Saturday, August 18, 2012

Murakami Haruki: Dance Dance Dance (1988)

What gets cut out for the translation?

Chapter 1 is truncated.  After what’s translated, we get a wonderful scene with a girlfriend who he keeps intentionally and conspicuously nameless.  She thinks he’s odd but likes him, and also pities him.  Calls him a Man from the Moon – tells him he ought to go back there where he fits in, but she can’t be with him, because the air’s too thin there.  Finally breaks up with him to marry an Earthling.  This leads him to reflections on the people he’s lost – he has an In Door and and Out Door in his life, and people come in one and go out the other – it’s a one-way street, his life.  Also he reflects on identity – he hardly knows himself, can’t describe himself – and normality – he thinks he’s totally normal, although others may not agree.  But he’s not misunderstood:  there are no misunderstandings in the world, only differences of opinion.

In Chapter 2, on the drive to bury the cat, we get a long rumination on stupid pop music, capitalist tricks to part kids from their money.  In Chapter 1, too, he had remarked that ‘80s pop does nothing for him;  now he reels off the names of all the lame bands.  But then he reflects that teen pop in his day was awful, too.  Whatever:  he’s getting old.

All this, by the way, is great stuff.  Yeah, he’s just spinning his wheels, but it’s all establishing I for the ‘80s in a really comfortable, curmudgeonly way.  And the Man from the Moon bit is nicely alienated.  Personally, I wouldn’t have cut it.  I would have fought it tooth and nail.

Chapter 3 is intact.  So’s Chapter 4 except for a paragraph in Sapporo, after he notes that he feels like an outsider, where he wonders when was the last time he’d really loved somebody.  After this I think maybe only a bit here or there gets excised (though to be honest I stopped A/B-ing).  It’s the first two chapters where the brutal cuts get made.


This is the continuation (and, to date, conclusion) of the Rat series. 

It picks up where Wild Sheep Chase leaves off, although the beginning date is given as 1983.  It starts with him reminiscing, from a point in 1983, about the four years after the death of the Rat.  I was devastated and spent four years essentially spinning his wheels, cooling his jets, and occasionally dipping his wick.

At first he doesn’t work.  He has enough money in savings that he can afford to hole up in an apartment and just drink.  The problem is that he feels utterly unmoored, out of place and out of time.  The Rat is dead, and so is his girlfriend the ear model – and it’s only now that he realizes he misses her more than the Rat.  He’s lost everything of any importance to him.  And meanwhile the world has moved on into the ‘80s, a time of stupid wealth and superficiality.

Gradually he rebuilds his professional life, turning himself into a freelance writer.  Any kind of writing that anybody will pay him to do – magazine restaurant reviews, travel features, celebrity interviews.  All meaningless, repetitive work – “cultural snow shoveling,” he calls it (one of my favorite lines in all of Murakami).  Because he’s methodical and efficient, he gets a good reputation and secures a steady income.  But it means nothing to him.

He misses the ear model (whose name, he now tells us that he’ll eventually learn, is Kiki) more and more, and begins to dream of her, and dream of the Dolphin Hotel.  She’s calling to him, and, perhaps the same thing, somebody in the Dolphin Hotel is weeping for him.

Eventually, in March 1983, he decides to take time off work and go to Sapporo to see the hotel and try to track down Kiki.  In Sapporo, he finds that the old Dolphin Hotel has been torn down and replaced by a glitzy new one (Birnbaum changes its name, cleverly, to l’Hotel Dauphin).  Bewildered, he does some research and finds out that the old Dolphin Hotel owner was muscled out by a combination of financial, political, and criminal muscle in a shady real estate deal now worth millions;  nobody knows what became of him, and I never learns.  Very ‘80s.

But I soon discovers that the old Dolphin Hotel is still somehow there, within the new one.  Metaphysically speaking, and perhaps only for him.  One day he gets off the elevator to find himself in total darkness in, seemingly, a hallway in the old hotel, or something like it.  At the end of the hall, in a candlelit room, he finds the Sheep Man, surrounded by the detritus of the sheep floor of the old hotel.  The Sheep Man explains that this is I’s place, and the Sheep Man is here for him.  His function is to connect things for I, like a telephone switchboard.  But I has to unravel the connections.  How?  Just keep moving.  Dance, even if you don’t know the steps.  Just dance.  Before it’s too late.

One other person that I meets has found this floor of the hotel:  a receptionist named Yumiyoshi (which Rubin identifies as a goof on the Yuniyoshi character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s).  Cute, with glasses, a bit nervous.  I develops a crush on her, but she’s reserved.  And he meets one other person at the hotel, an aloof 13-year-old named Yuki.  Ends up escorting her back to Tokyo on the plane, as her mother has run off to Kathmandu.

It’s a very complicated plot. 

Back in Tokyo, I gets to know this Yuki and her family more.  She’s the daughter of a famous female photographer, Ame, and a famous novelist of the previous generation, Makimura Hiraku (an anagram of Murakami’s own name, of course, that works only in romanization).  They’re divorced, and neither can be bothered to pay much attention to Yuki.  Ame is so absorbed in her work and herself that she can literally skip the country without realizing that she’s abandoning her daughter in a hotel in Sapporo;  we meet her in Honolulu, where I takes Yuki to meet her.  Makimura, meanwhile, has in late middle age turned into a ridiculous Hemingway adventurer type, waited on by a youngish personal assistant that Yuki thinks is his lover.  I doesn’t quite adopt Yuki, but becomes her friend, and tries to talk some sense into her parents. 

While this is all happening, I has also found a lead on Kiki.  He sees a crap movie starring an old acquaintance of his from junior high school, a guy named Gotanda, and Kiki has a bit part as a lover of Gotanda’s.  So I tracks down Gotanda to see if he can find Kiki.  That’s how he learns her name, but it’s a dead end.  Gotanda only knew her as a high-priced call girl, and that was her professional name;  he got her into the film, but then she just disappeared.

Gotanda and I get together for drinks, and end up fast friends.  Gotanda is perfect in every way, but genuinely nice and personable, and seems to genuinely envy I’s simple, self-sufficient life:  he himself is desperate to escape the fake world of showbiz.  He’s divorced, too, although he still sees his ex sometimes – she’s the only one he loves, but the pressures of celebrity keep them apart.

One night Gotanda calls over some girls, from the same club that Kiki had worked for, thinking that they might know something.  They don’t, but I sleeps with one of them anyway – Mei.  Has a nice time.  Then a couple of weeks later she turns up dead – with I’s business card in her wallet.  This brings the cops down on I, who says nothing, to protect Gotanda.  Eventually they let him go.

In the end these two strands of plot merge.  Yuki has some inchoate psychic ability – it’s part of why she keeps herself so aloof – and when I takes her to see the movie with Kiki and Gotanda in it, she tells him Gotanda killed Kiki.  I confronts Gotanda with it, and Gotanda doesn’t deny it – in fact, he confesses that he might have done it.  Thinks he probably did.  But can’t be sure – his memories are such a blur.  He doesn’t even know where he ends and his roles begin.  But he does have an alibi for Mei’s death – he thinks.

I ends up pitying him.  And that night Gotanda kills himself by driving his Maserati into Tokyo Bay.  I heads back up to the Dolphin Hotel and consummates his crush on Yumiyoshi – decides to move up to Sapporo to be with her.

Happy ending, of sorts.  Although there are more than enough loose ends to create a sense of lingering unease.  At one point, for example, I has a vision of Kiki leading him into a room with six skeletons in it, and at the end of the book I can only account for five (Kiki, Mei, Gotanda, Ame’s boyfriend Dick, and the Rat).  Who’s the sixth – I himself?  Or June, a prostitute Makimura bought for I in Hawaii who then disappears?  Or Naoko, the girl mentioned at the beginning of Wild Sheep Chase, left conspicuously (for longtime readers, at least) unmentioned here?  Or the Sheep Man, who is no longer in the old Dolphin Hotel when I and Yumiyoshi visit it at the end of the book?  And what does that mean?  Is I really on his own from now on – no weird help in connecting the threads of his life? 

Like I say, some stuff gets cut out of the earlier chapters for the translation.  The reason is clear:  the book is pretty slow to get going, because Murakami lets us see him spinning his own authorial wheels, waiting for inspiration to strike.  This novel feels improvised, and it takes a few choruses for the improvisation to go anywhere. 

For that reason, I think of this novel as one for the fans.  It’s not as standalone brilliant as the previous two.  But if you already like Murakami, then this riffing will be pleasurable for you:  you probably won’t have much problem with the shagginess of the book.  And he’s still an excellent writer – his paragraphs, his scenes, still have that zing.  And the excised bits do introduce some themes that become important later:  I’s alienation from contemporary pop music, his inability to construct and present an image of himself to others that corresponds to what he feels is himself.  His doubt that there is a “himself.”

The major themes of this book seem new in Murakami.  One is illusion vs. reality.  Not in the sense of an exploration of hypocrisy – that goes without saying.  No, illusion, or image, is here presented as part of a thoroughly disgusted exploration of advanced capitalism as on display in the ‘80s in Japan.  With the advent of wealth, everybody’s obsessed with brand names, with conspicuous consumption, with celebrity, with the media, and this creates a confusion between image and reality that infects everybody.  Gotanda is the harrowing example of this – in the end, he doesn’t even know if he killed Kiki, because he doesn’t even know if he himself is real.  And I believes him – because really, there’s no proof that Kiki is even dead.  It’s all dream, illusion, image.

To be honest, this theme isn’t handled with perfect elegance.  A real critique of late-stage capitalism and celebrity culture deserves the kind of careful, architectural novel that Murakami gave us in Hard-Boiled Wonderland.  This one’s too scattershot.

What the Rat series has always done incredibly well, though, is to exploit the I persona as a way of showing how it feels to live in the world today if you’re trying to stick to some kind of code authentic to yourself.  And that’s what saves this book.  The other theme is aging, and this is how Murakami fits it all together.  The I never liked the ‘60s much, but now that he’s discovering how much worse the ‘80s are, he’s getting a bit nostalgic.  For I, realizing the soulless nature of advanced capitalism is just part of growing old, like realizing that 90% of what you hear on the radio is crap, and that 13-year-old girls see you as hopelessly weird.  Where this book excels is in giving us an ever-more-dyspeptic perspective on the superficiality of ‘80s Japan, rather than in articulating a critique of it.

Other important themes in the book are not so new.  There is, of course, a lot of thinking about death.  Just as there was in Norwegian Wood, and in all the books before that, in fact.  I’m not sure what needs to be said about this, though.

There’s also a lot of thinking about the Meaning of Life.  I’d argue that this is, in fact, characteristic of Murakami’s work.  He’s always thinking about the meaning of life, in one way or another.  He’s a deeply serious writer, and his characters are usually engaged in some sort of struggle to live a better life, and to understand what that means.

In this book that struggle takes the form of a battle against boredom.  Again, the lack of a transcendent spiritual meaning is taken for granted – there’s no religion in Murakami whatsoever, even when there’s death and ghosts.  And part of the critique of ‘80s-style capitalism here is the fact that all the characters are at least comfortable financially, and many wealthy.  This is really Murakami’s Bubble book, even though he sets it in 1983:  he’s talking about the spiritual consequences of the material comfort that had become so familiar to so many Japanese by the late ‘80s that nobody, seemingly, could remember what it was like to need.  Especially people of Murakami’s generation.  The great material battles have been won, and perhaps as a result of that the great ideological battles have paled in significance, and what’s left is the mundanity of everyday life.  Work.  Play.  TV.

This book tackles boredom as an existential problem:  the inability to find, among a surfeit of possible activities, an activity that will truly enrich one’s inner life.  One suspects that, even in the absence of a god, certain ways of spending one’s life must be more rewarding than others – but what are they?  How does one find them?  Do they still exist, or has capitalism destroyed them from the inside out? 

This is why the wheel-spinning that begins this book, and that is partially cut out of the translation, is so important, I think:  Murakami’s problem as an author mirrors I’s problem as a character.  The book works better when we can feel that, by working through the barren period together with them.  It makes the contrast with the later, livelier sections of the book that much more meaningful.  The solution the Sheep Man gives I is to keep dancing:  action, any kind of action, is better than inaction, than sitting around moaning about your loneliness.  And maybe, just maybe, while you’re dancing something will present itself.  At the very least, you’ll be diverted, get a little exercise, maybe have some fun.  The almost ridiculously pellmell feel of the post-Sapporo parts of the book demonstrates this.

Apart from the heavy themes, this book does have its delights.  In a book written during the first flush of his celebrity after Norwegian Wood, Murakami gives us a facetious self-portrait of where he fears he’ll end up in ten years – fat, pompous, and irrelevant.  In Dick, meanwhile, Murakami gives us his first fully-realized foreign character (J hardly counts), and he does it with all the empathy and non-essentialism that “Slow Boat to China” promised.  In the scenes between I and Yuki, Murakami gives us some great comedy.

It’s definitely one of his minor novels.  But at the same time it’s important, to see him trying to find new themes for himself.  He’s trying to extend himself, even if he goes back to semi-familiar territory to do it.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Murakami Haruki: Norwegian Wood (1987)

Watanabe Toru is a college student at the end of the ‘60s, disaffected from the student riots not out of political apathy so much as from a perception that those involved aren’t as radical and dedicated as Watanabe wants them to be.  They’re not going to go far enough.

In high school in Kobe, Watanabe was part of a kind of three-way friendship/romance:  there was Watanabe, his best (only) friend Kizuki, and Kizuki’s girlfriend Naoko.  It was kind of a hermetically sealed minisociety:  the three of them against the world.  Then, at seventeen, Kizuki killed himself.  Now Watanabe has fled to college in Tokyo, where he unexpectedly runs into Naoko on the train.  They had never talked much before – always through Kizuki – but now they start taking long Sunday walks through the city, getting to know each other.  Sort of dating, sort of not;  mutual healing, or gestures toward it.  Then one rainy night – it’s Naoko’s 20th birthday – she finally starts talking about the past, then she can’t stop – it’s kind of a manic episode – at the end of it they sleep together – Watanabe’s shocked to find that she’s a virgin – he asks her why she and Kizuki never did it – she cries – he can’t get another word out of her.  Leaves.  Later finds that she’s left, no forwarding address.  A shock.

He writes letters to her, confessional, devoted letters – he’s falling in love with her.  Finally he hears from her:  she’s in a kind of alpine retreat/mental hospital north of Kyoto.  He rushes to visit her.  It’s a sanatorium that feels like a summer camp:  very Candide kind of tend-your-garden-and-heal-yourself place.  He meets her 30-ish roommate Reiko.  Naoko is doing better, is opening up to Watanabe.  Watanabe is entranced.

He visits twice in all, and sends lots of letters.  In the process he learns that Naoko’s problems go deeper than he’d known:  when she was in junior high her older sister had killed herself, and Naoko had found the body.  She’s been surrounded by death, and meanwhile had never been able to have sex with Kizuki.  Only orally or manually – nothing else worked.  Which also had been a trauma to her – and left almost unspoken is that she feels that, by responding sexually to Watanabe, she was somehow betraying Kizuki.  Now, in his visits to Ami Lodge, she doesn’t sleep with Watanabe again – just hand and mouth. 

Meanwhile, back in Tokyo, Watanabe has met another girl, a classmate named Midori.  Midori is the opposite of Naoko in every way:  boyish to Naoko’s girlishness, strong to Naoko’s waifishness, healthy to Naoko’s frailty, life to Naoko’s deathliness, sexual to Naoko’s reticence, brash to Naoko’s shyness, etc.  And Midori takes an interest in Watanabe, and Watanabe takes an interest in her.  First he visits her family bookshop in Ōtsuka, a rundown shitamachi kind of place, where they have lunch together and watch a fire in the neighborhood while singing folk songs.  Later he accompanies her on a visit to her dying father in the hospital – actually makes a connection with the old man, eating cucumbers with soy sauce and nori. 

He and Midori don’t sleep together, but the sexual tension between them crackles like lightning.  Watanabe can’t admit to himself that he’s falling for Midori, and can’t believe she really likes him, but gradually she becomes his best friend.  And, ultimately, more than that.  As Naoko’s condition gets worse, and she’s transferred to a more intensive-care mental hospital, she gets more and more remote from Watanabe – she can’t write back, and he can’t visit her, and he begins to suspect, without admitting it to himself, that they’ll never be able to have a life together.  Meanwhile, his feelings for Midori get stronger and stronger – he realizes that he loves her, and that all the strength and commitment to life that he’s been cultivating in himself for Naoko’s sake is pulling him, really, toward Midori. 

He’s all but made his choice when Naoko kills herself.  This throws Watanabe into a tailspin:  for a month he wanders the country on an epic bender, sleeping on beaches in a delirium of grief.  Finally he returns to Tokyo.  Reiko visits him and tells him of Naoko’s last decline, and advises him to be happy.  In the last scene of the book he finally calls Midori, prepared to tell her everything and accept her once and for all.  She asks him where he is.  He doesn’t know.

Along the way we get two of the most fully-realized secondary characters in all of Murakami’s fiction.  Reiko is one:  in addition to acting as a knowing older-sister character to Naoko and, in the end, Watanabe, she gets a long scene where she tells her story.  The pressure of studying to be a concert pianist had sprung a spring in her head, and the last straw was, as a young mother, when an adolescent female piano student of hers seduced her, then spread rumors about her.  Reiko gets her own healing arc, culminating with her leaving the Lodge, determined to make a go of it in the world outside;  on the way out she sleeps with Watanabe.  A little sexual healing.

The other is Nagasawa, an older guy in Watanabe’s dorm.  They fall in together out of a mutual love of The Great Gatsby, and Nagasawa turns out to be kind of Watanabe’s evil twin.  Watanabe has all the emotional guardedness and disdain for social norms of any of Murakami’s Is, and we know that, just as in the case of the Rat books’ I, these qualities come from deep emotional damage.  Nagasawa has these qualities, but they stem from nothing but ego, and they result in a pure and evil nihilism.  Nagasawa is on an elite track, destined for a career in the Foreign Ministry, and he thinks everybody else except Watanabe is an inferior being, worthy of being trampled on, because he has the Will to dominate, and they don’t.

This book is at the same time a culmination of things Murakami had been doing in his fiction for nearly ten years now and something utterly new for him.

What’s old is plain from the summary above.  Watanabe Toru is another typical, utterly typical, Murakami boku:  a fierce individualist, disaffected from/by student politics, nursing wounded ideals and emotions, cool taste in books and music, sexually potent in a kind of desultory way.  He could easily be the I from the Rat stories, and this could easily be the true story of that I’s dead girlfriend, the one we never get many details about but whose shadow colors Hear the Wind and Pinball so deeply.  Naoko, and Watanabe’s love for her, and his past with her, are a kind of realistic correlative to the surrealistic End of the World subconscious of that book:  here, too, he’s faced with the choice of surrendering to that private world or somehow making it in the real world.  Many other motifs and ideas from Murakami’s previous work find their way into this one, ranging from the thorough reworking of the “Firefly” story to the use of the images of the hidden well (from Pinball) and the healthy mountain retreat (from Sheep Chase) and the secondary character telling her own story (Reiko here, and before that all of the Dead Heat stories).

What’s new is that all of this is happening in a novel that, outwardly, is utterly conventional.  Everybody has names.  Nothing surreal happens.  More broadly, the names and dates and specific details are so evocative of a time and a place and a personality that the book feels autobiographical, even if it isn’t.  It feels like a conventional Japanese novel of a particular type:  the seishun novel, the coming-of-age novel.  He even uses some imagery (cherry blossoms, for example) that every other novelist in Japan would also have used (although he puts a different twist on them).  It’s a romance – a not-so-simple, but very classic, love story.  Despite (and because of) Watanabe’s reticence as a narrator, we get swept up in the emotional turmoil of the love triangle.  We feel Naoko’s ethereal beauty, we feel Midori’s pulsing vitality, and we feel every bit of Watanabe’s broken love for both of them.

As a love story, as a coming-of-age story, it’s brilliantly successful.  The characters are, as I say, vividly enough rendered that the reader is easily moved by their love affairs.  And they’re imbued with enough symbolic resonance that the reader looking for that can easily feel that something important is at stake here.  It’s life versus death:  Watanabe has to choose between remaining in a beautiful but dead fantasy world constructed of memory and longing, or stepping into the messy but lively world of the here-and-now.  It’s self versus other:  Watanabe’s love for Naoko is at least partly about seeking his own healing, and Naoko herself is so damaged that she can hardly take care of herself, much less give to others, while Watanabe’s love for Midori is about discovering this being utterly separate from himself, with her own concerns and history, and Midori herself is somebody who has devoted her life to taking care of others, and now just wants a little for herself.  It’s past versus future, too, of course;  romance versus reality;  spirit versus flesh;  and about a dozen other dichotomies.  Given that, what’s most amazing about the novel is perhaps the fact that the characters aren’t crushed beneath all this symbolic weight:  Naoko is always Naoko, first and foremost, and Midori is Midori, an individual, a three-dimensional person.

As a commentary on Murakami’s favorite themes to this point, it’s also pretty rich.  The Nagasawa character is breathtaking – he’s what some critics have always accused Murakami’s narrators of being, a complete nihilist, and his presence here demonstrates that the Is have never been true nihilists.  But his closeness to Watanabe – they share girls, even – amounts to an admission that the I’s cool is dangerously close to nihilism.  One wrong move and this is how Watanabe ends up, and he knows it. 

Meanwhile, the dichotomy between Naoko and Midori can be read, as I’ve suggested, as a rewriting of the subconscious/conscious duality of Hard-Boiled Wonderland.  In this reading, the Shangri-La of Ami Lodge becomes pivotal:  it’s held up as a kind of ideal society, with everybody engaging in both physical labor and mental/emotional play in a communal fashion in a pristine natural setting.  Little distinction between staff and patient, little distinction between treatment and living.  This is the only setting where Naoko has a chance of thriving, but even Watanabe feels the allure:  like the Town in the previous novel, the retreat presents a kind of surrender to unreality that is pretty tempting anyway.  Why not surrender to it, if it makes you happy?  Because it’s an illusion:  in the end it can’t heal Naoko, and even Reiko decides she needs to leave.  So what does Watanabe do instead?  Sets about – and we have to believe he can succeed – making a scaled-down version of this world in his relationship with Midori.  Together, it’s suggested, they can make a safe space for each other:  that’s what love is.  But they have to both commit to it.  Maybe, just maybe, the I can escape the Town if he wants to.

In short, it’s eminently satisfying both as an extension of Murakami’s own fictional world and as a “straight” novel.  As the latter, in fact, I can’t praise it enough:  the plotting, the characterizations, the descriptions, the mise-en-scene, the dialogue, the sly humor, are all perfectly handled here.  It shows better than anything else Murakami’s craft as a writer, as a story-constructor, as a novelist.  Plus, it has great sex scenes.

Does it have any flaws?  Well, he’s trying his best to create believable, autonomous female characters here.  And he succeeds far beyond anything he’d done before.  But it’s still an extremely male-centered novel.  I do maintain that Naoko and Midori are depicted as individuals, but of course they’re not complete strangers to some persistent stereotypes of girlishness.  And Watanabe’s sex life is nothing short of male wish-fulfillment:  not only do Naoko and Midori want him desperately, but wise old Reiko also turns out to be craving the young male phallus.  I think this all works thematically – Watanabe needs them as much as they need him, and sex is held up as the ultimate in meaningful intimacy (especially with Reiko), while meaningless sex is, really for the first time in Murakami, questioned.  But at the same time it’s a faintly pathetic male fantasy of sexual potency. 

Then there’s Reiko’s story, her harrowing account of being seduced by the sociopathic thirteen-year-old girl.  This is the one episode in the novel that most marks it as Murakami Haruki’s work, I think:  it’s so out-of-left-field, so bizarre and yet so deadpan.  Structurally it throws a monkey-wrench into the machinery of the plot – but in a good way.  It introduces a note of weirdness, of nonfunctional randomness, that throws the purposefulness of the rest of the book into clear relief.  Plus it’s brilliantly written and staged:  it’s like a dramatic monologue in a play that rivets you to your seat.  But, the thinking about sexuality here, the pathologizing of homosexuality, do make the modern (Western?) reader cringe a little.  He’d come around – The Sputnik Sweetheart is Murakami trying to join the 21st century on the issue of homosexuality – but not yet.

So, okay, this is still my favorite Murakami novel.  It’s the one I’ve read more than any other – maybe more times than any novel, period – and it never fails to move me.  To move me – my reaction to it has always been primarily emotional, having felt some of the same emotional/spiritual choices confronting me at 19 (without all the death, of course).  This is the first time I’ve read it with the specific intent of engaging with it intellectually.  And it still moved me – but I was gratified to find that it was rewarding on other levels, too.

Postscript:  Rubin’s reading of the ending is the opposite of mine.  He notes that having Reiko show up wearing Naoko’s clothes, and having Watanabe sleep with her as part of their wake for Naoko, means that Watanabe is in fact choosing Naoko, and living with his memories of her, over Midori and life and the future.  As further evidence, Rubin notes that the two present-day scenes in the book – the opening arrival in Hamburg and the brief flash-forward to Santa Fe – contain no suggestion that Watanabe did in fact make a successful relationship with Midori.  I agree with most of this:  clearly Reiko is a surrogate for Naoko, and sleeping with her is in a sense consummating his relationship with Naoko.  But it’s also sleeping with Reiko herself – who is a fully realized individual, even if she’s a comic figure.  And I think it’s possible to read this as goodbye sex – putting the ghosts of the past to rest – rather than as a sign that Watanabe’s never going to be able to let go.  Similarly, since he hasn’t actually embarked on a relationship with Midori yet, sex with Reiko could be seen, not as a delaying action or a betrayal, but rather as preparation – sexual healing for himself before he’s ready to give himself to Midori.  As for the present-day scenes:  yes, I agree they’re almost maddeningly vague.  They don’t give us any indication that he’s happily married to Midori – but neither do they provide evidence that he’s not.  All they show is that, years later, his old war wound can still give him pain sometimes.  Well, that’s life, isn’t it?  Married or not.  In other words, Rubin reads the end of the novel as:  he tries to choose Midori, but his heart is still with Naoko, and so he spends his life miserable and alone.  I read the end of the novel as:  he chooses Midori, full stop, but we don’t know if she accepts him, and so we don’t know if he spends his life alone and miserable or married with occasional nostalgia.  Could go either way.

Another postscript:  I've only ever read this, in English, in Birnbaum's translation.  It was what I encountered first - and it was, in fact, the first Murakami I ever read - and I've lost count of how many times I've gone back to it over the years.  Even after Rubin's translation appeared in the West, I've never been able to bring myself to read it.  When I feel like going back to Norwegian Wood in English, it's Birnbaum's - those words - that I want to go back to. It had nothing to do with accuracy.  It's about having encountered it at a particular time in my life and finding it deeply moving and meaningful to me then, and having that reading experience still live inside me ever since as a part of my memory of that time in my life.  I've always feared that by switching translations I was going to fuck that up.  Well, we'll see - I'm slated to read the Rubin translation in a few months.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Murakami Haruki: Stories 1985-1986

“THE SECOND BAKERY ATTACK”  8/1985 (in EV, and The Second Bakery Attack)

A newly-married couple in their late 20s wakes up in the middle of the night with a staggering hunger and nothing in the fridge.  I tells about the last time this happened, when he was in college and he and his friend, abstaining from work on principle, tried to rob a bakery.  The owner instead gave the all the bread if they listened to Wagner.  They did.  Now he thinks that was the beginning of his selling out – he has a job now.  A straight life.  Wife says they need to rob a bakery together now.  They settle on a McDonald’s.  Successfully steal 30 Big Macs.  Their hunger goes away.

One of my favorite Murakami stories.  It glows with a wild but gentle humor (to be sure, it works a lot better in a country where midnight fast food robbery-murders are undreamt-of).  And it’s Murakami finally training his eye on married life.  It’s a wonderful depiction of newlywed anxiety and uncertainty, and bonding.  And yet another interesting commentary on the fallout of the ‘60s.  It’s left a bit unspecified, but the narrator’s principled aversion to work has to be a resistance to the System, and now he’s sold out.  But his relationship with his wife can redeem him – together they can make a small autonomous cell of resistance, the space of their marriage being one of not being coopted into the System.  At least, in their shared hearts.  Wonderful.

“THE ELEPHANT VANISHES” 8/1985 (in EV, and The Second Bakery Attack)

A somewhat overly punctilious I tells us about an elephant that vanished in his Tokyo suburb.  There used to be a zoo, then it closed down, but they couldn’t place the elephant, so the town reached a compromise with the zoo, the developer, and the town council that the town would adopt the elephant and care for it until it died.  It became a kind of town mascot.  But now it has disappeared – into thin air.  Then the I tells us about his job – selling useless kitchen appliances.  Once at a party he meets a woman, a women’s-mag writer, and they hit it off.  Then he tells her about the elephant – he’s a bit obsessive about it – and reveals that the night before its disappearance, after hours, he had seen it.  And it had shrunk.  He thinks it probably shrank out of existence.  It turns her off.  And ever since the vanishing, I has felt curiously remote from the world – it doesn’t matter what he does anymore.  Nothing matters.

A really memorable story – it’s stayed with me ever since I first read it nearly 20 years ago, when other stories totally left my memory.  And yet I don’t have a good schtick on what it means.  Is it about the useless but comforting things that disappear as towns get more and more urbanized?  Is it about the value of useless things in an overly pragmatic world?  Is it about the incommunicability of our private obsessions and symbolisms?  Is it about Alienation?

It’s worth noting, BTW, that this is the first time in any of Murakami’s translated stories that a character has a name:  the elephant keeper is Watanabe Noboru. 

“LEDERHOSEN” 10/1985 (in EV, and Deat Heat on a Merry-Go-Round)

Friend of I’s wife (in original, this is “Murakami” – the frame device) tells him why her parents divorced.  Her mother traveled to Germany alone once (daughter already grown), went to buy lederhosen as a souvenir for her (philandering) husband.  Shopkeepers wouldn’t sell them without the wearer present, so she went out and found a man of identical build to try them on.  While he was doing so, she realized:  she hated her husband.  Never went back home – asked for a divorce.

The kicker is when the daughter insists that if it had only been a story of a woman traveling alone and finding herself, it wouldn’t be the same.  The whole point of it is the lederhosen, she says.  I agrees.

And it’s this kicker that makes it an interesting story, for me.  Without that, it is just a story about a woman finding herself and realizing she’s oppressed in her marriage.  Which is what happened – to insist on the importance of lederhosen isn’t to deny that, I think.  But in the end, what the lederhosen mean is something that nobody else can understand – only the woman herself, and then perhaps not consciously.  Why the lederhosen make such a difference is a matter of private symbolism.  We’re in Hard-Boiled Wonderland territory, in other words.  The particularity of things to people is more than just a simple summary of what they mean.

Of course, even as “just” a story of a woman finding herself and getting out of her marriage, it’s still a new thing for Murakami.  Up to this point, we’ve had narrator after narrator being left by his wife, never understanding it.  The leaving wife is a symbol of a hostile world that relentlessly victimizes I.  Here we get the other perspective:  the leaving woman, and the oblivious man.  And more than that:  we get, really for the first time, a woman’s point of view.  From about this time, women play a much larger role in Murakami’s fictional world:  they become characters, subjectivities in their own right.  They still often function as foils for the men, but he puts a lot more effort into realizing them as people after this.  Same thing’s happening in “The Second Bakery Attack,” actually.

“A FAMILY AFFAIR” 11-12/1985 (in EV, and The Second Bakery Attack)

I is a 27-year-old PR guy for an appliance company living with his 23-year-old sister in Tokyo, who works at a travel agency.  He’s a playboy, and she used to be as anarchic as him (but never a playgirl, we learn in the end), but has grown up.  Now she’s engaged – to an engineer named Watanabe Noboru! – and she’s trying to get her brother to sober up a bit and act like a big brother.  He rebels, then at the end he has yet another meaningless one-night-stand, gets so drunk he pukes in the street, hates his life, and comes home and has a heart-to-heart with his sister.  Nothing changes, but they understand each other.

What’s interesting, I guess, about this story is how utterly conventional it is.  Nothing fantastical at all, a relentless focus on family relationships, a narrator whose profligate ways and nihilism we’re encouraged to hate, and a subtle conclusion that leaves both parties sadder but wiser.  Could be a Raymond Carver story, in other words.

All of this is, of course, pretty new for Haruki.  First narrator ever to have a family, it seems.  First time we’ve really felt any antipathy toward the narrator’s drinking and womanizing.  First time we’ve seen a comparison with the straight life come out with the straight life ahead.  First narrator we’ve had who’s an unrepentant salaryman.

Not his best story by a long shot, but interesting that he tried this.  I’m not sure quite what he was trying.  Is it another way of indicting/deconstructing the boku persona?  But this boku is so unsympathetic that it’s hard to actually associate him with the I of the Rat books, for example. 


On a Sunday afternoon, I is updating his journal for the week – every day he jots down a few facts, then on Sunday he fills in the blanks.  Suddenly a gale blows, disturbing the peaceful afternoon like the fall of the Roman Empire.  Next the phone rings, but he can’t hear a thing – there’s a din like an Indian uprising.  Filling in Saturday’s entry, he writes that he saw the film Sophie’s Choice, in which Hitler’s invasion of Poland figures.  Then his girlfriend comes over and makes an oyster hot pot and they talk about the wind, which has subsided as suddenly as it began. And for today in his journal he jots down four phrases – those of the title.  That’s his private system for journal-keeping – it never fails.

On one level I suspect Murakami came up with an awesome title and then wrote a story to match – and it works on that level.  On another level I think it’s yet another demonstration of how we each have our own private system of symbolism, and for the writer (at least Murakami), that’s the source of art.  Then too it’s kind of a satire of journal-keeping, a comparison of the trivia of every day life to the heroic events of history.

“THE WIND-UP BIRD AND TUESDAY’S WOMEN” 1/1986 (in EV, and The Second Bakery Attack)

I is an ex-salaryman – he lived the life (clerk in a law firm) for years, then one day up and quit.  He’s unemployed.  His wife says she’s fine with it – she makes good money, and he can take care of the house.  So he’s getting progressively more disconnected from society.  He’s a typical Murakami I, except that his withdrawal isn’t principled, but just on a hunch, or even an accident, and it comes in mid-life.

This story is a day in his life.  In the morning he’s cooking spaghetti when he gets a call from a mysterious woman who hints of a job, then starts talking dirty to him.  He hangs up.  Then his wife calls and asks him to look for the cat, which has disappeared, and do some errands, and oh yeah, you don’t have to get a job if you don’t want to.  Crazy.

Then he goes off to look for the cat, in the alley between the houses out back.  A forgotten place, filled with the detritus of modern suburban Japan.  He hears the bird he and his wife always call the wind-up bird because of its strange cry.  Encounters a weird teenage girl and takes a nap in her yard.  She’s recuperating from an accident, and whispers to him of death.  He never does find the cat – whose name is Watanabe Noboru! Just like wife’s brother in law. 

That evening his wife weeps and blames him for the cat’s death – she’s sure it’s dead, and she says he always kills things, without even lifting a finger.  The phone rings.  Neither of them answer it.

This may be my favorite Murakami story of all.  It’s perfect just like this – although the novel he made out of it is pretty good, too.  Here the details are the perfect blend of absurdism and portent.  The wind-up bird – it takes on greater dimensions in the novel, but already here it’s got the metaphoric aspect of the bird that keeps the world going.  Something he’s no longer able to do.  The women – the perfect symbol of a world that mystifies and sometimes persecutes the hapless I, but also allures him, sometimes inappropriately.  And the I – a new twist on the I, a newly-made dropout I, experiencing for the first time the meaningless of modern life.  Seeing it with fresh eyes.  And – the wife is a crucial character here – letting people down with his inability to cope.  He’s not like the brother in “A Family Affair” – we pretty much sympathize with him – but we can also see his wife’s point of view, too.  His passivity is a problem.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Murakami Haruki: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985)

A stictly bifurcated story:  two separate but intertwined storylines unfolding in alternate chapters.  One, “Hard-Boiled Wonderland,” is set in a lightly science-fictioned version of the present day (i.e., early ‘80s Tokyo, but with the addition of a cyberpunk infowar), and the other, “The End of the World,” is set in a fully-realized fantasy world (what feels like a middle-European town in an unspecified age that features some of the conveniences of modern life [electric power] and a lot of the picturesqueness of ages gone by [pastoral beauty]).  Both narrated in the first person by (as it turns out) aspects of the same self.  The I of “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” sounds exactly like the boku in other stories up to this point, but in the narrative calls himself the formal, public watashi;  the I of “The End of the World” sounds like a formal, mannered watashi, but calls himself boku.  In the end, we realize why this is:  for all its otherworldliness, “The End of the World” represents the deepest, most private self of the narrator, while “Hard-Boiled Wonderland” is the self in society.  Essentially it’s the same view we’ve gotten of the self in every Murakami novel up to now, but dissected for us:  the Murakami Narrator is someone who, though in society, insists on living according to his deepest private self.  Here we get an examination of what that means and how it works.

HBW:  among other things, it’s a killer bit of science fiction.  I is a Calcutec, a kind of human data-storage and encryption device.  Murakami imagines a technology that allows data to be stored in the brains of certain highly trained individuals, and encrypted by them using a half-explained (fully-explained but only half-comprehensible?) process of left-brain/right-brain integration and and partitioning of the subconscious mind.  Hacking the brain, in other words, although the term hadn’t been invented yet.  He works for the System, a quasi-State apparatus that employs Calcutecs in order to safeguard intellectual property – the proprietary nature of information.  They’re caught in a war with the Semiotecs, information pirates who are dedicated to the idea that information should be free, or stealable for their profit.  And yes, the possibility is raised that both teams are controlled by the same entity, which benefits from the competition.  I hardly need to point out how prophetic all this was in 1985 (although of course it was in the air:  Rubin says that Murakami swears he wasn’t influenced by William Gibson, though). 

EOTW:  among other things, it’s a moving piece of fantasy fiction of a type particular to Japan.  Specifically it’s the same vision that Miyazawa Kenji developed in things like “Night of the Milky Way Railroad,” and that Miyazaki Hayao would exploit in Laputa.  A fantasy that, like Tolkien-style fantasy, embraces magic and strange beasts, but gravitates more toward a recognizable Europe of the late 19th century than an imagined one of the Iron Age.  Unicorns coexist with power stations.  A walled Town that nobody can leave;  the wall also embraces mysterious woods, hills, a river, a power station, abandoned barracks, and other things.  I newly arrives in this land, and the Gatekeeper severs him from his shadow.  I is assigned to be the Dreamreader, freeing and “reading” the dreams embedded as residue in the skulls of dead unicorns;  meanwhile he tries to figure out a way to free his shadow and flee the walled Town in which he’s trapped.

In HBW, I is hired by a mysterious old scientist who gives him data to shuffle and return to him in several days’ time.  Once he gets the data shuffled, I is set upon by rogue third-party agents who trash his apartment and his stomach, and then gets a distress call from the granddaughter of the scientist saying he’s in trouble.  The agents have trashed his place too. 

When I finally tracks down the scientist (after some of the most surreal and funny adventures Murakami has ever come up with, pure acid-trip stuff), he learns that the data he was given was actually an experiment the scientist was running on him, and that the agents destroyed the means of ending the experiment.  As a result, in a couple of days I’s brain is going to shut down.  He’ll die, or rather die to the outside world, being locked forever in his own subconscious.  The end of his world.  And in fact that’s what happens:  the rest of the book, over a fourth of it, is devoted to the playing out of this doom.  Basically it’s what would you do if you knew you had 48 hours to live?  How would you live it up?  And if you know Murakami, and you know what he can do in describing the pleasures (and frustrations) of the flesh, you know this is going to be good.  And it is.

Locked in his own subconscious.  Which is, of course, the Town of “The End of the World.”  As it’s explained (and I think I understand it), the old scientist, who in fact used to work for the system, found a way to partition off part of the subconscious like you might a hard drive, or rather create within the brain a duplicate of the subconscious, a copy of it, which is then used for data processing.  The book posits that the subconscious is like a world of its own, different for each of us, full of private symbols and sensations that nobody else can understand or access.  A private story.  This story changes as stimuli from the external world – from living – affect the subconscious world – it’s constantly changing.  What the scientist did by creating a copy of the subconscious world, the core, was to freeze it at one moment in its development, partitioning the copy off from external stimulus.  The second core, the frozen one, was then used as an encryption/storage device – since it worked according to a totally personal code, it was totally secure. 

Let’s stop here for a moment and recognize that Murakami has just laid on us some heavy science-fictional shit, some deep philosophical and ontological shit.  Taking scraps of Freud and Jung and Saussure and a whole lot of other thinkers I can’t name, he’s equating the subconscious with a processor and narrative as the language of that processor.  It’s the opposite of Jung – there’s nothing of universal meaning, only of the most intensely private meaning.  And it’s the opposite of Freud – there’s nothing that can be deciphered by an outside analyst if it’s not first deciphered by the subject him or herself.  But, and this is what’s most intriguing from a literary standpoint, it’s structured like a story:  the unconscious is the story we tell ourselves in order to understand the world.  In order to function in it.  We take chaotic raw data and fashion it into a coherent story – well, coherent to us.  That is consciousness, and subconsciousness.

Even if that’s all Murakami was doing, it would be a pretty remarkable book.  But he goes further.  The scientist, being a scientist, took his human experiments one step further:  since the subconscious is like a fictional world or narrative, he mapped his subjects’ subconscious stories and edited them together into more coherent narrative frameworks, and then reuploaded them as secret third cores.  Just to see what would happen.  And it’s this third core that has been activated now, and that I is going to be trapped in.  Not his own subconscious.  A version of his subconscious that has been edited and filtered for him by an outside source.

This cuts deep.  Murakami is speaking here of a signal modern anxiety:  the fear (or in postmodernism the promise) that we are not ourselves, that our consciousnesses are not autonomous, that our minds have been colonized by ideology, by capitalism, by modernity, by fascism, by something outside ourselves.  Murakami is giving us a character whose innermost private language has been appropriated by an outside agent, rewritten.  I is not the master of his own mind.  And it’s this polluted version of his own mind that he’s going to be trapped in.  I resigns himself to this rather easily, but the anxiety lingers if the reader chooses to dwell on it.

As Rubin notes, as Napier notes, as lots of people have noted, this book is about solipsism – which is something Murakami had evidently been accused of from the beginning.  He’s tuned out from politics (although I don’t think that’s ever been quite true), and tuned in to his own private obsessions, raising these to the level of literature, or not.  This book is a full-throated defense of that, I think, twinned with a critique of it.  What he’s suggesting, I think, is that each of us can only be solipsistic – that’s the way consciousness works.  He (like I) may be singularly apt at solipsism (I is the only test subject who survived, because his subconscious was so jealously protected by its hard emotional shell), by virtue of his fuck-you-strong ego, for better or for worse.  But as a novelist that means he’s singularly well equipped to dive down in the wells of the subconscious and explore what he finds there.  That’s the source of his art.  But it carries with it risks:  he might get trapped there.  His ability to dive deep is only useful if he can come up again and communicate what he’s found – the drama he explored in his first fiction, Hear the Wind Sing. 

I haven’t even touched on the many, many pleasures of this book, from the crazy kappa shrine to the pleasingly plump pretty-in-pink granddaughter to the unicorn red herring to the image of I sinking blissfully into his subconscious to the sounds of Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”  I don’t think this is necessarily Murakami’s most representative novel, because it’s so much more carefully organized than most.  But it may be his single greatest achievement.  It’s the one that transcends Murakami Haruki-ness to stand alone.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Murakami Haruki: Stories 1982-1984

“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."