Friday, August 31, 2012

Murakami Haruki: 1Q84 (2009-2010)

Parts 1 & 2 came out in 2009, and Part 3 came out in 2010.  Thus this follows the publication pattern of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (without the magazine serialization of the first part).  In this case, I think the two installments (counting Parts 1 & 2 as one unit) bear separate consideration, for reasons I’ll go into below.

Parts 1 & 2 consist of two intertwined storylines told in alternating chapters:  an “Aomame” storyline told from the point of view of a character of the same name, and a “Tengo” storyline told from the p.o.v. of that character.  Both are in the third person – the whole book is, which for Murakami is a landmark in and of itself.  One of many to be found in 1Q84.

Aomame’s full name, which we only discover in Part 3, is Aomame Masami.  She’s a 30-year-old single gym instructor and personal trainer who focuses on women’s self-defense, and in her spare time she’s an assassin working for an older woman known only (until Part 3) as the Dowager.  We first meet Aomame in a cab on the expressway, stuck in gridlock.  The cab driver tells her that if she’s in a hurry, there’s a short-cut off the expressway:  she can climb down the emergency stairs.  She does, and when she gets to ground level she starts to notice odd things about the world.  Cops are in different uniforms, carrying different guns.  Eventually these differences multiply to the point that she realizes that somehow she’s stepped into a different world – it’s almost but not quite identical to her own.  Since the year in her own world is 1984, she decides to call this one the phonetically identical (in Japanese) 1Q84.  The biggest difference is that here there are two moons.

The appointment she’s on her way to is an assassination.  She shows up in a swanky downtown hotel, talks her way into the guy’s room, and stabs him in the neck with a needle she made herself – it hits the instant-death spot in the brain while leaving no perceptible mark on the skin.  Why does this guy need to die?  He beats his wife.  The Dowager, we come to learn, runs a battered-women’s shelter, and Aomame works for her taking out the most egregious husbands of these women. 

The Dowager does this because her daughter married an abuser and killed herself;  she sees Aomame as a kind of surrogate daughter.  The Dowager lives in a mansion in Azabu surrounded by willows;  we first meet her in a greenhouse filled with exotic butterflies, guarded by her burly, well-read, Korean-Japanese, gay bodyguard Tamura.

Aomame does this because her first and best friend in high school, Tamaki, also married an abuser and killed herself.  Aomame’s relationship with Tamaki was deeper than ordinary friendship – it dabbled in the physical, and although Aomame doesn’t consider herself a lesbian, her emotional attachment to Tamaki was deep and passionate.  Her first kill is Tamaki’s husband. 

Aomame, again, does not consider herself a lesbian, and in fact has a habit of picking up men in bars for one-night stands to satisfy her sexual urges.  Always older men, who she has a thing for.  But in the course of one of these adventures she meets a cute policewoman named Ayumi;  they begin to go out on foursomes, but Ayumi harbors a secret passion for Aomame that Aomame almost, but doesn’t quite, reciprocate.  Then Ayumi turns up strangled by a date in a hotel.  But Aomame doesn’t vow revenge – she’s in the midst of another, more dire, mission…

Meanwhile, Tengo’s storyline is much more peaceful.  He’s a part-time math teacher in a cram school, and on the side he’s an aspiring novelist.  His mentor and editor, Komatsu, also has him screening entries for a new-writers contest, and in the process they come across a peculiar work called “Air Chrysalis.”  It’s a work of fantasy by a 17-year-old calling herself Fuka-Eri (short for Fukada Eriko), and while it’s borderline illiterate there’s something about it that’s unforgettable.  The mischievous Komatsu hatches a scheme to have Tengo rewrite it, sure that the result will win the prize.  Komatsu’s original intention seems to be nothing more than to have a goof at the expense of the literary establishment.

It works, though, and there the trouble begins.  Because the story turns out to be a barely-fictionalized account of Fuka-Eri’s upbringing in a strange and secretive cult in the mountains of Yamanashi.  Sakigake, as the cult is named, was originally a left-wing commune, a holdover from the 1970 student movement, founded by Fuka-Eri’s father.  But then it evolved into a religious organization centered around a shadowy figure known only as the Leader, and Fukada pere has never been heard from again.  Fuka-Eri ran away at age ten and now lives with Fukada’s old friend and academic colleague Professor Ebisuno.  Ebisuno signs onto the rewriting scam, but he has his own agenda:  he’s concerned about Fukada’s disappearance, and hopes that if “Air Chrysalis” wins the prize it will stir some shit up with Sakigake.

And what about Fuka-Eri?  She’s a strange one:  speaks in a monotone, and largely in monosyllables, has lifeless but hypnotic eyes, is dyslexic but turns out to have a fantastic memory, has great but odd physical allure, and all in all seems not to be quite of this world.  She goes along with the plan because, basically, she likes Tengo – and because she doesn’t consider herself a fiction writer to begin with.  She insists the story is true.

But it can’t be, Tengo thinks.  Because it’s about a little girl in a commune who is assigned to guard the goats, and when one dies, she’s punished by being locked up with the corpse, and she sees six Little People from another dimension crawl out through the goat’s mouth and start building an Air Chrysalis.  I.e., a kind of cocoon made of filaments that they pull out of thin air.  When it’s done, it’s meant to help them communicate between their world and this;  it contains a homunculus of the girl herself, called a dohta – and she, the original, is called the maza.  Clearly it’s fantasy, right?

The first hint of convergence between the two storylines comes with Aomame’s new mission, the one that precludes her avenging Ayumi.  The Dowager has taken in an abused child who has run away from Sakigake with tales that the Leader is having sex with underage shrine maidens.  Including his daughter (they’re unaware of Fuka-Eri at this point).  I.e., we realize that the Leader and the former leftist guru Fukada are one and the same, and also that part of Fuka-Eri’s shellshocked demeanor might come from being sexually abused by her father.

Meanwhile, the rising tension in Tengo’s storyline comes first from fears that the media furor around Fuka-Eri’s winning the prize (sexy 17-year-old wins literary prize – who can resist?) will reveal his part in the hoax, and then from the fact that she disappears.  And while the police are searching for her, she shows up at Tengo’s apartment and asks him to shelter her.  It turns out that her disappearance was engineered by Ebisuno as a way of getting the cops to raid Sakigake.

We get further convergence of the two storylines the more we learn about Aomame and Tengo’s childhoods.  It turns out they knew each other as 4th- and 5th-graders.  Aomame was raised in a strict Christian sect called the Society of Witnesses (obviously modeled after the Jehovah’s Witnesses – they refuse blood transfusions, for example), and was traumatized as a child by being dragged on door-to-door proselyting by her mother.  Tengo was raised by a single father who worked as an NHK fee collector and was similarly traumatized by his father dragging him along on his rounds every Sunday, on which he would browbeat and harrass people into paying up.  At school, Tengo compensated for his loneliness by excelling in math, in judo, and in just about everything else he tried;  as a tall, strong kid he was always popular, although he never felt like he belonged.  Aomame, meanwhile, was isolated and bullied until one day Tengo stood up for her.  She couldn’t say thanks, but one day she held his hand – and that was the last contact they ever had.  But they’ve remembered it, each separately, ever since.

As Part 2 draws to its climax, Aomame embarks on her mission.  The Leader is seeking a new physical therapist for his terrible muscle aches resulting from his spiritual transports, and Aomame gets a try-out.  She goes to his hotel suite in Tokyo and, in the midst of a terrible thunderstorm, has a one-on-one session with the Leader in a darkened room, with his bodyguards just outside the door.  The Leader knows why she’s come and in fact begs her to take his life.  He speaks of his pain as coming from spiritual possessions that come upon him and utterly paralyze him, then leave him with horrible aches for days afterward.  He also confesses that during his paralyses his ten-year-old shrine maidens mount him – he swears it’s their idea, not his – that they want to bear his children.  But none have.  He also speaks of the Little People – says he’s a Receiver, getting revelations from them, and that his daughter was the Perceiver, part of the revelation-communicating process.  And he also reveals to Aomame Tengo’s role in disseminating word of the Little People, which has angered them.  Thus the thunderstorm.  The Leader seems genuinely weary of the whole thing, and willingly submits to Aomame’s ministrations.  She debates leaving him alive to suffer, but in the end kills him, because he says that if he’s allowed to live, Tengo will be in danger, while if he dies, Aomame will be in danger, but Tengo will be out of danger.

She gets away with it, too – that is, she makes it out of the suite, and then immediately goes into hiding under arrangements made by Tamura.  Goes to the mattresses in an apartment in Koenji, where she broods over what the Leader has said.  Begins to be obsessed with her memories of Tengo, and in the last scene in her storyline in Part 2, goes back onto the expressway and holds a gun to her head…

Meanwhile, Tengo twice goes to visit his father in a nursing home in Chiba.  He’s always wondered if his father is in fact his father – he has a single memory of his mother, and in the memory she’s making love with another man.  In any case, he’s never gotten along with his father, but now he takes a whim to visit him.  His father, only half-lucid, seems to deny that Tengo is his son, and Tengo, somewhat relieved, goes back to Tokyo.  He tells Fuka-Eri of the visit, and how it strangely resembled a story he was reading on a train about a Town of Cats:  the protagonist of the story got off the train in the town, found it was inhabited by cats, was enchanted, and stayed until he could no longer catch a train to leave. 

Fuka-Eri insists that he needs to undergo a purification – the Little People are after him.  That’s the night of the thunderstorm, and Fuka-Eri comes into his bed.  Without being at all sexually attracted to her, Tengo slips into a dream-state accompanied by paralysis, including a priapic state, and Fuka-Eri mounts him.  In a moment of supreme spiritual transcendance, he comes inside her like he’s never come before.  This was the purification.

His storyline, in this volume, concludes with another visit to his father.  This time the man’s dying – he’s in a coma.  Tengo visits him, and while some tests are being run, he sees an air chrysalis floating in his father’s empty bed.  He peeks inside and sees the 10-year-old Aomame.

Thus ends Part 2.

Part 3 introduces a new p.o.v. character.  This is a private eye named Ushikawa – we’ve already met him, but now he takes a major role.  Chapters from his perspective now alternate with those from Aomame’s and Tengo’s.  Ushikawa is working for Sakigake, although he’s not a believer.  First we met him harrassing Tengo, but now that the cult’s attention is on catching the murderer of their Leader, he’s on the trail of Aomame.  In his chapters we follow his investigation in painstaking detail as he uncovers Aomame’s connections with the Dowager and ultimately with Tengo (this is where we learn everybody’s full names).  Finally he stakes out Tengo’s apartment, hoping this will lead him to Aomame.  Tengo, by coincidence, also lives in Koenji, so this is a better guess than Ushikawa realizes.

Meanwhile both Aomame and Tengo spend most of Part 3 alone in their respective Koenji apartments waiting for something to happen.  Aomame is in hiding, while Sakigake looks for her;  the Dowager and Tamura want her to go to a safer place and have plastic surgery, but she vows to wait out the year where she is, hoping against hope to run into Tengo, though she has no idea where she is.  In fact, one night, looking down from her balcony, she sees him sitting on a slide in a playground, gazing at the sky, but by the time she gets down there he’s gone.  After that, she watches for him every night.

Tengo, meanwhile, is just kind of spinning his wheels.  He discovers that he can see two moons now – just like in the story “Air Chrysalis.”  He goes back to Chiba when his father takes a turn for the worse and spends nearly two weeks at his bedside, but he’s really just hoping for another glimpse of Aomame’s air chrysalis.  He doesn’t see it.  Has a brief dalliance with a nurse named Adachi – no sex, but she gets him high on hashish.  Fuka-Eri disappears again, warning him that his place is being watched.  In fact he never sees her again – she goes back to Ebisuno, who calls off the search.  The police raid of Sakigake turned up nothing – not even the death of the Leader, which the sect is keeping under wraps.

Aomame discovers she’s pregnant, and deduces that it must have been the night she killed the Leader – although there was no sex involved – and on a hunch she decides the baby must be Tengo’s.  We, the readers, know that he did in fact come that night, into a strangely transfigured Fuka-Eri, so we’re ready to suspect that somehow this was in fact a mystical union with Aomame.

Ushikawa closes in on Aomame, until finally she spots him, and Tamura visits him and whacks him.  Sakigake comes and gets his body, and while they’re trying to decide what to do with him, Little People crawl out of his mouth and start building an air chrysalis.

Meanwhile Ushikawa under torture had revealed where Tengo was, and his old connection to Aomame, and Aomame gets Tamura to take a message to him.  Meet her tonight on the slide.  He does, they’re finally reunited after twenty years.  She leads him up the emergency staircase onto the expressway, and when they get to the top they see – one moon.  They’ve escaped.

End of summary.  And yes, even at that, I’ve left out a lot of stuff.

Simply put, the reason why I want to consider Parts 1 & 2 separate from Part 3 is that Parts 1 & 2 are brilliant, or damn near, while Part 3 is a disaster.  Now, to save wear and tear on the ampersand I’m just going to call them “the first part” and “the last part” from now on.

The first part reads like everything you’ve ever hoped Murakami would do.  It’s his deepest dive into genre fiction since Hard-Boiled Wonderland, this time embracing some of the juicier elements of hit-man/crime fiction, and up to the end of the first part he pulls it off with, if anything, even more aplomb than he did with the cyberpunk elements back in 1985.  Aomame the feminist assassin is quite simply one of the great characters in his ouevre.  And not just because of her ingredients:  she comes alive on the page.  Whether she’s hitting the bars with Ayumi or communing with the Dowager among the butterflies, she’s well-written, with punchy dialogue and great details of personality (her frightening scowl) and physique (her lopsided bust).  Her last mission against the Leader is depicted with great tension and atmosphere (even if the final confrontation owes a little too much to Apocalypse Now – right down to the presence of The Golden Bough). 

Meanwhile, the Tengo storyline is a glorious parody of the literary world, something Murakami hasn’t essayed since Dance Dance Dance.  Tengo himself is a little reminiscent of Junpei in “Honey Pie” and/or “The Kidney-Shaped Stone…,” but here he’s used for comic effect, a naif at the mercies of the scheming Komatsu.  But then his storyline veers into classic Murakami surrealism, as Fuka-Eri shows up and begins insisting that all this business about the Little People is real.

The themes are really solid in the first part, too.  First and foremost there’s Sakigake itself.  Clearly this is Murakami’s long-anticipated fictional depiction of Aum, and it’s fascinating that he plugs it into his lifelong obsession with the failure of the student movement.  Without necessarily saying that Aum itself was a hangover of the ‘60s, he makes an excellent case for how one strain of that kind of idealism could turn cultish.  It’s kind of the mirror-image of the would-be Sheep/Rat nexus in A Wild Sheep Chase

The keynote theme of the Aomame storyline is violence against women:  she’s an avenging angel, and in this, too, she’s an unforgettable character.  Kind of the culmination of the gradual feminist awakening Murakami’s been undergoing since that spate of female-p.o.v. stories in ’89-’91.  Her own life, and her interaction with the Dowager, are effective devices for exposing the frightening prevalence of violence against women in Japan.  Even Tengo, it turns out, is touched by it – we learn, although he never does, that his mother in fact ran away from his father (the guy in Chiba is in fact his real father) with another man, who then strangled her.

The childhood parallels between Aomame and Tengo are rich, too.  Aomame is scarred by an upbringing that sets her too much at odds with mainstream society, and claims her childhood in the process;  Tengo’s father, meanwhile, is kind of the uber-salaryman, and in that sense is the epitome of mainstream society, but that claims his childhood no less completely.  The NHK fee collector is in some ways Murakami’s most damning portrait of work-obsessed straight society (and one of the few wonderful things in the second part is how Tengo’s father’s spirit wanders from his body to manifest as a phantom fee collector harrassing Aomame, Tengo, and even Ushikawa). 

All of this thematic complexity and narrative tension glides to a halt in Part 3 as Aomame and Tengo both turn into Okada Toru, and as Ushikawa comes, inexplicably, to consume a full third of the narrative. 

Well, almost inexplicably:  he does have that brief denouement as the new dead goat.  Otherwise, he’s just a loathsome character to have to inhabit.  In the first part, Murakami had introduced him as such – physically misshapen, unclean, abrasively unctuous, morally deficient, and on the wrong side.  By making him a point of view character in the second part I suspect Murakami’s trying to get us to see him as a successor to characters like Katagiri in “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,” an outwardly-repulsive but inwardly-noble salt-of-the-earth type.  But it just doesn’t work that way, because he forgets the inwardly-noble part.  He nearly ruins Part 3 single-handedly.

But he has help.  As I say, Aomame and Tengo both turn into utterly static characters.  Aomame’s transformation is particularly disappointing, as she goes from being decisive, self-directed, and cool to being hopelessly devoted to her girlhood crush.  Without particularly undergoing any form of repentance for her murderous past, she has a kind of ambiguous spiritual awakening, and sees her childhood love for Tengo as her only chance at redemption.  Tengo, too, goes from being a relatively well-adjusted adult – a bit disaffected, a bit of a loner, but still basically happy – to moping about his boyhood crush.  And all those wonderful plots that they’d been involved in in the first part are downplayed or dropped in favor of a love story. 

And, I may say, the weakest kind of love story:  the pre-sexual-awakening childhood-innocence kind of love story.  In South of the Border, West of the Sun he used this motif (which, to be sure, has a long pedigree in Japan), but he couched it in terms of the main character’s midlife crisis.  It made sense for a self-centered Man Who Has Everything to long for a ten-year-old rosebud;  here it makes much less sense, and it’s presented with no ironic distance at all, in the second part at least. 

I find it hard to believe this is where Murakami had originally intended the story to end up.  But it’s hard to say.  The first part feels utterly planned out – most plot developments feel carefully calculated, in a good way.  Instead of the improvisational feel of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, we get the architectural solidity of Kafka on the Shore, but with much stronger narrative elements.  But the second part goes off the rails in the same way that the last third of Wind-Up Bird did, only it doesn’t recover like the earlier book did, and it doesn’t have the improvisational feel to contextualize it.  That is, it was okay that Murakami felt like he was vamping in search of a theme for a while in Wind-Up Bird, because it was that kind of novel;  this isn’t that kind of novel, so when he drops everything that’s been working in search of something else it’s just a really jarring move.

And the amount of stuff that gets dropped is unbelievable.  The whole sociopolitical critique aspect of Sakigake is dropped, and so is their peculiar spiritual outlook;  instead they become mere antagonists in Aomame’s search for Tengo.  And as Sakigake is moved to the back burner, so is the Komatsu-Ebisuno conspiracy.  Murakami had laid the groundwork, in the third part, for some tasty revelations about them – Komatsu had once been Ebisuno’s editor, and we know that Ebisuno had long been in touch with Fukada, so I figured that we were going to learn that Ebisuno was still Sakigake’s man on the outside, and that Komatsu had been in cahoots with him, manipulating Tengo, from the beginning.  As a cultural anthropologist, it would make perfect sense for Ebisuno to see Sakigake as an interesting experiment in atavism, or even to be a secret participant in their mystery cult.  But instead, Ebisuno is completely dropped as a character.  And Komatsu gets one brief appearance when he tells Tengo that he was kidnapped and threatened by Sakigake and told to cease publication of “Air Chrysalis” or else….

As I say, the spiritual outlook of Sakigake is also largely dropped.  Fuka-Eri hardly appears in the second part, and so all that juicy mystery surrounding her is muted.  We get some speculation about her nature (is she mother/maza or daughter/dohta?), but basically she seems to have served her purpose in funneling Tengo’s sperm into Aomame…

The Dowager is basically dropped as a character.  There’s no follow-up on Ayumi.  No follow-up on Tengo’s older married girlfriend from the first part, who also disappeared mysteriously.  In short, almost everything good and intriguing from the first part is jettisoned to make room for the love story.

It’s hard to overstate how disappointing I found Part 3 of this book.  For long stretches of Parts 1 & 2, I thought it was his masterpiece, hands down;  but Part 3 is probably the worst thing I’ve ever read by Murakami.  Absolutely a train wreck.

And a train wreck in ways that reach back to weaken Parts 1 & 2, unfortunately.  About those Little People.  What are they doing in this book?  It’s hinted that they’re part of the Murakami’s playful take on Orwell’s 1984:  instead of Big Brother we get the Little People.  But (that's not funny and) they don’t seem to be set in thematic dialogue with Big Brother in any particular manner.  They don’t control people’s thoughts, or even their actions in much more than a very oblique way.  They’re not an overwhelming presence.  (In fact, I can’t see much of an engagement with Orwell’s book here at all.  The world of 1Q84 certainly isn’t an imagined totalitarian Japan – the whole point is that it’s largely indistinguishable from real 1984 Japan.  And while somebody could doubtless make the case – some intellectuals did, at the time – that real 1984 Japan was subtly totalitarian, this book doesn't say that.)

Elsewhere they’re associated with primeval human religion, with the prophet-king motif in The Golden Bough, the kind of king who had to be killed ceremonially by his people.  But this theme, introduced late in Part 2, isn’t followed up on in Part 3, and so it doesn’t go anywhere.  We’re meant to see them as somehow active in this alternate world, connecting it to their world, and somehow manipulating Sakigake – but into doing what?  Are they good or bad?  Are they a threat or a goof?  We don’t know.  They’re just a faintly ridiculous oddity in the mist of all this other sturm and drang.  Unrealized possibilities, just like so much else in this book.

As of summer 2012 this is the most recent fiction we have from Murakami.  The sheer scope – almost 1200 pages in translation – augured for this to be his magnum opus.  But if so, it’s a deeply flawed one, a work that builds up tremendous momentum and potential, only to squander it all.  One can only hope he’s deep into his next work by now, and that it’s as much of a redemption as After Dark was.    

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Murakami Haruki: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2007)

I’ll confess to this:  the first time I read this I couldn’t forgive Murakami for making me read a book that had a cover blurb on the back from Sports Illustrated. 

This time around, I came to terms with it a little better, and started to appreciate more what he was trying to do with it.  The title makes it plain:  he’s using running as a way of talking about other things, by noticing that talking about running in his life necessitates talking about other things.

What are those other things?  Getting older is a big theme:  most of the details he gives about his marathon training have to do with preparing, in his mid-‘50s, for another stab at the NYC Marathon, and confronting the fact that times he used to take for granted are now all but unattainable.  Writing is of course another theme:  he famously took up running to increase his stamina so he could write more and better, and so running comes to be kind of a metaphor for regular effort at writing.  Not even a metaphor, since he usually comes right out and makes the connections;  but knowing that two years after this he came out with 1Q84 makes me wonder now if all this talk of marathons and triathlons, one last push, was his way of saying he was working up to his longest literary performance (to date). 

But what I felt he was most addressing in this book was individualism.  He takes great care to make sure the reader doesn’t feel this is a health and fitness book – he’s not out to preach the benefits of running, or even of staying in shape, although he’s not shy about noticing them in his own life.  Instead he puts the emphasis on how running fits his life, his personality – how its solitary, mostly noncompetitive nature suits him, how it parallels the career choice he made in mid-life, and how the constant self-attention that training requires is a lot like the constant mining in the mind and heart that his particular kind of fiction requires.  I’m starting to think of this as Murakami’s version of Sōseki’s famous speech “My Individualism.”  Like Sōseki, Murakami is a deeply humanistic writer who pays careful attention to society, but he does that from a place of zealously guarded and exultant individuality:  his biggest concern is being fully himself, with the faith that by doing so he can best contribute to society.

I’m still a little puzzled as to why, out of all the scads of nonfiction books Murakami’s written over the years, this is the one that first appears in English (not counting Underground).  He does insist that it’s kind of different, more polished, more focused, more of a memoir.  Was it his choice to make this available to his international audience?  Or did an editor at Knopf decide that the running angle would appeal to his international audience more than, say, his writings on whiskey or jazz?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Murakami Haruki: Stories 2005

“CHANCE TRAVELER”  3/2005 (BW, and in Strange Tales from Tokyo)

Strange Tales from Tokyo is the second of Murakami’s short story collections to be translated in its entirety.  It’s buried at the end of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, but it’s all there.

This story opens with a frame device in which Murakami identifies himself as Murakami and says that strange things happen in life.  He’s had a few happen to him.  He tells about two that happened the first time he was in Cambridge in the mid-‘90s, both jazz related.  So, see:  it happens.

Then, the story proper, in the 3rd person, as related to him by an acquaintance, the guy who tunes his piano.  The guy is an out gay man who had once aspired to be a concert pianist before becoming a piano tuner instead.  He’s much in demand, makes a good living at it, and is in a longterm relationship. 

Every Tuesday he drives to a big-box mall in Kanagawa because there’s a coffee shop there that’s just perfect for reading.  He spends a couple of hours there.  One day he’s there reading Dickens when a woman about his age approaches him.  Coincidence of coincidences, she’s reading the same Dickens book right then.  They talk and go out to lunch.  The next week she’s there again, and they go out to lunch, and she makes a pass at him.  He turns her down gently, explaining the situation.  She weeps, but then explains that she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer – they’re going to operate, and she doesn’t know yet if it’s spread.  He wishes her well and says he’ll always be happy to talk, but in fact he never sees her again.

But a mole on her earlobe gets him thinking about his sister, from whom he’s been estranged for ten years.  When he came out it almost caused her fiance’s family to break off the engagement, and she’s never forgiven him.  She’s been crying when he calls, and they get together.  She tells him that she’s just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and that very afternoon she’s scheduled for surgery.  What made him call just then?  He can’t explain.

She survived the cancer, and they were reconciled, and now he has a part in the lives of his niece and nephew, and even his brother-in-law is learning to deal with him.  Happy ending.  So:  he says to Murakami that maybe these kinds of messages are being given to us all the time and we just don’t notice it.  Murakami says he’d rather believe in a god of jazz.  And a god of gays, the other guy laughs. 

Murakami is a humanist, dyed-in-the-wool.  His earliest work is the chronicles of a conscientious objector to the salaryman life.  Later he realizes he needs to fight, to pick a side, and he comes out in favor of interrogating history, and serving society.  His early work is all about a straight Japanese guy’s perspective, but gradually he comes to see how limiting that is, and how privileged, and works overtime to try to account for the perspective of women, and of children.  Of foreigners.  And of gays:  after introducing the motif in Sputnik and Kafka, here he’s tackling it head on.  This is a story about chance, but it’s also a story that’s standing up for a gay man’s perspective in contemporary Japan, that’s normalizing what Japan in 2005 was not ready to consider normal. 

“HANALEI BAY”  4/2005 (BW, and in Strange Tales from Tokyo)

Sachi is a middle-aged woman who gets a call one day saying her son has died in Hawaii.  He was surfing in Hanalei Bay on Kauai and got his leg bitten off by a shark, and drowned.  She immediately flies there to claim his body, and spends a week in Hanalei Bay trying to get herself back together.  A kindly Japanese-American cop had advised her to accept it as part of nature’s cycle.

She ends up going back there for three weeks every year, at the same season, just sitting on the beach.  One year she meets a couple of Japanese surfers the age her son was, totally clueless, and she drives them to the bay and gives them some survival tips.

We then get a flashback to her life story.  She’s a boomer – the two surfers establish that – and it’s kind of an oblique boomer story.  She’d studied piano in high school, learned enough to fake it through jazz, although she was never much of an improviser.  Went to cooking school in Chicago for two years, but made more money and had more fun playing in jazz clubs – until she got deported for doing it on the wrong visa.  Back in Japan she ended up married to a J. jazz musician, and playing on her own;  that’s who fathered her son Takashi, but then her husband died in another woman’s hotel room.  With the insurance money Sachi opened her own jazz bar and has kept it running to this day.

With her own rebellious past, she feels she’s in no position to discipline Takashi much – she tries to point him right, but when he decides he wants to drop out and go to Hawaii to surf, she ends up letting him.  Should she have been stricter?  She wonders, but she doesn’t know how she would have gone about it – she’s so busy with the bar.

Back to the present:  on her visits to Hanalei Bay she sometimes sits in on the piano at a local restaurant, just for fun.  One night she’s in there and she runs into the two Japanese surfers.  They thank her for her help, and say they’re on their way back to Japan.  An American ex-Marine comes to their table and tries to bully her into playing something for him, saying the regular piano player is too much of a fruitcake to play anything he likes.  She refuses, and he starts to spout off racist rhetoric – but the owner comes and chases him away.  Then the two surfers ask if she’s seen the one-legged Japanese surfer hanging around on the beach.

That night she weeps because, try as she might, she doesn’t see the surfer:  he’s obviously the ghost of her son.  Why won’t he appear to her?  Then she recalls the cop’s advice:  just accept it.  She goes back to Tokyo.  Now she just plays piano there, thinking about her next trip to Hanalei Bay.

This is one of Murakami’s best stories.  His production of short stories fell off drastically beginning in the ‘90s, but what he wrote was golden.  This reminds me a lot of Tony Takitani, and not just because of the jazz element – although that’s an important link.  Murakami’s at his best when he writes about jazz.  He really gets it.  What the two stories have in common is this way of showing how life and music intersect, and of capturing the complexity of an entire life in a few short pages.  Sachi’s journey is epic, really:  you can just feel all her struggles, both in America and in Japan, all she had to sacrifice as a single mother, all she had to learn to survive as a musician and club owner.  Her estrangement from her son, and yet her deep understanding of him.

And it’s a deeply moving story.  That ending – not being able to see the ghost.  All that implies in terms of estrangement from her son.  He appears to those who love what he loves – not to those who love him.  And that’s one vision of life:  we try to love those bound to us by blood, but really we love those who love what we love. 

“WHERE I’M LIKELY TO FIND IT”  5/2005 (BW, and in Strange Tales from Tokyo)

I is not Murakami, but some kind of consultant or private eye.  This isn’t apparent immediately.  He’s listening as a wealthy middle-aged woman tells him about the mysterious disappearance of her husband, a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch.  They live on the 26th floor of a high-rise, his mother on the 24th, and one morning he went down to check on her, phoned his wife to say he was on the way back up, and never arrived.  Disappeared without wallet or anything but the clothes on his back. 

I takes the case, but refuses payment – that would invalidate the work he does, he says.  So he goes back to the apartment with her.  Her husband always took the stairs, so he hangs out on the stairs between the 24th and 26th floor.  Talks with the people he meets.  No clues.  Finally a little girl asks him what he’s looking for.  A door, perhaps.  But he doesn't know what it will look like – a doughnut?  An elephant?

The wife calls to say her husband showed up – on a train station bench in Sendai, missing his glasses, and with no memory of the last twenty days since his disappearance.  So he’s off the case.  Privately, though, he muses that his search will continue, for whatever it is.

So, what is it?  This is a very mysterious story.  Is this guy displaced in time or space, and looking for the portal back?  Or is he just bored?  There’s a lot of talk in this story about passing the time.  And how does he support himself (he says he has other means, but doesn’t say what)?  Very weird, very enigmatic.

Also very ‘80s Murakami.  The hard-boiled overtones, the freewheeling, lighthearted surrealism.  It reads like an outtake scene from Dance Dance Dance.

“THE KIDNEY-SHAPED STONE THAT MOVES EVERY DAY”  6/2005 (BW, and in Strange Tales from Tokyo)

Junpei is a short story writer – not a novelist, but reasonably successful with his stories.  When he was 16 his father made the sphinx-like pronouncement that a man only meets three women in his life who have real meaning for him.  In college Junpei met the first, but he was too late and she married his best friend.  Ever since he’s been on the lookout for the others, and fear of the resulting pain has led him to engage in nothing but light, disposable relationships.

Now, in his early 30s, he meets a woman at a party, Kirie.  She’s a few years older than him, and clearly a capable, professional woman, but she won’t tell him her job.  They sleep together, and then make a regular thing of it – they really have a lot to talk about.  She reads his stories and likes them, but still won’t tell him what she does, only that it’s the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

One night in bed she has him tell her about the story he’s writing now.  He’s stuck with it, but as he tells her he realizes how it should end.  The story is “The Kidney-Shapes Stone that Moves Every Day.”  It’s about a woman doctor, professional and successful, having an affair with a surgeon.  One day on a trip to a mountain resort she finds a kidney-shaped stone – size, shape, color all perfect.  Brings it back to use as a paper weight.  Perfect for a hospital.  But then something strange happens.  Every morning when she comes into the office it’s in a different place.  It moves overnight.  Weird.  Gradually it comes to obsess her – she loses interest in everything.  Decides it must be telling her to change her life.  She breaks up with the surgeon (who’s married) and tosses the stone into the bay, thinking to make a new start.  Feels worlds lighter.  But when she goes back to the office, the stone is there…

When he finishes the story he tries to call Kirie but her phone is disconnected.  And for months he has no contact with her.  Feels more and more like she might have been No. 2.  He really misses her.  Then one day he’s listening to the radio and there she is – she’s a tightrope walker, it turns out, just back from a walk in Germany.  He tries to call her.  Still can’t connect.

Decides to count her as No. 2, and then has an epiphany:  the countdown itself is meaningless.  It’s the act of deciding to accept another person as truly important to one that’s important.  We cut back to the kidney story:  the woman comes into her office one morning to find it’s gone.  And she knows it won’t be coming back.

This story is a little more transparently allegorical than Murakami usually lets himself be.  But it’s still pretty effective as a meditation on love and commitment.  In that it feels a little like an outtake from Wind-Up Bird, actually.  But no less effective for that.

What’s more intriguing are the story’s other connections to Murakami’s work.  The idea of a father’s strange pronouncement casting a shadow over a son’s life is a direct repeat of the central motif of Kafka.  In this case, however, the consequences don’t seem to be as dire.  Rather, the curse seems to be there to teach Junpei what commitment really means.

The other connection is, of course, to “Honey Pie” in After the Quake. This is a fascinating connection.  Junpei here perfectly fits the description of the main character of that story – also named Junpei.  Same writing career, right down to the inability to complete a full-length novel.  Same love affair in college, failing in the same way.  But the earlier Junpei didn’t seem to be laboring under a curse, and this Junpei doesn’t seem to still be involved with his college love.  It’s as if this is an alternate way for that Junpei’s life to turn out.  Really interesting.  Is there a full-length Junpei novel in Murakami’s future?

“A SHINAGAWA MONKEY”  9/2005 (BW, and in Strange Tales from Tokyo)

A young married woman, Ando Mizuki, has started to forget her name.  Just her name, and just when people ask her about it.  At work she still uses her maiden name, Ozawa, for no other reason than because it’s too much trouble to change it.  Her husband doesn’t mind, as he sees the logic in it – he’s very logical.  Because of that logic he would no doubt conclude that her present problem indicates that on some level she’s unhappy with her marriage, but she doesn’t think that’s it.  She goes to a counselor who works for Shinagawa-ku, where they live, Mrs. Sasaki.

Over the course of their sessions they talk about her childhood and name-related incidents.  Mizuki went to a boarding school in Yokohama, far away from her home in Nagoya.  They had name tags at the entrance to the school dorm that you turned one way to show you were in the dorm and another way to show you were out.  One night, Yuko, the most popular and beautiful girl in the school, came to Mizuki and asked her to look after her name tag while she went home for a funeral.  Yuko also asks Mizuki if she’s ever been jealous.  No.  Yuko says she’s lucky – jealousy is like a tumor eating you up inside.  Yuko leaves and never comes back – turns out she committed suicide.  Mizuki’s left with the name tag, which in fact she still has.

Or thinks she does.  But when she gets home and checks the envelope where she kept Yuko’s and her own high school name tags, they’re both gone.  But at her next session Mrs. Sasaki says they’ve caught the thief.  Thief?  It’s a monkey – her husband, who works for Public Works, caught it.  The monkey says he has a bad habit of stealing names, when he finds ones he likes.  And he’d always loved Yuko’s.  Had meant to steal it when she was alive, but then she died.  It took him this long to track it down.  And in the process he took a fancy to Mizuki’s.  Now he gives them both back and begs for mercy.

He also says it might have been better for Yuko if he had stolen her name – when a monkey steals a name it accepts both the good and the bad, and that might have cleared some of the darkness from Yuko’s heart.  Mizuki asks what darkness attaches to her own name.  When pressed, the monkey tells her:  her mother never loved her.  Neither did her sister.  And her father couldn’t stand up to them.  That’s why they sent her away to school.  And, starved for love, Mizuki has never been able to truly love anybody else.  Mizuki recognizes that this is the truth.  Thinks she can deal with it herself now.

Classic Murakami pop surrealism, this.  The misdirection is what makes it work.  First we suspect it has to be a story about a woman dissatisfied with married life, who feels her identity subsumed into her husband’s.  Then we think it’s going to be a story about jealousy – and maybe Yuko was jealous of Mizuki, but if so we have no indication of how or why.  In the end it’s a story about – well, about a monkey that steals names.  About learning the truth of one’s own situation, too, although that really comes as a bit of an afterthought.  Is there some way in which her feelings of never having been loved, her inability to love, robs her of her name? 

But about that monkey:  the idea of a monkey living in the sewers of Tokyo because that’s the only place it can survive unmolested, a monkey that can talk and steal names but is ashamed and penitent when caught, a monkey that can filter the bad out of people’s names…  Very interesting.  Not to mention cute.  Ends the collection on a whimsical, funny note.

As a collection, it’s linked by the motif of strange happenings – but as Murakami himself says in the intro to Blind Willow, all his stories have something strange in them, so that’s really a pretty weak link.  One of them, “Hanalei Bay,” stands with the best of his work.  A couple of them are really interesting for how they connect to the rest of his recent work.  And a couple of them are just pleasant pieces of whimsy.  Certainly they could stand on their own more easily than, say, the After the Quake stories.  But there’s something very pleasing about being able to take them on their own as a unit.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Murakami Haruki: After Dark (2004)

Hot on the heels of Kafka on the Shore came this one:  a short novel, as might be expected, and a much more accessible one, though not without its share of mysteries.  And, to me at least, a return to form.  This is vintage Murakami.

The narrative is perhaps his most experimental yet.  It’s not only third person, it’s third person in a very stylized way:  “we” are a camera eye, and the narrative is presented to us as if we’re watching a film.  We see this, we zoom in and see that, etc.  All very stylish and daring, and combined with the nighttime theme and the motifs of violence, it gives a very film noir effect.  And yet this would be very hard to film effectively, because at key moments the narrative relies on effects unique to writing:  not just a glimpse at characters’ thoughts, but a reliance on metaphor and speculation of the type that needs words on the page.

The action all takes place during the course of a single weeknight in autumn in Tokyo;  it starts just before the trains stop running for the night, and concludes at dawn.  Most of the action happens in a single downtown neighborhood, an “amusement” district of all-night bars and love hotels. 

We begin at a Denny’s – anybody who’s had jet lag in Japan knows that Denny’s are open all night in Japan.  It’s a perfect setting.  We zoom in on a college-age girl alone at a table, reading a book;  she’s dressed unfashionably and has a big bag with her.  Runaway?  Then a college guy comes in, carrying an instrument case, recognizes her, and joins her.

The girl is Asai Mari, and the guy is Takahashi.  Takahashi had known Mari’s older sister Eri in high school – they’d gone out on a double date once.  The thread of the plot that follows these two characters sees them coming together a number of times during the night for conversation.  At first Mari is very standoffish, and we learn this is because her older sister is a model and has always gotten all the attention.  And, indeed, at first Takahashi only seems interested in talking about Eri.  But he’s a nice, personable guy, and the reader suspects that he’s interested in Mari, even if she can’t believe it herself.  Her defenses are pretty high, but by the end of the book he’s won her over.

They have a first conversation in the Denny’s – sort of a meet-cute – then he heads off to his all-night band practice – he plays trombone in a college jazz combo.  She thinks she’s finally going to be left alone for the night when an older woman with crew-cut bleached hair and the body of a pro wrestler comes into the restaurant and asks for her help.

Mari speaks Chinese, and Takahashi knew this, and this woman, Kaoru, is a friend of Takahashi’s who need someone who speaks Chinese.  Kaoru is an ex-pro wrestler who now runs a love hotel, and a Chinese prostitute is bleeding in one of her rooms, and she needs an interpreter.  Mari comes along and meets the girl, who’s her own age and probably here illegally;  learns that she’d brought a john to the love ho (as they call it – nice import of J. slang on the translator’s part), but then her period had started unexpectedly, and the guy beat her bloody and stole all her clothes and belongings before running out.  With Mari’s help they manage to contact the girl’s pimp, who comes and picks her up;  Kaoru stands up to the guy and forces him to pay her hotel bill.

Mari and Kaoru then have a nice conversation about how Kaoru ended up running the love ho, and about how she knows Takahashi – he used to work there part time, cleaning and stuff.  Kaoru takes Mari to a bar and Mari opens up about how she’s estranged from her sister, how tough it was growing up with her sister getting all the attention, how her parents always called her ugly but expected her to be a genius, and how her studying Chinese is kind of a rebellion, and how she’s not quite running away now but wanted to be out of the house.  Kaoru takes her to another family restaurant, a Skylark, where she knows the manager and gets him to let her stay all night if she wants.

Kaoru then looks at the security camera footage to find the guy who beat up the prostitute, prints out the image, and gives it to the Chinese pimp, hoping he’ll cut the guy’s ear off.  At this point We the Camera cut to the guy himself, one Shirakawa, who works late nights at a nearby company overseeing their software.  He’s a fastidious guy working long hours of unpaid overtime, has a wife he never sees, and doesn't seem the violent type.  But we don’t know.  He also lies to his wife without any evident pangs of conscience, and doesn’t appear to feel guilty about what he’s done – and abrasions on his fist are evidence to us that he is indeed the beater.

During a break in band practice Takahashi drops by to thank Mari for helping out, and after he finishes practice they get together for a walk in the wee hours.  Over the course of their extended conversation she learns that he’s giving up the band to get series about his studies – law.  And not to get rich, but for solid unselfish reasons.  And he learns that her sister, Eri, is in a state of protracted sleep.  A couple of months ago she went to bed and hasn’t woken up since.  At least, nobody in the family has seen her awake – they leave meals for her and they disappear, though, and she seems to use the bathroom.  But nobody can wake her.  Takahashi says that he had one odd conversation with her a few months before, when she seemed to confess a whole lot of anxieties to him, including that she wished she could be closer to Mari.  And she was popping pills the whole time.  Mari agrees that Eri was troubled, but she didn’t know how troubled or why.

We the readers have a good suspicion, though.  Because intertwined with this narrative, in irregular alternation with it, we’ve been cutting to Eri asleep in her bedroom.  Sound asleep.  And weird things happen in these scenes.  There’s a TV in her room, unplugged, but sometimes it’s on anyway.  At first we see a faceless, masked man sitting in an empty room staring at something.  Then we realize he’s staring at Eri asleep.  Then we see that Eri’s no longer in her bed in her room, but in an identical bed in a room on the TV.  Sometimes we, our point of view, is in the room in the TV.  And once we’ve met Shirakawa we realize that the room on the TV where Eri is asleep is his deserted late-night office.

That’s it, that’s all the explanation we get.  But we can’t help but try to put things together, and here’s how I try to do that.  Eri’s sleeping as an extreme reaction to some trauma, and the TV is like our window into her subconscious.  There she’s haunted by a man who she doesn't know or recognize, but who’s always watching her.  And this guy is, I suspect, Shirakawa, who must have raped or abused her somehow, and who therefore is holding her prisoner, symbolically, until she can overcome the trauma.  I think this is an easy enough conclusion to draw, but it’s to the novel’s credit that it doesn’t spell it out:  it’s more powerful, I think, for being left shadowy and suspected.

At the end of the book, Takahashi asks Mari out on a proper date.  She tells him she’s leaving soon to study abroad in China, but he persists – it’s clear now that he’s interested in her, not Eri, and she begins to trust him.  She gives him her address in China and he promises to write.  Then she goes home and crawls in bed with Eri, begging her to wake up.  She goes to sleep.  It’s dawn.  And Eri’s face starts to twitch as if she’s waking up.

As I learned anew with Kafka, a book is not reducible to its themes.  A book can be ideas, but it’s also necessarily a matter of the writing, the narrative, the scenes, the words.  And a book can succeed in one area while failing in another.  This book succeeds in all the areas where Kafka failed, as far as I’m concerned. 

First and foremost the dialogue scintillates.  The camera-eye device forces Murakami to move the story along through action and speech, and this frees his talent for dialogue to strut its stuff.  Takahashi’s scenes with Mari are perfectly paced and perfectly pitched.  As are Mari’s exchanges with Kaoru, and with Komugi and Korogi, two other women who work in the love ho.  We get to know all of them through their words.

The characters that result from this are memorable and fully-realized.  Takahashi and Mari are believable as young people in a way that nobody in Kafka was.  Partly that’s no doubt because Murakami has always had a sure feel for college-aged people.  Takahashi is a perfect rendition of a certain college archetype:  an average guy who takes things averagely unseriously, but is on the verge of taking things seriously.  He’s played enough in college to make him interesting as a person, but he’s earnest enough to make it clear that he’s going to be a good citizen in the future.  And all of this is communicated to us through details in his dress, his comportment, and his speech.  No hammers anywhere near our heads here.

Mari, meanwhile, is a combination of different familiar types, but none the less effective for all that.  The smart girl living under the shadow of the pretty girl;  the rebel who takes refuge in books, in words.  The would-be cynic who realizes she has no idea of how bad the world can be.  The ugly duckling who doesn’t realize how much more she has to offer than the others.  And again, all of this is given to us in dialogue, in action.  She feels real.

Minor characters.  Kaoru the washed-up pro wrestler is awesome.  One of an ever-expanding number of strong and unique Murakami women.  He’s gone from the ear-model femmes fatale of the early books, who existed only as emblems of male desire, to being almost more interested in women now than men.  The way she stands up to the pimp, the way she befriends Mari, the way she gives refuge to Korogi (on the run from some dark secret) and Komugi (who’s just a happy-go-lucky cipher), the way she sets the Chinese mob onto Shirakawa – she’s indelible.

Shirakawa himself.  Within the scope of the story he gets off scot-free.  The pimp, even with his photo, rides right past him on his motorbike.  After the story?  Maybe he gets tracked down and the shit beat out of him, maybe not.  Maybe he’s guilty of raping Eri, maybe he’s not.  He’s a cipher himself – we never have any idea why he does what he does.  Just the barest hint, from the narration, that he had to do it.  Was he not himself?  Is that a reference to a deep psychosis?  Or the workings of fate?  And let’s notice that in his methodical nature he’s a lot like the typical I of books past – as was Johnnie Walker.  Murakami’s working hard in the 2000s to deconstruct his I.

Shirakawa has stolen the Chinese prostitute’s cell phone.  He disposes of it by leaving it on the shelf in a convenience store.  Twice it rings and is picked up by an unrelated person in the convenience store – once by Takahashi, shopping for milk, and once by the cashier.  Both times the Chinese pimp, thinking he’s reached Shirakawa, starts making threats.

It’s a brilliant device, kind of crystallizing the whole book.  It’s ostentatiously a book about night in the big city – each chapter is given a start time, as we work our way through the wee hours.  And despite the way all the scenes and storylines intersect, the characters aren’t all aware of each other.  It’s a book about connections, but also missed connections.  About the things that happen in darkness, both visible and subconscious, that are intertwined but not mutually perceived.  And so the pimp, thinking he’s closed the circuit and found the beater, ends up spewing vague threats at complete strangers.  These complete strangers experience them as part of the general confusion and malevolence of the big city at night.  And we, the readers, who see the whole picture, perceive the night as a place of dangers imagined and dangers unsuspected.

Thematically I don’t think it’s his most serious book.  We get some more playing with the subconscious, and some more attention to troubled youth.  But aesthetically it’s all that Kafka wasn’t:  it’s a great read.  Takahashi and Mari’s budding romance is handled with great delicacy, humor, and evocativeness;  Shirakawa’s villainy is given all the inexplicable power of the great noirs.  And the camera-eye device, while running the very real risk of ending up as empty flash, works for me:  it connects the book to the kind of films that Murakami’s always been indebted to, but ends up emphasizing the ways in which a book is not a film. 

Nor is a book music.  But this book reads like a particularly hot late-night jazz blowing session.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Murakami Haruki: Stories 2002-2003

“BIRTHDAY GIRL”  12/2002 (BW, and in Birthday Stories)

A woman is telling I about an incident that happened on her twentieth birthday, some ten years before.  Narration shifts between her speech and the third person (presumably narrated by I from her speech). 

She was working in an Italian restaurant in Roppongi.  Describes the place, the manager.  Every night at 8 sharp the manager would take the owner’s dinner to him on the 6th floor of the building.  Every night, always chicken.  Nobody’s ever seen the owner.  This night he’s sick – the first time ever.  He asks her, the birthday girl, to take the dinner up.  She does.  Sees the owner – a dapper old man.  He invites her in.  They make small talk.  She lets it slip that it’s her birthday.  He says well, then, let me grant you one wish.

I doesn’t ask her what the wish was, only if it was granted, and if she’s ever regretted what she wished for.  To the first question she says yes and no – she has a lot of living left to do.  To the second she asks I what he would have wished for.  He says he can’t think of anything, and she says that’s because he’s already made his wish. 

It’s a cute story, to be sure, and well done with the buildup.  The ending?  Well, let’s just say this story was probably perfect for its original context:  it was written for a volume of birthday-themed stories that Murakami edited and translated.  An occasional story, in other words, and Murakami has written far more of these than is apparent in English. 

“CRABS” 2003 (BW, and J. ed. of BW;  revised excerpt of story from Dead Heat)

Third person.  A young couple are in Singapore, early in their relationship.  They come across a crab restaurant, and she convinces him to eat there – he should be more adventurous.  It’s delicious, so for four days they eat there happily.  Lounge on the beach, make love, buy souvenirs, and eat crab.  Then on their last night in town, while she’s asleep, he gets sick and throws up four days’ worth of crab.  And floating in the toilet it looks like, or perhaps is, a mass of wiggling white worms. 

He’s horrified and debates waking her up.  But she’s sleeping blissfully.  Then he feels that something has fundamentally changed for him.  He’ll never feel the same about her, or even about himself.  He’s aged instantaneously.  And will never eat crab again.

In the original story, this was a story-within-a-story, brought to “Murakami” by an aspiring writer.  Here he lets it stand on its own.  Either way it’s memorable, and not just because of the nauseating ending.  It deftly captures a moment early in a relationship when two people’s affection can either be cemented or dissolved, and not by anything one or the other of them does, but by their reactions to an outside stimulus.  The crab makes him sick but leaves her alone.  He experiences a trauma on their trip, she doesn’t.  He’s aware of things, she’s not.  This kind of thing makes all the difference, the story says.  Sad but true.