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.