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.”
“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.
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.
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.
What seems to fascinate Murakami about the shaky interface between waking and sleep is the way that it appears to connect alternate worlds, and throws up questions about the lines that separate illusion and reality. His work is rife with caves, tunnels, and wells, places that serve as conduits between the mundane and the supernatural. The hero of his novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle used the absolute darkness at the bottom of a well in a half-deserted Tokyo backyard as a launching pad for travel back and forth between this world and one that seems at once dreamed and jarringly hard-edged. And in this latest book the deaf cousin’s ear is far from the only cavity that opens a doorway to mysterious realms. We encounter spooky corridors (“Dabchick”), an ominous mine (“New York Mining Disaster”), and a traumatic experience in a closet (“Airplane”)—as well as numerous metaphorical allusions to sea bottoms or other deep, dark, scary places.
If this all strikes a reader as oppressively Freudian, Murakami seems to say, so be it. He has suggested that he is striving, in his fiction, to capture something of that same sense of casual inexorability that dreams produce. “In some ways, a narrative is like a dream,” Murakami said in one of his lectures:
You don’t analyze a dream—you just pass through it. A dream is sometimes healing and sometimes it makes you anxious. A narrative is the same—you are just in it. A novelist is not an analyst. He just transforms one scene into another. A novelist is one who dreams wide awake. He decides to write and he sits down and dreams away, then wraps it into a package called fiction which allows other people to dream. Fiction warms the hearts and minds of the readers. So I believe that there is something deep and enduring in fiction, and I have learned to trust the power of the narrative.”1
The problem with this, it should be said, is precisely that dreamworlds aren’t necessarily aesthetically satisfying. Surrealism, as an artistic movement, exhausted itself with surprising speed as it began to run up against the realization that the Land of Dreams is often just Dullsville in disguise. Any writing that tries to startle its reader with consciousness-enhancing plot twists will have to confront, at some point, the diminishing returns of defeated expectations. Murakami’s blurb-writers contend that his work is “daringly original,” which it sometimes manages to be; it is also, quite frequently, repetitious and oddly formulaic.2 In his new book, the nods toward horror movies (“then there was this invisible thing on a rampage in the dark. It was like the cold night had coagulated.”) become just as predictable, and as tiresome, as the talking animals, the mysterious phone calls, and the New Age bromides. (“So where is the real me?” wonders the narrator in “Man-Eating Cats.”) Given the studied banality of the world from which his characters emerge, one is tempted to wonder whether Murakami feels compelled to resort to mystical twists or supernatural heightening simply as a way of making his people interesting.
To be sure, Murakami often proves himself to be a writer of genuine and vigorous talent. At his best he tells tales that lodge in the brain like hot shrapnel—like the title story or the piece called “Hunting Knife,” discussed below. But there are also moments when his brand of magic realism allows him a degree of license that does not always work to his benefit—particularly when it comes to the writing itself. Here is a man entering his dead wife’s closet:
Their rich colors danced in space like pollen rising from flowers, lodging in his eyes and ears and nostrils. The frills and buttons and epaulettes and lace and pockets and belts sucked greedily at the room’s air, thinning it out until he could hardly breathe. Liberal numbers of mothballs gave off a smell that might as well have been the soundless sound of a million tiny winged insects.
Like the dutiful post-Symbolist that he is, Murakami apparently feels he must compensate for the impoverishment of meaning in the world with the odd passage of poetic excess. At the same time, his work constantly bombards us with solemn assurances about the limits of language:
But it’s impossible for me to come up with the right words.
I felt that I knew what he was getting at. At the same time, I felt that I had no idea what he meant.
In the night air, her sentences lost their shape as grammatical constructions and blended with the faint aroma of the wine before reaching the hidden recesses of his consciousness.
All this stands in instructive contrast to Murakami’s professed model, the American short-story writer Raymond Carver, whose strength was his ability to conjure the abyss beneath his characters while they stand patiently in the checkout lines in their small-town supermarkets—no special effects required.
Murakami’s work succeeds, I would argue, when his characters’ worst nightmares approach in the guise of routine insomnia. In “Hunting Knife,” a visitor to a tropical resort becomes curious about a pair of fellow vacationers, an American woman and her wheelchair-bound son who are staying “in the unit next door to my wife and me.” As usual, not much happens. The main character swims out into the ocean, producing a subtly disturbing encounter with another American, a fat woman on a raft. The sense of foreboding is deepened by the contrast between the idyllic beach environment and the helicopters that sometimes roar past overhead. Near the end, aware that he’s about to leave the unreal world of vacation, the narrator finds himself unable to sleep. He wanders outside and finally has that long-expected encounter with the young man in the wheelchair. There ensues a meandering conversation with some characteristic Murakami moments:
He laughed quietly. “A family’s a strange thing,” he said. “A family has to exist as its own premise, or else the system won’t function. In that sense, my useless legs are a kind of a banner that my family rallies around. My dead legs are the pivot around which things revolve.”
He was tapping the tabletop again. Not in irritation—merely moving his fingers and quietly contemplating things in his own time zone.
“One of the main characteristics of this system is that lack gravitates toward greater lack, excess toward greater excess. When Debussy was seeming to get nowhere with an opera he was composing, he put it this way: ‘I spent my days pursuing the nothingness—rien—it creates.’ My job is to create that void, that rien.”
His mind sank back into an insomniac silence, his mind wandering to some distant region.
In other words, pretty much your usual middle-of-the-night existential chat at a Pacific beach resort. Then the crippled American produces his secret pride—a top-of-the-line knife—and asks his interlocutor to cut things with it: “I aimed the knife out at the moon as he’d done, and stared hard at it. In the light, it looked like the stem of some ferocious plant just breaking through the surface of the soil. Something that connected nothingness and excess.”
Murakami never says it expressly, but an informed observer can infer, from the existence of an adjacent American military base and the knowledge that we’re in a part of Japan located in warm oceanic climes, that the story is taking place on the island of Okinawa. Occupied by US forces at the end of the war, it was returned to Tokyo’s control only in 1972 and remains the subject of considerable conflict between the Americans and the Japanese thanks to the continued stationing of a large number of American troops; that sixty-year American presence, in the form of Murakami’s US helicopters, has literally become part of the background noise. It all makes for an unnerving combination of routine intimacy and lingering threat: the waking nightmare is embodied by an American who also happens to be the literal guy next door. The American, himself incapacitated, offers the freedom to indulge in a faintly illicit act of violence. (“I slashed out at everything I could get my hands on…,” notes the narrator. “Nothing stood in my way.”) The story ends with a typical Murakami epiphany:
The rafts, the sea, the sky, the helicopters, the pilots. I tried slashing them in two, but the perspective was off, and it all stayed just out of reach of the tip of my blade. Was it all an illusion? Or was I the illusion? Maybe it didn’t matter. Come tomorrow, I wouldn’t be here anymore.
I would not claim that the effect of the story is exhausted by analyzing this interplay between the Japanese self and the American other; but I would certainly contend that in his deftly allusive way, Murakami has hit upon an ambivalence that will be recognized by many readers—not only in his home country but elsewhere as well.
It may well be, indeed, that the most intriguing thing about Murakami’s fiction is precisely the fact of its success. Whatever one thinks about his distinctive brand of everyday weirdness, there is no denying the fact that it appeals to a vast number of readers around the world. It’s not just that he is hugely popular in his home country, where he has sold more than eight million books (in a total population of 127 million). Murakami’s work has also managed to capture, and captivate, a truly global readership. At last count his work has been translated into thirty-six languages. He enjoys enthusiastic followings in Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, and Norway. Ten of his books have been translated into Romanian. In Taipei there is a café named after one of his novels, while a bar in Moscow offers a cannabis-laced drink in his honor. His work is adored even in countries that have a tortured relationship to things Japanese. The growth of his huge South Korean readership shows no sign of slowing, and newspapers in the People’s Republic of China have been known to express bewilderment and unease about his runaway popularity with young readers there.
This global reception has notably eluded other Japanese writers. Perhaps the only one of his countrymen who might be nearly as well known is Yukio Mishima, but I would wager that Mishima’s notoriety owes more to the drama of his outlandish life (particularly his theatrical suicide) than to readers’ familiarity with his works. Certainly none of Japan’s Nobel-winning authors enjoy anything like Murakami’s range of popularity. But then, the work of writers like Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe are still populated by characters who are recognizably and distinctly Japanese, even if they are engaged in a deep and traumatic confrontation with the effects of the process we have since come to call “globalization.”
No other non-Western culture has endured and embraced Western-style modernization for as long, and as deeply, as Japan. It is a country that has been following a steadily globalizing course since the mid-nineteenth century (with the possible exception of the period from 1931 to 1945), when the rulers of the Edo state made the decision to adopt and absorb the European and American technologies and political systems that had made the countries of the West the world’s dominant powers. After World War II, through American occupation and then the creation of a cold war alliance between Tokyo and Washington that was at once close and culturally fraught, Japan became, in effect, an honorary member of “the West”—even though it “qualified” neither geographically nor historically.
For Murakami, though, this story is essentially over. His characters are global citizens, inhabiting a world of ghostly presences and vague disquiet even as they indulge in the benefits of their membership in a thoroughly Westernized world. The hero of the story “Chance Traveler,” a gay piano tuner who lives in affluent western Tokyo, makes a habit of spending Tuesday mornings at a café in an “outlet mall in Kanagawa Prefecture”—one that “had all the typical big-box stores—the Gap, Toys R Us, the Body Shop.” And yet it is in this blandest of settings that the protagonist experiences a coincidence that will completely change the course of his life. Later, he and his friend the writer Haruki Murakami ruminate about the “gods” at work beneath the surface of everyday life and muse that
maybe chance is a pretty common thing after all. Those kinds of coincidences are happening all around us, all the time, but most of them don’t catch our attention and we just let them go by. It’s like fireworks in the daytime. You might hear a faint sound, but even if you look up at the sky you can’t see a thing.
Just like the odd events that overtake Murakami’s lukewarm heroes, globalization is a process that is, by virtue of its ubiquitous complexity, at once mysterious and banal. Its outward forms (John Wayne and Colonel Sanders) can be enjoyed even as they displace native customs and habits of thought; when the Italians export spaghetti, they’re exporting loneliness, too. Murakami’s heroes, carting the baggage of their minor miracles, know the story. They’ve been to the outlet mall and survived to tell the tale.
I'm sure that countless dissertations remain to be written about Murakami's obsessions with cats, jazz music, and shapely earlobes—fun enough the first time around, but irritating as they recur.↩