How do you solve a problem like Haruhi?
— with apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein II
There’s a lot about Kyon’s new school that he doesn’t like. The long walk all the way uphill to get to it, for instance. The fact that he doesn’t know anyone there isn’t a boon, either. But none of that comes near the level of flabbergast Kyon feels when he meets his infamous classmate Haruhi Suzumiya.
Infamous doesn’t begin to sum her up, as he quickly learns. Infamy-generating is more like it.
“I have no interest in ordinary humans,” she declares to her astonished homeroom class on the first day of school. “If there are any aliens, time travelers, sliders or espers here, come join me.” And with that Kyon’s sucked into the orbit of what proves not only to be the oddest girl in the school but the girl who’s going to turn his life inside out and repaint it in mighty garish colors.
Haruhi could be best described as a human Strange Attractor. Better yet: Weirdness Magnet. Better even still: Weirdness Engine. Who else but Haruhi would steal the lime spreader out of the track-and-field shed and draw patterns on the school lawn, the better to invite a UFO landing? Who else would draw a starfield on the roof in yellow paint, or plaster the school with exorcist’s talismans? Nobody, and what’s more, “nobody” is the exact number of guys who managed to go out with her on more than one date. The world of mundane, ordinary, boring existence is like a prison cell for Haruhi, and without realizing it Kyon becomes her jailbreaker.
Haruhi’s a leader, not a follower, and to that end she creates the S.O.S. Brigade — an on-campus club whose mission is only slightly less whacked-out than the girl herself. Apart from Haruhi and Kyon, the other members consist of the robotic Yuki Nagato (who sits in the corner and reads, and that’s about it), the ultra-moe Mikuru Asahina (their resident teary-eyed mascot and cuteness factory), and the allegedly mysterious transfer student Itsuki Koizumi. They also have a computer, which they procure from the computer club through a tactic that can be best described as blackmail forcibly crossbred with sexual harassment.
None of this is Kyon’s idea of fun, except maybe ogling Asahina when she’s in bunny-girl / maid outfits and no one else is looking. None of it seems to be making Haruhi any less frustrated, either: there’s not a single esper / alien / time traveler / etc. anywhere to be found, despite a number of reconnaissance missions to that effect. Then one day the taciturn Nagato sits Kyon down and delivers unto him a revelation that makes the top of his head blow off. And then Asahina has something to tell him as well, and Koizuimi, and … and pretty soon Kyon is facing the possibility that the universe might just disappear. Don’t people typically wait until college before being confronted with an Extinction Level Event?
What’s nice about Haruhi is how the book actually might work best for people who know nothing about the source material. They bring no baggage of their own, no expectations as to how this should work, and might even enjoy it all the more than the fans do. The whole thing’s told from Kyon’s point of view, and there’s barely a moment where he’s not interjecting wry asides at the reader. (At one point when a key revelation is dropped on his head, his only answer is “Data Overmind? My ass.”) Eventually this becomes more than just a way to get fast laughs: because he doesn’t believe in these crazy goings-on any more than we might, we empathize with the poor guy. Disbelief and sarcasm are the only defense mechanisms he has against terminal weirdness. And then he has to make a crucial leap from walling himself off from the weirdness to embracing it — although he manages to convince himself that he can do it, but he doesn’t have to like it.
Back to the fans/not-fans thing for a bit. Many of us in English-speaking territories have already encountered the headstrong deliriousness of Haruhi thanks to the anime of the same name. The light novels, though, seemed consigned to the same fate as the source material for so many other, similarly-derived shows: what’s the exact market for light novels? Anime and manga lovers, nominally, but a light novel isn’t the same sort of material as either of those things, and it’s too easy to get it wrong. Look what happened to Kino’s Journey, for instance: it ended up as a piece of meat on Tokyopop’s chopping blocks, and its mangled presentation guaranteed that future installments wouldn’t be seen in English, probably for keeps.
Enter Yen Press. They were able to pick up the Haruhi manga in English, and when they also opted to translate the light novel they decided to partner with Little, Brown to get the book onto the same shelves as Harry Potter. In short, they marketed it primarily as young-adult fiction, as a way to break it to an audience that might not normally know about it, and assumed that the manga/anime fans would find their way to it naturally. It’s vaguely similar to what Arthur A. Brown / Scholastic did with Moribito: package it primarily for audiences that don’t know much about it, and let the fans find it on their own. (Sometimes this sort of thing backfires; I only found out about the Slayers light novels long after they’d already cleared shelves and gone out of print.) It’s messy things like this, whether or not we care about them, that govern the fate of not just future Haruhi books in English but all light novels.
But enough doomsaying. We have the first of Haruhi in English at last, and it’s a hoot. Reason enough to celebrate right there.
Translating a light novel is at least an order of magnitude more difficult than doing manga. There’s more text, obviously, but that also means that many more cultural references, that many more decisions to make with the text … that many more ways to screw it up.
Fortunately, Haruhi has not been screwed up. It’s been brought into English courtesy of Chris Pai — not a name I recognize, but one to keep in mind from this point on. Most of what needed to be preserved most here was the tone of the whole thing — Kyon’s slightly smarter-than-thou voice, and his perennial wtf-is-this astonishment at the crazier goings-on around him. All of that comes through clean and clear, so much so that the biggest signs of this being a translation are the place names and the locale.
There’s also an excerpt from the Haruhi manga, also distributed by Yen Press, appended to the back of the book.
I scarcely need to pitch this to people who’re already SOS Brigadiers, or followers of Haruhism. If you apply either of those labels to yourself, you’ve already picked up on this and devoured it. But don’t assume you need to be one of those folks to get in on the fun — the book assumes no existing knowledge of its spinoff material (it is, after all, where this all got started), is a breeze to read, and even touches here and there on Deeper Things of a Phil K. Dick-ian slant. And based on the research I have sitting in front of me, a second book is already slated for an October release. I think I’ll join the club ahead of time.