Henry James vs. Haruki Murakami: A Deal Me In Short Story Challenge.

Tmurakami jameshis post concludes my first round of the Deal Me In Short Story Reading Challenge.

While I expected to finish back in August, I have enjoyed the challenge so much that I’ve already set up, and started on, a second set of stories and essays.  I’ve added essays to the challenge for  Non-fiction November.

For this final round in my first deck I had only two cards left, “The Figure in the Carpet” by the master of the short form Henry James and “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes”  by Haruki Murakami who is not slouch.

I’ve been trying to find connections between the two stories I draw as part of the challenge, sort of a challenge challenge.  It was easy at first, but got harder as I went along. This time it was pretty tough.

“The Figure in the Carpet” is another backstage story, by which I mean it’s about writers and publishing.  The narrator is a big fan of Hugh Vereker, a writer of great ability and renown.  The narrator, who has had a few things published in various smaller magazines, gets a chance to meet the great Hugh Vereker at a party.  He finds the author friendly, open to his opinions about writing in general and about Vereker’s work in particular.  But soon into the conversation Vereker tells the narrator that he, like everyone else who has ever read his work, has missed the key factor, the one thing that would unlock it all.  No one has ever figured out what he was really doing all these years.  No one has been able to see the figure in the carpet.

The narrator goes back to re-read all of Vereker’s work to try to figure things out, but he cannot.  Vereker won’t tell him, won’t give him the slightest hint.  Vereker does tell his young wife, but she will not tell anyone either, certainly not the narrator.  In a more typical James ending, something would have been revealed, usually something that makes everything else appear different than it did before.  But here the great man goes to his grave his secrets in tact.  We never do find out what he was really up to in his writing.

At less that one tenth the length of Henry James’s story, Murakmi’s “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” is the magical kind of Murakami his most dedicated fans love.  His narrator enters a contest to make a new confection based on Sharpie Cakes.  At stake are two million yen, enough money for the narrator to marry his girlfriend.  He spends a month working on a new sharpie cake.  Afterwards, he his called in by the company and told that he is the winner, but they are not sure that his cakes are true Sharpie Cakes.  The older employee think they are not Sharpie Cakes while the younger employees think they are true Sharpie Cakes.

The Sharpie Crows must decide his fate.  The Shaprie Crows are crows that eat only Sharpie Cakes. Since they will only eat true Sharpie Cakes, if they eat the narrator’s cakes, then the dispute will be settled.  If they don’t the dispute will also be settled, but the narrator will not get the two million yen.

Without giving away the ending, the narrator does not get the prize money, but the reader doesn’t know if his Sharpie Cakes are true Sharpie Cakes either because the crows cannot agree.

Which is kind of a connection between the two stories.  Neither has an open ending, not at all, but both stories leave their central question unanswered. We don’t know if the Sharpie Cakes are true Sharpie Cakes, nor do we ever find out what it was  Hugh Vereker’  considered the key to his work.

I wonder if both stories have the same message, ultimately.  Murakami’s is so playful, so fanciful, that I could be easily reading much more into it than I should, but James’s story makes a case against authorial intent, in my view.  Since we can never really know what the author really intended, the best we can ever have is the author’s word and why should we believe him, we are left to make of stories what we will.  At the end of the day, we just have the text in front of us.  How we choose to read it is our own concern.

The same message seems to come through in Murakami’s story.  The narrator knows that his Sharpie Cakes are real, but the birds cannot come to a consensus.  They disagree to the point of violence while the narrator walks away determined to make and eat his own cakes without giving in to the opinion of “damned Sharpie Crows.”   We can read the Sharpie Crows as critics and the company employees as an audience, but nethier group can decide if the narrator’s Sharpie Cakes are true Sharpie Cakes or not.  Murakmi’s narrator is an author refusing to care what his critics and his audience really thinks.  James’s narrator is a reader/critic who will never know what the author really thinks.

Me, I think I’m  just going to draw another set of cards and see what happens.

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2 Comments

  1. Jay says:

    I’d say that by the end of your post you’d done a pretty good job of connecting these two. 🙂 I’m happy to hear that you’ve had fun with Deal Me In and are starting a new deck. Will you be posting a “roster” for your second round? I’ve enjoyed reading your posts from deck one and the connection twist you’ve added.
    -Jay

    1. My second roster of stories is already posted. I’m including a bunch of non-fiction essays this time around to tie in with Non-fiction November and my general interest in reading short non-fiction. I should have my first post up by the end of this week.

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