Saturday, August 25, 2012

Murakami Haruki: Stories 1999-2000

“UFO IN KUSHIRO”  8/1999

3rd person.  All the stories in this collection are.  Follows Komura, a salaryman, whose wife leaves him right after the Kobe earthquake.  She has no relatives or friends there, but spends every day watching the TV coverage, and then abruptly leaves him.  Says he’s empty inside – like living with a chunk of air – and has nothing to give her. 

Stunned, he takes a week off work.  A coworker asks him to take a trip to Kushiro, if it’s all the same to him, and deliver a box to his sister.  Komuro agrees.  Has no idea what’s in the box.  Is met in Kushiro by friend’s sister and sister’s friend Shimao.  They joke and laugh at him, he’s stonefaced.  They take him to dinner and then set him up in a love hotel, where Shimao seduces him.  But he can’t get it up.  His head is full of images of the earthquake. 

He tells her how his wife left him, and what her note said.  She says the earthquake must have triggered it – these things happen – a friend’s wife saw a UFO once and then just disappeared.  He asks her what’s in the box anyway – she says, the something that should have been inside him.  He looks at her murderously, then controls himself.  She says she was just joking.

So what’s in the box?  That seems like the obvious question – but just as in Pulp Fiction, I suspect it’s just a MacGuffin.  What the story is really about is the way something like the Kobe earthquake can traumatize even people who aren’t directly affected by it.  That’s what TV does to us.  Komura’s wife’s abrupt decision to leave him is all too explicable – the UFO business is a great, if odd, metaphor, suggesting how a bolt from the blue can catalyze thoughts that we’ve never consciously entertained, and provoke major life decisions that seem abrupt but aren’t.  Meanwhile Komura’s own impotence is a poignant example of how chain reactions from remote events can hit us where it really hurts. 

This is Murakami at the top of his game.  The specifics of this story are what make it work.  Not that it’s such a detail-intensive story.  Like most of his work it’s breezy and low-relief in its tactile detail.  But the details that are there are so well chosen, so vivid, that they make it all work.  Why Kushiro?  But if you’ve been to Kushiro, you know it’s the perfect setting:  forbiddingly cold and windswept, so that the unexpected warmth of Shimao and her friend is that much more erotic.  And even if you haven’t been to Kushiro, but only know it through the Japanese mass media, it still works.  You’d know it’s so distant and remote from major population centers (although hardly a small town in its own right) that it should feel utterly disconnected from the earthquake.  But Komura’s still touched by it.


Told from the point of view of Junko, a teenaged dropout in an Ibaraki beach town.  She lives with her college-student wastrel boyfriend Keisuke, and (it’s February, like in the previous story) they hang out on the beach with a mysterious middle-aged guy named Miyake who collects driftwood and builds bonfires.

Miyake’s bonfires are magnificent, perfect, and pointless examples of craftsmanship (perfect yet pointless craftsmanship is one of the signal if minor themes in Murakami).  The most they can do is afford you a space for meditation.  And so of course Junko is hooked.  She’s not a reader, but she keeps thinking of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire,” and thinking about how the point of that story was that the main character wanted to die.  And at the end of the story, Junko has told Miyake that she, too, wants to die – they lightly, perhaps facetiously, agree to commit double suicide together when the bonfire dies out.

Junko’s depression:  emptiness.  Rootlessness.  She’s a runaway:  left home because her father was giving her weird incest vibes.  She’s working in a convenience store.  Has no future.  Sense in Miyake some deep darkness. 

Miyake’s depression:  unexplained.  He’s from Kobe originally, but drifted up here years ago to be a painter.  Left his wife and kids behind.  Regrets it, but won’t really talk about it.  Tells Junko about his most recent painting:  an iron in a room.  But the iron isn’t an iron:  it’s a way of talking about something else.  (There’s Murakami trying to write about literary and psychological symbolism again, how it works, just like he was in Sputnik Sweetheart.)

The connection to the Kobe earthquake is more oblique here.  Junko and Keisuke ask Miyake point blank if his people in Kobe are alright, and he says probably – they live way away from the danger zone.  And while we can well imagine that he’s worried sick about them, there’s no indication that his depression is any deeper now than before.  Nor that Junko herself is particularly affected by the earthquake.

But they talk about death, about ways they expect to die.  Miyake’s always dreamed he’d die locked in a fridge.  Junko has her cherished interpretation of the Jack London story.  The story is soaked in a sense of mortality, and in the context of this series, it’s a supremely delicate response to the tragedy.  And again, all the more powerful because its characters are so remote from it.  Miyake is such a poignant figure precisely because he’s cut all ties with Kobe.  All he can do is wonder;  and even then he suspects his people are alright.  But they’re not his people anymore anyway:  he can’t participate in the tragedy.  He’s just a bystander. 

And Junko?  What a finely realized character she is.  This, after Sputnik, represents Murakami worrying about the Youth of Today.  A major topic of media handwringing in Japan at the end of the century.  The theme would preoccupy Murakami in Kafka on the Shore, and it was the aspect of that book I found most disappointing, even cloying (we’ll see how I react when I get to that book this time around).  But here it’s handled beautifully:  Junko is a perfect thumbnail sketch of a member of Japan’s economic Lost Generation, in which the lack of job opportunities and the failure (for some) of the educational system reveals other, deeper, problems that prosperity had obscured. 


I’m not too interested in pressing translation issues with Murakami.  I think his translators have been great, by and large, and where I disagree it’s usually either in cases where they’ve cut something (and I suspect that’s the American editor’s fault), or just a matter of taste.  The title of this, though, is an exception.  In Japanese the verb is not in the potential form:  it should be “All God’s Children Dance.”  And there’s a big difference between the two, theme-wise.  The translation as it stands posits a world in which all creatures are capable of dancing, but in which it’s possible to assume that some don’t dance, for one reason or another.  Murakami’s title posits a world in which all those creatures do dance.  Volition is the issue.  And therefore, the issue is really one of what dancing means here.  Is it a means of self-expression – thus dependent on the will?  Or is it the very process of being alive?  The story ends with a mystic vision:  the protagonist, Yoshiya, dancing on a deserted baseball diamond at night, to no music but the rhythms of the wind in the grass, and as he dances he becomes aware of the life processes surrounding him, the “rhythm of the earth” that encompasses everything from subconscious sexual desires to the potentialities of earthquakes.  Does the title mean that, by dancing, he is fulfilling a potentiality within himself that in turn allows him to become aware of the larger universe?  Or does it mean that, in dancing, he is simply doing what the rest of the larger universe is already doing – and thus that he’s joining it?  In the end, since mystic visions all tend to blur into one, maybe there’s not a huge difference.  But there is a difference.

Yoshiya is a guy in his mid-20s with an active social and sexual life, but he still lives with his mother.  She’s a member of a cultlike New Religion, and a single mother intensely attached to her son, and judging by how devastated she was when he left the sect, he dreads how she’ll react when he moves out, so he hasn’t. 

His mother was sexually active as a teenager and had two abortions before becoming pregnant with him.  It’s likely that Yoshiya’s father was his mother’s obstetrician, but since (a) the doctor insisted on the perfection of his contraceptive methods, and (b) the sect, which she entered just afterward, told her that the child was a sign from God, she doesn’t believe that Yoshiya’s father is the doctor.  Rather, with the sect’s encouragement, she believes Yoshiya is the literal son of God – thus his name, written so as to mean “for it is good,” but also (the reader may notice) reminiscent of Yeshua. 

In the present of the story, Yoshiya wakes up with a hangover one morning, and that evening on the train he sees a guy who matches his mother’s description of the obstetrician (who she never saw again).  Yoshiya follows him on the train all the way out to Chiba, then by cab through darkened streets, then on foot through even darker streets, past a junkyard and into the deserted ballfield, where the man disappears.  Was he Yoshiya’s father?  Was he God?  Was he just a stranger?  Yoshiya realizes he doesn’t care anymore, and starts to dance.  His college girlfriend had loved the floppy way he danced – used to call him Super-Frog.  That’s when the epiphany comes.

Where’s his mother during all this?  In Osaka with the rest of the cult:  every day they walk to the disaster zone with supplies.  This one detail, dropped casually into the middle of the narrative, is the only tie to the earthquake, but what a tie it is.  By this point we’ve concluded that Yoshiya’s mother is a real kook:  she’s so pure in heart that she hangs around the house naked, and likes to sleep that way with Yoshiya, tormenting him with incestuous feelings that he’s spent his whole life trying to escape.  Not to mention, she’s raised him in a cult that demanded he go door-to-door proselyting with her as a child, and that saddled him with all the ridiculous contradictions of prayer (pray always, but not for anything specific, because that would be testing God). 

But when we learn that she and the rest of the flock are down in Kobe doing good works, when so much of the rest of the Japanese system was unable to cope with the disaster, we can’t hate her.  We have to admire her for her dedication and sincerity.  And it becomes clear why Yoshiya doesn’t leave her:  he loves her, despite all she’s put him through.

And what about that epiphany?  Is this a suggestion that while it might have been necessary and right for Yoshiya to leave the cult, it bequeathed him a spiritual receptivity that benefits him anyway?  Maybe all God’s children dance, but this kind of epiphany isn’t something everybody experiences. 

“THAILAND” 11/1999

Satsuki is a doctor, a pathologist, visiting Thailand for a conference, and then a vacation.  She’s older – menopausal – and divorce.  She lived for many years in the US, in Baltimore and Detroit.  She returned to Japan because anti-Japanese sentiment in Detroit touched her (someone bashed in her Honda and wrote a racial epithet on the hood), and because her husband left her for a younger woman, partially because she never wanted to have kids.

In Thailand, after the conference, she hooks up with her driver/guide, a Thai man named Nimit recommended to her by an American friend.  He takes her to an exclusive resort, and from there every day he drives her to a private pool so she can swim laps, one of her greatest pleasures.  In the process they bond – Nimit is her age and quite gentlemanly, and listens to the same old jazz in the car that her father had once loved.  He had worked for 33 years for a Norwegian, who left him the Mercedes and the tapes;  Satsuki wonders if they were lovers.

Satsuki is nursing bitterness about life, and it’s only half revealed to us.  It’s a couple of months after the earthquake, and when Nimit asks her if she knew anybody in Kobe, she says no, but really she does.  A man.  We learn nothing about him except that he hurt her long ago – it’s implied that he got her pregnant and she aborted the child – and that now she hates him so much she hopes he was killed in the earthquake.

At the end of her stay in Thailand, Nimit takes her to see an old woman in a nearby village, a spiritual healer who tells Satsuki that she has a stone inside her that she needs to let go of, or she won’t be able to die well.  She’ll soon have a dream of a green snake, and she needs to let the green snake take away the stone.  Later, Satsuki tries to tell Nimit something about her past, but he stops her, advising her kindly to wait for the dream.  On the plane home, she waits to fall asleep.

The earthquake connection here is, again, tenuous but real and moving.  Satsuki knows someone there, a guy who mistreated her badly – there’s an implication that he’s the one who left her incapable of having children, which in turn contributed to the breakup of her marriage.  At least she blames a lot of what’s gone wrong in her life on him.  Which obliquely, tartly reminds us that, despite the way the media deifies victims, no doubt some of the people who died in the quake were assholes.  That doesn’t diminish the tragedy, but humanizes it:  and makes life complicated for the survivors.  She wants to mourn the dead, but the one victim she knows she hates:  how does she mourn that?  She even feels almost responsible for the quake itself, so vehemently had she wanted him to suffer.  What she needs to learn is to let go, to accept her life, so she can accept death.

In mood this story is close to “Landscape with Flatiron.”  Both Satsuki and Nimit have secret sorrows that are revealed to the reader only in hints and suggestions.  Their interaction with each other is conditioned by these sorrows – their unspoken affection for each other is deepened by them – but healing depends in part on not speaking them.  As Nimit puts it, speaking it would turn the words into lies.  There are things that can’t be expressed directly, but only in dream-symbolism.  It’s thus a very delicate story, one in which great emotional depth is imparted to the reader without much information with which to process that emotion. 


Katagiri is a sad-sack loan collection agent for a Tokyo S&L.  Single, nearsighted, middle-aged, a total loser.  One day a month after the Kobe earthquake, Frog appears – yes, a giant talking frog – and enlists his help in preventing an earthquake in Tokyo.  Worm, the subterranean being who causes such things (hibernating, storing up hate until he shakes), is going to cause one on February 18, and only Frog and Katagiri can stop it.

But on the night before the appointed day, Katagiri gets shot in the shoulder.  Wakes up in the hospital afraid he’s missed the fight, but there’s been no earthquake – and the nurse says he wasn’t shot, just found unconscious.  Then Frog appears and says that in fact they’d defeated Worm, fighting desperately side-by-side – and Katagiri was a great hero.  Then Frog tries to explain something about his existence to Katagiri, but falls asleep, and then disintegrates into all manner of vermin, which then crawl into Katagiri, who wakes up from another dream.  Nurse gives him a shot again.

I don’t think that this ending is meant to be an “and it was all a dream” thing, at least not in the conventional, groan-inducing sense.  Rather, Murakami’s doing what he’s been doing rather insistently for some time now, which is positing an existence in which dreams and reality bleed over into each other, and where the real battles take place in dreams, or in the subconscious if you prefer, only occasionally noticed by the waking or conscious world.  So what was Frog trying to say?  Probably something along the lines of:  I am you, Katagiri.

This has always been my favorite story from this collection, but rereading it in context I can see how in some ways it really doesn’t fit. Tonally it breaks the mood:  the first four stories are all gloomy, moody, delicate poised numbness.  This one is riotously funny, and gleefully surreal. 

But it’s brilliant, one of Murakami’s finest achievements.  Here he’s addressing head-on the unspoken fear of everybody in Japan who wasn’t in Kobe:  are we next?  Twenty million Tokyoites trying their best to focus on the sufferings of Kobe while really, secretly breaking out in a cold sweat thinking about the Big One that’s been overdue for decades now.  When will it hit?  Why hasn’t it hit yet?  And are we all gonna fucking die when it does?

To address this Murakami constructs a modern myth.  He reaches into ancient Japanese myths of the type he’s scarcely evinced an awareness of up until now and gives us his own spin on the underground catfish myth.  And then he creates a team of superheros to fight it.  One is a Dostoevsky-quoting Frog, and the other is Murakami’s own vision of Everyman.  Katagiri is the salt of the earth, Tokyo-style.  He’s a complete loser, but look at what he’s already doing with his life, before he’s enlisted by Frog:  collecting on bad loans.  In other words, he’s cleaning up from the excesses of the Bubble.  He’s the guy who swabs up the shit in the elephant house.  The guy that the world never appreciates, but who keeps it going round. 

As with any myth, this one includes a healthy amount of wishful thinking.  We hope that Tokyo can be saved by people like this, for people like this.  Because if it can’t be, we’re all gonna fucking die. 

“HONEY PIE”  2/2000

The first five stories in this book were published in a magazine, one per month, under the collective title “After the Quake.”  When Murakami issued them as a book he added this story and changed the collective title to All God’s Children Dance.  (The translation reverted to the original title.)

This concerns a love triangle.  Junpei, Takatsuki, and Sayoko are best friends in college.  Then Junpei falls in love with Sayoko, but hesitates;  meanwhile, Takatsuki marries Sayoko.  Just before they marry, Junpei and Sayoko come close to making love, but back off.  But Junpei never stops loving Sayoko, even after they all graduate and she has a daughter, Sala.  And the three of them remain best friends, even as Takatsuki launches a successful career as a journalist and Junpei a semisuccessful one as a short-story writer.  (Never novels:  that’s not where his talent lies.  This isn’t a self-portrait.)

Then Takatsuki and Sayoko separate:  despite remaining devoted to Sayoko, Takatsuki has had an affair.  Even so, the three of them keep getting together.  Takatsuki suggests Junpei marry Sayoko, but he hesitates;  Takatsuki then chides Junpei for never realizing what was really going on.  But Junpei just doesn’t feel right about it.

Then the earthquake happens.  While Junpei’s thinking.  And Junpei – who grew up in Kobe, but was estranged from his parents after college and has never been back – is there with Sayoko, while Takatsuki has gone off to Okinawa for an interview.  And, as so often, Junpei’s telling little Sala a story:  about bears, Masakichi the honey-gatherer and Tonkichi the salmon-catcher. 

Masakichi at first seems to be a stand-in for Junpei – he’s articulate and peaceful, while Tonkichi is a tough guy.  But after a while we realize Tonkichi is Junpei – the salmon go away, and Tonkichi is up a creek, but can’t accept Masakichi’s help, and so he decides to go away.  Gets caught and put in the zoo.  Sayoko doesn’t like that ending. 

They put Sala down, and then, after a ten-year wait, they embrace.  Make love.  Then Sala wakes up with a nightmare about the earthquake – she’s been having them regularly.  And as Sayoko goes off to comfort her, Junpei realizes he has to grab this happiness and protect this family.  No more hesitation.  He thinks up a new ending for the story.  Tonkichi learns how to make honey pie from Masakichi’s honey, and they sell it and live happily ever after.

After the heavy mythmaking of “Super-Frog,” we end in storybookland.  Very appropriately.  Confronting a child’s fears of the earthquake with cheerful yet wise stories.  And, as with so much of Murakami’s work in the ‘90s, we also end on a note of renewed commitment.  The love triangle self-consciously echoes those in Norwegian Wood and The Sputnik Sweetheart, but here the ending is pleasantly down to earth.  The earthquake makes the protagonist realize that he can’t fuck around anymore waiting for everything to be perfect.  If you want happiness you have to chase it.  And having somebody you love so much that you’re willing to vow to protect them from earthquake nightmares:  that’s happiness.

A few words about the collection.  This is the first and to date only collection of Murakami’s short stories to appear in English complete and in the same format as in Japanese.  (Strange Tales from Tokyo has been translated complete, but it’s buried in Blind Willow.)  It’s easy to see why:  these have even more cross-story cohesion than most of his collections, and collectively they make a greater impact than they would have individually.  In fact this little volume is one of Murakami’s most fully-realized and artistically perfect works.  He ended the decade on a very high note.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Murakami Haruki: The Sputnik Sweetheart (1999)

This novel grew out of the 1991 short story “Man-Eating Cats.”  The whole middle section is an expansion of that story.  But it’s complicated.

It’s narrated by an I, a male known to us only as K.  But, arguably, he’s not the main character.  He’s a guy in his mid-twenties teaching elementary school.  He’s in love with a girl he met in college, Sumire, who dropped out to become a writer.  She’s a total bohemian, and his best friend, and not interested in him romantically in the slightest.  But K keeps hoping.  It’s this Sumire who’s closest to a main character in this book;  K tells us her story, and often from her point of view, as a kind of third-person omniscient narrator (he’s relating things she’s told him).

Sumire falls in love, as the book starts, with a woman seventeen years older than her:  Miu, a Korean-Japanese woman who’s married to a man.  Miu runs a wine importing business and is impossibly classy, impossibly polished;  she hires Sumire as a secretary slash personal assistant, and Sumire jumps at the chance so she can be near Miu.

So what we have here is a classic love triangle.  K loves Sumire, but Sumire loves Miu, and Miu doesn’t love anybody.  Then Sumire goes to Europe on a business trip with Miu, and while they’re staying on a small Greek island, she just disappears.  K flies out at Miu’s request to help investigate.

Here’s where we get most of “Man-Eating Cats.”  We get an account (from Sumire’s earlier phone calls and then from Miu) of their days on the island.  One day, for example, at a café Sumire reads to Miu from an English language newspaper the story of an old woman who died in her house alone and was eaten by her starving cats.  Then Sumire tells of how when she was a child a cat of hers disappeared up a tree – went up and was never seen again.  Intro the theme of disappearance.

Then one night Sumire is so desperate for Miu (who has never hinted at more than friendship) that she collapses in a ball in Miu’s room, trembling and sweating.  Miu helps her into bed, Sumire makes a move, and Miu says sorry, she just doesn’t feel it.  In the morning, Miu finds that Sumire has disappeared without a trace.  Investigating, K becomes more and more convinced that Sumire has gone to The Other Side (led, as he is for a while, by mysterious music coming from the hilltop).

Part of what convinces him is a couple of files he finds on a floppy disc in Sumire’s bedroom.  Her last writings.  One recounts a dream she’s had of finding her long-dead mother but then losing her again as her mother is sucked into a hole.  The other file records Miu’s story, as Miu told it to Sumire:  why she can’t feel anything for Sumire.

It’s not out of any aversion to lesbian relations (the question of sexual identity in this book is a little fluid – Miu isn’t turned off, or on, for reasons carefully explained;  Sumire is shocked to find herself feeling lesbian attraction, and surrenders to it but doesn’t accept it as normal).  Rather, it’s because of an experience fourteen years ago.  In her early twenties, while studying to be a concert pianist (she had the potential to be world class), she lived for a summer in a small Swiss town.  One night she got trapped on a Ferris wheel overnight, and from the top she could see into her apartment off in the distance – and inside, she saw herself making love with a man who she’d already rejected.  The Miu in the apartment is enjoying it, but the Miu on the Ferris wheel feels defiled – and in fact, from that point forward she feels no sexual desire or response at all.  Nor can she play piano.  And her hair has turned snow white.  She feels that half of her – perhaps the livelier half – split off that night and went to another, parallel world – The Other Side.  And that’s it for Miu.

Sumire, in her account, notes that she’s in love with both halves of Miu, and K theorizes that when she had the chance to cross over to The Other Side, she took it.

He heads back to Japan to his job.  He’s still broken up over Sumire.  Breaks up with the girlfriend he’d been killing time with – the mother of one of his students.  The breakup signals his renewed dedication to his responsibilities as a teacher:  the kid is caught shoplifting, and K suspects it was at least in part an expression of confusion over his mother’s affair.  K realizes he can’t be both teacher and boyfriend to the mother, and he chooses teacher.  Responsibility.  He settles in for a lifetime of loneliness and thinking about Sumire.

At the very end of the book, though, Sumire calls and says she’s back.  So at least he’ll have a friend.  Nothing is said about what Sumire has been through.

It’s a light book.  I mean that in a number of ways.  It’s short, and with its exotic Greek setting and attractive young sexy main characters it’s a buoyant book.  Great beach reading.  It’s also light in tone, despite the potential heaviness of certain plot motifs and themes.  There’s a brio to the book that largely comes from Sumire:  K’s kind of depressive, but Sumire is irrepressible.  A great, and new, character for Murakami.

I don’t mean that the book is shallow.  It’s possible to give the book a shallow reading.  The Other Side business is pretty standard Murakami by now, and it’s easy to be distracted by this and think it’s just Murakami treading water in a particularly pleasant, mass-appealing way.  And I won’t say there may not be something to that.

But I’d maintain that he’s using his familiar tools in new ways, to say new things, here.  The most obvious of these is with the narrator.  Deeply into jazz, with few friends and a decidedly cool way of looking at things, without much use for arbitrary authority, he’s a typical Murakami I at first glance, but then he refuses to put himself front and center in the story.  Begs to be excused from telling us much about himself.  And indeed for much of the book he steps back and lets us be absorbed into Sumire’s tale, and through hers into Miu’s.  At the end, we do come back to K, and when we do we see the Murakami I being taken in a new direction.  He’s committing to his job.  He’s already said he never wanted to be a salaryman, and in his interaction with the supermarket security guard we can see he’s still not ready to accept Japanese society’s more authoritarian ways, but he’s dedicated to being a good teacher.  He chooses to do that with his life.  A definite post-Underground development for Murakami.

And about this Other Side business.  What makes it new here is the fact that, everywhere you turn, you have suggestions that we’re not supposed to buy the oppositeness of any two sides to anything.  We have K and Sumire joking about the distinctions between signs and symbols (signs being two-way streets, symbols not), we have Sumire insisting on the inseparability of understanding and misunderstanding, we have the idea of dreams as a realm in which distinctions are not made, are obscured and elided.  On the surface Murakami (who had seen himself called a postmodernist in print for over a decade now) is playing with the rhetoric of deconstruction (nothing knew for him, of course) – but under the surface I suspect he’s actually trying to get us to think about it.  He’s always been interested in the idea of opposing worlds influencing each other – the subconscious and the conscious of Hard-Boiled Wonderland being the most obvious example.  Here he’s positing that but removing the subconscious, as it were.  Forcing us to think about actual alternate planes of existence, or alternate timelines, and what metaphorical possibilities they might hold.  If Sumire hadn’t come back in the end, then we’d have been left with the same vision as in old Murakami:  two worlds of endless Otherness, where crossing from one to the other inevitably means loss.  But she does come back to tell the tale (even if we don’t get to hear it), suggesting that Miu’s not irrevocably split, that Sumire and she might have a happy ending.  And speaking of happy endings, note how carefully the end of this echoes the end of Norwegian Wood – a nighttime phone call out of the blue – but how much more hope there is in this ending, at least for one character.

And what about the distinction between K and Sumire?  In some ways they represent a bifurcation of the various roles of the Murakami I:  supercool narrator and gonzo adventurer.  Which in turn suggests some deep identity between them.  As do other details, such as their overly-enthusiastic way with metaphor.  In Sumire this is the ambitious young writer at work – a loving parody, and perhaps self-parody, by Murakami.  But then why does K talk the same exact way?  Certainly it explains why he’s attracted to her so much – they communicate the same way – but doesn’t it also, if you’re in a deconstructive mood, suggest that maybe there’s some blurring between them as characters?

And what about Miu and Sumire’s mother?  Sumire has never gotten over the loss of her mother, and keeps having dreams about chasing her to whatever Other Side death is.  Meanwhile, not too many years after Sumire’s mother dies, Miu loses half of herself.  Are Miu and Sumire both half people?  Is Miu a substitute for Sumire’s mother?  Is Miu’s lost half self Sumire’s lost mother? 

And think about Miu’s husband:  he never appears in the story, but is explained as someone who accepted a totally Platonic relationship with Miu just so he could be near her.  Sounds like K:  so at the end do we imagine K playing a similar role for Sumire?  Are we then dealing with a kind of male anxiety about female homosociality?  Rather than homosexuality, is what’s at stake the idea that men may love and even be loved by women but can never totally enter their world? 

By this point in his career it had become clear that Murakami had settled into a pattern of alternating big epic novels with small tender romances.  The Hard-Boiled Wonderland / Norwegian Wood pattern.  But if there were any doubt after West of the Sun, now it’s equally clear that he’s not necessarily interested in alternating realism with surrealism.  This is as surreal, in its own sweet way, as Wind-Up Bird. 

Of course, Murakami’s trying to tell us from the start how to read this one, with that sign-vs.-symbol business.  He’s hinting at a more expansive view of literary symbolism, one in which the significance of, say, Miu’s experience on the Ferris wheel, can’t be exhausted by merely expounding on what it might mean in intellectual terms.  It has a felt power, and an aesthetic role, beyond its function as an argument in a debate. 

That’s certainly how I think Murakami’s fiction has always worked.  I can spin off a few pages about what I think Wind-Up Bird means in terms of Murakami’s message to the world.  But in the end it’s not that meaning that I most remember about the book.  Rather, it’s the primal power of being down in the well with Okada.  It’s the weirdly out-of-time allure of Kano Creta. 

Does this book succeed in that way?  The closest moments are perhaps when K is wandering around on the hill following that mysterious music, imagining that Sumire had also followed it – a moment that connects to the later one when he lies on his back on a stone at the Acropolis and gazes up at the stars – both moments suggesting a mystic power in connecting with the ancient sources of civilization, a power that must somehow be transformative or transportative, but not in any way that can be explained.  And somehow those moments connect – because of the solitude of the ones experiencing them, perhaps? – with the haunting vision of Miu being stranded at the top of the Ferris wheel overnight, watching herself through the window.  The passivity of all of these moments, the idea of helplessly beholding something that cannot be understood, but that has, potentially, the power to sweep one away. 

But can they be separated from meaning?  Put like this, we can see how Miu is beholding, literally, her Road Not Taken.  Meanwhile, on the hilltop, K has to actively resist being swept away like Sumire – presumably she didn’t resist – meaning that he and she – and again, are they two halves of the same being? – represent alternate paths.  And if Sumire comes back, does that mean they lead to the same place eventually anyway?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Murakami Haruki: Underground (1997-1998)

What goes under this title in English is, of course, two separate books in Japanese.  The interviews with the sarin survivors were published as Underground in 1997, and the interviews with Aum members were published as The Place that was Promised: Underground 2 in 1998.  The fine print on the copyright page to the American edition acknowledges this;  what it doesn’t acknowledge is that the first part as presented in translation is vastly abridged.  The Japanese edition of Underground (i.e., the first part alone) is over 700 pages.

Would it kill Vintage to let readers know this?

Now, I’m not saying I would necessarily want to read 700 pages of these interviews – for reasons I’ll try to explain below, I think this is a slightly underwhelming book – but the sheer bulk of the original is part of Murakami’s ode to Studs Terkel, and that gets obscured by the polite length of the translation. 

That is, with the first part, what he’s trying to do is give us an oral history (although he doesn’t quite use the term) of the Tokyo subway sarin attack, and in doing so he’s really trying to put down a self-portrait of contemporary Japan.  In particular, the salaryman circa 1995.

I think these two aims – to document the tragedy, and to document the salaryman – are at cross-purposes, and that, I think, weakens the book.  Any reader of Murakami’s pre-1995 fiction must sense how much resistance he feels toward the salaryman, as system, as ideal, and even as phenomenon.  Almost all of Murakami’s protagonists – heroes, we might as well call them – are people who have rejected salarymanhood.  Some do it out of principle, like the I in the Rat series;  some do it almost by accident, like Okada Toru.  But they all reject it.  The true value in Underground is that it marks the moment when Murakami begins to pity and respect those who stick it out in that system, even though he doesn’t condone the system itself.  The hero of “Superfrog Saves Tokyo” is a synthesis of all the salarymen in Underground. 

If you read carefully, and notice the kinds of things Murakami is letting his interviewees say, it’s clear that the author is still hearing reasons to be horrified at the salaryman ideal.  Again and again we hear from men who describe being nearly blinded by the sarin, vomiting, in intense pain, and yet their first thought is that they’ve got to get to work.  On the one hand, sure, nobody knew quite what had happened to them – but on the other hand, what kind of inhuman system breeds this kind of extreme self-sacrifice to meaningless labor?  You can almost hear the author saying, Dude, you’ve just been gassed:  take the day off.

But you can’t quite hear the author saying that, because in fact all of Murakami’s own commentary, every bit of description he gives us about his interviewees, is downright reverent.  As it should be:  the imperative to memorialize the tragedy and its sufferers demands that these people be treated with respect.  And so it turns out that every one of these men is dedicated, energetic, self-effacing, and looks young for his age.  Combine this with the survivor’s guilt induced modesty of most of these interviewees, and you have a book that just doesn’t feel like it’s digging very deep.  Murakami allows these interviewees to present themselves how they’d like to be seen, unchallenged, and to stop talking about the events of they day when they get uncomfortable.  Maybe that’s all he could have done, and maybe there’s still considerable value in what he has done – but every time I read it I come away feeling that it could have been more.

And at least in part, I feel that way because Underground 2, the Aum interviews, is more.  Here he allows us to see him pressing the interviewees, questioning them, even challenging them, in a way he couldn’t in the first book.  And what emerges is a fascinating collection of widely varying views about Aum, Asahahara Shoko, and Japanese society in general.  Murakami’s own comments here constitute almost a manifesto of his humanism:  he has deep sympathy for these people, and insists that we see them, not as some inexplicable Other, but as ourselves.

Bringing the two together between one set of covers as the English edition does is thus appropriate, even if it is a misrepresentation.  With these two books Murakami is trying to make it clear that Aum and its victims are alike in as many ways as they are different.  Fanatical devotion to duty?  Check.  Individual ego subsumed into larger organization?  Check.  Sense that contemporary Japan is going to hell in a handbasket? 

You bet, Mr. Wind-Up Bird.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Murakami Haruki: Stories 1995-1996

“BLIND WILLOW, SLEEPING WOMAN”  11/1995 (in BW, and Lexington Ghost;  revised from a story first published in 1983)

Narrator, I, is a guy in his mid-20s who has quit his job and returned home to Kobe.  He’s taking his 14-year-old cousin to the hospital for an ear checkup.  The kid lost the hearing in one hear when he was a kid – got hit by a baseball – and sometimes the other ear goes out, too.  Doctors have been trying to heal him ever since, with no success.  Today they’re on the bus to a new place.

A description of the trip with the cousin, and the gentle bonding they experience even though they’re ten years apart in age, is intermingled with I’s reminiscences of a previous trip to a hospital with his high school friend, to visit the friend’s girlfriend, in the hospital for a routine chest operation.  On that trip, the girlfriend had shown them a picture and read them a poem she’d made about a girl in a house on a hill surrounded by “blind willows,” a plant of her own invention that looks nothing like willows.  Flies are attracted to its pollen, which they then carry into the ears of the girl, putting her to sleep.  Then they eat her.

The story ends with I looking into his cousin’s ear and marveling at the mysteries of the ear, and being temporarily paralyzed by the end of the memory – the chocolates he and his friend had taken had melted through their carelessness.

A very mysterious story.  Does it mean to hint that the girlfriend died in the hospital, and their carelessness contributed to it, on a symbolic level?  Mainly I think it’s a bit of surrealism that explains, better than anything else, Murakami’s ear fetish:  they’re dark holes that lead into the head.  They’re wells. 

“THE SEVENTH MAN” 2/1996 (in BW, and Lexington Ghost)

Murakami seems to have all but abandoned the short story form for most of the ‘90s.  This and the yet-untranslated title story in The Lexington Ghost seem to be the only wholly-new stories he wrote between 1992 and 1999.

This story is clearly Murakami’s first attempt to respond in print to the twin disasters of 1995.  He’d go on to craft more elaborate responses, both fictional and nonfictional;  meanwhile, this story is not so far removed from the kind of things he’d been doing up to this point.  He’d already staked out loss as one of his primary themes – it’s there from the very beginning – and horror and darkness had been a part of his work for nearly a decade now.  Still, this does seem to say something about dealing with tragedy.

The story is a first-person I narration, but it’s given a frame.  The I, a fiftyish man, seems to be in some sort of group encounter session;  we’re told how he stands up, at the beginning, and concludes his remarks, at the end, in third person.  In between is his story, verbatim (more Dead Heat).

He was a kid, playing on the beach with his best friend during a typhoon.  The eye of the storm was over them, and they thought they had time to play safely.  But then a mammoth wave comes unexpectedly and washes the friend away.  The narrator wanted to run and try to save him, but ended up running away instead.  Then a second waves comes, and as it crashes over him, the narrator thinks he sees his friend in its crest, grinning horrifically at him and reaching for him.

He’s been haunted by it ever since – for forty years he’s avoided water, avoided his hometown, stayed single.  But just recently he forced himself to go back, and looking at some of his dead friend’s watercolors he felt closure.  In the terms of the story he realized that his friend probably was not trying to pull him to the other side, but was either already unconscious, or was trying to warn him away.  In any case:  don’t give in to fear like I did.  It’ll rob you of something important.

It’s rare that Murakami comes right out and states his lesson so nakedly.  That’s why I see this as a specific response to the tragedies:  he’s trying to offer his readers healing, unadorned by literary artifice.  Even though it is a literary artifice.  An important story, then, even if not a great one.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Murakami Haruki: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1993-1995)

Holy shit, this is a big one.  In so many ways.

The plot is almost unsummarizable.  It starts, famously, with a veeerrry slightly revised version of the short story “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women.”  Reading this is like having a dream for the second time – weird.  And it just gets weirder from there.

Names.  Oh we have names.  The narrator is Okada Toru.  The sixteen-year-old girl at the end of the alley (who we now realize was a precursor of Yuki in Dance Dance Dance) is Kasahara Mei.  His wife, who leaves very soon after the short-story-redux part ends, is Kumiko.  The cat is now, not Watanabe Noboru, but Wataya Noboru – as is Kumiko’s brother.  The phone-sex woman is not given a name, but (spoiler) it’s suggested in the end that she is Kumiko, or rather part of Kumiko.  A version of Kumiko. 

It’s a novel about versions:  versions of reality, versions of selves, versions of stories told about selves and realities.  This is the book where Murakami takes the Big Leap from what has been, even in spite of all the mind-games of Hard-Boiled Wonderland, a very sovereign-self-affirming narrative universe and lands in one in which everything is fragmented.  We get many, many chapters narrated by other characters;  we get chapters in the third person;  we get bits of narrative we have a hard time assigning to anything, really.  We get quoted letters.  Quoted magazine articles.  Quoted instant-message chats.  We get disembodied voices and devoiced bodies.

We get names, and we get monickers – self-styled non-name names, some of the most memorable in his oeuvre.  Kano Creta and Kano Malta, and maybe Kano Corsica.  Nutmeg and Cinnamon.  Boris the Manskinner. 

So, about that unsummarizable plot.  Boiled down to its essence, it’s this:  Kumiko leaves Okada.  One day she just doesn’t come home from work.  For the rest of the book, he’s trying to get her back.  But we never see her again.

Eventually she sends him a letter saying she’d been seeing someone, and is sorry about it, but never wants to see Okada again.  Okada believes it – is prepared to accept it – but just wants to talk to Kumiko about it face to face.  He distrusts the whole situation for a number of reasons.  First, her letter is enigmatic about the important things – she always was a bit laconic about her inner life – and he just wants to get some things straight.  Second, in her disappearance she seems to have retreated into the protection of her brother, who’s now insisting that Okada grant her a divorce.  Okada can’t swallow this, because he hates Wataya Noboru, and knows that Kumiko does too.  He suspects some kind of coercion.

So what we have here is a domestic drama.  Something really new in Murakami.  A guy’s wife leaves him – that’s not new.  But him trying to fix the situation, to get her back, to understand her – that’s new.  Okada is committed to his wife.  He’s in love with her.  He’s faithful to her.  He reminisces about her frequently – and as a result we learn more about her, and about their relationship, than really any other marriage in Murakami’s work to date.  This book concentrates on families, on parents and siblings and above all marriages, to an unprecedented degree.

And the brother, the brother-in-law:  Wataya Noboru.  We only meet him a couple of times in the book.  I can’t decide if this is a strength or a weakness in the narrative.  He’s meant to represent evil, a great threat to Okada and Kumiko and even to Japan as a nation, and in some ways the brevity of his appearances make him a half-glimpsed figure of dread hanging over the narrative.  But truth be told sometimes the digressions get so drastic, and our information about Wataya is so tenuous and vague to begin with, that it’s hard to know just how worked up we should get over him.  Then again, criticizing the narrative pacing of this book is just like shooting fish in a barrel:  utterly easy, and utterly pointless. 

Wataya, and how he’s evil.  Kumiko’s family is a Tohoku political dynasty, conservative and linked to wartime militarist figures.  Noboru himself, when we meet him, is just an academic rising star – economist and political theorist of some sort who ends up being unexpectedly telegenic.  Even his telegenic qualities are dark, though – he’s not described as winning support through his charming personality, but through his cutting intellect, his cruel way with interlocutors.  Okada’s read his books, and can see right through the guy’s intellectual mumbo-jumbo – he knows Noboru’s a soulless fake.  As the book progresses, Noboru inherits his uncle’s seat in the Diet, and becomes a political rising star.  Okada fears for the soul of the country if this guy gets real power – but there are no Dead Zone-style flashes of a nuked future or anything like that.  Rather, it’s just that to Okada, and to us through him, Wataya Noboru represents the worst, most nihilistic aspects of Japan’s postwar elite.  For him to take power means nothing good, for starters.

Privately, we gradually learn that Noboru has perversions that can’t quite be named.  He seems to have driven Kumiko’s older sister to suicide by sexually defiling her – but what he did was not quite, or not just, rape, but rather a kind of psychological and perhaps mystical penetration and defilement.  And by the end of the book we fear that he’s starting to do the same to Kumiko, too.  He’s not just evil, in other words, but Evil.

So as a villain he’s hardly present – like I say, he really only appears in a couple of scenes – and one of those is a flashback.  And it’s not like he and Okada are engaged in any direct conflict.  And for long stretches, the narrative meanders away from their conflict altogether.  But still, he’s the villain of the book.  A traditional political villain who might be sequestering Kumiko to keep her from talking to the press about his incestuous relationship with their sister and thus ruining his political career, and also a metaphysical villain with the power to utterly defile women with his touch.

Counterposed to him is Okada himself, who is fighting the good fight.  He is (Mei calls him) the Wind-Up Bird, a guy who, by quietly and secretly, in his own haphazard way, fighting the good fight, keeps the world’s spring wound, keeps the world going round, and ultimately keeps people like Wataya from taking over the world.  Maybe.  How does Okada fight the good fight? 

Veeerrry passively.  This is one of the book’s really curious, and very Murakami-esque, aspects.  Mostly what Murakami does is refuse – to accept that Kumiko left him of her own volition, to sign off on the divorce Wataya demands of him, to give up.  And all of this, let’s not forget, stems from his refusal, in the original story, to go on with a job that he finds meaningless, and to accept another job just because that’s what society expects.  The whole epic begins with Okada dropping out of society, and he stays dropped out.  Drops further and further out.

Discovers that the house across from Mei’s has a dried up well in it.  Hears a haunting story about a well in Mongolia from a veteran, and recalls a psychic once telling him to go down when he’s supposed to go down, so he goes to the bottom of the well to think.  Spends days there – Mei pulls up the rope ladder – and has some kind of breakthrough, confronts death, etc.  Then is set free by Kano Creta.  Nothing immediately changes in his life, but somehow when he’s at the bottom of the well he’s better able to access his dreams, and in his dreams a strange hotel room where a woman he thinks is Kumiko, or might have access to Kumiko, might be.  So he eventually buys the property and spends a lot of time in the well trying to reaccess the dream room.

In the end he succeeds, and while there, wandering around the dream hotel, he attacks Wataya with a baseball bat and kills him.  Then has a long conversation with the woman who might be Kumiko, or one aspect of her, and learns how Wataya had defiled her.  Then returns to the “real” world, to find that Wataya has collapsed of a brain hemorrhage, and Kumiko sends him an email saying she’s going to unplug him from life support.  It’s what she has to do.  The book ends with Okada awaiting the results of Kumiko’s trial.  He’s reunited with her, sort of, and she’s free and Japan is spared whatever dire fate Wataya might have dragged it into.

Which means that his struggle, his fighting of the good fight, has paid off.  And what was the manner of that fight?  Waiting and thinking at the bottom of a well.  Descending, symbolically, into the deepest parts of his own psyche – memories flood over him, anxieties, archetypal fears.  Descending into something deeper than his own psyche – this isn’t just “End of the World” territory, this somehow connects to Kumiko’s psyche, and to Wataya’s, since violence committed against him there affects him in the real world.  It’s as if Okada has accessed the universal unconscious, at least as it connects to a very few people close to him.

Of course he has help, as the above summary makes clear.  At first he’s aided, guided, and tantalized by two psychic sisters, Kano Malta and Kano Creta.  At first they’re enlisted – by Wataya on Kumiko’s behalf – to help find the cat.  But then they reveal to Okada that long ago Wataya had violated Creta just as he had violated Kumiko’s sister.  Malta is somewhat neutral in the Okada-Wataya struggle, but Creta is on Okada’s side.

These sisters are classic Murakami creations.  Malta has taken her name from the island of Malta, where she spent three years in some sort of spiritual practice, self-designed, centered around the waters there.  Her talent has to do with the balance of waters in the body.  She always dresses impeccably, but wears an outlandishly out of place red hat.  Creta, so named by her older sister Malta, is a medium of a different kind:  she can enter people’s dreams and make love with them there, as a means of gathering information about them and ultimately helping them.  She is, as she says, a prostitute of the mind.  This follows several years of being a prostitute of the flesh – Wataya Noboru was her last customer.  And that had followed twenty years of being in excruciating physical pain:  Creta’s life consists of a period of experiencing every pain imaginable, followed by a period of total emotional and physical numbness, followed by Wataya’s violation of her (which involved physical ecstasy as well as defilement), followed by the present mental prostitution.  She always dresses and does her hair like Jackie Kennedy.  In 1984.

The Kano sisters are fascinating, but not half as surprising as their disappearance is.  The first volume of the book was serialized in a magazine in 1993, then published in book form in 1994 along with the second volume, which was written directly for book publication. The third volume came out in 1995, and in that volume the Kano sisters are simply written out with very little explanation.

Instead, Okada finds a very different, but equally entertaining, pair of allies.  Akasaka Nutmeg and her son Cinnamon.  Nutmeg is a wealthy ex-fashion designer turned spiritual healer;  Cinnamon, her mute son, is her assistant.  Nutmeg has retired from the healing game, and when she meets Okada she realizes he can take her place.  She blindfolds him and lets wealthy, ailing women touch and lick the blue mark on his cheek – which he obtained the first time he went through the wall of the well into the mysterious hotel room of the collective unconscious.  In return, Nutmeg helps him buy the land where the well sits.  They’re his partners until the end of the book, and they’re very intriguing as well.  Cinnamon, for one thing, has heard the wind-up bird, although he can tell no one.

And Nutmeg has a Manchurian connection.  This is the other major element of the book:  an obsession with wartime Manchuria.  The fortune-teller, Mr. Honda, who first gave Okada the idea to go down the well to think was a veteran of the Manchurian front;  when he dies, his friend Lieutenant Mamiya makes contact with Okada and ends up telling him lengthy and harrowing tales of that war.  Mamiya’s stories, in fact, are one of the things that connect the first two volumes of the book with the third.  His first major story involves an intelligence mission he had been involved in before the war proper, trying to foment rebellion in Mongolia, and getting caught by Mongolian and Soviet intelligence.  This tale involves a gory description of watching his commanding officer be skinned alive by the Mongolians, and then himself being abandoned in a dry well.  He eventually escaped – saved by Honda – but he’s never been the same since.  His second tale comes from after the war, when he, along with thousands of other Japanese soldiers in Manchuria, was taken captive by the Soviets and forced to do essentially slave labor in Siberia for years after the end of the war.  Here he again meets the Soviet intelligence officer who had skinned his commander alive – tries to kill him, but fails.  There’s a distinct parallel between this intelligence officer, Boris the Manskinner, and Wataya.

Nutmeg’s Manchurian connection is less gory.  She was born there – her father was a veterinarian attached to the zoo in Hsin-ching.  Her story has two parts.  First is a recollection (perhaps heavily embroidered) of herself as a child with her mother on a ship, being evacuated back to Japan on the last day of the war, and being stopped by an American submarine.  The sub is just about to open fire on the ship when word of the surrender comes.  The other story involves her father the vet, left behind in Hsin-ching, being forced to watch as Japanese soldiers slaughter the large animals so that in the impending Soviet invasion they won’t escape and cause chaos.  Later he’s also forced to watch as the same detachment of soldiers slaughter four Chinese men wearing baseball uniforms.  They had been Manchukuo army cadets, but they had tried to flee, disguised in the baseball uniforms, and the army had ordered them killed;  their leader is beaten to death with a bat.  The execution and mass burial is performed in the zoo, with the vet in attendance.

All of these references to WWII, specifically the Manchurian theater, brought the book a lot of attention when it was first published, and first translated.  Those who saw it as a long-overdue coming-to-terms with Japan’s history in Asia must have slept through A Wild Sheep Chase, but still, it’s a pretty major engagement with history.  And of course it’s handled differently here:  we get war experiences narrated to us by participants, or the relatives of participants – not mediated through I, and not related to us primarily for their significance to I.  We’re getting here more of a sense of a variety of perspectives in contemporary Japan, and how life today (or in the 1984-5 of the setting) is connected to the past.  And while the emphasis is definitely on the sufferings of Japanese in the war, the sufferings they visited upon others is acknowledged, and in some cases dramatized.  Murakami isn’t giving us a narrative of victimization here.

What is he giving us?  I’m not quite sure, to be honest, exactly how the Manchurian thread is supposed to resonate with the rest of the book.  Is it there to show the violence in Japan’s past?  Violence both committed and experienced, as a contrast to the placid surface of contemporary Japan, suggesting that violence may not be as remote a possibility as it now seems?  Is there a suggestion that Wataya, an elitist, a nihilist, and perhaps a rightist, might lead the country back in that direction, and therefore must be stopped? 

That unsurety is, in the end, my most powerful reaction to the book.  As the almost comically convoluted (and yet oversimplified, at that) plot summary above shows, it’s a weird book.  Jam packed with incident, with an unprecedented number of vividly-realized secondary characters.  Digressive beyond belief.  Oddly paced, with big jumps in time and incident.  The disappearance of the Kano sisters and sudden introduction of Nutmeg and Cinnamon is just one of the violent disjunctions between the second and third volumes.  Details suggestive of amazing, virgin fields of subtext.

But I have no idea how it’s all supposed to fit together, or even if it’s meant to.  Among other things, this book is where I goes from being passive, a lone hermit living his life unstained by compromise or even contact with the world, to being active, enmeshed in ties of family and love, fighting and suffering to remain connected, and to make sure that his values prevail, or at least that their antithesis doesn’t prevail.  That much I get, pretty easily.  But that’s obviously not all that’s going on in this book. 

There also seems to be a critique of contemporary Japan – but it’s not exactly contemporary.  He goes out of his way to set it in 1984 and (in the third volume) 1985.  Why?  40th anniversary of the end of the war?  But why not set in the present of the writing – the 50th anniversary would surely feel more significant?  Is it rather just that he likes the resonance with Orwell’s book?  Is he still trying to write a definitive critique of the Bubble years?  If so, his previous two books do that much better and clearer.  And what, in the end, is he saying about the war? 

There also seems to be an attempt to extend Hard-Boiled Wonderland’s exploration of the mysteries of consciousness.  In sci-fi terms, he’s again interested in the ideas of layers of consciousness acting like, and being manifested as, alternate worlds.  But this time those alternate worlds don’t isolate the self, but connect it to others.  We’re not ultimately alone – but in the process of showing that, he also shows us a self, a subconscious, that’s porous, with ill-defined boundaries.  There’s a serious slippage of subjectivity here – not a complete dissolution, but at least the danger of it. 

I’m not sure if it’s a masterpiece.  That may be beside the point.  It’s a big glorious mess of a novel.  That may blunt some of the book’s messages, confound some of its critiques, but perhaps the book’s intellectual fecundity is all the greater because it refuses to resolves itself into anything clear and univocal.  Similarly, its shapelessness and overstuffedness (and with all this, still the translation cuts out some things – a thread about swimming, for example) prevent the book from making the kind of clear impact on the reader that the 1985 and 1987 masterpieces did.  But that, too, is an aesthetic:  one experiences this book as a kind of labyrinth, full of fascinating narrative cul-de-sacs and unexpected connecting passages.  The confusion and feeling of unsettledness that lingers after one finishes the book is part of the design, I’m certain.

It is a great leap – not straight forward, though.  A little slantwise.