An old Chinese curse goes along the lines of, “May he be blessed to live in interesting times.” Insinuating that times of danger and uncertainty are the most creative times in history. However, I disagree, a simple life is a life worth living. Children when they are born are endowed with a fundamental sense of fairness, right, wrong, and justice. And while they lack the cognitive functions to see the nuances of these issues it’s still a point worth making. Meursault’s life and characterization go against his base human biological state, exemplifying his general lack of moral compass or lack of acknowledgment of said compass. While Meursault is a human, he does miss a certain part of being a human, the innate sense of accountability that almost all humans feel, and this transgression is shown rather brutally. While the court, trial, and justice system is not the perfect example of this innate sense of right and wrong endowed on children, it serves as a sort of caricature of it. Meursault is almost an observer, and when he is yanked out of his orbit and brought down to reality, he is forced to confront the fact that he is not quite like the others. A simple life is often a life living, but too simple of a life seemingly strips away an innate human aspect.
From a normal book/story perspective, The Elephant Vanishes is a good story. It does everything right and hits all hallmarks of an average story. It keeps you engaged, is cohesive, has very presentable and digestible themes, and has a natural logical conclusion (rhetorically wise, it ends with an event that drives a pragmatic person insane). But one thing is different about this story, something stands out, something doesn’t fit in. Perspective.
A story about an elephant and his keeper has a shockingly low amount of dialogue from the elephant and his keeper, it actually has no amount of dialogue directly from these characters. Murakami took a different approach to the telling and perspective of the narrative of this story when he went about writing it. Instead of having the reader come to know, relate, and eventually understand the elephant and the keeper, both individually and their relationship to one another, via dialogue, interactions with themselves, and other characters, it was done entirely through indirect characterization. The narrator is an unnamed man who we come to learn about and understand through traditional methods (direct characterization), everything we know about the keeper and elephant is through the lens of this man. We learn about how the narrator thinks, how he acts, how he lives, and how he adapts. He remarks upon himself at the end of the story commenting on how he has made his company a lot of money because of him, showing he is adept at anticipating and accommodating the ever-evolving needs of the consumer base we know he has 0 relations to. When asked how he feels about his work he mentions that he has a personal and professional opinion. He mentions that in his professional opinion he believes that each kitchen should have a certain unity, and his personal opinion is that he doesn’t really care. To him, a kitchen is a kitchen and it really doesn’t need more than the basic essentials to function. Not only does this display his pragmatism, it also shows that despite not being emotionally invested or relating any way to his work, but he can also still put himself in the place of the consumers and anticipate what they would want. He is a man who is incredibly capable of adapting to his current environment, he logically dissects his situation and responds appropriately. Another way we are shown how he thinks and approaches situations is in his conversation with the unnamed woman he meets at a party. He is very aware of the situation he is in and is acutely aware that the topic would immediately end all real conversations or chemistry they had. Murakami characterized the narrator as someone who is adaptable, pragmatic, obsessive, and aware. This is the lens through which the story is told, and the lens through which this story is taken to a new level.
A story about an elephant and zoo keeper vanishing is not an entirely new, inventive, groundbreaking, or particularly interesting topic. However, the perspective of the story makes it such. We get to see how this event unfolds through the lens of someone we have come to know and have a good grasp on their character. It deeply disturbs him as it is something that cannot be logically explained. It started as something that he would take a bit of his time out of in the morning to keep track of, or an interesting topic to read and ponder about to something that is actively intruding into his personal life and has introduced a chaotic imbalance into his life. When discussing the elephant with the woman at the party, he talks about him glimpsing the elephant shrinking and the keeper enlarging. The woman is perplexed but can fathom this, the narrator, however, trusts what he sees but is disturbed by it. He saw something that could not, should not, and would not have normally happened. And he tries, but ultimately fails to grasp it, and it shows in how he comments on how he doesn’t think he can trust his own perceptions anymore. His sense of normality and comfort in his surrounding has been replaced with a sense of uneasiness and imbalance. And this is where we see the true impact of the elephant vanishes. We as the reader cannot truly fathom the premise of the story, it’s not something we can relate to in any way shape, or form. But through the characterization and progression of the story through the narrative element of the unnamed narrator, we can see the actual effects of the story. Transforming a decent story and premise into a masterclass on how to change a story through perspective.
If you have read what makes a good reader and a good writer then you should understand what Nabokov wants. He, quite explicitly, says he wants “an artistic harmonious balance between the reader’s mind and the author’s mind.” However, I disagree. Nabokov, in my interpretation of his writing, doesn’t know what he wants from readers. I know what he wants from writers, he wants enchanters, he wants wizards, and he wants deceivers. This is clearly stated when he says “A major writer combines these three—storyteller, teacher, enchanter—but it is the enchanter in him that predominates and makes him a major writer.” But, when it comes to readers, he is unclear. He says that a reader must have an imagination, not a first-rate one, but an expansive imagination capable of comprehending the story, interpreting the story, then reinventing the author’s story. But he also says that “the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use.” The source of imagination is inspiration, and we take inspiration from everything we see, everything we do, and everything we know. The way I see it, Nabokov is saying that to be a truly greater reader, someone who is able to achieve a true artistic harmonious balance between author and reader, they must be able to imagine the world in an entirely different way. Real writers reinvent the world, they are not bound by a specific subject or event. They simply take a normal story or idea and reinvent it in a way that the reader has to utilize their imagination to understand it. But Nabokov says that if you relate to a character, then your imagination is lowly and undesirable. This perturbs me because it’s as if Nabokov is discrediting an entire approach to reading, interpreting, and envisioning. It’s as if he is gatekeeping his imagination to a specific interpretation. And this, I believe, muddies his claim as there are multiple ways of reading and writing and they shouldn’t be bound by an idyllic measure. I think that all reading and writing intrinsically have their own value and none are inherently better or worse. While Nabokov does say that he doesn’t want the reader to think this way and that he doesn’t explicitly say that relating to a character discredits the reader’s imagination, I believe that his claim of proper reading being an artistic harmonious balance is unable to be achieved or is at least fundamentally flawed when a writer sets a precedent upon the reader. The writer had a set of expectations for how a reader should or should not think upon beginning to read a piece of literature is something Nabokov himself warns against, “Nothing is more boring or more unfair to the author than starting to read, say, Madame Bovary, with the preconceived notion that it is a denunciation of the bourgeoisie. We should always remember that the work of art is invariably the creation of a new world, so the first thing we should do is to study that new world as closely as possible, approaching it as something brand new, having no obvious connection with
the worlds we already know.” While I do personally think Nabokov’s claim is inherently flawed and is contradicting in nature, I still think there is still value in it, just as there is still value in every form of imagination and interpretation.