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.