“SLOW BOAT TO CHINA” 4/1980 (in The Elephant Vanishes, and Slow Boat to China)
Memories of three Chinese people he’s met in his life at various times. One was a teacher at a Chinese school he went to for a test once, one was a girl he worked a part-time job with in college, and the other was a high school acquaintance he ran into in a coffee shop once recently. Recounting these three incidents in a desultory fashion, the narrator concludes with a meditation on China as an unknowable thing for him, an entirely imaginary land. It’s implied that it’s partly so because he failed to learn anything significant about China from these three Chinese, but that’s plainly because he knows that they were individuals, not representatives of their race, and so whatever secret unknowable lives they had were theirs alone, and not instructive about any larger entity called China. Chinese are people, same as anybody else, and that means that “China,” as talked about in books, as represented to the mind, is nothing but an abstraction. A dream.
It’s a great story, and amazing that it’s his first short story. Each of the three scenes is depicted with amazing vividity and sensitivity, and in addition to contributing to the theme each has its own subtle character and moments of humanity. Like the second one, about the girl: the college-aged I was sort of interested in her, but accidentally disses her twice, and is never able to find her again. Left unsaid is her suspicion that he’s mistreating her because of race, and his desire to make it plain that he isn’t; his failure in the end is not just to win the girl, but to show that he’s not racist.
Murakami shows himself here to be a great humanist and a great anti-essentialist in matters of culture. A must-read.
A “POOR AUNT” STORY 12/80 (in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, and Slow Boat to China)
Narrator and his companion are in a park on a summer’s day, and the phrase “poor aunt” occurs to him. He’s a writer, and he considers writing a story about one. Next thing he knows, he’s got a poor aunt attached to his back. She appears as someone different to everybody, and he can’t see her at all. It makes him a minor celebrity, but his friends get creeped out. Finally one day on the train he sees a girl scolded by her mom, pities her, and the aunt disappears. He phones his companion, but she’s too tired to talk.
And so we get our first dose of Murakami’s patented surrealism. Previous stories have had weird moments, but nothing actually impossible; but the poor aunt here is plainly a bit of magic. Allegory? Symbol? Or conceptual sign, as he puts it in the story? I lean toward the latter, because as the narrator explains it, that leaves room for reader interpretation. Signs, at least in this conception, and I don’t know how semiotically sound this is but symbolically it’s solid, mean at least partly what the receiver thinks they mean. All the things people think the poor aunt are, are related, all varieties of sad-sackness, suggesting that there’s a kernel of unified truth stuck to the narrator’s back – but they’re also all different, suggesting that the final manifestation of the poor aunt really isn’t under his control.
It’s a story about the fiction writer’s art, I think: the narrator admits he’s a writer, and while he doesn’t say that writing the story is part of the exorcism of the aunt, the title sort of suggests that. In any case, if it’s about the fiction writer’s art, it suggests that Murakami sees himself working in symbols in perhaps the Yeatsian sense, archetypes really that mean whatever all his readers think they mean and more – rather than in allegories, or whatever you want to call the kind of readily-decipherable symbolism that creates fixed Meaning. He’s denying that here – he’s even denying fixed identity, fixed consciousness – once the poor aunt is gone he feels like he’s not the same person anymore, just a copy or echo of his original self.
But if it’s a story about the fiction writer’s art, then I think it’s also about the part empathy plays in that art: what he produces may have no fixed meaning, but he produces it by careful observation of, and more importantly emotional understanding of, or at least empathy with, reality. There’s an emotional truth to his description of poor aunts that resonates with the reader, and that also helps explain why everybody who meets the narrator can see their own version of the poor aunt. The writer may be dealing in surreal abstractions, but he’s also dealing in lived and felt experience.
NEW YORK MINING DISASTER 3/81 (in BW, and Slow Boat to China)
For some reason, Phil Gabriel cut the Bee Gees quote that starts the story…
This one is in three parts. Narrator describes his friend, who likes to go to zoos when there’s a typhoon to watch how the animals react. Then he notes that the friend has a great suit for funerals, and this year the narrator has had occasion to borrow it fives times. Reflections on premature death. Then at New Year’s narrator goes to a party and meets a woman who says he looks just like someone she knew who died five years ago – she killed him, she says. But she’s not morally or legally responsible. We don’t know if she’s joking or not. Then, as a coda, we get a scene of miners trapped underground, trying not to breathe, wondering if rescuers are coming or if they’ve given up already.
It’s impressionistic, above all. The crazy friend who changes girlfriends every six months like clockwork, the mysterious woman at the party, and the dramatization of a scene from a Bee Gees song. It’s moody, thoughts on death that don’t really go anywhere but might be poignant just the same.
By this point Murakami’s already perfected his short-story art, I think. It’s a minor story, I think, but still memorable and moving and somehow perfectly poised.
Has elements that he’ll reuse, too. The friend, to stave off depression and keep himself from thinking too much at night, cleans and irons. Perfectionism in quotidian tasks as a way to assert control over a chaotic world. The Murakami cool takes on another of its characteristic details.
THE YEAR OF SPAGHETTI 5/81 (BW, A Perfect Day for Kangaroos)
The first three were in Slow Boat to China, and that was a collection of standalone stories, each one fairly substantial. This is part of A Perfect Day for Kangaroos, which is a collection of stories that partly cover the same period as Slow Boat, but appeared at regular intervals in the same magazine. A series, in other words. And he published them together in book form, although he changed the order. Anyway, they’re shorter, and if this is an indication, they’re uniformly of a different tone.
This one talks about a spaghetti-making phase the I went through in 1971, when presumably he was a college student. Every day for a year he made spaghetti and ate it – alone. All kinds of spaghetti – and as he describes it, we’re in what we’ll soon realize is typical Murakami culinary heaven. Or so we think. But then we get to the second half of the story, describing one day when he’s lying alone on his back on the floor, and a girl calls, trying to get in touch with her ex-boyfriend, both of whom are friends of I’s, and he doesn’t want to get involved, so he says he’s busy cooking spaghetti and can’t talk. After, he ends with the admission that he spent that year cooking spaghetti so he didn’t have to get involved with anyone. Spaghetti was really loneliness.
So it’s an obvious story – he comes right out at the end and says what he means. But that doesn’t mean it’s unpleasant. The directness is refreshing, and of course the fact that he’s presenting loneliness as a desirable commodity is counterintuitive – he’s presenting us with a young man cultivating his alienation. For whatever reason.
Anyway, it’s polished and very readable, light but not featherweight. A different kind of thing.
ON SEEING THE 100% PERFECT GIRL ONE BEAUTIFUL APRIL MORNING 5/81 (EV, A Perfect Day…)
Yeah, they’re short and direct.
One morning in April 1981, I sees the perfect girl Walks right on past her, not knowing what to say. Later, he figures out what he should have said. Should have told her a story. And then he gives her the story. A fairy tale about two young lovers, 100% perfect for each other, who decide to test their fatedness by parting. While parted they get sick and lose their memories. Later they pass each other in the street, and feel the impulse that they’re 100% perfect for each other, but age (they’re now 32 and 30) has dulled their memories and their thoughts, and they pass on by. A sad story.
Here is where Murakami outs himself as one of the great romantics, as well as the existentialist we already know him as. This is what completes his cool, I think. The knowledge that underneath that hard exterior there’s a classic wounded romantic.
An important one. And beautiful.
DABCHICK 9/81 (BW, A Perfect Day for Kangaroos)
I is wandering through a seemingly endless set of hallways, dank and dim, looking for a door. He’s here for a job – he’s desperate to break out of his poverty. Finds a door, the doorman says he can’t let him through without the password. Guy begs for a hint. Something with eight letters, fits in your hand, starts with D, has to do with water, but you can’t eat it. The guy’s guess is “dabchick.” The doorman says no, but they argue about it, and I finally bullshits the dorman into telling the boss he’s here. Cut to the boss – who is a dabchick, sitting in his CEO chair thinking about his death. The doorman comes in, says the guy knows the password. Dabchick growls, he’s late.
Trick ending. No explicit moral, but a clear lesson to be persistent. It’s like a Kafka story with a happy ending. As vivid and funny and strange and existentially resonant as a Kafka story, too. Kafka goes pop.
A PERFECT DAY FOR KANGAROOS 10/81 (BW, A Perfect Day for Kangaroos)
I and his girl read in the paper about a baby kangaroo born at the zoo. Finally, a month later, they get time to go – a perfect day for it. They go and see the baby kangaroo, the mother, the father. Finally what the girl wanted to see – the baby in the pouch. Mother and child in perfect unity, father looking lost and useless, and another female hopping around mysteriously. I and girl go off for a beer. It’s going to be a hot day
An uneventful story that hints at some gender-essentialist depths. Is the couple contemplating marriage and/or starting a family? Trying to avoid contemplating it? At the end are they avoiding the issue, or about to talk about it? The slight sexist tone of the narrator – “I’ve never once won an argument with a girl” – fits the final vision of gender roles. Useless dads, mother-and-child divine harmony. But what’s with the mysterious extra female? Is that what the narrator’s girl is afraid she’s going to turn into? Is this about a woman feeling her biological clock ticking, and a guy being studiously oblivious?
THE KANGAROO COMMUNIQUÉ 10/81 (EV, Slow Boat to China)
I bet if you looked you’d find that a baby kangaroo was born in the summer or or early fall of 1981 in one of the zoos around Tokyo. This story takes place two months after the birth, so one month after “A Perfect Day for Kangaroos,” and it was published at the same time. Fun.
This one’s a little more involved. It takes the form of a letter dictated into a tape player, from a guy who works in the complaints department of a department store to a woman who wrote a letter of complaint. Something about her letter struck him as ineffably perfect, and he wanted to reach out to her. Inspired by seeing the baby kangaroo at the zoo – the same foursome as in the other story – he decided to write to her, or actually to dictate this letter. But it’s not quite love, not quite lust, that he’s trying to satisfy. It’s something more inchoate, a dissatisfaction with himself, but not self-loathing – a dissatisfaction with being himself, with being any individual. He wants to transcend, somehow, although he doesn’t put it in spiritual terms.
Part of the fun of the story is in how unable the guy is to express what he wants – how often he contradicts himself, and how long it takes for him to get around to explaining what he’s doing. It’s not until halfway through that we even realize we’re not reading a letter, but “listening” to a “tape.” It’s something of a shaggy dog story in that, I think: I’m less struck by where we’re being taken than by the weird journey that takes us there. It’s an experiment in narrative voice, in ventriloquistic performance. This narrative I is a little different than the others.
THE 1963/1982 GIRL FROM IPANEMA 4/82 (in Jay Rubin's Murakami bio The Music of Words, and A Perfect Day for Kangaroos)
“The Girl from Ipanema” brings back memories of high school in 1963, and a girl he used to talk to then over salads for lunch. But in the story the narrator also encounters a vision of the Girl from Ipanema herself. Her reality is, she confesses, only metaphysical, but she hasn’t aged a day, and he says he met her once, in 1963. She allows it’s possible. They share a beer on the beach. She exhorts him to “live! live!” and takes off. The story ends with I thinking about nostalgia and the way things like this seem to be “the link joining me with myself.” If he can get to that place, “I am myself and myself is me. Subject is object and object is subject. All gaps gone. A perfect union.”
This builds on “The Kangaroo Communiqué” more than on anything in A Perfect Day for Kangaroos. It’s a vision of perfect dissolution of the self into a larger transcendence that may be only a deeper version of the self, but that still offers the absolution of ego dissolution. The end of modern anomie, of the atomized subject.
And in true Murakami fashion it’s a pop-jazz song from 1963 that brings him there, or gives him the vision of where he wants to go. Murakami is, at heart, an aesthetic writer – he creates worlds of beauty, in the faith that in that beauty, in the honest depiction of that beauty, there can be truth. He holds out no hope of a religious transcendence, of absolute meaning in life, but he does hold that life contains pleasures, physical and emotional, and that these have a worth of their own. And, at least in the early days, he’s content to take these pleasures where he can find them: if it’s “The Girl from Ipanema” that does it for him, he’ll let it.
A WINDOW 5/82 (EV, A Perfect Day for Kangaroos)
The original Japanese title would translate to “Do You Like Burt Bacharach,” or possibly (since it’s meant to echo the title of the Francoise Sagan novel mentioned in the story) “Aimez-vous Burt Bacharach?” Which, the Wikipedia says, is about an older woman-younger man relationship like that contemplated in the closing passage of this work. Cute.
It starts out as another letter, hilariously precious. Then we learn that the I is quoting from a letter he wrote while he was working a part-time job in college as a letter critiquer for a society that would teach you how to write better letters. But under the surface it was actually a lonely-hearts club: the critiquers were all of the opposite sex to the correspondents whose work they were critiquing.
When he quits, he gets together once for lunch with one of the women, a middle-aged married woman, a lonely housewife type. They listen to a Burt Bacharach record in her apartment and she cooks for him. The story ends with I asking if he should have slept with her. He just doesn’t know.
It’s a great little story. Mildly erotic, funny, melancholy. And a great dig at whatever critics he might have had in 1982 when he defends liking Francoise Sagan: “There’s no law requiring everybody to write novels like Henry Miller or Jean Genet.”