BOOK REVIEW / Sushi and good red herrings: Dance, dance, dance - Haruki Murakami: Hamish Hamilton, pounds 9.99

HARUKI MURAKAMI is Japan's best-selling novelist. His books sell millions, not the mere hundreds of thousands that earn the label 'runaway success' for literary novels in the West. One reason for this may be that he speaks a language the post-war generation of Japanese, saturated in the Americana imported wholesale by the victorious occupiers of 1946, understand. He rejects the elegant formality and eroticised mysticism of his peers - Shusaku Endo, Kenzaburo Oe and Junchiro Tanizaki - in favour of a slangy, sardonic style punctuated with a roll call of American brand names. This, his fifth book to be translated into English, is the sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, a difficult-to-categorise metaphysical tease in which a young copywriter is recruited by a mysterious stranger to trace a sheep with supernatural powers.

Now 34, his nameless narrator has switched careers, becoming an all-purpose hack who writes PR brochures and restaurant reviews. Early on, he admits that what he does is 'shovel cultural snow', not the most creative or meaningful of tasks perhaps but 'you do it because you have to, not because it's fun'. 'Waste,' he adds cynically, 'is the highest virtue one can achieve in advanced capitalist society.' At night, he is haunted by the image of Kiki, the call girl with the beautiful ears and extra-sensory powers who took him on the wild sheep chase to the run-down Dolphin Hotel, then promptly disappeared.

What follows is a bizarre tail-chase that deploys all the genre cliches of the hardboiled American thriller - beautiful, mysterious women, wisecracking detectives, paranoia, murder - with a deadpan, whisky-drinking narrator who has the gum of American popular culture so firmly stuck to his shoe that at times you have to do a double take to remind yourself that this is Tokyo rather than LA. Whether this is parody or pastiche is anyone's guess - Murakami, who in another life translates Chandler, Vonnegut and John Irving into Japanese, plays his slippery philosophical cards close to his chest. In the course of an entertaining adventure that takes us to the frozen north of Japan, to Hawaii and to the dark, damp corners of the imagination, Murakami's more or less unreliable narrator treats us to a downbeat commentary on consumerism and the Japanese work ethic, and to a smattering of pretty good jokes.

Following the logic of his dream, the narrator returns to the gleaming city of Sapporo and the Dolphin Hotel, only to find it transformed into a 'Star Wars high-tech hotel-a-thon' complete with 'smile-trained' receptionists. One of these, the lovely Yumiyoshi, tells him of bizarre goings-on and things that literally go bump in the night. Between visits to Dunkin' Donuts, his investigation brings him into contact with the Sheep Man again, who tells him that 'we're all connected' and that he must 'recover his world'. Ah, so this is a search for identity beyond the glittering surfaces of the post-modern condition? Well, yes and no. His narrator may feel like a 'surrogate Pacman, munching my way through a labyrinth of dotted lines', but Murakami is too self- conscious a writer to admit such easy interpretations.

The narrator finds himself in loco parentis to Yuki (whose name means snow), a stroppy adolescent who, like Kiki, has extra-sensory powers and listens to Duran Duran and Iggy Pop. Her father is a wildly successful but rather pompous novelist whose name is an anagram of Murakami's own. He also hooks up with an old school friend, Gotanda, now a disillusioned film star who once made love to Kiki in one of his many forgettable films. More call girls come and go, until, during an interlude in Hawaii (one of the few times in the book that the narrator devours more sushi than red herrings) the image of Kiki draws him to a room filled with skeletons. People start dying and the tone shifts to one of philosophical inquiry as the narrator admits that 'something is missing. I'm living a normal life, I suppose. I'm dancing. I know the steps and I'm dancing.' Lost in the funhouse of illusion, he decides, like the tramps in Waiting for Godot, simply to wait for reality to present itself.

Reading Dance, Dance, Dance is a bit like being taken blindfold on a joy-ride with a garrulous tour guide disguised as a mage. Surprising, fresh images - schoolgirls have 'rosy red cheeks puffing white breaths you could have written cartoon captions in'; the mix of old and new in Sapporo 'presented an all-too temporary show of coexistence, like the mouth of a child with new teeth coming in' - hold the promise of a profound allegorical destination. But in the end, you step out of the Maserati feeling pleasantly dizzy, only to find that the guide has gone off into a world of his own and you are back where you started.

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