How to Feel Like a Visitor in Your Everyday World

Guys, we need to talk about Leena Krohn.

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As a longtime fan of Tove Jansson (creator of the Moomins) and Aki Kaurasmaki (go check out the Proletariat Trilogy and Le Havre right now), I was curious to see what other weird-and-wonderfuls Finland had to offer. Turns out, Finland has so much to offer and we’re just waiting for more of it to be translated.

I’m about a hundred pages into Leena Krohn: Collected Fiction (Cheeky Frawg, December 2015) and it’s already one of my favorite things ever. Not, Oh, this is some good fiction favorite but, This is now an irrevocable piece of my soul favorite.

There are already some great profiles, plus some interviews floating around out there. But I simply want to comment on the feeling of strangeness one has when reading Leena Krohn, who, according to Cheeky Frawg’s website, is “For readers of Ursula K. Le Guin, Milan Kundera, Virginia Woolf, Tove Jansson, and Italo Calvino.” Well okay then, that’s pretty much me exactly.

(Also, let’s pause for a minute. Cheeky Frawg publishes Finnish authors and Amos Tutuola’s short fiction. Plus, Ann and Jeff Vandermeer – the minds behind the publishing – have recently edited a collection of feminist speculative fiction. These folks have taaaste y’all.)

krohn 2I’m reading Dona Quixote, which is essentially a series of short vignettes about people that float into and out of the narrator’s life. She has a “friend” who seems to be a romantic acquaintance, a young boy who is perhaps a son, and of course Dona Quixote, a very thin (compared to a stalk of straw), eccentric and mysterious older woman.

Their relationship unfolds through the creases of the unspoken, and we’re never really privy to anything outside their probing, plainly worded, philosophical chat.

The relation to Don Quixote is mainly brought to fruition through the context of an idea that Krohn broaches with a line of the poet/aphorist Mirkka Rekola: “Do not make images. Everything is.” I’m bluntly taking this at face value to mean that there is no difference between what is thought to exist and what actually does exist. There is no thing and image of thing. Only things. This is perhaps best illustrated in the story “The Darkness of Mirrors” in which the narrator visits a fun house full of mirrors with her children (named “The House of Laughter”) and leaves bereft of the certainty that herself and the mirror images are truly differentiated in a meaningful way.

“I thought that if I were to spend longer with my reflections, Continue reading

“Colours of Jazz”

It is interesting the way stories about art are told.

In fact, I will just wallow in my obtuseness for a moment and say that, while I like to look at pretty things (and sometimes not-so-pretty-but-sort-of-interesting things), the stories are what interest me the most. My tendency at exhibits is to ogle the writing on the wall rather than the art itself.

And I really wish that the writing on the wall was written for people like me. Some kind of discernible plot. Stronger narrative voice (because obviously a curator is a form of narrator). Etc.

DSCF0503That describes my general train of thought while browsing the current exhibit at Montreal’s Musée des Beaux Arts: “Colours of Jazz” featuring works of the Beaver Hall Group.

Never heard of them? Not a surprise. They existed officially for all of two years and most of their work has not been exhibited anywhere since the 1940’s (except for a few permanent pieces in the national gallery).

Here’s a blurb from Evelyn Walters’s The Women of Beaver Hall.

Named after their studio location at 305 Beaver Hall Hill in Montreal, the official Beaver Hall Group was organized in 1920 with A. Y. Jackson as president. Largely overlooked at the time, it emerged as Quebec’s counterpart to Ontario’s Group of Seven established in the same year. Unlike the Group of Seven, the Beaver Hall Group was open to both men and women.

I’m sort of interested in this phrasing: “emerged as Quebec’s counterpart” to the Group of Seven, because besides the link of A. Y. Jackson, they don’t really seem to have much to do with each other. Ideologically at least.

But it goes to show how reliant Canadian art is on this one movement, just in terms of historical structure. That’s how the tale is told – before and after the Group of Seven.

(Don’t know who they are? That’s okay, you’re probably not Canadian. Here’s a link…)

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On Blessing Someone’s Heart

The thing about deep cultural knowledge is that you don’t realize you have it until a piece of your culture gets appropriated.

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An example of “bless your heart” in its weird misappropriated form.

I have never considered myself particularly Southern, at least in the way that people take ‘Southern’ to mean. I do not frequently use y’all. When I ask for a Coke I do not mean some other carbonated beverage (and I don’t drink it all that much). I’m not a Republican. Or a Christian. I do not wear pearls. I do not cheer for SEC football. I do not like bluegrass music and I play the violin, not the fiddle.

But if there is one aspect of Southern cultural heritage I claim as my birthright (besides excellent taste in bourbon and a kickass biscuit recipe), it is the way we do things with words. The way southerners speak is wonderful beyond explanation. The molasses slow pace of stories; the odd idioms that come from a much older English (“vittels” from “victuals” meaning food); the blunt imagery (like someone’s having been ‘hit by the ugly stick’) and obscure use of prepositions (‘Where you at?’); the creative use of multiple modals (“I used to could ride a bike and I might could ride again someday”). It is so thick as to add a whole ‘nother layer to the sonic sphere.

And I hate that I don’t have an accent. (Many of us don’t. There was a large economic boom in Atlanta in the 90’s somewhat coinciding with the ’96 Olympics. Because it brought many companies to this southern capitol, along with their employees and their employees’ families, my schoolmates were just as likely to be from Albany NY as from Albany GA and I speak what must be the most whitewashed version of English you can imagine. Seriously, there is a whole generation of us who sound like audio description for the visually impaired.) But I make up for this lack with love. I love the way my parents speak and the way my grandparents spoke. I am deeply offended when someone is amused by these accents. I would be happy to tell you where you can stick that amusement.

So naturally, my ears perk up when a “Southernism” suddenly becomes amusing to the general population. And I am staking the minuscule claim I have to a Southern identity to issue a cease and desist order against the rampant misuse of the phrase “bless your heart.”

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NOT ACCURATE.

You heard me. Continue reading

Merry Christmas Introverts – Grab a Book

Introverts have been receiving a lot of attention (ironic, no?) since Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking came out in 2012. It was kind of a thing. In fact, it was a ‘revolution’.* My internet world suddenly became filled with everything from “The Introvert’s Guide to Shoe Shopping” to “Outhouse Designs for Introverts.”

Just kidding. Kind of…

After reading the book, I so desperately wanted to identify with all these quiet people who subtly go about changing the world in their demure and ever-so-cool ways. Realistically, my immediate qualities read straight up extrovert, (ha! fooled you all) but like most people, I fall on both sides of the divide. I can enjoy a full house for a couple of hours (or a couple of martinis, whichever comes first) and then I get a tad hyperventilate-y.

So the holidays are a thing.

Through many years of adult Christmases, with both my family and others’, I have developed coping mechanisms for the inevitable low-to-medium grade social anxiety. Wine is phenomenally effective, but it comes with some gnarly consequences (indeed, metaphysical hangovers are far worse during the holidays…) Deflecting attention with questions is a classic, and better for overall health. One of my preferred strategies is to maintain a perpetual slice of pie in my hand. What am I going to do with my PhD? Nom nom nom nom nom…

But I have found that my favorite stop-drop-and-chill method is reading. In childhood, I often found books waiting under the family Christmas tree. One year, I received the Lord of the Rings trilogy and my family didn’t see me for the next five days. (Oh the calm of those epic battles amid the storm of my relatives…) So I’ve always associated the holidays with endless hours of reading, which gets harder to pull off the older you get.

But I still find ways of keeping up my favorite (entirely selfish) tradition. Here’s the thing, you can’t get away with pulling out a novel in the middle of Christmas dinner (unless you’re a cute kid, in which case, have fun doing whatever the heck you want at Christmas…we’ll just be over here abiding by the laws of social decency…) but it is possible to check out every once in a while and regain your personal (mental) space by getting lost in some quality words.

Making conversation with people – it’s great. But sadly, chat tends to unravel the cozy sweater that serves as protective membrane between me and the world. Words knit it back up. Running my eyes over a piece of text and processing its meaning pulls everything back together for me almost immediately. (I think people who meditate would call this “centering”…)

So if you also could use some inner peace in the midst of outer chaos, here are my recommendations for getting your literary relaxation over the holidays…

Duck out. But not forever.

Don’t disappear for the entire day. Take a half hour. If grandma can peace out for a nap, you’re allowed to curl up in a corner with your book.

Get as far outside your life as possible.

For goodness sake, if you have beef with your family, don’t read The Great American Novel About Having Beef With Family. By which I mean, don’t read Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. The idea is to get outside your family situation if you find it stressful. Steer clear of realistic fiction altogether. Go with dragons and fairies. Spaceships. Pirates. Cowboys.

And keep it light, dude.

This is emotional survival. If it’s on a university syllabus, put it back on the shelf.

Short Stories

Don’t feel like keeping track of time? Cool. Let yourself hang out in grandpa’s study for the length of a chapter or a short story. We’ve had a copy of Dave Eggers’s How We Are Hungry lying around and it has seen a lot of action this holiday season. Miranda July’s No One Belongs Here More Than You is another good option. (Though you’ll have to hide it. Grandma will be drawn to the bright yellow cover and that book has way too much sex for her.) Or hey, extra points for reading to the nieces and nephews, go with A.A. Milne’s stories of Winnie-the-Pooh. They are fantastic.

And Poetry

Funny poetry. Poetry you don’t have to think about too hard. One of my best New Years Eves was spent in part reading Ogden Nash on the outskirts of a crowded dance floor.

Magazines

Everyone sitting around the living room talking about people you don’t even know? No one is going to fault you for half-heartedly thumbing through a magazine and chiming in with a very attentive “Mm hmm” or “Oh really?” every once in a while. Hey, they don’t have to know you are in fact so engrossed in David Denby’s New Yorker article that you have no idea what anyone is talking about.

And relatedly, your phone

I despise reading on my phone, but we’re so attached to the damn things that no one will notice if they catch you starring intently at it for long periods of time. Let’s say one of your aunts or uncles discovers you curled up in a chair away from the crowd. What object is more likely to register as “I am avoiding the family” – a small screen often used to communicate? Or a gigantic hardcover? That’s what I thought. Everyone will most likely think that you are texting warm holiday wishes to the world, whereas you are actually off in Italy with Elena.

Look, one day it will be socially acceptable to just disappear for an hour or so when the bright lights and overeating and laughter and screaming children overwhelm, as they are bound to do. But until then, you can seek temporary refuge in your library.

Happy Holidays everyone! And happy reading.

*PS – It’s really important you know this. “The Quiet Revolution” was an extremely significant moment in the history of Quebec. It’s cute that Cain is using that name for her own attempt to focus the world’s attention on introverts, but I have to express my dismay that the phrase was simply commandeered without question. Okay, phew, I’m so glad I got that off my chest. Thanks for listening.

How to Become World Literate

What “world” are we talking about when we talk about “world literature”? We know it when we see it. It’s not France. It is definitely Africa. It might be Russia. But what about Finland? Or Puerto Rico?

And what “literature” are we talking about? Do folktales count? Are comic books literature? What about religious texts?

The term can be traced all the way from Goethe to the Norton Anthology. But when we casually say “world literature” we usually mean: books that were not written by white people, that you won’t find in your English 101 classroom, that feature places it would take you at least two flight connections to visit.

Leaving aside the difficulty of defining it, what are some strategies for reading the world? How do we become world literate?

It’s not about geography.

In our globalizing world, cultural capital moves fairly seamlessly through both real and imagined borders. But what does that mean for your reading life? It means that you can’t necessarily take a writer from one country – or even one general part of the world – and expect similar style or content from other writers nearby.

One example that comes to mind is Haruki Murakami. For many people, he IS contemporary Japanese literature. But if you like Murakami, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like Kazuo Ishiguro (although you might like Kobo Abe). You’d be better off reading Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick. In fact, Dostoevsky’s The Double is perhaps the most salient influence on his novels.

If it is about geography, then it’s about complicated geography.

Most “world” writers that you will hear about in the news “divide their time” between Europe or North America and the country of their birth. Their identities are multiple. Their nationalities are hyphenated. This makes things complicated and that complication is good.

Take superstar Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie for example. Her first two novels are set in Nigeria, and they are great. They were critically well received, and explore some key points in Nigerian history. But her Americanah – about a young woman who immigrates from Nigeria to the States – is a fireworks explosion of a book. It is fiercely insightful. In a conversation with Zadie Smith, Adichie claims that her first two novels were written by “the dutiful daughter” of African literature, whereas Americanah was her “fuck you book” in which she finally wrote what she wanted to. That revelatory shift came at least in part from the tension between Adichie’s two homes, Nigeria and the US.

Research can be fun.

Look, you don’t have to read like a university professor to get deep into a book. But if a work of fiction lies fairly far outside your range, you may find that some non-fiction can help you out. Say you’re reading Edwidge Danticat. You may know nothing about Haiti and you will still find yourself gobsmackedly hooked on the elegance of her prose, but if you read up on Vodou and Haitian history, novels like The Farming of Bones get exponentially cooler. Check out Maya Deren’s Divine Horsemen – it’s one of the most dense explorations of Haitian Vodou, but it’s also a beautiful book. And Laurent DuBois’s Haiti: the Aftershocks of History is written for highfalutin historians, but it’s also quite accessible.

There are great rewards to be had from nerding out a little.

Develop your personal canon.

Fifty years ago, there were certain books that everyone would have to read in order to become a “literate” person. These days, you are just as likely to have read Martinican writer Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest as you are to have read Shakespeare’s The Tempest. (And, really, you’re most likely to have caught the Julie Taymor film version with badass Helen Mirren as Prospera.)

What say I? The canon is dead, long live the canon!

I once received some great advice from a comparative literature professor: develop your own list of important books, and know the hell out of it. This isn’t tough – remain open to everything, and when you find something you like, run with it. Read everything your favorite author ever wrote. Read it twice. Find out who his or her influences were and read all of those people.

Don’t treat your reading life as an atlas into which you must stick as many pins as possible. If you want to explore the world through books, pick a place/theme/genre/style and get in there.

Read. What. You. Want.

Don’t read anything simply because you must. Don’t read anything simply because the author won a major prize.

If you don’t like Salman Rushdie, don’t read him. Life is too short for books you don’t like.

Marlon James, African and Caribbean Women Have Written Some Great “Geek” Books

Right after the publication of his most recent novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (winner of the 2015 Man Booker Prize – not too shabby), Marlon James appeared on the thoroughly superb podcast “A Tiny Sense of Accomplishment,” hosted by writer buddies Sherman Alexie and Jess Walter. It was a great interview – those guys really bring out the best in their guests and Marlon James is one of those people who takes his undeniable genius fairly casually, a pleasure to listen to. (You can catch that here and I absolutely recommend doing so.)

At the end of the interview, James mentioned that he was working on writing a fantasy novel, partially because, as he mentioned somewhat jokingly, “I got tired of arguing about a black Hobbit.” He declared that his next project is to write “a straight up totally geeked out novel based on African mythology and African history.”

First of all, yes. Absolutely do that. James is acquiring quite the fan base, and with good reason. He’s an incredible writer, and I think we would eagerly await his next book even if it were a gardening manual. Of course, an epic fantasy novel is really so much better.

But I want to know more about this apparently longstanding argument he’s having about black hobbits, which he refers to again in his interview with Man of the World magazine (quoted in Vulture): “I realized how sick and tired I was of arguing about whether there should be a black hobbit in Lord of the Rings. African folklore is just as rich, and just as perverse as that shit. We have witches, we have demons, we have goblins, and mad kings. We have stories of royal succession that would put Wolf Hall to shame. We beat the Tudors two times over.”

No one is going to deny that science fiction and fantasy are, well, pretty white. If we’re talking about books like The Lord of the Rings or the Game of Thrones series, we’re talking about writers mining centuries of Anglo-Saxon history and putting elf ears on it. Furthermore, the roots of modern science fiction were embedded in nations with overt imperialist projects, and the genre is still largely dominated by European and North American authors. (Though that is becoming less so the case, see: World Sci-Fi.)

So going back to the interview with Walter and Alexie, it makes sense that these guys greeted James’s plan with excitement as well as a sense of novelty. How zany for a ‘minority’ writer to enter into this ‘mainstream’ realm of literature!

Sherman: “You’re gonna be the godfather of the black geek movement.”

Jess: “We will be watching for the black geek movement.”

Here’s the thing – the ‘black geek movement’ is already in full swing. Black writers doing science fiction and fantasy is not really that new. There is a whole tradition of African and African diaspora writers embracing these genres to tell (hi)stories that are simultaneously violent and magical.

There are many writers I could mention, but I immediately found myself thinking about two current authors who delve into the history and spiritual beliefs of Africa and the Caribbean, and refract these through the lens of a sci-fi/fantasy format.

First, there’s Nigerian speculative fictionista Nnedi Okorafor, whose Zahrah the Windseeker (2005) and The Shadow Speaker (2007) are wonderful works for young adults that combine West African folklore, Nigerian history, environmentalism, dystopia/utopia dichotomies and strong female leads. I cannot say enough about the sheer coolness of Okorafor’s books. Her 2014 Lagoon was directly influenced by the film District 9, and explores similar themes in a Nigerian context, and her latest work for adults is The Book of Phoenix.

Then there’s Nalo Hopkinson, Jamaican born Torontonian who, among other literary feats, edited the 2000 anthology Whispers from the Cotton Tree Root: Caribbean Fabulist Fiction as well as the collection So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Science Fiction & Fantasy (2004). One of her main themes is slavery, both fictional and historical, relying heavily upon both the folklore and the spiritual practices that form a fundamental link between Africa and the Caribbean. Her latest is the collection of short stories: Falling in Love with Hominids.

I would not necessarily expect these specific names to come up in the context of a short interview, but I also could not help noticing their absence from a discussion of contemporary black science fiction and fantasy. And I also cannot help but wonder if this is because, in addition to being pretty white, science fiction and fantasy are very male.

So if you loved The Book of Night Women and A Brief History of Seven Killings, and you’re eagerly awaiting the “geeked out” version of Marlon James, you should certainly check out Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson in the mean time.

Haruki Murakami and Your Love Life as Metaphor

As usual, this year brought some Nobel buzz for Japanese author Haruki Murakami, who is best known in North America for works such as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore, and 1Q84. Also as usual, he did not win, much to the disappointment of his devoted fans.

It so happens that I spent much of the weeks leading up to giving birth lying on the couch rereading his novels. Not in preparation for news from Sweden but because I wanted to finally deal with them systematically, rather than picking up a novel every few years and racing through, only to end up on the last page, scratching my head and wondering “What the hell just happened here?”

I was introduced to Murakami’s novels during my college years, starting with Kafka on the Shore, which had just been translated into English (Gabriel, 2005). I then proceeded to read everything I could get my hands on until the recent disappointment of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage (trans. Gabriel, 2014) which, as far as I’m concerned, might as well have not been written at all. I’m not actually sure it was written. I think he might have had someone copy-paste the usual bits of his previous novels into a document, change the names, and call it a book.*

Given that arc – from enjoyment of the novels and admiration of the novelist to utter disappointment and boredom – it would seem strange that I recently tried to give it another go by reading all of Murakami’s novels again in chronological order. I felt – less as a book scholar and more as a book lover – a persistent need to justify my change of heart. How, in the span of ten years, did I go from declaring without hesitation that this was one of my favorite writers to being so profoundly annoyed by his writing? Did the prose dwindle? Did my taste change so drastically? Am I more sensitive to problems of translation after teaching and living in a foreign language? What was it that had initially appealed to me and why did it no longer?

Spoiler alert: I still haven’t figured it out. Like the best of relationships that end in the worst of ways, this parting is due to a combination of factors that merely attempt to explain and excuse, rather than to one definitive reason. Is it the misogynistic flatness of his female characters? The terrible sex?** The total lack of explanation for what lies at the core of so many labyrinthine paths (inner and outer, conceptual and actual) taken by his protagonists? One too many cats?

It is, to the best of my knowledge, a combination of these reasons, to which I would add his total nonchalance about being a writer.***

Also like the best of relationships that end in the worst of ways, I am still very much captivated by the former object of my affection. These novels still delight and fascinate me. I still read rapidly and with intense curiosity. I am driven insane by their lack of resolution and their lack of stability. But in a good way.

It would seem, if you’ve gotten with me to this point, that I’m extending the novel-as-romantic-love-interest comparison a bit too far. But as I turned over the last page of 1Q84 and picked up my reading notes, this comparison between the loss of love between two people and my disillusionment with Murakami struck me not as a general consequence of reading too much, but as specific to this author.

There’s something about the Murakamiverse that feels like falling into – and then out of – love.

The thing is, we all spend much of our young lives hopelessly in love, and also hopelessly lost in a maze of what we presume to be labyrinthine symbolism. We are obsessed with signifying in a way that is practically deviant. We both wore cowboy boots on our first date together – what does it meannn? He didn’t call – what does it meannnnn?? The title of his first album is sort of almost an anagram of my favorite childhood book – what does it all meannnnnnnnnnn???

But more than this, we interpret the exterior of other humans – their public personae – in the hope of uncovering some distinct individual core, that we will be privileged to know. This is the nature of love. (Aaand – well look at that – it’s a lot like reading.) However, it so often happens that, arriving at the center of this delicately constructed labyrinth of outward signifiers, we find it empty. Much like arriving at the center of a Murakami novel.

The intensely interesting and attractive aspects of his work do not seem to lead anywhere. All of the portals – the wells, the hotel rooms, the states of dream-like unconscious – connect with each other, but they do not connect to any grounding principle. All of his symbols create a web with no axial knot.

And this really struck me while rereading Kafka on the Shore, which is so focused on the figure of the labyrinth as an inner/outer phenomenon.  This labyrinth is where Murakami’s talent lies. For it is a talented magician indeed who opens the lid to reveal that the previously empty box is still empty and that it yet holds something so precious and so mysterious that we cannot even see it.

So all of that – the beautifully esoteric exterior concealing nothing – is one reason that I find myself thinking of Murakami in terms of lost love. At the end, you arrive at the the tootsie roll center of the tootsie pop, and you realize that it’s a candy coating covering more candy. And there you are fainting from hunger while your blood sugar spins out of control.

But Murakami’s fictional love relationships themselves warrant attention, because I now realize that they have a certain kind of appeal when you’re trying to understand love in a certain kind of way.

(And in continuing, let’s keep in mind that my reading of Murakami spans a ten year period, in which I went from a naive literature student discovering the world of courtship with a combination of Leisl Von Trapp’s wide eyes and Kim Gordon’s taste, to a married lady with a baby.**** Relationships have very different rules and very different tools for analysis at different stages of one’s life. (Novels do too. Please grow older with that knowledge.)

I’m pretty sure that at some point, I wrote a song comparing a pressing affliction of the heart to a Murakami novel. (And by “I’m pretty sure” I mean absolutely sure.) This leads me to believe that I must have found the lovers themselves fairly compelling. Why?

Because they are metaphor. Murakami’s lovers are engaged in metaphorical relationships. And when you’re young and the only thing you’re saddled with is way too much education, love basically is a metaphor*****for whatever inner bullshit you’re dealing with.

In the Murakamiverse, each character has the capacity to travel between two different worlds. It is inappropriate to call them the “real” and “unreal” worlds, and so I’m more comfortable with the terms “quotidian” and “oneiric” – meaning the everyday world that is immediately recognizable and the dreamlike world that unfolds in a seemingly inexplicable pattern of symbols. And the problem for the lovers in these novels, as they have their adventures and engage in tremendously badly written sex with one another, is that even the most basic case of “you love her, but she loves him, and he loves somebody else, you just can’t win” is never what it seems. Because it’s only the quotidian expression of a narrative occurring off in another dreamy dimension.

There is a moment in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, toward the very end, in which Toru Okada has finally understood (or think he has understood) why his wife left him. The explanation she herself gives – that she has been engaging in wanton sex with many different partners and, as such, cannot be married any longer – does not convince him. It is not, for him, the real reason.

“The first question is why you had to leave me. I want to know the real reason. I know what your letter said – that you had become involved with another man. I read it, of course. And read it and read it and reread it. And I suppose it does serve as some kind of explanation. But I can’t believe it’s the real reason. It doesn’t quite ring true. I’m not saying it’s a lie, but I can’t help feeling it’s nothing but a kind of metaphor.”

“A metaphor?!” She sounded truly shocked. “Maybe I just don’t get it, but if sleeping with other men is a metaphor for something, I’d like to know what.”******

“What I’m trying to say is that it seems to me to be nothing but an explanation for explanation’s sake. It doesn’t lead anywhere. It just traces the surface. The more I read your letter, the more I felt that. There must be some other reason that is more basic – more real.”

This is where Murakami stops short. We the readers would also like to know for what, exactly, infidelity is a metaphor. But we won’t. The best explanation given is that Toru’s wife is overpowered by some unexplained evil force that runs rampantly through her genetic profile and makes her an irrevocably malignant figure in some completely nonspecific way. Toru interprets her infidelity as a metaphor for the bad thing, rather than her infidelity being the bad thing itself. Why? Because Toru knows the “real” her. He sees past her actions into her very soul. How delightfully privileged of him.

It’s worth pointing out that this is the most blunt cliché in the history of romantic love – “marriages don’t break up on account of infidelity. It’s just a symptom that something else is wrong.”*******

Interpreting the symptoms of love serves as subject matter in more or less every novel. In Kafka, the fifteen-year-old narrator is in love with a woman old enough to be his mother. Again, we’re in the realm of commonplace trope verging on cliche in this portrayal of Oedipal impulses toward a saucy librarian. It plays out in the quotidian world much as you’d expect (nobody gets laid), but in the oneiric realm of the labyrinth, Kafka gets to act out this fantasy with the fifteen-year-old version of the older Miss Saeki. And that is meant to be the realm of the real.

In Sputnik Sweetheart, Sumire (the love interest of the narrator) falls in love with a much older woman as well. But it is made clear that she is not a lesbian. Or, not in her quotidian existence. Rather, this strange love she feels for another woman is actually an expression of a narrative that occurs in the oneiric realm of an otherworldly existence. The worst part is that, in the narrator’s perspective, this unfulfilled same-sex desire is merely an excuse for why Sumire is not in love with him. It’s the classic male logic of “If she doesn’t want me, she must be gay.” He’s a frat boy at a production of The Vagina Monologues

My favorite favorite favorite “missed connection” of sorts occurs in After Dark. Much of the novel recounts an encounter between the narrator Takahashi and a young woman named Mari. It is revealed that Takahashi had previously met Mari’s sister, Eri, and that on this occasion she talked to him for hours – not with him, at him. He claims that it was as if some invisible wall were between them, as if she were “a million miles away” – another cliché. It comes out that Eri is deeply disturbed, that she pops pills as though they are candy, and that she was simply using the narrator as a sounding board for her own monologue. But, of course, this behavior is all metaphor for another inexplicable problem, indicated by the fairy tale-like sleep into which she has fallen. Completely bypassing the simple explanation that this girl is really really really self-involved and not very nice.

In the Murakamiverse, the most everyday occurrences of unrequited or impossible love are explained as simple metaphors for something else. The narrator cannot accept that his wife simply cheated on him; or that he cannot be with a much older woman; or that the object of his affection loves women instead of men; or that the beautiful woman is simply not interested in him because she is flaky and has a drug problem and maybe he’s just not that great a catch.

But what the author so elegantly provides with these parallel worlds of the oneiric realm is the excuse that we all desperately seek when love isn’t going our way. For what is more common in a state of young love than to invent all manner of possibilities to explain the love interest’s strangely unloving behavior? For we, of course, have the privilege of seeing into the depths of the inner labyrinth. And lack of love is never the proper explanation – it is only a metaphor for the imperceptible dark currents coursing through the soul and causing everything to run afoul.

* Was that too harsh? That was too harsh. But c’mon, you guys read that book too. I know I’m not alone here.

** He even won an award for bad sex writing! And it is waaay overdue.

*** I know I shouldn’t (because the author and his life are beside the point) but I find his approach to his career a little offensive. I like my writers to be struggling, sacrificing both time and money in thankless pursuit of a worthless dream and constantly on the verge of quitting. Murakami’s whole “There was this great double – I knew I would be a writer -I wrote my first book in a matter of months – It won an award – Now I’m so super rich and famous – I guess I lucked out – Except that I can’t go back to Japan because I’m just too terribly rich and famous” story does not sit well with me. And I’m a baseball fan, so I get it.

****And a doctorate in French literature dammit.

***** Or, “metafers,” as I’m now saying in my head because it’s so so so late and my kid won’t sleep and I’m reading this aloud as I type and I think this is endlessly funny and he is not amused at all.

****** Murakami’s wives never know anything. Wives barely even get to signify anything. They’re just…there…

******* “Yeah, well that ‘symptom’ is fucking my wife.” Thank you, Nora Ephron, for knowing everything about love ever.