not one of opposites, like the relationship of ordinary/extraordinary. Quite to the contrary, translation goes entirely beyond dichotomies, which is one reason why I find it so fascinating. Moreover, translation is not about stripping something mundane from one context and forcing it to change so that it may learn to exist in a completely different context. If anything, it is the opposite: taking something mundane and presenting it precisely as such in different context, and asking that context to change so that it might see how this alien reality could be mundane.

But, really, my biggest problem with this commentary is that it’s just so bland. You could say the exact same thing about the work of countless novelists . . . these vague notions about what Murakami does in no way speak to whatever his unique achievement as a novelist might be (and, worse, the piece simply assumes that a unique achievement has been made).

Likewise, Charles Baxter’s review in the New York Review of Books is full of relatively bland and/or misleading statements dressed up as profundities. For instance:

What’s fascinating about 1Q84 is its ambivalence about “the logic of reality” and its wish to plunge the reader into the “far greater power” of Unreality’s unlogic, which has the advantage of revolutionary fervor and reformism. Unrealism rejects what we have, or what the newspapers say we have, as uncongenial and loathsome and unsustainable, and offers up its own alternative. Within the subcultures it creates, almost all questions are answered. Fantasies are enacted. Beauty is reinstalled as a category. Everyday objects take on magical properties and serve as fetishes. Fiction, as Murakami knows perfectly well, can and does serve as a mirror world itself. It can both evoke Unrealism and collaborate with it, or it may deny it entirely. Fiction, then, can serve as both the poison and its antidote, though it is not scrupulously clear in 1Q84 whether Fuka-Eri’s novel Air Chrysalis has functioned as a cultural antitoxin or a hallucinogenic. Are novels good or bad for us? Tengo himself is not sure. Perhaps it is the wrong question.

By this definition, “Unrealism” has existed for decades (and under far better names), and for Murakami to simply create an “Unrealist” world is nothing new. And as with Anderson, Baxter’s description of the novel is hardly a precise statement—it can be applied to all sorts of novels—and it gives no indication of any particular, or particularly interesting, achievement Murakami has made.

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  1. Translation Panel Write-up Critical Mass has posted my write-up of the translation panel I was on last week at City Lights. In my opinion, it was a very...
  2. Signs of Life from Murakami? Count me among those disappointed by most of Haruki Murakami's efforts post-The Windup Bird Chronicle. Not that he's written anything terrible since his masterpiece,...
  3. Murakami Wins Frank O'Connor Prize Murakami Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman has won the second annual Frank O’Connor prize. This prize received a lot of yoo-ha in the news last year...
  4. Murakami Via the Literary Saloon, the Germans are getting Murakami before us, but reports that we will have to wait until 2010 may be overblown. A...
  5. Murakami Movie Only because I love this guy. Reading a novel or short story by Japanese author Haruki Murakami is like picking at a thread that eventually...

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1 comment to Translation and Murakami

  • l

    I also thought the interview was just bad. For me the low point was the meandering description of getting to the interview. Anyone who has read anything about traveling to Tokyo knows that very few people speak any other languages, the subway signs are solely in Japanese and that the streets are notoriously unmarked. Yet this guy is so clueless that he finally needs to call Murakami to send someone to lead him to the author’s house. The tone of I’m adorably clueless continued throughout the interview, and drove me nuts.

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