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Summer 2001

Break On Through

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Francie Lin
Haruki Murakami writes the most bizarre novels—dark, cool, eminently rational in tone, they are nevertheless populated with psychics and monsters, and frequently cut with intermittent dreams, or dreamlike facts, or memories of dreams that only achieve a measure of reality by forming the basis of his characters’ uneasy lives. His stories have plots that in summary make no sense, and yet while reading, you are propelled along by a suspense so great that even the most fantastic elements of Murakami’s underworlds appear to be merely the logical pieces of a broader, more coherent intent. The sensation is not entirely pleasant; a friend of mine once complained that Murakami novels were laced with heroin, and this seems remarkably apt, for the books have a kind of drugged, heady fascination about them that quickly becomes addictive.

What exactly is so compelling about Murakami? Despite the discrete concerns of each work, he essentially writes about one thing: there is, in his books, a familiar world full of the living specifics of music, weather, books, food, marriage, and sex; and then there is its shadow, invariably dark and dreamlike, which intrudes upon the original with intent to harm. The intersection of the familiar and the menacing forms the core of Murakami’s interest. Coupled with sheer nerve, this obsession spawns a kind of fantasy literature that has no real precedent. (DeLillo and Pynchon are often cited in the same breath, but Murakami is neither as somber as DeLillo nor as unreadable as later Pynchon.) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, for instance, is a kind of metafictional detective story that plunges the reader directly into the vagaries that inhabit the space between reality and the shadow world. The book alternates between two wildly different narratives, the first set in a futuristic version of Tokyo, the second in a place called the Town, which is peopled by figures whose names are iconic rather than individual: the Gatekeeper, the Librarian, the Colonel. Both stories are told in the first person, but their overtones are as distinct as their locales. The wry, disaffected voice of the first narrator seems to have nothing to do with the rich, measured pace of the second. Narrator I talks about sex and money and facts; Narrator II talks about death and memory and mind. Narrator I encodes data for the government; Narrator II reads dreams for the Town. Narrator I scrambles information; Narrator II decodes it.

These binaries are so pointedly opposed that, read in tandem, each story confirms its link with the other, but in such a way that the exact parameters of the connection are still tantalizingly unclear. Murakami’s particular genius lies in his ability to generate suspense by means other than direct exposition, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland often has the quality of a half-remembered dream; you read on and on, convinced by the accumulation of tiny patterns and clues that you are very close to understanding something monumental and large; objects introduced in the first section of the novel surface in cryptic, mutated form in the second; creatures that exist as physical facts in the second story are discussed as academic abstractions in the first. Talk about shadows abounds; nothing in this world, it seems, is without its counterpart in another. “What resembles meat is not,” the Librarian tells Narrator II, referring to the food in the Town. “What resembles eggs is not. What resembles coffee only resembles coffee. Everything is made in the image of something.”

Not all of Murakami’s work combines flair and depth with the same alchemy as Hard-Boiled Wonderland, however. On occasion the inventive faculty that allows the author to translate metaphysical theory into stories about doppelgangers and unicorns makes his work slightly bloodless, obscuring the human import of abnormal events with didacticism and strange little jokes. A Wild Sheep Chase, in spite of its deadpan charm, is to my mind the least interesting of his novels, largely because it appears to rocket along without any real feeling beneath the gyrations of wit and intellect. The plot involves a sheep that channels itself into the body of others in order to create an empire in the physical world. While this is in fact no weirder than the plot of any other Murakami story, there is a distinct contrast between the appeal of this early novel and that of something like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is justifiably Murakami’s most popular work in translation. Insofar as A Wild Sheep Chase is “about” something beyond its skeleton events, it seems to be a lament about the mechanizing forces of post-war Japan, and by all rights it should be moving. A persistent, low-level sadness runs throughout the novel, most of it linked to the atomization of old ideals by an antiseptic modern order: the narrator’s marriage disintegrates in the first chapters of the book (“I still love you,” his wife says matter-of-factly as she leaves him. “But I guess that’s not the point now, is it?”); his best friend from high school, a drifting young man with artistic sensibilities, kills himself because he can’t accept his fate as a tool in the process of building a new empire; landfills proliferate, shorelines disappear, the view of the sea blocked by concrete and housing developments.

But somehow none of this seems very important by the end of the book. It may be that my quibble with the novel is a problem of translation, not from Japanese to English but between generations; the razing of ideals by market forces is not as deep-seated a romance for people who came of age in the Nineties as it is for those of Murakami’s generation, so that the bitterness which concludes A Wild Sheep Chase seemed to me plausible but false and rather excessive. But I think the relative hollowness of the book has more to do with jump-cut pacing and sketchy characterization than with readership and theme, since elsewhere Murakami incorporates the idea of inexorable loss to great effect. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a veritable catalogue of such losses, full of body-snatchings and violations, all thickly layered upon each other and overwhelming in their precise documentation of pain. At first the losses are simple: a cat disappears, then a tie. Then the narrator’s wife goes missing, and in the course of his search for her, he encounters a whole host of the bereaved. Their suffering is grounded in the physical world—the book is a patchwork of grim, peculiar accounts of rape and war—but what these people are mourning is something less specific than the body, the disappearance of some essential vision, some unified concept of the world in which to place themselves.

The particularly horrific thing about these stories is the way they expose the lack of continuity between cause and effect. A woman previously unable to feel either pain or desire is suddenly transformed by a night of violently bizarre sex, and the contradiction of having been restored to her right self by defilement haunts her constantly. A soldier on a secret military expedition in Outer Mongolia during the Thirties experiences a kind of grace directly after witnessing the flaying of one of his own men. His brush with divine revelation, however, leaves the lieutenant utterly destroyed: “Those living things that had once been there inside me, that had been for that reason of some value, were dead now. Not one thing was left. They had all been burned to ashes in that fierce light. The heat emitted by that revelation or grace had seared away the very core of the life that made me the person I was.”

More disturbing are the accounts in which death and violence make no impression at all upon their witnesses. One small story in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle involves a veterinarian stationed in Manchuria in 1945. The imminent defeat of Japan in the war has prompted Japanese refugees in Manchukuo to return to their country, but before fleeing the soldiers are ordered to kill the animals in the city zoo. The veterinarian sits by a fountain and smokes a cigarette:

The world he saw before him looked as it always had. He could find in it no signs of change. And yet it ought to have been a world distinctly different from the one he had known until then. After all, the world that held him now was a world in which bears and tigers and leopards and wolves had been “liquidated.”…

There should have been a decisive gap separating those two different worlds. There had to be a gap. But he could not find it. The world looked the same to him as it always had. What most puzzled the veterinarian was the unfamiliar lack of feeling inside himself.

Resignation is Murakami’s hallmark, but its ramifications are not always as bleak as they are in Wind-Up Bird. Part of the author’s great power stems from the fact that although his novels are decked out in all their post-modern finery—stories within stories, parallel stories, stories about stories—he does not really subscribe to the relativism that such narrative strategies are supposed to imply. Not that he is an anachronism—he knows there is no absolute truth (“In order to pin down reality as reality,” he writes in South of the Border, West of the Sun, “we need another reality to relativize the first. Yet that other reality requires a third reality to serve as its grounding”), but that does not stop him from seeking one. The conclusion of the Tokyo half of Hard-Boiled Wonderland finds Narrator I facing death at an appointed hour. Impending doom does not alter his behavior very much—he goes to the laundromat, does his dishes, drinks a few beers in the park—but the compression of his time serves as a crucible in which little flares of the world’s beauty harden into things of absolute worth. The last few paragraphs are not much more than descriptions of the landscape around him at the moment, or else memories of things he likes—a list so simple that, out of context, it would be terribly naïve. As it is, however, the memories of shaving cream and snails and taxi drivers bear the double weight of his harrowing journey past and the looming unknown. His last thought is of music, Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind”:“Dylan’s singing made me think of the girl at the car rental. Why sure, give her some happiness too. I pictured her in her company blazer…white blouse, black bow tie. There she was, listening to Dylan, thinking about the rain.”

Along with A Wild Sheep Chase and its sequel Dance Dance Dance, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle are the dreamlike stories, the novels in which parts of the mind are recast as physical places and living forms. But Murakami also writes a very different kind of novel, a more interior, less antic type of narrative that deals with the same notion of alternative realities without recourse to overt fantasy. Norwegian Wood made Murakami a superstar in Japan when it was published in 1987, but its domestic scope—both Norwegian Wood and South of the Border are romances—is such a departure from his other works that anyone expecting fireworks might initially feel let down.

But from a broad perspective, these calmer books are not so far removed from the doppelganger theme that runs throughout the fantasy novels. The difference is only a question of medium. Whereas in the fantasy novels the characters are forever trying to catch shadow figures in underground places—subways and tunnels and wells—in Norwegian Wood and South of the Border the gap between one world and the other is a matter of time rather than place. The central tragedies of Norwegian Wood are caused by a kind of failure of the imagination: the people who die are the ones who cannot envision themselves in the future, as if the future were not something organic and inevitable but a construct of the mind. “All of my problems are strictly psychological,” Naoko tells Toru as they are lying in bed together, Toru naked, Naoko chaste and dry. Sex in Murakami novels is often a portal between states of being, which accounts for its sometimes bizarre and heightened quality. In Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the wet dream typifies the link between events of the mind and the actions of the body; in Norwegian Wood, sex is, among other things, the border between childhood and maturity, between paralysis and motion. “What if I never get better?” Naoko asks. “What if I can never have sex for the rest of my life? Can you keep loving me just the same?”

South of the Border, West of the Sun is not a sequel to Norwegian Wood, but the two books are rather interesting read as a pair, as the latter is about youth looking forward and the former about age looking back. South of the Border feels more interior than Norwegian Wood, which is partly a function of setting: Norwegian Wood takes place in Tokyo in the Sixties, and Naoko, who is institutionalized in a psychiatric retreat where schedules and buildings are carefully calibrated to admit no disturbing changes, seems to be a foil for the university protests and strikes that form the backdrop of Toru’s student life.

But Hajime, the middle-aged narrator of South of the Border, has no such grand political passions to react against. The novel is set in the Eighties, a decade marked in Japan by the prosperity of late capitalism, and the potential for tragedy in Hajime’s life is relatively low. He has a family, a good marriage, and owns a couple of popular jazz clubs; even the financial agonies of starting a small business are waived for him, the capital for his jazz clubs having been provided by his wealthy father-in-law. The drama of his life is its lack of drama, and although South of the Border is a romance punctuated by the mysterious appearances and disappearances of a girl Hajime loved in his childhood, its poignancy has more to do with the voice in which the events of his life are recounted than with the events themselves. “My birthday’s the fourth of January, 1951,” Hajime says at the beginning of the first chapter, and continues:

The fourth day of the first month of the second half of the twentieth century. Some-thing to commemorate, I guess, which is why my parents named me Hajime—‘Beginning,’ in Japanese. Other than that, a 100 percent average birth. My father worked in a large brokerage firm, my mother was a typical housewife.

The simple, declarative cast of this voice subsumes everything in the novel. Everything—Hajime’s fanatical obsession with his past love, his discomfort with easy success, above all his sense of distance from the person he used to be—is reported with a kind of restrained candor that gives the novel a quality of private testimony, as if Hajime were trying to explain something to himself. As if he could somehow account for his disillusionment with the present by combing through the facts of his past.

One much-remarked-upon peculiarity of Murakami’s work is how little of Japan comes through in it. The characters listen to the Beatles and Henry Mancini and Beethoven and (appallingly) Huey Lewis and the News; they read Gatsby and Salinger, Euripides and Thomas Mann. While the history they live with and the cities they inhabit are clearly Japanese, the texture of their everyday lives is distinctly a product of the West.

But within the context of these stories, this is not particularly odd. Everyone in Murakami’s novels leads a double life, and the disparity between a fundamentally Eastern culture and its Western trappings seems to be merely a political analog of the larger, more metaphysical doubt that dogs his characters: among all the versions of oneself scattered throughout parallel dimensions of time and space and fantasy, which is the real self and which are only shadows? Murakami himself offers no definitive answer, and this is, in a way, his powerfully disturbing point: that perhaps our familiar lives are neither as primary nor as permanent as they appear, that perhaps we are negligible—that perhaps elsewhere our real lives continue on without us, distant, separate, and sealed.

Francie Lin is the associate editor of The Threepenny Review. Her book reviews appear in the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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