Narrated by Hajime, from the standpoint of middle age – 37 or so.
The first half is a kind of Vita Sexualis – a history of Hajime’s sexual/romantic encounters from age 12 to adulthood. These center around two relationships.
The first is with a girl he refers to only as Shimamoto, whom he meets when they’re both in 6th grade. They’re both only children, and they bond over that, it being a rarity for kids born in the ‘50s, supposedly. She has a limp from a childhood bout with polio, and this contributes to her isolation from her classmates, but really it’s the being an only child that seems to be the key. They bond through their solitude. It’s an innocent relationship, intense and pure – the most they ever do is hold hands for ten seconds once, and Hajime remembers it for the rest of his life. This ends when she moves to the next town over and they go to different junior high schools.
In the senior year of high school Hajime has the second formative relationship, with a girl named Izumi. They’re in love, seemingly, but sex rears its ugly head. He wants it now, she wants to wait. They get as far as naked petting, and it’s good. But then Hajime happens to meet her cousin, and has a torrid sexual affair with her for a couple of months – their mutual lust is overpowering, a force of nature. But of course it’s also cheating on Izumi, and when she finds out she’s devastated. That relationship ends; Hajime goes to Tokyo to school.
He gets involved in the student demos, is disillusioned by how they peter out, compromises his ideals enough to get a straight job editing textbooks, and drifts through his twenties with no serious relationships. Then at 30 he marries Yukiko, who seems special – he says she has something that seemed to cry out only for him. And he loves her and has two daughters with her. Soon after marrying, he sets up in business on his own. Her father owns a construction firm and encourages Hajime to set up a shop in a building he’s just built, and loans him the money: Hajime opens a jazz bar. It’s a success, so he opens a second. He becomes prosperous – not as rich as his father-in-law, but wealthy all the same.
Then Shimamoto reenters the picture. He’d actually seen her once in his twenties – or a woman he thought was her. Followed her all through Shibuya one afternoon trying to decide if it was her, until finally she got into a car, and a mysterious guy gave him a payoff to leave her alone. He never used the money, keeping it in an envelope – the mystery guy seemed to have thought he was a private eye or something.
Now she shows up in the bar one night. And Hajime suddenly realizes he’s still in love with her. She presents something of a mystery – obviously wealthy, but says she’s never worked a day in her life, no ring, refuses to speak a word about her personal life. Comes and goes from the bar without warning, until he’s hanging on hoping for her next visit.
Eventually they run off together to his summer house in Hakone for a night of torrid sex. Hajime is utterly prepared to leave his wife and kids and run away with Shimamoto for good. But he wants her to tell him about herself first – in the morning, she says. But in the morning she’s disappeared. All traces gone. And when he gets back to his office, the envelope is mysteriously gone, as well.
Then Yukiko confronts him: is he seeing someone? Yes. Does he want to leave her? He doesn’t know. So he sleeps on the couch for months, waiting for Shimamoto to come back, but she never does. Meanwhile, one day he sees Izumi in a cab. He’d heard from an old classmate that in adulthood she’d become somehow frightening, and what he sees in her eyes now is that: utter blankness, emptiness.
But this somehow scours the Shimamoto-yearning out of him. He feels like he’s ready to go back to his life. He and Yukiko have a good talk, and decide to try to make the marriage work. As the novel ends the sun is rising and he’s trying to force himself to move to wake his daughters up for school. But he can’t.
The word on this novel when it came out was that it was a successor, if not quite a sequel, to Norwegian Wood: a similarly deep love story but set in middle age rather than youth. And it does have things in common with that book. It’s (almost) entirely devoid of supernatural or surreal elements. It does focus entirely on love (even if it is as a metaphor for other things). And the tone is similarly bittersweet and nostalgic.
He may indeed have decided to give his new fans what they wanted, at least partially. But the comparisons can be dispensed with pretty quickly. The narrative strategies, the structure, the style, are entirely different. The first half of this book largely eschews the highly dramatized, dialogue-heavy, discrete-scene oriented plot of the earlier book – indeed, of most of his fiction – for something a lot closer to “Tony Takitani.” Hajime recounts the Shimamoto and Izumi relationships as if in spoken monologue – that is, in summary, with more telling than showing. Only with the arrival of Shimamoto in the bar do we shift to something fully in the present, with dialogue, entrances, exits. The result is, as I say, more reminiscent of an I-novel than Norwegian Wood. And, truth be told, I think the shift is to the book’s detriment: the narrative feels much less immediate, less engrossing, than it could have.
The love affair doesn’t prove quite as heartbreaking as Watanabe-kun’s, either, but this is by design – I think. And maybe the distancing effect is by design, too, because I don’t think we’re meant to sympathize completely with Hajime. His conduct toward Izumi and Yukiko is pretty reprehensible, and although he acknowledges that to us in his narration, it’s hard not to conclude that he never quite realizes how badly he’s hurt them. He’s extremely self-absorbed, in other words, and while he knows it, he doesn’t overcome it until, perhaps, the very end.
Love as a metaphor for other things. That’s not quite right, in either case. Really what these two novels are doing is presenting love dilemmas with a subtext of life dilemmas. Choices between different value systems or ways of constructing meaning in life. Here that’s entirely bound up with Hajime being middle-aged. This is, to put it bluntly, Murakami’s midlife crisis book. At 37, Hajime is healthy, wealthy, happily married, master of his domain, and utterly susceptible to dissatisfaction. When Shimamoto returns she seems to offer him a return to the innocence of his first love.
This thread in the novel is handled quite well. As young people, their story is self-consciously reminiscent of the Izutsu story – the purity of unconsummated childhood love is meant here, as it has throughout Japanese cultural history, as a balm or an antidote to the weathering and compromise of aging. It’s almost too easy to see why Rick Blaine – that is, why Hajime – would turn to that relationship at his age.
How has he compromised? It started, as it so often does for Murakami’s men, with the death of the student movement, with his slide into the salaryman life. In this way, Hajime is emblematic of the men of his generation – and Murakami drives that home, by giving him a birthday in the first week of the first month of the first year of the second half of the 20th century. He is the postwar generation.
But he’s more deeply compromised than that. He’s a successful businessman, but it was his wife’s father’s money that made it possible. Which isn’t a problem for Hajime in and of itself – but as the head of a construction company in the middle of the ‘80s, there’s a shadow hanging over the father-in-law. Murakami lets us ponder it for a good fifty or sixty pages before exploiting it, but exploit it he does. The father-in-law, in short, represents the corrupt nexus of financial, political, and criminal power that was so often located in the construction sector in that era. Hajime is complicit in this, much more than he’s willing to admit. And so his longing for Shimamoto takes on an aspect of longing, not just for sexual and romantic innocence, but for moral innocence as well – for himself, before he became tainted by the world.
This is why the novel’s one surreal touch is so brilliant. When Shimamoto disappears, Murakami makes it clear that it can’t be a natural disappearance. How could she have gotten away from a cabin in Hakone in the middle of the night without a car? And how did the envelope with the money in it disappear. In other words: did Shimamoto ever exist at all? Nobody in the novel other than Hajime gives definitive evidence that they’ve seen her, after all. Was he just imagining her? Was he so desperate for an escape that his subconscious coughed one up? Is that why she won’t talk about her personal life? Is that why that last trip to Hakone has such overtones of death? Is he contemplating suicide?
It’s Murakami’s bubble book. I guess I said that about Dance Dance Dance, too. But here it’s not the vacuity of the ‘80s that’s being indicted, but the prosperity itself. To get this prosperous required moral compromises – cheating (Hajime’s disloyalty to Izumi and Yukiko makes a neat parallel to his father-in-law’s disloyalty to law and ethics). And, unlike I in Dance x 3, Hajime is always surrounded by the trappings of success – his Armani suits, his BMW, his summer home in Hakone. He is the bubble era.
So, that’s what the book’s trying to do. Those are the themes I think it’s trying to explore. Does it succeed? Well, it’s far from my favorite Murakami on an aesthetic level. As I say, Hajime is hard to sympathize with. Maybe that’s by design, but still his self-absorption, his middle-aged self-pity, makes this book read like the equivalent of the drunk businessman singing “My Way” at the bar. Murakami is aware of this, I think, and that’s why he tries to give Hajime and Shimamoto’s adult relationship an air of Casablanca – there’s even a self-conscious reference to that film at the end. The thinking is that conspicuous consumption and the tears of a man play better in noir.
What about that ending? By this point it’s clear that, while Murakami is willing to posit love as the answer to some of life’s problems, he has a dim view of marriage. Wives are forever one step from walking out on their husbands, and Murakami doesn’t seem to blame them. And yet this novel ends with Hajime tentatively reconciled with his wife (whose infinite patience is, of course, as much a piece of male wish-fulfillment as all those handjobs in Norwegian Wood were). He seems ready to commit, ready to acknowledge that this is real, while that was fantasy. And yet he doesn’t seem entirely happy about it. Part of him is dying by acknowledging that.