norwegian-woodNorwegian Wood is a slow book with only a little story, but I did not want it to be faster and I did not want there to be more. Someone once said that being a writer is like being a paleontologist digging up a dinosaur skeleton – and praying you don’t break anything as you transfer it from idea to paper. This book constitutes perfect paleontology. Few books are as precise and well realised.

However, parts of the Norwegian Wood skeleton are still underground. Even at the end there questions unanswered, and reasons and whyfors unexplained. Murakami must have decided that they were better off as secrets in the earth. What’s left is an understated but moving story of a young man courting a young woman in 1960s Japan. It’s a fiction book, but one feels justified in thinking that Murakami is transcribing some of his own experiences – he was a college student in Tokyo through this period.

Norwegian Wood has lots of exciting and dramatic and funny moments, all of them written in Murakami’s trademark understated style. Some writers leap and cavort for your attention. Murakami assumes he already has it. Some parts of the book feel real enough to make you uncomfortable. At his best moments, Murakami connects with the reader and makes him feel like he’s actually experiencing a love story, not just reading one.

The characters seem simultaneously realistic and exaggerated, from the disturbed Naoko to the charismatic Nagasawa to the friendly but unknowable Kizuki, whose death is the catalyst for most of the events in the book. They come across as types, but also as people. Main character Toru Watanabe is rudderless and confused, as many young people are, but he’s not uncaring. In fact, he cares too much. Away at college, away from his troubled girlfriend, he starts to feel attraction for another girl. This love triangle forces to make a choice, but that choice merely deepens problems and adds more responsibility to this young man. But that’s the way of things. Choices multiply into more choices, until eventually you’re middle aged and wondering what happened.

Norwegian Wood is a love story, but Murakami sublets narrative space to lots of other ideas. He gets in some shots at student activists, who want to overthrow the system until they graduate and need the system to supply them with a job. He gives Toru a funny roommate who is so likeable that I was saddened when he disappeared from the story. Music is often a prominent feature of this writer’s books, and you could put together a pretty comprehensive 60s compilation album from songs mentioned in Norwegian Wood.

Ultimately, you could view Norwegian story as a symbolic tale of a man facing two paths…and two girls. One is his past, the other his future. The ending is cruel for everyone involved, especially the reader, as he is cut out of one crucial piece of information about what happens to Toru.

But again, that follows from life. We can roll the dice and make decisions…and never know whether we chose correctly or not. I like Norwegian Wood a lot, maybe because it feels like I’m reading about myself.

No Comments »

kanalittlesisterThey talk about being a big fish in a small pond. Kana Little Sister is a whale imprisoned in a raindrop. In 1999, the hentai/eroge industry (“Do You Like Horny Bunnies”, “Battle Raper”, etc) released this very sad and emotional game, which is unlike any other h-title I’ve played or heard about. It has sexual content, but it could be deleted off the disc without affecting the experience. Kana exists to exposit one of gaming’s most tragic love stories, and tissues will now absorb other bodily fluids.

The game is about the coming of age of siblings Taka and Kana. Kana suffers from chronic renal failure. The expectation is that she will die at some point. Taka is initially resentful of Kana, but their relationship soon changes into friendship and then sexual intimacy. The game explores a lot of deep themes, like forbidden love and acceptance of death. I enjoyed the story, as well as Taka and Kana’s relationship, which is given beautiful frisson by the fact that it will not last.

The word “game” keeps coming up but Kana deserves it no more than the word “hentai”. This is the least interactive “game” I’ve ever seen, you just click dialogue options and get railroaded to one of six endings. Even though you play it less than you “play” an ink and paper RL Stine “Give Yourself Goosebumps” book, the minimalistic gameplay actually works to keep your attention on the story.

The art is nice. The music is repetitive and distracting. There’s no voice acting. The whole thing takes about five hours to complete. Kana’s an embodiment of function over form. It has little to offer if you want production values, it relies on content to woo the player. But honestly, I still have reservations about the whole “player” thing. Know what you’re getting into with this one: it’s not a game, it’s a vaguely interactive novel. And that might be a problem. Kana has one of the most emotionally affecting stories ever seen in a videogame, but if you judge “Kana” as a book…well, there’s a bit more competition there, no?

Kana is not great literature. It draws an emotional reaction in the same way a soap opera does. Sometimes the story’s twists and turns feel organic and natural. Sometimes they come across as phony and manipulative. And that’s a shame. Kana is too great to be a hentai game…but not good enough to cut it as a book. It’s stuck somewhere between worlds. Someone looking for porn won’t find it here, and it probably won’t win over highbrow lit fans. I’m reminded of a chrysalis. One one end a caterpillar, on the other end a butterfly…and in between there’s this really odd thing that doesn’t seem to belong.

Kana Little Sister is an interesting game, and certainly worth checking out. It will probably draw a “that’s it?” reaction from many players. It’s short, it’s crude, and it’s barely interactive. But when the story gets going, you will forget about all of that. In the tale of Taka and Kana there’s something very rare in a game storyline: inspiration.

No Comments »

soldiersoftomorrowThe black man paid for his taxi. As he swiped his credit card, the driver saw his name: E TREY.

For most people, names are who you are. The sum over the dotted line of the ledger.

For Trey, names were hats. Today, he wore this one. It was not necessarily the same one he wore yesterday, or would wear tomorrow.

Goodbyes were exchanged (an effusive fairwell from the taxi-driver, a small nod from Trey), and then he walked down the street, towards his contact’s address. It was an expensive house. The government had paid for it.

Trey had taken 30mg of dextroamphetamine before the assignment, and he was wired. His brain felt like it was simultaneously exploding and imploding and melting and freezing. He couldn’t stand still. His vision darted from quadrant to quadrant, mentally noting escape routes and ambush points. Plans and ideas tumbled through his mind in lunatic tickertape.

He had taken care to look nondescript, but bystanders looked uncomfortable as Trey passed by. Nothing about his appearance was egregiously wrong, but he stood out. Psycho-stimulants and years of monklike training had turned him into something as inhuman as straw stuffed into a suit.

Trey approached the house, and knocked on the door. Five seconds passed with torturous slowness to his overstimulated brain, then he knocked again – harder.

The door opened, and a woman in her forties filled the doorway. Her smile showed lots of teeth. “Hi, I’m Jo, how can I help you?”

“Hello, Jo. Your real name is Isabelle McKittrick. I’m Emmanuel Trey, and I work for the National Intelligence Directorate.”

Not-Jo’s smile began showing less teeth by the second. “I’m sorry? Who are you?”

Trey produced a ID card. Buzzwords swarmed on it like soldiers occupying a barricade. INTELLIGENCE ANALYST. STAGE 5 CLEARANCE. “Ms McKittrick, we are short on time. Twenty years ago, you were recruited for the NID’s so-called Wet Encryption program. In this capacity, you agreed to memorise certain numbers and codes. The NID relocated you under a false name, and told you to keep your head down. In exchange for a monthly stipend, you became the protector of various government assets. ”

As Trey spoke, her expression changed from confusion to comprehension. But the smile did not return. She looked as though she would rather not be there at the moment.

“The short of it, Ms McKittrick, is that there has been a security breach. Some of these assets are now in jeopardy. I need you to come with me. You are a human key, and our agency needs the codes in your head. ”

No Comments »