Hot on the heels of Kafka on the Shore came this one: a short novel, as might be expected, and a much more accessible one, though not without its share of mysteries. And, to me at least, a return to form. This is vintage Murakami.
The narrative is perhaps his most experimental yet. It’s not only third person, it’s third person in a very stylized way: “we” are a camera eye, and the narrative is presented to us as if we’re watching a film. We see this, we zoom in and see that, etc. All very stylish and daring, and combined with the nighttime theme and the motifs of violence, it gives a very film noir effect. And yet this would be very hard to film effectively, because at key moments the narrative relies on effects unique to writing: not just a glimpse at characters’ thoughts, but a reliance on metaphor and speculation of the type that needs words on the page.
The action all takes place during the course of a single weeknight in autumn in Tokyo; it starts just before the trains stop running for the night, and concludes at dawn. Most of the action happens in a single downtown neighborhood, an “amusement” district of all-night bars and love hotels.
We begin at a Denny’s – anybody who’s had jet lag in Japan knows that Denny’s are open all night in Japan. It’s a perfect setting. We zoom in on a college-age girl alone at a table, reading a book; she’s dressed unfashionably and has a big bag with her. Runaway? Then a college guy comes in, carrying an instrument case, recognizes her, and joins her.
The girl is Asai Mari, and the guy is Takahashi. Takahashi had known Mari’s older sister Eri in high school – they’d gone out on a double date once. The thread of the plot that follows these two characters sees them coming together a number of times during the night for conversation. At first Mari is very standoffish, and we learn this is because her older sister is a model and has always gotten all the attention. And, indeed, at first Takahashi only seems interested in talking about Eri. But he’s a nice, personable guy, and the reader suspects that he’s interested in Mari, even if she can’t believe it herself. Her defenses are pretty high, but by the end of the book he’s won her over.
They have a first conversation in the Denny’s – sort of a meet-cute – then he heads off to his all-night band practice – he plays trombone in a college jazz combo. She thinks she’s finally going to be left alone for the night when an older woman with crew-cut bleached hair and the body of a pro wrestler comes into the restaurant and asks for her help.
Mari speaks Chinese, and Takahashi knew this, and this woman, Kaoru, is a friend of Takahashi’s who need someone who speaks Chinese. Kaoru is an ex-pro wrestler who now runs a love hotel, and a Chinese prostitute is bleeding in one of her rooms, and she needs an interpreter. Mari comes along and meets the girl, who’s her own age and probably here illegally; learns that she’d brought a john to the love ho (as they call it – nice import of J. slang on the translator’s part), but then her period had started unexpectedly, and the guy beat her bloody and stole all her clothes and belongings before running out. With Mari’s help they manage to contact the girl’s pimp, who comes and picks her up; Kaoru stands up to the guy and forces him to pay her hotel bill.
Mari and Kaoru then have a nice conversation about how Kaoru ended up running the love ho, and about how she knows Takahashi – he used to work there part time, cleaning and stuff. Kaoru takes Mari to a bar and Mari opens up about how she’s estranged from her sister, how tough it was growing up with her sister getting all the attention, how her parents always called her ugly but expected her to be a genius, and how her studying Chinese is kind of a rebellion, and how she’s not quite running away now but wanted to be out of the house. Kaoru takes her to another family restaurant, a Skylark, where she knows the manager and gets him to let her stay all night if she wants.
Kaoru then looks at the security camera footage to find the guy who beat up the prostitute, prints out the image, and gives it to the Chinese pimp, hoping he’ll cut the guy’s ear off. At this point We the Camera cut to the guy himself, one Shirakawa, who works late nights at a nearby company overseeing their software. He’s a fastidious guy working long hours of unpaid overtime, has a wife he never sees, and doesn't seem the violent type. But we don’t know. He also lies to his wife without any evident pangs of conscience, and doesn’t appear to feel guilty about what he’s done – and abrasions on his fist are evidence to us that he is indeed the beater.
During a break in band practice Takahashi drops by to thank Mari for helping out, and after he finishes practice they get together for a walk in the wee hours. Over the course of their extended conversation she learns that he’s giving up the band to get series about his studies – law. And not to get rich, but for solid unselfish reasons. And he learns that her sister, Eri, is in a state of protracted sleep. A couple of months ago she went to bed and hasn’t woken up since. At least, nobody in the family has seen her awake – they leave meals for her and they disappear, though, and she seems to use the bathroom. But nobody can wake her. Takahashi says that he had one odd conversation with her a few months before, when she seemed to confess a whole lot of anxieties to him, including that she wished she could be closer to Mari. And she was popping pills the whole time. Mari agrees that Eri was troubled, but she didn’t know how troubled or why.
We the readers have a good suspicion, though. Because intertwined with this narrative, in irregular alternation with it, we’ve been cutting to Eri asleep in her bedroom. Sound asleep. And weird things happen in these scenes. There’s a TV in her room, unplugged, but sometimes it’s on anyway. At first we see a faceless, masked man sitting in an empty room staring at something. Then we realize he’s staring at Eri asleep. Then we see that Eri’s no longer in her bed in her room, but in an identical bed in a room on the TV. Sometimes we, our point of view, is in the room in the TV. And once we’ve met Shirakawa we realize that the room on the TV where Eri is asleep is his deserted late-night office.
That’s it, that’s all the explanation we get. But we can’t help but try to put things together, and here’s how I try to do that. Eri’s sleeping as an extreme reaction to some trauma, and the TV is like our window into her subconscious. There she’s haunted by a man who she doesn't know or recognize, but who’s always watching her. And this guy is, I suspect, Shirakawa, who must have raped or abused her somehow, and who therefore is holding her prisoner, symbolically, until she can overcome the trauma. I think this is an easy enough conclusion to draw, but it’s to the novel’s credit that it doesn’t spell it out: it’s more powerful, I think, for being left shadowy and suspected.
At the end of the book, Takahashi asks Mari out on a proper date. She tells him she’s leaving soon to study abroad in China, but he persists – it’s clear now that he’s interested in her, not Eri, and she begins to trust him. She gives him her address in China and he promises to write. Then she goes home and crawls in bed with Eri, begging her to wake up. She goes to sleep. It’s dawn. And Eri’s face starts to twitch as if she’s waking up.
As I learned anew with Kafka, a book is not reducible to its themes. A book can be ideas, but it’s also necessarily a matter of the writing, the narrative, the scenes, the words. And a book can succeed in one area while failing in another. This book succeeds in all the areas where Kafka failed, as far as I’m concerned.
First and foremost the dialogue scintillates. The camera-eye device forces Murakami to move the story along through action and speech, and this frees his talent for dialogue to strut its stuff. Takahashi’s scenes with Mari are perfectly paced and perfectly pitched. As are Mari’s exchanges with Kaoru, and with Komugi and Korogi, two other women who work in the love ho. We get to know all of them through their words.
The characters that result from this are memorable and fully-realized. Takahashi and Mari are believable as young people in a way that nobody in Kafka was. Partly that’s no doubt because Murakami has always had a sure feel for college-aged people. Takahashi is a perfect rendition of a certain college archetype: an average guy who takes things averagely unseriously, but is on the verge of taking things seriously. He’s played enough in college to make him interesting as a person, but he’s earnest enough to make it clear that he’s going to be a good citizen in the future. And all of this is communicated to us through details in his dress, his comportment, and his speech. No hammers anywhere near our heads here.
Mari, meanwhile, is a combination of different familiar types, but none the less effective for all that. The smart girl living under the shadow of the pretty girl; the rebel who takes refuge in books, in words. The would-be cynic who realizes she has no idea of how bad the world can be. The ugly duckling who doesn’t realize how much more she has to offer than the others. And again, all of this is given to us in dialogue, in action. She feels real.
Minor characters. Kaoru the washed-up pro wrestler is awesome. One of an ever-expanding number of strong and unique Murakami women. He’s gone from the ear-model femmes fatale of the early books, who existed only as emblems of male desire, to being almost more interested in women now than men. The way she stands up to the pimp, the way she befriends Mari, the way she gives refuge to Korogi (on the run from some dark secret) and Komugi (who’s just a happy-go-lucky cipher), the way she sets the Chinese mob onto Shirakawa – she’s indelible.
Shirakawa himself. Within the scope of the story he gets off scot-free. The pimp, even with his photo, rides right past him on his motorbike. After the story? Maybe he gets tracked down and the shit beat out of him, maybe not. Maybe he’s guilty of raping Eri, maybe he’s not. He’s a cipher himself – we never have any idea why he does what he does. Just the barest hint, from the narration, that he had to do it. Was he not himself? Is that a reference to a deep psychosis? Or the workings of fate? And let’s notice that in his methodical nature he’s a lot like the typical I of books past – as was Johnnie Walker. Murakami’s working hard in the 2000s to deconstruct his I.
Shirakawa has stolen the Chinese prostitute’s cell phone. He disposes of it by leaving it on the shelf in a convenience store. Twice it rings and is picked up by an unrelated person in the convenience store – once by Takahashi, shopping for milk, and once by the cashier. Both times the Chinese pimp, thinking he’s reached Shirakawa, starts making threats.
It’s a brilliant device, kind of crystallizing the whole book. It’s ostentatiously a book about night in the big city – each chapter is given a start time, as we work our way through the wee hours. And despite the way all the scenes and storylines intersect, the characters aren’t all aware of each other. It’s a book about connections, but also missed connections. About the things that happen in darkness, both visible and subconscious, that are intertwined but not mutually perceived. And so the pimp, thinking he’s closed the circuit and found the beater, ends up spewing vague threats at complete strangers. These complete strangers experience them as part of the general confusion and malevolence of the big city at night. And we, the readers, who see the whole picture, perceive the night as a place of dangers imagined and dangers unsuspected.
Thematically I don’t think it’s his most serious book. We get some more playing with the subconscious, and some more attention to troubled youth. But aesthetically it’s all that Kafka wasn’t: it’s a great read. Takahashi and Mari’s budding romance is handled with great delicacy, humor, and evocativeness; Shirakawa’s villainy is given all the inexplicable power of the great noirs. And the camera-eye device, while running the very real risk of ending up as empty flash, works for me: it connects the book to the kind of films that Murakami’s always been indebted to, but ends up emphasizing the ways in which a book is not a film.
Nor is a book music. But this book reads like a particularly hot late-night jazz blowing session.