This tail-chasing novel is depressing as hell. It is also, even more depressingly, probably a not-too-distorted mirror of reality. The story is a kind of theme-and-variations thing focused on senseless violence. A young man murders a woman for no reason and brags about it to his buddies at their weekly get-together. From there, Ryu Murakami spins escalating variations. (Note: American readers frequently confuse Ryu Murakami with Haruki Murakami; they are very different writers.)
The get-together is barely that, and the men, in fact, are not so much friends or buddies as a bunch of guys who have nothing better to do. They eat some food and drink a little, but the point of their get-togethers is not eating or getting drunk. There is no point. There was no point to the murder.
And thatís Murakamiís point: there isnít one. We are senseless and violent. Learn to live with it.
The murdered woman, meanwhile, was a member of the Midori Club. Like the boys, these women gather on a regular basis. Unlike the men, though, they at least have something in common: they are abandoned women, divorcees making their way through the world alone, raising their children on slim incomes.
The women figure out who killed one of their members then kill him. And round and round we go. Popular ďhitsĒ is a pun: this is not party music, but a merry-go-round for hit men and women. Canít we all just along? No.
Murakamiís novels have always been edgy or nihilistic, depending on your point of view. Coin Locker Babies was perhaps the most uplifting of his dark-side tales and that had to do with abandoned children and revenge. In the Miso Soup featured an American in Tokyo who victimized sex workers, with a little help from a local.
The characters in Popular Hits of the Showa Era come alive only through the act of seeking revenge. The acts of violence grow more grandiose as the book progresses, requiring research, cunning and determination. Itís all fairly pointless, at least in terms of storytelling, as the arc of the novel is so inevitable that the end is visible just a few chapters in.
Itís the style of the novel that worries me the most: Murakami writes in a kind of jocular and hip voice that trivializes the violence and mayhem being committed. Itís a narrative voice that tries to make the darkness funny, but it doesnít succeed: it just makes the bleakness thoroughly impenetrable.