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Old 03-21-2014, 09:38 AM View Post #1 (Link) 1. Haruki Murakami (1949-), The Art of the Novel in 'The Wind-Up Chronicle'
lostbookworm (Offline)
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1. Haruki Murakami, The Art of the Magical Surrealism in 'The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle'

After being inspired by both Isis’s and Spacepirate’s fantastic work regarding the poetry and short story ‘Art of-’ series, I have decided to try my hand at doing an ‘Art of-’ piece for those among us more inclined towards novels. This does not come without its difficulties, of course, but I do hope you will bear with me throughout.

We open this discussion with Haruki Murakami. Some of you may ask, why Murakami? Why not David Foster Wallace, or Zadie Smith, or Don Delillo, or even George R.R. Martin? The simple answer is that Murakami is not only the perfect opener for this discussion, (as he is a superstar among the world of literature) but is also my personal area of literary expertise.

Haruki Murakami’s novels deal with everything from love, death, sheep, anonymous telephone calls, pinball machines, shadows, ear sex, and wind-up birds. He is both one of the Japan’s most celebrated and criticised writers. He is Japanese, yet he rejects Japanese influences and his novels are steeped in Western Pop Culture. He writes some of the most absurd and fantastic novels of our generation, yet lives an average, routine life. He is, all in all, a thorough contradiction.

Murakami first became known to the literary world of Japan after the publication of his first novel, Hear The Wind Sing, which won the Gunzo Award for new writers. According to Murakami however, this novel is so unpolished that he prevents it from being published outside of Japan. He became a bestseller after he wrote Norweigan Wood in 1986, the only ‘realistic’ novel of his to date. Due to the unprecedented reception of the book, he moved to America, where he wrote The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, considered by many to be his greatest work so-far. In total, he has written 13 novels, three collections of short stories, and a non-fiction piece on the aftermath of the 1995 Sarin Gas attack on the Tokyo Underground, as well as a memoir on running.

To understand Murakami and his immense body of work, you have to look at what does and does not influence his writing. He quotes writers such as Kafka, Carver, Tolstoy and Joyce as inspiration, as well as American Pop Culture and jazz musicians. On the other hand, he notes that Japanese authors such as Kenzaburo Oe and Yasunari Kawabata do nothing for him, and he takes little from other aspects of Japanese culture, such as the genius animator Hayao Miyazaki or traditional Japanese ceremonies. It is this rejection of the traditional idea of what it means to be Japanese in a mono-cultural country that has gained him his audience, as well as garnered his critics.

Upon The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

In the novel, and throughout Murakami’s work, we can note the recurring theme of loneliness and isolation, a common feeling in today’s impersonal, technology driven world. The main character of The Wind-Up Bird, Toru Okada, has been left by his cat, and subsequently his wife. This leads him into a shadow filled, surrealist alter-universe of Tokyo, occupied by fascinating and diverse characters such as the mute Cinnamon, a fashion designer who works with his mother, Nutmeg, or May Kasahara, a young girl who philosophises on the meaning of life and does part time work for a wig manufacturer.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is a novel that marks a shift in Murakami’s attitude towards writing. Whereas previously he had shunned any political undercurrents in his stories, due to his generally apathetic attitude towards politics that had developed in the 1969 Student Riots in Tokyo, here Murakami takes a step towards looking at the deeper historical currents of modern day Japan. He interweaves the modern day tale of a man looking for his wife (and cat) at the bottom of a well with two different yet interlinked stories about the Russo-Japanese War and the final days of World War 2. The common denominator? The titular Wind-Up Bird.

It would be shockingly easy for this novel to fall into the pits of pseudo-surreal-intellectualist babble in the hands of a less capable novelist, but Murakami not only manages to tell this masterful and complex story, but to pull it off beautifully.

Of course, it is difficult to get a sense of the entire picture that Murakami paints for us without actually having read the book. I provide a chapter that I hope will give a sense of that inlaid absurdity and darkness that pervades the novel, and will help provoke discussion. To give it context, Toru has descended to the bottom of a well , and has a flashback about his marriage.

Now as I mentioned earlier, there are pitfalls to trying to discuss a novel that not everyone has read. It is nearly impossible to focus upon specific plot points or themes that run through the novel, so I have tried to write up some questions that focus upon the larger sphere of writing novels that can be viewed from the context of The Wind-Up Bird. If anyone has any specific points they would like to discuss, they are more than welcome to bring them up.

When I woke, the half-moon mouth of the well had taken on the deep blue of evening. The hands of my watch showed seven-thirty. Seven-thirty p.m. Meaning I had been asleep down here for four and a half hours.

The air at the bottom of the well felt chilly. There had probably been too much nervous excitement involved for me to think about air temperature when I first climbed down. Now, though, my skin was reacting to the cold air. Rubbing my bare arms to warm them, I realized I should have brought something in the knapsack to put on over my T-shirt. It had never crossed my mind that the temperature in the bottom of the well might be different from the temperature at the surface.

Now I was enveloped by a darkness that was total. No amount of straining helped my eyes to see a thing. I couldn’t tell where my own hand was. I felt along the wall to where the ladder hung and gave it a tug. It was still firmly anchored at the surface. The movement of my hand seemed to cause the darkness itself to shift, but that could have been an illusion.
It felt extremely strange not to be able to see my own body with my own eyes, though I knew it must be there. Staying very still in the darkness, I became less and less convinced of the fact that I actually existed.

To cope with that, I would clear my throat now and then, or run my hand over my face. That way, my ears could check on the existence of my voice, my hand could check on the existence of my face, and my face could check on the existence of my hand.

Despite these efforts, my body began to lose its density and weight, like sand gradually being washed away by flowing water. I felt as if a fierce and wordless tug-of-war were going on inside me, a contest in which my mind was slowly dragging my body into its own territory. The darkness was disrupting the proper balance between the two. The thought struck me that my own body was a mere provisional husk that had been prepared for my mind by a rearrangement of the signs known as chromosomes. If the signs were rearranged yet again, I would find myself inside a wholly different body than before. “Prostitute of the mind,” Creta Kano had called herself. I no longer had any trouble accepting the phrase. Yes, it was possible for us to couple in our minds and for me to come in reality. In truly deep darkness, all kinds of strange things were possible.

I shook my head and struggled to bring my mind back inside my body.

In the darkness, I pressed the fingertips of one hand against the fingertips of the other-
thumb against thumb, index finger against index finger. My right-hand fingers ascertained the existence of my left-hand fingers, and the fingers of my left hand ascertained the existence of the fingers of my right hand. Then I took several slow, deep breaths. OK, then, enough of this thinking about the mind. Think about reality. Think about the real world. The body’s world. That’s why I’m here. To think about reality. The best way to think about reality, I had decided, was to get as far away from it as possible-a place like the bottom of a well, for example. “When you’re supposed to go down, find the deepest well and go down to the bottom,” Mr. Honda had said. Leaning against the wall, I slowly sucked the moldy air into my lungs.

We didn’t have a wedding ceremony. We couldn’t have afforded it, to begin with, and neither of us wanted to feel beholden to our parents. Beginning our life together, any way we could manage to do so, was far more important to us than a ceremony. We went to the ward office early one Sunday morning, woke the clerk on duty when we rang the bell at the Sunday window, and submitted a registration of marriage. Later, we went to the kind of high-class French restaurant that neither of us could usually afford, ordered a bottle of wine, and ate a full-course dinner. That was enough for us.

At the time we married, we had practically no savings (my mother had left me a little money when she died, but I made a point of never touching it except for a genuine emergency) and no furniture to speak of. We had no future to speak of, either. Working at a law firm without an attorney’s credentials, I had virtually nothing to look forward to, and Kumiko worked for a tiny, unknown publisher. If she had wanted to, she could have found a much better position through her father when she graduated, but she disliked the idea of going to him and instead found a job on her own. Neither of us was dissatisfied, though. We were pleased just to be able to survive without intrusion from anyone.

It wasn’t easy for the two of us to build something out of nothing. I had that tendency toward solitude common to only children. When trying to accomplish something serious, I liked to do it myself. Having to check things out with other people and get them to understand seemed to me a great waste of time and energy when it was a lot easier to work alone in silence. And Kumiko, after losing her sister, had closed her heart to her family and grown up as if alone. She never went to them for advice. In that sense, the two of us were very much alike.

Still, little by little, the two of us learned to devote our bodies and minds to this newly created being we called “our home.” We practiced thinking and feeling about things together. Things that happened to either of us individually we now strove to deal with together as something that belonged to both of us. Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t. But we enjoyed the fresh, new process of trial and error. And even violent collisions we could forget about in each other’s arms.

In the third year of our marriage, Kumiko became pregnant. This was a great shock to us- or to me, at least-because of the extreme care we had been taking with contraception. A moment of carelessness must have done it; not that we could determine which exact moment it had been, but there was no other explanation. In any case, we simply could not afford the expense of a child. Kumiko had just gotten into the swing of her publishing job and, if possible, wanted to keep it. A small company like hers made no provision for anything so grand as maternity leave. A woman working there who wanted to have a child had no choice but to quit. If Kumiko had done that, we would have had to survive on my pay alone, for a
while, at least, but this would have been a virtual impossibility.

“I guess we’ll have to pass, this time,” Kumiko said to me in an expressionless voice the day the doctor gave her the news.

She was probably right. No matter how you looked at it, that was the most sensible conclusion. We were young and totally unprepared for parenthood. Both Kumiko and I needed time for ourselves. We had to establish our own life: that was the first priority. We’d have plenty of opportunities for making children in the future.

In fact, though, I did not want Kumiko to have an abortion. Once, in my second year of college, I had made a girl pregnant, someone I had met where I worked part time. She was a nice kid, a year younger than I, and we got along well. We liked each other, of course, but were by no means serious about each other, nor was there any possibility that we would ever become serious. We were just two lonely youngsters who needed someone to hold.
About the reason for her pregnancy there was never any doubt. I always used a condom, but that one day I forgot to have one ready. I had run out. When I told her so, she hesitated for a few seconds and then said, “Oh, well, I think I’m OK today anyway.” One time was all it took.

I couldn’t quite believe that I had “made a girl pregnant,” but I did know that an abortion was the only way. I scraped the money together and went with her to the clinic. We took a commuter train way out to a little town in Chiba, where a friend of hers had put her in touch with a doctor. We got off at a station I had never heard of and saw thousands of tiny houses, all stamped out of the same mold, crowded together and stretching over the rolling hills to the horizon. These were huge new developments that had gone up in recent years for the younger company employees who could not afford housing in Tokyo. The station itself was brand-new, and just across from it stretched huge, water-filled rice fields, bigger than any I had ever seen. The streets were lined with real estate signs.

The clinic waiting room overflowed with huge-bellied young women, most of whom must have been in their fourth or fifth year of marriage and finally settling down to make children in their newly mortgaged suburban homes. The only young male in the place was me. The pregnant ladies all looked my way with the most intense interest-and no hint of goodwill. Anyone could see at a glance that I was a college student who had accidentally gotten his girlfriend pregnant and had come with her for an abortion.

After the operation, the girl and I took the train back to Tokyo. Headed into the city in the late afternoon, the train was nearly empty. I apologized to her. My carelessness had gotten her into this mess, I said.

“Don’t take it so hard,” she said. “At least you came with me to the clinic, and you paid for the operation.”

She and I soon stopped seeing each other, so I never knew what became of her, but for a very long time after the abortion-and even after we drifted apart-my feelings refused to settle down. Every time I recalled that day, the image would flash into my mind of the pregnant young women who filled the clinic waiting room to overflowing, their eyes so full of certainty. And the thought would strike me that I should never have gotten her pregnant.

In the train on the way back, to comfort me-to comfort me-she told me all the details that had made the operation so easy. “It’s not as bad as you’re thinking,” she said. “It doesn’t take long, and it doesn’t hurt. You just take your clothes off and lie there. Yeah, I suppose it’s kind of embarrassing, but the doctor was nice, and so were the nurses. Of course, they did lecture me a little, said to be more careful from now on. So don’t feel so bad. It’s partly my fault too. I was the one who said it’d be OK. Right? Cheer up.”

All during the long train ride to the little town in Chiba, and all the way back again,
though, I felt I had become a different person. Even after I had seen her home and returned to my room, to lie in bed and look at the ceiling, I could sense the change. I was a new me, and I could never go back to where I had been before. What was getting to me was the awareness that I was no longer innocent. This was not a moralistic sense of wrongdoing, or the workings of a guilty conscience. I knew that I had made a terrible mistake, but I was not punishing myself for it. It was a physical fact that I would have to confront coolly and logically, beyond any question of punishment.

The first thing that came to mind when I heard that Kumiko was pregnant was the image of those pregnant young women who filled the clinic waiting room. Or rather, it was the special smell that seemed to hang in the air there. I had no idea what that smell had been-if it was the actual smell of something at all. Perhaps it had been something like a smell. When the nurse called her name, the girl slowly raised herself from the hard vinyl chair and walked straight for the door. Just before she stood up, she glanced at me with the hint of a smile on her lips-or what was left of a smile that she had changed her mind about.

I knew that it was unrealistic for us to have a child, but I didn’t want Kumiko to have an abortion, either. When I said this to her, she replied,
“We’ve been through all this. If I have a baby now, that’s the end of working for me, and you’ll have to find a better-paying job to support me and the baby. We won’t have money for anything extra. We won’t be able to do anything we want to do. From now on, the realistic possibilities for us will be narrowed down to nothing. Is that OK with you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think it is OK with me.”


“If I make up my mind to it, I can probably find work-with my uncle, say: he’s looking for help. He wants to open up a new place, but he can’t find anybody he can trust to run it. I’m sure I’d make a lot more with him than I’m making now. It’s not a law firm, but so what? I’m not crazy about the work I’m doing now.”

“So you’d run a restaurant?”

“I’m sure I could if I gave it a try. And in an emergency, I’ve got a little money my mother left me. We wouldn’t starve to death.”

Kumiko fell silent and stayed that way, thinking, for a long time, making tiny wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. She had these little expressions that I liked. “Does this mean you want to have a baby?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I know you’re pregnant, but it hasn’t really hit me that I might become a father. And I don’t really know how our life would change if we had a baby. You like your job, and it seems like a mistake to take that away from you. On the one hand, I think the two of us need more time with each other, but I also think that making a baby would expand our world. I don’t know what’s right. I’ve just got this feeling that I don’t want you to have an abortion. So I can’t make any guarantees. I’m not one hundred percent sure about any of this, and I don’t have any amazing solutions. All I’ve got is this feeling.”

Kumiko thought about this for a while, rubbing her stomach every now and then. “Tell me,” she said. “Why do you think I got pregnant? Nothing comes to mind?”

I shook my head. “Not really. We’ve always been careful. This is just the kind of trouble I wanted to avoid. So I don’t have any idea how it happened.”

“You think I might have had an affair? Haven’t you thought about that possibility?”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I can’t claim a sixth sense or anything, but I’m sure of that much.”
We were sitting at the kitchen table, drinking wine. It was late at night id absolutely silent.
Kumiko narrowed her eyes and stared at the last sip of wine in the bottom of her glass. She almost never drank, though she would have a glass of wine when she couldn’t get to sleep. It always worked for her. I was just drinking to keep her company. We didn’t have nything so sophisticated as real wineglasses. Instead, we were drinking from little beer glasses we got free at the neighborhood liquor store.

“Did you have an affair?” I asked, suddenly concerned.

Kumiko smiled and shook her head. “Don’t be silly. You know I wouldn’t do anything like that. I just brought it up as a theoretical possibility.” Then she turned serious and put her elbows on the table. “Sometimes, though, I can’t tell about things. I can’t tell what’s real and what’s not real... what things really happened and what things didn’t really happen.... Just sometimes, though.”

“Is this one of those sometimes?”

“Well, sort of. Doesn’t this kind of thing ever happen to you?”

I thought about it for a minute. “Not that I can recall as a concrete example, no,” I said.

“How can I put this? There’s a kind of gap between what I think is real and what’s really real. I get this feeling like some kind of little something-ir-other is there, somewhere inside me ... like a burglar is in the house, hiding in a closet... and it comes out every once in a while and messes up whatever order or logic I’ve established for myself. The way a magnet can make a machine go crazy.”

“Some kind of little something-or-other? A burglar?” I said. “Wow, talk about vague!”

“It is vague. Really,” said Kumiko, then drank down the rest of her wine.

I looked at her for a time. “And you think there’s some kind of connection between that ‘some kind of little something-or-other’ and the fact that you’re pregnant?”

She shook her head. “No, I’m not saying the two things are related or not related. It’s just that sometimes I’m not really sure about the order of things. That’s all I’m trying to say.”

There was a growing touch of impatience in her words. The moment had arrived to end this conversation. It was after one o’clock in the morning. I reached across the table and took her hand.

“You know,” said Kumiko, “I kind of wish you’d let me decide this for myself. I realize it’s a big problem for both of us. I really do. But this one I want you to let me decide. I feel bad that I can’t explain very well what I’m thinking and feeling.”

“Basically, I think the right to make the decision is yours,” I said, “and I respect that right.”
“I think there’s a month or so left to decide. We’ve been talking about this together all along now, and I think I have a pretty good idea how you feel about it. So now let me do the thinking. Let’s stop talking about it for a while.”

I was in Hokkaido when Kumiko had the abortion. The firm never sent its lackeys out of town on business, but on that particular occasion no one else could go, so I ended up being the one sent north. I was supposed to deliver a briefcase stuffed with papers, give the other party a simple explanation, take delivery of their papers, and come straight home. The papers were too important to mail or entrust to some courier. Because all return flights to Tokyo were full, I would have to spend a night in a Sapporo business hotel. Kumiko went for the abortion that day, alone. She phoned me after ten at the hotel and said, “I had the operation this afternoon. Sorry to be informing you after the fact like this, but they had an opening on short notice, and I thought it would be easier on both of us if I made the decision and took care of it by myself while you were away.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “Whatever you think is best.”

“I want to tell you more, but I can’t do it yet. I think I’ll have to tell you sometime.”

“We can talk when I get back.”

After the call, I put on my coat and went out to wander through the streets of Sapporo. It was still early March, and both sides of the roadways were lined with high mounds of snow. The air was almost painfully cold, and your breath would come out in white clouds that vanished in an instant. People wore heavy coats and gloves and scarves wrapped up to their chins and made their way down the icy sidewalks with careful steps. Taxis ran back and forth, their studded tires scratching at the road. When I couldn’t stand the cold any longer, I stepped into a bar for a few quick straights and went out to walk some more.

I stayed on the move for a very long time. Snow floated down every once in a while, but it was frail snow, like a memory fading into the distance. The second bar I visited was below street level. It turned out to be a much bigger place than the entrance suggested. There was a small stage next to the bar, and on it was a slim man with glasses, playing a guitar nd singing. He sat on a metal chair with his legs crossed, guitar case at his feet.

I sat at the bar, drinking and half listening to the music. Between songs, the man explained that the music was all his own. In his late twenties, he had a face with no distinguishing characteristics, and he wore glasses with black plastic frames. His outfit consisted of jeans, high lace-up boots, and a checked flannel work shirt that hung loose around his waist. The type of music was hard to define-something that might have been called “folk” in the old days, though a Japanese version of folk. Simple chords, simple melodies, unremarkable words. Not the kind of stuff I'd go out of my way to listen to.

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have paid any attention to music like that. I vould have had my whiskey, paid my bill, and left the place. But that light I was chilled, right to the bone, and had no intention of going outside again under any circumstances until I had warmed up all the way through. I drank one straight and ordered another. I made no attempt to remove my coat or my scarf. When the bartender asked if I wanted a snack, I ordered some cheese and ate a single slice. I tried to think, but I couldn’t get my head to work right. I didn’t even know what it was I wanted to think about. I was a vacant room. Inside, the music produced only a dry, hollow echo.

When the man finished singing, there was scattered applause, neither overly enthusiastic nor entirely perfunctory. There were no more than ten or fifteen customers in the place. The fellow stood and bowed. He seemed to make some kind of funny remarks that caused a few of the customers to laugh. I called the bartender and ordered my third whiskey. Then, finally, I took off my coat and my scarf.

“That concludes my show for tonight,” announced the singer. He seemed’to pause and survey the room. “But there must be some of you here tonight who didn’t like my songs. For you, I’ve got a little something extra. I don’t do this all the time, so you should consider yourselves very lucky.”

He set his guitar on the floor and, from the guitar case, took a single thick white candle. He lit it with a match, dripped some wax into a plate, and stood the candle up. Then, looking like the Greek philosopher, he held the plate aloft. “Can I have the lights down, please?” One of the employees dimmed the lights somewhat. “A little darker, if you don’t mind.” Now the place became much darker, and the candle flame stood out clearly. Palms wrapped around my whiskey glass to warm it, I kept my eyes on the man and his candle.

“As you are well aware,” the man continued, his voice soft but penetrating, “in the course of life we experience many kinds of pain. Pains of the body and pains of the heart. I know I have experienced pain in many different forms in my life, and I’m sure you have too. In most cases, though, I’m sure you’ve found it very difficult to convey the truth of that pain to another person: to explain it in words. People say that only they themselves can understand the pain they are feeling. But is this true? I for one do not believe that it is. If, before our eyes, we see someone who is truly suffering, we do sometimes feel his suffering and pain as our own. This is the power of empathy. Am I making myself clear?”

He broke off and looked around the room once again.

“The reason that people sing songs for other people is because they want to have the power to arouse empathy, to break free of the narrow shell of the self and share their pain and joy with others. This is not an easy thing to do, of course. And so tonight, as a kind of experiment, I want you to experience a simpler, more physical kind of empathy.”

Everyone in the place was hushed now, all eyes fixed on the stage. Amid the silence, the man stared off into space, as if to insert a pause or to reach a state of mental concentration. Then, without a word, he held his left hand over the lighted candle. Little by little, he brought the palm closer and closer to the flame. Someone in the audience made a sound like a sigh or a moan. You could see the tip of the flame burning the man’s palm. You could almost hear the sizzle of the flesh. A woman released a hard little scream. Everyone else just watched in frozen horror. The man endured the pain, his face distorted in agony. What the hell was this? Why did he have to do such a stupid, senseless thing? I felt my mouth going dry. After five or six seconds of this, he slowly removed his hand from the flame and set the dish with the candle in it on the floor. Then he clasped his hands together, the right and left palms pressed against each other.

“As you have seen tonight, ladies and gentlemen, pain can actually burn a person’s flesh,” said the man. His voice sounded exactly as it had earlier: quiet, steady, cool. No trace of suffering remained on his face. Indeed, it had been replaced by a faint smile. “And the pain that must have been there, you have been able to feel as if it were your own. That is the power of empathy.”

The man slowly parted his clasped hands. From between them he produced a thin red scarf, which he opened for all to see. Then he stretched his palms out toward the audience. There were no burns at all. moment of silence followed, and then people expressed their relief in wild applause. The lights came up, and the chatter of voices replaced the tension that had filled the room. As if the whole thing had never happened, the man put his guitar into the case, stepped down from the age, and disappeared.

When I paid my check, I asked the girl at the register if the man sang there often and whether he usually performed the trick.

“I’m not sure,” she said. “As far as I know, this was his first time here, never heard of him until today. And nobody told me he did magic tricks. Wasn’t that amazing, though? I wonder how he does it. I bet he’d be a hit on TV.”

“It’s true,” I said. “It looked like he was really burning himself.”

I walked back to the hotel, and the minute I got into bed, sleep came over me as if it had been waiting all this time. As I drifted off, I thought of Kumiko, but she seemed very far away, and after that it was impossible for me to think of anything. Through my mind flashed the face of the man urning his palm. He really seemed to be burning himself, I thought. And then I fell asleep.

For Discussion

1. In an interview with the Paris Review, Murakami talked of his characters being caught between the worlds, the ‘real world’ and the ‘spiritual world’, with women acting as the medium between these worlds. This can be seen in the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in the characters of May Kasahara and Toru Okada‘s wife. The ‘real’ May provides a source of joy and friendship for the main character, whereas his ‘spiritual’ wife disappears and thus pushes Toru to go in search of her, (despite her repeated insistence not to do so.). The ’real’ provides physical and emotional stability, but the ’spiritual’ is an unreal part of Toru, one he is haunted by. This duality is an essential part of all human minds, according to Murakami, and we must learn to navigate between them. How well does Murakami achieve this in his novels, and is this a reoccurring theme throughout literature?

2. In the same interview, Murakami said that the underlying shadow in the Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was his way of describing the sensation of living in America. He felt that something was always following him, a feeling of unease, and that it would have been a different story if it had been written in Japan. Do you think that authors consciously write their feelings into novels about the environment they are in, or that their feelings are unconsciously projected onto their writing?

3. The Wind Up Bird opens with the line, ‘When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potrul of spaghetti and whistling along with an FM broadcast of the overture to Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie, which has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.’, marking major themes in Murakami’s work (an average scene with references to non-Japanese culture about to be punctured by a mysterious caller). It is arguably a rather bland sentence, one that catches your intention with it’s description of the ordinary in an ordinary manner. Murakami himself says that he writes his stories in a simple manner, to be able to hold the complex plot contained within the novel. This style defines Murakami’s work, and is what makes it so accessible to new readers. This has to lead to some saying that Murakami’s work is best viewed as a whole, and that he isn’t the greatest of sentence writers. Which do you think is more important in a novel - the crafting of the sentence, or the overall sense of the novel?

4. Now, Murakami’s work is often called magical realism, yet in almost all of his novels, the characters draw attention to the surreal and fantastic events that occur around them. This seems to counter that argument that his work is magical realism, as in most works of that genre, the surreal events are simply accepted as part of that world. Would Murakami be better described as a surrealist or fantastic work, as it would not be illogical to refer to the world that his characters inhabit as an alter-universe where such things can occur. Are his novels ‘genre fiction’, or ‘literary works’?


Paris Review Interview
and he saw himself nailed to the cross of his own cradle and coffin
						Last edited by lostbookworm; 04-19-2014 at 08:24 AM.
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Old 03-21-2014, 04:43 PM View Post #2 (Link)
Dabs (Offline)
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Ah man, my least favorite Murakami novel. lol If only you'd picked Sputnik Sweetheart of Kafka on the Shore, I'd be quivering with glee.

Some of these questions I'll happily answer. I'm also writing about Murakami for one part of my senior project (Sputnik Sweetheart is one of two novels I'm looking at for it) so I'll be happy to chatter on about him for a while. I have to catch a bus at the moment, though, so I'll get back to this later.
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Old 03-21-2014, 07:11 PM View Post #3 (Link)
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So Murakami, eh. He is such a conflicted author in my mind. I glanced through the chapter you posted but I have a few thoughts about him on the whole. I started to first read IQ84 when people thought he was going to win the Nobel last year - on reflection I guess a combination of high expectations and the novel being an odd first introduction to Murakami both led me to be a little disappointed with it. It wasn't a bad novel at all, gripping, interesting, surreal, long, but it still wasn't what I had expected from such a canonical figure. Anyway, after that I decided to read Blind Willow, a collection of short stories, which I must admit I thought was pretty good at the time but now I could not tell you one story that stuck with me - usually a hallmark of good collections.

In general my difficulty with Murakami is his literary heritage. Not only simplicity of prose, but of his fame in the West. It's no secret that Murakami's success came from heavy patronage from the New Yorker, who were desperate for an 'exotic' literary writer: he was touted as the 'Japanese' writer, the next big thing. The problem then is people in the West think of him as 'Japanese', which itself has fifty shades of Edward Said's Orientalism all over it, whilst in Japan his work is seen as too Americanised, pandering to Western tastes. Amongst the contemporary literary circles in Japan, I think there's a lot of criticism over the 'value' of Murakami, and how much of it is conflated by his popularity.

Regardless there's no doubt Murakami is a Japanese writer, but because he monopolises the field, it obscures other writers like Banana Yoshimoto, Yoko Ogawa, Yoko Tawada, Kawakami, Kirno, Mizumura, Kanehara, the other Murakami, Shusaku Endo and Kenzaburo Oe and Kenji Nakagami amongst others. And because now an appetite for Murakami exists, Japanese literature can't escape the boundaries created by Murakami - for writers to be successful in the West, they need to be 'Murkami'-endorsed, in style and genre. The end result is a very packaged form of Japanese literature, one filled with additives and colours to be consumed by us. You mention that he rejects Japanese traditional culture and I would agree to an extent, but then, with relation to IQ84, he still perpetuates this 'mystical' idea of the Orient, of the black-tie blue-collar working drones of Japan, the emotional deadness of Tokyo - and worst of all - the sexist ideals of women. If of anything, I find most objectionable to his depictions of women and children: the image of the nubile, precocious child is one that is tiring and does nothing to reject the idea of 'Japanese culture'.

None of the 'West/East contradiction' is Murakami's fault per se - as with most literary problems it's down to advertising, publicity and the 'business'. However and this goes back to my experiences of reading Murakami, I feel like his writing has become a parody of himself. IQ84 to me felt like a concoction of everything he had written before and sort of became lost within itself, whilst his story collection reinforced that idea of Murakami drawing always from the same sources to create fiction. Always the same jazz, literature, cooking, surreal motifs that by now just look like pastiches of what I imagine his old novels managed to do with freshness. It's not the motifs that's the issue, because Garcia Marquez is equally as rote, but with Murakami I think he relies sometimes too much on just those motifs to carry through - the literature is almost pop-artish, easy to be devoured (which is also why I think he has such a following: hipster, but not too difficult) but lacking in substance. Fine to read but only rarely do you need to read finely.

Of course, I am totally willing to recallibrate my thoughts through reading some of his more admired works.
						Last edited by Spacepirate; 08-03-2014 at 06:44 PM.
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Old 03-21-2014, 09:25 PM View Post #4 (Link)
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Okay, so I'm back after an endless commute back home.

My thoughts on Murakami in general:

So, okay, I love this author. Kafka on the Shore and Sputnik Sweetheart are two of my favorite novels. I dig the surrealism, the transgression of the souls, the way he's able to shrink away from the political world he's so generally apathetic towards with his surrealism. I like seeing what it's like to experience human nature in what seems to be more of a vacuum. This strange, cold place where sex isn't just sex; it's becoming enveloped in another person, becoming a part of them. I love his attention to the mundane, how the characters enjoy the small things, because that's what fills the void. Just enjoying a bowl of pasta, or the fact that David Bowie or John Coltrane is playing on the radio. That speaks to me. The sense of incompletion the characters feel so much of the time is something I understand, and wanting desperately to fill or transform that void I think is a key aspect of human nature.

I understand why some people are turned off by the redundancy of his aesthetic. To be fair I haven't read all of his books, just five or six, but they've really stuck with me, save The Wind-up Bird. I felt like he was doing an imitation of himself in that novel (which SpacePirate noted seems to be the case in 1Q84, which I didn't get far into before my school work made it so that a novel of that size would be kind of impossible to read). He's far from perfect. Julian has noted that he could use a better editor, but I'm generally quite satisfied with his works.

I really love the simplicity of his prose, how easily digestible it is. I hate maximalism, with very few exceptions. I believe the best prose is that which erodes the distance between the emotional content and the reader. Fiction, to me, is experiential, and through simplifying the prose I feel like I'm better able to connect with the content. That said, there are certainly parts of Murakami's work that I think read a bit too simply, places where some nuance would liven things up.

I'll also note that I think he's a crap short story writer. I've read maybe one or two of his short stories that really stuck with me. His most recent one published in the New Yorker was garbage, too.

Now onto the discussion parts:

1. It depends on the novel. He handles this brilliantly, I think, in Sputnik Sweetheart, interviewing the idea of sex, sexuality, and sexual desire as this method of transgressing the physical limitation to reach achiragawa, or the other side. (SOME SPOILERS AHEAD) You have Sumire and K, who have been friends for a while, and are soul mates. Yet, because Sumire is a lesbian, the two of them cannot be in a relationship, even though K loves Sumire. Sumire desires Miu, and through Sumire's insistence on being in a relationship with Miu, loses her own identity and, finally, becomes so close to Miu that she is absorbed by her, disappearing from reality altogether.

So there's this beautiful notion of transgressing one's physical limitations, and yet Sumire is not really able to be with Miu, since Miu has no sexual desire at all and, like Toru's wife, is the spiritual person. This odd, quiet individual, somewhat cold, hard to fully understand, and yet not terribly complex. So there's this dark side to the transgression, to becoming one with another person. And, of course, because sex is the tool of transgression in this book, Sumire cannot meld with K, with whom she has a more real, nuanced, and passionate relationship.

There's soooo much more I could say about this, but it would take forever to write it all out. The way I'm leaving it is, I think, a bit unsatisfying--it feels a bit black and white, to me, and the novel gives it such a more complex feeling. That said, I don't want to state the ending because it's so key to understanding all of this and I think it's important to feel the impact of it for oneself.

So, yes, I'd say Murakami has the capacity to handle this subject beautifully. In terms of other literature, I've seen similar themes--the struggle between pragmatism and idealism. Lots of coming of age novels deal with those concepts (Murakami himself deals with this a bit more explicitly in Norwegian Wood, another one of my favorites). Romeo and Juliet has this aspect to it, although I think a lot of people misinterpret where Shakespeare stood in regards to the two lovers and their families (I think it's somewhere between, both mocking and lamenting the main characters' deaths). The Sorrows of Young Werther is another good example. I think you can see it in a less black-and-white form in Anna Karenina and The Brother's Karamazov, obviously very different than the young-adult-focused books I just listed.

2. Oh yes, the unconscious is always projected. To me, that shapes the story more than the conscious decisions, and I feel that, when drafting a piece, it's important to keep some of the unconscious decision just so. Too many conscious choices and you might end up with something stiff.

3. This is a very difficult question. For me, personally, I think it's a bit of both, naturally, but I lean more towards the broader goals when writing a novel, and I prefer investing myself in the broader goals than the minute ones. Of course, small instances build up into larger ones, and little details act as the single threads with which a tapestry is woven. But, when I look at a tapestry, I want to see the tapestry, and maybe I'll break it down into sections here and there, but I doubt I'll ever scrutinize the threads.

4. I view Murakami as a surrealist than a magical realist. Both, I think, are sub-genres beneath the larger umbrella of fantasy, so perhaps if you looked hard enough you could find little points where the two relate to each other, but by and large I see Murakami in a different light than, say, Garcia-Marquez or Rushdie.

I think Murakami's work has evolved from genre fiction into literary fiction. Despite aesthetic consistencies, his earlier work is notably pulp-fiction-y/hardboiled. In books like Dance, Dance, Dance you have more notably angsty characters specifically looking for existential fulfillment, whereas in his later works characters take a more passive stand-point and are whisked into the existential issues or, like Kafka from Kafka on the Shore, have more practical goals, and the existential aspect eventually comes to match and surpass the more practical ambitions.
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Old 03-22-2014, 04:14 AM View Post #5 (Link) Haven't read this book but whatever posting anyway
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The only Murakami novel I've read is After Dark and that was ... six, seven years ago? I don't have a super great grasp of the plot, but what I do have is brief images and feelings, all muddled together. I'm not sure if that's because of the surrealistic writing, the structure of the story (it bounces around between different characters and points of view, but takes place over the course of one night) or just the fact that I read it so long ago. I liked the way it was written, but something about it definitely struck me as odd. I think it has to do with both of these statements:

Originally Posted by lostbookworm (from discussion question 1)
In an interview with the Paris Review, Murakami talked of his characters being caught between the worlds, the ‘real world’ and the ‘spiritual world’, with women acting as the medium between these worlds.
Originally Posted by Spacepirate View Post
If of anything, I find most objectionable to his depictions of women and children: the image of the nubile, precocious child is one that is tiring and does nothing to reject the idea of 'Japanese culture'.
I definitely got that impression from the characters in After Dark. It was hard for me to identify with people in the novel or figure out who I should identify with, maybe? I can't remember so well, it's been too long. But to jog my memory I hunted down a review, and lo and behold -- here's how the reviewer describes the novel's main character (in a NY Times book review):

To Mari’s modest table come a series of visitors, beginning with a chatty jazz trombonist, who involve her, by stages, through casual conversations that tend toward the anecdotal and philosophical, in a minor crime drama just down the road, where a businessman-john has battered an immigrant prostitute and left her bleeding and fetal in a hotel room. Mari speaks Chinese, the prostitute’s native language, and is asked by the manager of a “love hotel” to translate for her. That’s Mari’s role in the novel — go-between, not heroine. She’s the loom on which Murakami weaves his cloth, a useful framework of passivity. What she wants for herself, it appears, is very little — possibly just to be left alone to read — but the night has its own intentions for her, as it does for those around her.
The bold is mine. I feel like this description in the characters in After Dark goes along with what you're saying about the role of women The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.

Anyway, from the excerpt you posted, I get the sense of women being ... not plot devices exactly, but foils or mirrors or forces in the story rather than fleshed out characters. Perhaps this is just because it's an early section from the book though, and a short one, so there's not enough space for them to become fleshed out and human. I find the college girlfriend's description of her abortion as really interesting in contrast with the narrator's take on the experience. It sounds to me like she is really playing down the experience. Her matter-of-fact, calming way of describing the event is in direct contrast with how the narrator experiences the clinic's waiting room full of pregnant women, a surreal and overpowering and significant experience for him. And even though he realizes this description is meant to comfort him, and even though he feels marked by the experience, I feel like he takes the girlfriend's description at face value. It's a big deal to him because it's to him, not to her. Now, granted, she's a minor character and only shows up for a scene. But I think he reacts similarly to Kumiko's abortion. It's like his true reaction and the true story is through the scene in the bar with the guy burning his hand, or not burning his hand. A surreal moment like the pregnant women judging him. It's like Kumiko's game quietness is a device to prompt him into this other level of experience. I noticed this because I don't think we can take the college girlfriend's description or Kumiko's lack of description at face value: both depictions are in line with what we'd expect from women, but not in line with women's lived experience (at least, I don't think so).

I do think it's interesting that the narrator uses being stuck in the well to think about harsh reality (his marriage, his girlfriend and wife getting pregnant) but keeps ending up thinking about sort of surreal or mystical experiences. Is that something you were trying to highlight by picking this passage for us to look at?
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Old 03-23-2014, 02:03 PM View Post #6 (Link)
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Originally Posted by Isis View Post
It was hard for me to identify with people in the novel or figure out who I should identify with, maybe? I can't remember so well, it's been too long.
I definitely feel this. In IQ84, I felt most sympathy with the female character, Edamame, but only because she felt to me so incomplete; on the whole I rarely identified with any characters in that book. If anything, I think in Murakami's work you identify with objects - the interaction between objects and blank characters. A scene. A plot device.

(I think Murakami is just asking for some gender theory to be thrown upon it. I did a quick academic search for articles and could not find anything but a book entitled Postmodern, Feminist and Postcolonial Currents in Contemporary Japanese Culture which I was not able to access.)

I just think on the whole he is not quite there yet. Like IQ84 was supposed to be his magnum opus, but it faltered and became a pastiche, odd for oddity's sake; I'm worried his next book might be the same. A phrase that resonated with me from the article you linked to is 'highly exportable' - other readers might not give much care towards geo-cultural identities, but I think it's something to keep in mind when you read Murakami.
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Old 03-23-2014, 08:18 PM View Post #7 (Link)
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Apologies for not replying yet, I have difficulty getting on a computer where I can write lengthy posts. 

I definetely agree Murakami should be subjected to Gender Theory, it would be a fascinating read. I know Rubin did an analysis of Murakami's work, but I've had difficulty finding a copy.
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Old 04-01-2014, 06:13 PM View Post #8 (Link)
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Okay, I finally have time to post.

First, let me tackle the patische issue. Certainly, Murakami fleshes out his ideas again and again in his novels, perhaps each time looking for a different answer. He uses the same motifs because he is effectively using the same dice which he rolls and rolls, each time looking for a different answer. The character very rarely finds this answer, or is else left unsatisfied by it. It seems to me in each novel that the main character tends to accept his fate at the end and go with the flow - as Toru does in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. Sometimes when he writes these novels, it works really well (Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore) and in some, it doesn't (1Q84). Obviously, 1Q84 was published because he was Murakami. If he wasn't Murakami, I doubt it would have been published, or it would have been a complete flop.

Onto women. In my mind, Murakami has a tendency to create characters that are not complete, or only react to a scene. They are less characters than, as Spacepirate put it, plot devices. I would also argue that the reason people pick up on women being like this is because the main character is always nearly male. To me, it isn't just women that are incomplete, but also the men. Murakami shows the world through the eyes of an alienated and/or isolated man, and as such, this is what we see. The singer in the extract is as incomplete as Toru's girlfriend. I don't think it's sexism as much as perspective.

Spacepirate brings up an interesting point regarding Japanese ideals of women and the girl in 1Q84 being docile. This, for me, was more a mocking look at how Japanese society views women. To counter balance against this docile girl, we have Aoyame, a hit woman. SPOILERS AHEAD. Aoyame and the girl merge to create a woman, in equal parts agency and femininity. We can question whether this is sexism or if it is challenging the Japanese perception of women and how they do view them as docile. We can see equal challenges to the perception in Norwegian Wood in Midori.

In all honesty, that's all I have to say. You guys pretty much covered everything else.
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