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Gods of the Mall

1.

Like other writers of great ambition, Haruki Murakami has created his own distinctly identifiable world, an imaginary universe that can be found in even the smallest of his works. “The Year of Spaghetti,” a short tale that originally appeared in The New Yorker a few years back, takes up a mere five pages in his latest story collection, but it is about as concise an introduction to Murakami’s cosmos as one could wish. “In 1971 I cooked spaghetti to live, and lived to cook spaghetti,” the anonymous narrator informs us. Those are the horizons of his existence. He doesn’t seem to have a job or, for that matter, anything else to occupy him. We never learn how he pays for his pasta or comes up with the rent. If anything, he seems to be hiding from it all. “As a rule I cooked spaghetti, and ate it, alone. I was convinced that spaghetti was a dish best enjoyed alone. I can’t really explain why I felt that way, but there it is.”

This environment of low-temperature anomie, inhabited by a chronically underwhelmed main character, captive to a life so ordinary that it tips over into the bizarre, should be familiar to anyone who has sampled Murakami’s work in the past. Similarly, we know that we can also expect, soon after the story is underway, some notable eruption of the offbeat, whether it be a disconcerting ripple in routine or a manifestation of the overtly supernatural. In this case the spaghetti-obsessed narrator suddenly receives a call from a woman “so indistinct that, by four thirty, she might very well have disappeared altogether.” She turns out to be the ex-girlfriend of one of the narrator’s friends, and, as she explains, she needs his help in getting in touch with their common acquaintance about some pressing matter. But the narrator demurs. “I was through with getting caught up in other people’s messes. I’d already dug a hole in the backyard and buried everything that needed to be buried in it. Nobody could ever dig it up again.” This may be merely metaphorical, or it may be the real truth; we’ll never know. The narrator, in any case, falls back on evasion:

I’m sorry,” I said again. “But I’m cooking spaghetti right now.”

What?”

I said I’m cooking spaghetti,” I lied. I had no idea why I said that. But that lie was already a part of me—so much so that, at that moment at least, it didn’t feel like a lie at all.

I went ahead and filled an imaginary pot with water, lit an imaginary stove with an imaginary match.

So?” she asked.

I sprinkled imaginary salt into the boiling water, gently lowered a handful of imaginary spaghetti into the imaginary pot, set the imaginary kitchen timer for twelve minutes.

So I can’t talk. The spaghetti will be ruined.”

The girl hangs up in frustration, leaving the narrator lying in the same spot, “a pool of winter sunlight,” where he began their conversation. The story ends almost aphoristically: “Can you imagine how astonished the Italians would be if they knew that what they were exporting in 1971 was really loneliness?”

All of which suggests, among other things, that we’re not in Italy. But where are we, exactly? If it weren’t for the author’s name, and our awareness that we’re reading a work translated from the Japanese, it might never occur to us that the action takes place in Japan. The narrator is nameless, and so is his locale. At one point he uses chopsticks to take his spaghetti from its cooking pot; in another aside we learn that he has purchased the spices for his various sauces in “the supermarkets that cater to foreigners.” Which is fitting enough, since the only specific cultural references in the story are foreign. At one point his surroundings remind him of a “J.G. Ballard science fiction story.” At another, a Hollywood motif intrudes:

Every time I sat down to a plate of spaghetti—especially on a rainy afternoon—I had the distinct feeling that somebody was about to knock on my door. The person who I imagined was about to visit me was different each time. Sometimes it was a stranger, sometimes someone I knew. Once, it was a girl with slim legs whom I’d dated in high school, and once it was myself, from a few years back, come to pay a visit. Another time, it was none other than William Holden, with Jennifer Jones on his arm.

William Holden?

Not one of these people, though, actually ventured into my apartment. They hovered just outside the door, without knocking, like fragments of memory, and then slipped away.

Still, even if they can’t deliver more than they promise, the allure of imported dreams—American, Italian, and otherwise—is intensely felt. And that applies to the rest of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. In the twenty-four stories of this collection the reader will encounter references to Alfred Hitchcock, Merrill Lynch, J. Crew, Denny’s, Descartes, Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor, Mozart, Dickens, Balzac, Louis Vuitton, Gone with the Wind, the Rolling Stones, Verdi, Puccini, Donizetti, Richard Strauss, Armani, New Balance, Debussy, Anthony Quinn in Zorba the Greek, Paul Gauguin, van Gogh, Picasso, Diners Club, Marvin Gaye, Hyatt, Sheraton, Chanel No. 5, Chrysler, Rolling Rock, American Express, Arthur Rubinstein, Chopin, Godard, Elvis Presley (knowingly played off Elvis Costello)—not counting the obsessive allusions to American jazz that are another of Murakami’s trademarks (artists mentioned in this book alone include Lennie Tristano, Al Haig, Claude Williamson, Lou Levy, and Russ Freeman). By contrast, specifically Japanese names are rare, and usually refer to various parts of Tokyo. Buddhism is mentioned at one point; here and there a bit of Japanese food pops up. But these references are almost overwhelmed by the wealth of non-Japanese allusions.

Sometimes, indeed, Americana serves an almost totemic function in Murakami’s writing. It’s as if there are certain situations that he doesn’t dare describe without resorting to icons of American pop culture. Murakami devotees will recall how, in his novel Kafka on the Shore, numinous forces assume the guise of Johnnie Walker or Colonel Sanders, reminiscent of the helpful aliens in old Star Trek episodes who take the form of human beings so that earthlings won’t be quite so scared when they meet.

The Hollywood pantheon is a favorite source of Murakami archetypes. In the eponymous story of this collection, the narrator (yet another benumbed male loner) accompanies his cousin to the hospital for an ear examination. (The cousin suffers from an on-again, off-again deafness of unknown origin.) While waiting for his cousin to emerge from the examining room, the narrator suddenly finds himself recalling a similar trip back in his school days. Back then it was a classmate’s girlfriend who was in the hospital after undergoing routine surgery. The narrator recalls how she treated him and the classmate to her own Gothic tale of sleeping sickness induced by flesh-eating flies creeping into people’s heads through their ears. Returning to the present, he learns that his cousin’s ear exam has once again failed to yield a diagnosis for his hearing loss: one ear mystery echoes another. The cousin then recalls the classic American western Fort Apache:

In the beginning of the movie there’s this new colonel who’s come to a fort out west. A veteran captain comes out to meet him when he arrives. The captain’s played by John Wayne. The colonel doesn’t know much about what things are like in the west. And there’s an Indian uprising all around the fort.”

My cousin took a neatly folded white handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his mouth.

Once he gets to the fort the colonel turns to John Wayne and says, ‘I did see a few Indians on the way over here.’ And John Wayne, with this cool look on his face, replies, ‘Don’t worry. If you were able to spot some Indians, that means there aren’t any there.’ I don’t remember the actual lines, but it went something like that. Do you get what he means?”

I couldn’t recall any lines like that from Fort Apache. It struck me as a little abstruse for a John Ford movie. But it had been a while since I’d seen the film.

I think it means that what can be seen by anybody isn’t all that important…I guess.”

My cousin frowned. “I don’t really get it either, but every time somebody sympathizes with me about my ears that line comes to me. ‘If you were able to spot some Indians, that means there aren’t any there.’”

Then the cousin asks the narrator to take a look inside his ear—a repository of the ineffable if there ever was one. “I’d never looked at anybody’s ear so intently before. Once you start observing it closely, the human ear—its structure—is a pretty mysterious thing…. The hole of the ear gapes open like the entrance to a dark, secret cave”—a cave that recalls both the girlfriend’s creepy tale and her disturbing sexual appeal. A bit later the narrator is seized by a brief, frightening moment of insight. “For a few seconds I stood there in a strange, dim place. Where the things I could see didn’t exist. Where the invisible did.” Quite a spiffy summary of the conundrum of existence—and all of it courtesy of John Wayne.

2.

If things Japanese do not figure large in Murakami’s work, one explanation might be that he just isn’t that interested in the local terrain. As his recent novels have made apparent, Murakami is a writer who likes to keep things slippery. He is fascinated by the protean side of being; his inertial heroes make the perfect foil for his furling plots, which accumulate disquiet as they progress. He is especially fond of blurring the boundaries between waking and nonwaking states. The hero of “Man-Eating Cats,” who has fled Japan with his lover, wakes up in the middle of the night to find himself strangely bereft: his female companion has vanished without a trace. “Radiant moonlight poured in the kitchen window, throwing weird shadows on the walls and floor. The whole thing looked like the symbolic set of some avant-garde play.” We sense, correctly, that she won’t be coming back. In “Crabs,” a pair of tourists on a visit to Singapore find themselves frequenting a cheap seafood restaurant. The “young man” of the couple (who remains unnamed, as so often in Murakami’s tales) wakes in the middle of the night to find himself vomiting up worm-infested crabs. Once again, he can’t expect much solace from his female companion:

But the woman never woke up. Or even rolled over in bed. Her shoulder shook a little a few times, but that was all. More than anything, he wanted to sleep, to sleep soundly and wake up to find that everything had been solved, that everything was as it had been, operating smoothly as always. The young man wanted nothing more than to fall into a deep sleep. But no matter how much he might stretch his hand out for it, sleep lay out of reach.

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