“THE LAST LAWN OF THE AFTERNOON” 8/1982 (in EV, and Slow Boat to China)
In the intro to Slow Boat, Murakami specifies that he wrote this after Wild Sheep Chase. That’s where the break comes.
This is close in spirit to “Slow Boat to China.” A totally realistic story, involving flashbacks to the college years, heavy on the nostalgia, zeroing in on a moment in growing up, ending with a kind of mystification at the world. A light touch on deep things.
Here the I talks about a summer job he had once mowing lawns. His girlfriend breaks up with him for reasons he can’t fathom, and since he doesn’t need the money, he quits the job. On the last job he has an encounter with a middle-aged housewife, an alcoholic, who takes him up to her teenaged daughter’s bedroom and…just shows him her things. Why does she do this? Is the daughter dead? Are they estranged? There’s about a month’s worth of dust on everything…
What’s striking is the narrator’s restraint: he doesn’t ask why she’s showing him all this. He doesn’t want to make that connection. And the woman can’t tell him unless he asks, evidently. But neither does he flat-out refuse to go in with her. It’s a delicately balanced scene. We can feel the nervousness of the guy who doesn’t want to be unfriendly, but doesn’t want to get involved, and the hopelessness of the woman with her private grief, wanting to reach out, but not wanting to break down.
It’s perhaps the most vivid piece of writing Murakami had produced yet. Amazing detail. And nothing surreal at all. A 180 degree turn from Wild Sheep Chase.
“FIREFLY” 1/83 (in BW, and Firefly, Barn Burning and Other Stories)
Another wholly realistic, utterly vivid story. And again it takes us back to college years, end of the ‘60s. This time the disaffection from the student movement, and the feeling of being caught between hard left and hard right, is brought out.
But basically, of course, it’s a love story. I starts out by describing his dorm, run by a right-winger, and his funny nerdy roommate with the Amsterdam canal photo on the wall. But then it’s all about his strange relationship of the year, with the girlfriend of his late best friend from back home. His suicide, their awkwardness together. His long walks around Tokyo with the girl. Her inability to express herself. His unwillingness to think too deeply about anything. PTSD, both of them. Then the night they sleep together, and then she disappears. A letter from a mental hospital/retreat. And he goes up to the roof and lets go a firefly.
This is, of course, the kernel of Norwegian Wood. And I don’t think it does anything that novel doesn’t do, or does it any better. But it’s still a very nicely realized short story, and it’s great to have it in English so we can see how he takes a short story and turns it into a novel. He does this more often than we can know in English.
“BARN BURNING” 1/83 (in EV, and Firefly, Barn Burning and Other Stories)
In the afterword to Firefly etc., he says that he wrote this in November ’82, and that it’s the earliest of the stories in that volume. So in conception, at least, it predates “Firefly.”
I’s a novelist and married here, and the story takes place in the present, within the last three years. It starts with I relating how he met a girl at a party and they became friends. Then she goes off to tour Algeria, and then she brings back a boyfriend – a Japanese guy she met there. The real story starts when one day, while I’s wife is out (we never meet her), the girl brings the guy to his house for an impromptu party. They drink. She goes to sleep on the bed, and the boyfriend brings out some grass, and he and I get stoned. While smoking, the guy mentions that he burns barns. Just burns them right down, when the urge takes him. In fact he’s scouted out his next barn, and it’s near I’s house.
After that I becomes obsessed with figuring out which barn it is. He works out where the barns in his neighborhood are, which are the likely candidates, and then every morning on his run he makes the rounds. Does this for a year, but none of them ever burn down. Then he runs into the guy in town one day and asks him when he’s going to burn the barn. He already did. But still won’t say which one.
Which bothers I – he’s kind of obsessed. But there’s nothing he can do. And the girl has disappeared – neither of them can find her. And I just keeps getting older.
An entertaining story. Kind of light, but still with those mysterious depths, or depths created by mystery, half hinted at, that you’re coming to expect from a Murakami short story. Is it about obsession? Suggestion? Is it just a comedy about a normal guy whose life and mind are taken over by rowdy partiers? An oblique way of saying that we keep getting older and never figure anything out?
“THE MIRROR” 2/83 (in BW, and A Perfect Day for Kangaroos)
I is in some kind of group that’s trading scary stories. His is about when he was 19. A hippie, he didn’t go to college and instead traveled around working odd jobs. Once he was a night watchman at a junior high school. One October night he woke up with a fright – something was wrong. Found a new mirror on the wall in the entrance hall. Realized the reflection was him, but not him: it hated him. And then it was starting to control him. So he smashed the mirror. Next morning he found – there had never been any mirror.
So this series was going on during Wild Sheep Chase and after. Kind of an anomaly in his oeuvre, then. This clearly relates to one of the late scenes in that novel, though: I encounters a mirror in the Rat’s house in Junitaki, and feels that his reflection both is and isn’t him. Of course, there he also realizes, by the lack of reflection, that the Sheep Man is a ghost. Here Murakami takes the mirror stage in a different direction: it’s just confronting yourself, or what lies deep within. By this time he’s become fixated on the idea of the subconscious, what lies hidden in the deep wells of the self. And this is a light, ghost-story-styled riff on that. Nothing more, I guess.
“THE RISE AND FALL OF SHARPIE CAKES” 3/83 (in BW, and A Perfect Day for Kangaroos)
I reads a newspaper ad one day about a meeting to solicit new product ideas for Sharpie Cakes. He has no idea what these are, but goes to the meeting. Turns out they’re age-old sweets with a heritage that goes back to the Heian period – even mentioned in Kokinshū. But they want to come up with a contemporary version. Big cash prize. He’s a talented baker, and could use the money, so he comes up with an entry. All the young people in the firm like it, but a couple of old ones don’t, so they let the Sharpie Cake Crows decide. This is a flock of crows kept in a room at the company and fed, for centuries, on nothing but Sharpie Cakes. They’re quite finicky. They throw I’s cakes to them. A free-for-all – some of the crows will eat them, others spit them out, and others attack the ones eating them, and soon there’s blood everywhere. I storms out saying, fuck it: I’ll just bake what I like.
Hilarious. I take it as a thinly-disguised denunciation of the literary establishment that was, in 1983, arguing about him. Is he literature or is he not? Do we give him prizes or do we not? To which he says: fuck it, I’ll just write what I like.
But there could be other interpretations.
“THE DANCING DWARF” 1/84 (in EV, and Firefly, Barn Burning and Other Stories)
I dreams of meeting a dwarf in the woods, dancing to a Charlie Parker record. Just before he wakes up, the dwarf tells him they’ll meet again. Awake, he goes to work in the elephant factory. His coworker tells him someone else once mentioned the dwarf – an old guy in a different section. I finds the old guy in the tavern and the old guy tells him about when the dwarf used to come dance in the tavern regularly – before the revolution. In fact, the dwarf might have had something to do with the revolution – he went to dance before the king and then a year later, boom. Revolution. Now the revolution are looking for the dwarf. Later I learns of a cute new female worker and asks her out dancing. She says she’ll be there dancing alone; if he wants to dance it’s his business. In another dream, the dwarf says the only way I can win the girl is to let the dwarf in his body to dance through him. Which he’ll do, on one condition: if I makes it through the evening without making a sound, the dwarf leaves his body, but if he talks just once, the dwarf gets his body forever. Deal. On the night, the dwarf dances I’s body brilliantly, seductively, and the girl leaves with him. They walk into the hills, but just as they start making love, she turns into a mass of maggots and rotting flesh. I is just about to scream when he realizes this is a trick of the dwarf’s: he closes his eyes and kisses the girl and the dwarf says, you win, and leaves his body. Victory! He gets the girl. But now he’s on the lam – the revolution heard the dwarf was dancing in his body and is hunting him. And the dwarf won’t leave him alone – says the only way for him to escape is to give his body to the dwarf. I can’t. But he can’t run forever…
Nothing can prepare you for this story. It’s surreal on a level that nothing previous had been. Up until now we’ve had, at most, magical elements in an otherwise recognizable world. Here we’re in a fairy-tale land that is, at most, described realistically. Kings, revolutions, elephant factories – none of these are any more “real” to us than a dancing dwarf that can possess your body. And fairy-tale logic obtains, too: the final test, where the hero has to see through a glamor that tries to convince him his fair lady is foulness itself, is straight out of Konjaku monogatari, if not Brothers Grimm.
What’s it mean? I have no idea. This one I just accept. It’s a masterpiece.
“NAUSEA 1979” 10/84 (in BW, and Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round)
This collection is the one where he pretended to just be relating stories that actual people, acquaintances or readers, had related to him. Nothing made up. Later, of course, he admitted it was all made up, but the nonfictional frame was part of the deal. That’s why the interlocutor here addresses I as “Mr. Murakami.” This device is somewhat obscured in the first of these stories to be translated, but it’s preserved here.
The interlocutor here is a free-lance illustrator who occasionally works with “Mr. Murakami” and also shares a love for old jazz records and whiskey. They get together occasionally, and once the man told I about his 40 days of nausea in the summer of ’79. For forty days, he’d feel otherwise fine but throw up after nearly every meal, and every day he’d get a phone call from a man he didn’t know who’d say his (the illustrator’s) name and then hang up. No doctor could help him, and neither psychiatrists nor the police took his complaints seriously. The only possible explanation is that it had something to do with his other hobby, which was sleeping with the wives of his friends – but he swears he feels absolutely no guilt about that, and besides, he’d recognize the voice if it were one of them. And, the nausea and phone calls stopped for no reason, while he still seduces friends’ wives. The story ends with both of them wondering if the condition will return, and the friend saying, maybe it’ll hit you next. You’re not exactly innocent.
The title plainly refers to the Sartre novel, and so maybe we’re supposed to read the nausea as a manifestation of existential anxiety – but the guy hardly seems angst-ridden. And the details of his sex life certainly seem to point toward grief – at least, we’re supposed to suspect that. But the guy rejects that out of hand. We’re left wondering: can someone live totally free of guilt?
“HUNTING KNIFE” 12/84 (in BW, and Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round)
So the Dead Heat stories were mostly serialized in 1984, and really only two of that series have been translated, this and “Nausea 1979.” “Lederhosen was written for the book version of Dead Heat in 1985. “Crabs,” which shows up in BW, was essentially written for that book (first J. publication was the J. version of that collection), but it’s a drastic expansion and revision of a segment of one of the Dead Heat Stories, “Baseball Diamond.” Still, I’ll treat it as a new story for 2003.
In this one I and his wife are at a beach resort next to a US base; it could be Okinawa or Hawaii. Probably the latter, as all the other characters in the story are Americans. But that could be Okinawa, too. After some description of the beach and a brief encounter with an overweight former United stewardess, we zero in on I and his wife’s neighbors in the beach cottage, an American mother and her adult son. The son’s in a wheelchair. I sees them every day, but never speaks to either until the night before I checks out. He wakes up in the middle of the night and takes a walk, and meets the son. They have a conversation on the beach. The son mentions that he just bought a fine hunting knife, and shows it to I. Asks I to cut something with it. I does, then kind of goes wild slashing it around. The American tells him he dreams of a knife stabbing painlessly into his memory centers, and he can’t get it out, and then everything fades away but the knife, like a prehistoric bone on the beach.
I find this story almost haunting, but in the end I haven’t really found a way to connect with it. Still, it’s a fine and evocative description of the beach scene – the Dead Heat stories for the most part impress with their casualness. I think that’s what he was trying to go for with the nonfictional frame device. Take away some of the expectation of profundity or dazzling surrealism. They’re experimental in that sense – maybe trying to be like Raymond Carver, one of his favorites, who he had first translated in 1983. Psychological explorations. They don’t really get that deep, though. I mean, not like “Firefly” or “Last Lawn of the Afternoon."