by KARA VANDERBIJL
Haruki Murakami decided he could write while watching a baseball game in the late ‘70s. Over a period of several months afterwards, he wrote his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, in small increments after working 14-hour day shifts at “Peter Cat”, the jazz bar he owned at the time with his wife, Yoko. He composed the first chapters in English, hoping that his limited vocabulary would allow him to produce a pure work of fiction, unattached to what he considered an overly-nuanced knowledge of his native tongue. Unsure of what to do with the finished manuscript, he simply sent it off to the only literary contest in Japan that would accept such a lengthy work, and won first prize.
Still, Murakami felt that this first attempt – and its quickly-penned sequel, Pinball – were weak, and it was not until A Wild Sheep Chase, published in 1982, that he grew confident in his ability as a storyteller. Critically acclaimed, the surreal tale blends a traditional Holmesian mystery with hints of animism and Shinto; it was also the first that he allowed to be translated into English. His mastery of both Eastern and Western paradigms generates a unique chaos in his work that is as much admired by the younger generation as it is criticized by his Japanese peers.
It would be immature to reduce his work to this simple dichotomy, though; for one thing, he embraces several at a time with an imaginary force that has become difficult to find outside of young adult fiction, yet leaves the cosmic questions unanswered with gentle skepticism. Only Murakami could produce a mind-bending thriller like Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, a fantasy in fairy-tale terms (none of the characters have names, but are referred to simply by their occupation or physical appearance) made chilling by graphic violence, then almost immediately afterwards Norwegian Wood, a haunting coming-of-age story that gnaws with its realism.
Like all of Murakami’s characters, the hero of Norwegian Wood is startlingly ordinary, possessing (in the author’s own words) “something to tell other people, but they don’t know how, so they talk to themselves.” Toru Watanabe, a student of drama at a Tokyo university, falls in love with two women: Naoko, gentle and mentally troubled, and Midori, larger-than-life. The youthful unrest of the late 1960s paints an almost comical backdrop to Toru’s troubles: Murakami abandons what he perceives as the mindless obsessions of the group for the struggle of the individual — a theme that, while being as familiar to Western ears as a lullaby, rings foreign to the community-centric Japanese culture. The novel sold over two million copies in Japan alone.
For its author, the instant success was a blow: he felt that the book had ceased to be a work of art in favor of becoming a phenomenon, and Murakami had little desire for fame. He escaped quietly to Europe with Yoko, where he spent the next five years, followed by a fellowship at Princeton, during which he wrote The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, his most celebrated work.
Despite his rugged individualism, Murakami carries a deep concern for his country, one that links him to it almost prophetically. In 1995, two disasters — the Kobe earthquake and, shortly afterward, a terrorist attack by cultists in the Tokyo subway system — lured the writer home again, where he turned his efforts towards a non-fictional account in Underground, a collection of interviews with both the attackers and their victims.
It is initially difficult to say what makes Murakami so memorable. I assume that some of his more subtle artistry is lost in translation, but his writing is straightforward, so simply adorned that it is possible to forget you are reading. His more elaborate descriptions do not immerse the reader into the milieu. Rather, they seem external to the rest of the text, pulling the reader out, drawing his or her attention to a detail that may or may not be vital. In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, for example, Murakami dismisses a river as “swollen with snowmelt”, a metaphor that, after a hundred some pages of seamless text, jarred me as much as one of Fitzgerald’s copious oxymorons.
What he avoids in style, he more than makes up for in the construction of his characters. While ordinary, they are unforgettable, and share a sense of deep alienation; they are set apart. Whether by circumstance or personality they suffer intense loneliness, a by-product of their exceptional freedom. “I closed my eyes and listened carefully for the descendants of Sputnik,” shares ‘K’, the mysterious narrator of Sputnik Sweetheart, “even now circling the Earth, gravity their only tie to the planet. Lonely metal souls in the unimpeded darkness of space, they meet, pass each other, and part, never to meet again. No words passing between them. No promises to keep.”
Murakami’s aliens build a new universe in order to survive, most often metaphorically, and sometimes literally, in the case of his latest novel 1Q84: the protagonist, Aomame, is stuck in a cab on a busy Tokyo expressway: at precisely four o’clock, she must kill a man in a hotel room. But in order to arrive on time she must exit the vehicle and climb down a ladder from the highway to the street. Before she can climb out, the cab driver cautions her: “You’re about to do something out of the ordinary. Am I right? People do not ordinarily climb down the stairs of the Metropolitan Expressway in the middle of the day — especially women. And after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before. I’ve had that experience before myself. But don’t let appearances fool you. There’s always only one reality.”
Suddenly, in Aomame’s Tokyo, things begin to morph: a sickly green moon appears in the sky alongside the old one. Dogs explode. Two vigilantes open a shelter for battered women, and secretly kill the men who abuse them. A reclusive, dyslexic teenager publishes a bestselling story. Tengo, Aomame’s childhood love, has sex with the daughter of a cult leader, but gets Aomame pregnant instead. As Tengo and Aomame’s worlds begin to overlap, they telescope further and further away from normalcy, until the smallest routines ring false.
Like the Orwellian universe that inspired it, the Tokyo of 1Q84 sits under the thumb of an oppressor: reality. In the known universe, Murakami argues, signs and symbols lead up to nothing. What we can imagine holds greater power than what we do. Sometimes, what actually happens belies little of its truer undercurrents, like a badly translated book. And Murakami — himself a translator of many of the cult classics that have established our own culture — reminds us to look past what is in favor of what could be.
At the same time, he grounds his readers with the details: food is endlessly prepared and consumed, the process and experience of which he addresses as mundanely as we experience it ourselves. His female characters tuck their hair behind their ears intimately, an immediate and foreign precursor to sex. Often compared to shells, or admired for their almost newborn freshness, these orifices encompass what Murakami’s women represent: virgin territory, a space to fill and colonize, a new order of things. Never, outside of a David Lynch film, have ears been so fetishized.
Like his words, in which the exceptional blends evenly with the typical, Murakami moves between spiritual and visible with ease, a quality that ties him irreversibly to his roots. In an interview with Ben Naparstek, editor of The Monthly, he shared: “You know the myth of Orpheus. He goes to the underworld to look for his deceased wife, but it’s far away and he has to undergo many trials to get there. There’s a big river and a wasteland. My characters go to the other world, the other side. In the Western world, there is a big wall you have to climb up. In [Japan], once you want to go there, it’s easy. It’s just beneath your feet.”
This transition may be as easy as climbing to the bottom of a well to meditate, as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle’s Toru Okada discovers, or as difficult as disappearing entirely “like smoke” as Sumire in Sputnik Sweetheart. Murakami leaves breadcrumb trails where he can: his novels often incorporate telephone calls and make liberal use of letters to connect his isolated characters. He is also one of the few writers I have read who incorporates computers and the internet into his stories with unabashed poise. What ultimately brings the aliens together is the violence which links them to the world, alternately inflicted on or performed by them, and the uneasy peace they find in withdrawing from it.
It has been called postmodern, but Murakami’s literature — as staunchly as it refuses to fit into any paradigm — is more of a skeuomorph than anything else. Taking cues from what we know as well as our own reflections, his stories squeeze into the shapes we are comfortable with and, like the wind-up bird, invent entirely unfamiliar songs.
Kara VanderBijl is the senior editor of This Recording. She is a writer living in Chicago. She last wrote in these pages about walking. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She tumbls here and twitters here.
"Anyone Can Fall In Love" - Kindness (mp3)
"Gee Wiz" - Kindness (mp3)
"Gee Up" - Kindness (mp3)
The new album from Kindness is called World You Need A Change Of Mind, and it will be released on May 8th.