3p Home Page The Threepenny Review
Summer 2012


Image Map - Text Links at Page Bottom
Jess Row

by Haruki Murakami.
Knopf, 2011,
$29.95 cloth.

What is taste? Or, more specifically, what is it that allows us to taste—to differentiate between, say, the bitterness of an endive leaf, the mouth-puckering sourness of a caper berry, and the cloying sweetness of a Milky Way bar? According to the third century Chinese classic Renwuzhi (“Of Men and their Abilities”), the ground of taste, the ground of all sensation, lies in the experience of tastelessness itself: that is, the experience of the bland. In his 1991 book In Praise of Blandness, the French Sinologist François Jullien begins with the Renwuzhi and compiles a catalog of classical Chinese arguments for the importance of blandness, drawing from the Daodejing (“The Tao is insipid and flavorless”), the Confucian classics, and the whole range of literature that followed them. “All flavors disappoint even as they attract,” Jullien writes:

They represent nothing more than an immediate and momentary stimulation that, like sound sifted through an instrument, disappears the moment it is consumed. In contrast to such superficial stimuli, the bland invites us to trace it back to the “inexhaustible” source of that which constantly unfolds without ever allowing itself to be reduced to a concrete manifestation or completely apprehended by the senses.

Bland foods, of course, are the foods we give to babies and small children, and the foods we often return to for reassurance or “normalcy.” They are the staples of comfort and routine. As, for example, in this scene, which begins Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle:

When the phone rang I was in the kitchen, boiling a potful 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.

I wanted to ignore the phone, not only because the spaghetti was nearly done, but because Claudio Abbado was bringing the London Symphony to its musical climax. Finally, though, I had to give in. It could have been somebody with news of a job opening. I lowered the flame, went to the living room, and picked up the receiver.

“Ten minutes, please,” said a woman on the other end.

The tone of this passage, the tone of all of Murakami’s fiction, is…well, what is it, exactly? A person performing an ordinary act in a state of reasonable, attentive calm. A world of plain, exact nouns, and neat, perfectly appropriate cultural citations: not only The Thieving Magpie but specifically the Claudio Abbado recording with the London Symphony. Is it cold—by virtue of its detachment and eerie calm—or warmed by the familiarity of safety, routine, the steam rising from the pot, the ardent music of Rossini? Neither, or rather, both. The temperature, like that within a thermostat-controlled house—or, for that matter, within the human body—varies within a very small range. Even when Murakami’s characters are under great emotional stress, or in the midst of a dangerous act, they—or rather the sentences that make them—almost never lose this placid, observant neutrality. A sentence that crops up over and over again in his novels is, “I didn’t particularly care about dying.”

In what is perhaps the tensest moment of 1Q84, when the female protagonist, Aomame, has gotten out of a taxi in the middle of a Tokyo expressway and decided to shoot herself with a contraband pistol, the narrator’s tone remains almost supernaturally calm:

Aomame didn’t find it particularly disappointing that she had to die. Everything, she felt, had already been decided, ever since she was first pulled into this 1Q84 world…In the end, though, she didn’t pull the trigger. At the last moment she relaxed her right index finger and removed the muzzle from her mouth. Like a person surfacing from deep under water she took a long breath, and exhaled, as if replacing every molecule of air within her.

She stopped moving toward death because she had heard a distant voice. [It] sounded far away, as if coming from a distant time. It recognized her only after many twists and turns, and in the process it lost its original tone and timbre. What was left was a hollow echo, stripped of meaning. Still, within that sound, Aomame could detect a warmth she hadn’t felt for years. The voice seemed to be calling her name. The void enveloping her disap-peared, and, as if a cork had been pulled, the noise and clamor around her rushed in. And she no longer wanted to die.

What’s most striking about this passage, we might say, is the very slight tonal distinction between “she didn’t find it particularly disappointing that she had to die” and “she no longer wanted to die”—and yet the entire dramatic weight of this epic novel hangs in the balance. With great serenity and equanimity, Aomame allows the universe to perform a slight correction, tipping back into a state of neutrality: the “hollow echo, stripped of meaning” which still contains the “warmth she hadn’t felt for years.”

The Sino-Japanese character for “blandness” contains within it the characters for “water” and “fire.” Looking at it from a different direction, we might call this a state of “homeostasis”—the surgical term for a body that is self-sufficient, not in danger, and at rest. Homeostasis, of course, is not in itself desirable or undesirable; it’s simply the condition in which a human being can survive. It’s not interesting. And it’s not, in itself, a story. It requires some outside stimulus (say, the disappearance of one’s cat) to become one.

An appreciation for blandness as a separate category of experience—and not a new one—may help us understand how Murakami has managed to produce an intensely interesting body of fiction around characters, and sentences, that operate in a kind of continuous monotone. He follows a century of Western writers of negation, absence, and “plainness” (Kafka, Hemingway, Camus, Beckett, Pinter, Carver) but the resemblance is—perhaps by design—only superficial. Blandness, for Murakami, is not a symptom of late capitalist culture, the endpoint of cultural disintegration, or a post-apocalyptic end of history, but a condition that precedes those things and, more disturbingly, renders them harmless. Depending on one’s position, his characters’ calm acceptance of wind-up birds, sheep men, and cat towns, their ability to regain emotional homeostasis in the most dire circumstances, might seem the essence of weightless global cool or the soulless literary equivalent of a shrink-wrapped airline meal, but either reading ignores the obvious: every literary sensibility, like every shred of pasta, comes from somewhere.

Any discussion of Murakami, outside Japan and inside it as well, eventually comes around to two observations: first, that his work is quintessentially “postmodern”; second, that it is not very Japanese. Matthew Strecher, a prominent Western scholar writing on Murakami, describes his prose style in the original as having “a strikingly international ambience”:

The frequency of his use of the first person rivals that of its use in English, despite the fact that the Japanese language does not require the naming of subjects when the context makes them clear. The result of this prodigious use of the first person familiar Boku is to lend the text a rather un-Japanese atmosphere, almost as if it were translated from English. Murakami is also fond of using expressions which are taken from English, translated literally into Japanese (such as sore ijo de monai shi, sore ika de monai for “neither more nor less”) as well as repeating himself almost to the point where one can predict his next use of the most commonly recurring phrase, Boku ni wa wakaranakatta: “It wasn’t clear to me.”…Presumably this is what led [Kenzaburo] Oe to comment to Kazuo Ishiguro once that “Murakami writes in Japanese, but his writing is not really Japanese. If you translate it into American English, it can be read very naturally in New York.”

Murakami’s work, of course, is Japanese literature at the same time that it may be many other things. Along with Gen’ichiro Takahashi, Masahiko Shimada, Ryu Murakami, and Banana Yoshimoto, he is the leading exemplar of a generation that writes not jun bungaku (“pure literature”) but fuikkushon, that is, simply, “fiction”—irreverent, urbane, self-conscious, playful, and occasionally vulgar. Though at the beginning of his career his work was scandalous and sometimes derided by critics and older novelists, Murakami is today a national icon, whose later works—including Underground, an oral history of the 1995 sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subways, as well as writings on the Kobe earthquake and the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster—suggest an implicated if eccentric form of citizenship.

Outside Japan, however, the issue of his alleged non-Japaneseness, his cosmopolitan flavor, is still the starting point (and often also the ending point) for any discussion of his work. Yet this doesn’t fit with the actual circumstances. He could have chosen to emigrate and write in English, like Ha Jin, Yiyun Li, or Aleksandar Hemon, but he didn’t; very few episodes in his fiction take place outside Japan, include non-Japanese characters, or even dwell to any great degree on the existence of other countries and peoples per se. Of course, his characters are surrounded, even barricaded in, by the products of the West—Brahms and Kenny Burrell, sole meuniere and McDonalds, Nietzsche and Raymond Chandler—but Murakami shows virtually no interest in actual cultural exchange, hybridity, or cosmpolitanism in the sense that we usually describe it. “I don’t want to write about foreigners in foreign countries,” he told John Wray in a Paris Review interview in 2004. “No Japanese readers complain that my stories are different from our life. I’m trying to write about the Japanese. I want to write about what we are, where we are going, why we are here.”

In fact, one could very easily turn the standard perception of Murakami on its head and see everywhere in it an undisguised desire, as he himself writes in Underground, “to probe deep into the heart of my estranged country.” A Wild Sheep Chase, for all its surreal flourishes, also provides a detailed account of the settlement of Hokkaido; The Wind-up Bird Chronicle dwells at great length on a forgotten episode in the Japanese invasion of Manchuria; the ghostly beings that populate Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World and 1Q84 are very easily traceable to yuurei, the shadowy and vengeful spirits that populate Japanese legends and horror movies. And blandness itself—more commonly described as the avoidance of onnen, or “excess emotion”—is a cardinal Japanese virtue, deeply rooted in Shinto and Buddhist tradition. Moreover, there’s nothing new, in Japanese literary history, about assimilating and transforming a foreign language; in the medieval era Japan produced a voluminous and highly sophisticated literature in classical Chinese, in parallel to its own indigenous literature (often written by the same people). Indeed, the modern Japanese language is so attuned to foreign influence that it has a separate, universally understood alphabet solely for the purpose of incorporating non-Japanese words. It’s a truism that Japan doesn’t copy; it absorbs outside influences into itself in a way that few other cultures can, all the while retaining a very strong, even pathological, sense of its own uniqueness.

Which is not to say that Murakami’s work is any less significant as “world,” “international,” or “cosmopolitan” literature: rather, it is to observe that perhaps some of what makes Murakami’s writing distinctively Japanese may also, paradoxically, make it accessible to a global audience. This is, in part, because these qualities—which often fall under the general term “postmodern”—are not, in Japan, post-anything at all. As the scholar Masao Miyoshi has put it, “the description of postmodernism fits Japanese conditions particularly well, as if the term were coined specifically for Japanese society”:

The dispersal and demise of modern subjectivity has long been evident in Japan, where intellectuals have chronically complained about the absence of selfhood. The postmodern erasure of history is the stuff of Japanese nativist religion (shintoism) in which ritual bathing is intended to cleanse the whole past along with evil residues from the past. Japanese hostility to logic and rationalism is a clichéd source of embarrassment to native philosophers…so much so that Karatani Kojin and Asada Akira could boast to Derrida that there is no need for deconstruction because there has never been a construct in Japan. Even Baudrillard might find Japan’s devotion to simulacra a little frightening. And finally, so desubjectified and decentralized, citizens simply live—produce and consume, buy and sell—in late stage capitalism, and politics (that is, a critical examination and intervention in interpersonal and intertypological relationships) has been practically abolished.

If this description is to be taken seriously (Miyoshi himself calls it something of a “caricature”), Murakami is as purely Japanese a writer as Kawabata, Buson, or Lady Murakami. And, we might say, rather than teaching Western literary norms to the Japanese, his role is to demonstrate to us one way of inhabiting a culture we believe we have only recently invented.

Norwegian Wood, Murakami’s fifth novel—an enormous bestseller in Japan in 1987, but not released in English until 2000—is one of his lesser-known novels overseas, and it’s not hard to see why. Other than an eccentric sanatorium in the mountains (strongly reminiscent of Thomas Mann’s), it contains none of Mura-kami’s typical motifs—no disappearing animals, no threatening bodyguards, no conspiracies or secret histories. As both Murakami and his critics have said, it is “straightforward”—a largely autobiographical, linear, and sentimental account of two tragic love affairs amid the riots and university closings in Tokyo from 1968 to 1970. It also provides a genesis for the radical equanimity, the bland response even to extraordinary circumstances, that saturates Murakami’s work. In the course of the novel Watanabe, the protagonist, loses the only two people he’s ever cared for deeply—his best friend, Kizuki, who kills himself with no explanation while still in high school, and Kizuki’s former girlfriend, Naoko, who falls in love with Watanabe while spiraling into a psychotic depression that ends in her own suicide three years later. After Kizuki’s death, Watanabe feels that death has permeated the world around him, that it is “no longer the opposite but as a part of life”:

Translated into words, it’s a cliché, but at the time I felt it not as words but as that knot of air inside me. Death exists—in a paperweight, in four red and white balls on a billiard table—and we go on living and breathing it into our lungs like fine dust… It was already here, within my being, it had always been here, and no struggle would permit me to forget that. When it took Kizuki, death took me as well.

“Death is a part of life” is of course a cliché, certainly in Asia and to some degree in the West as well; more to the point—though Murakami would never admit this—it’s a Buddhist cliché, a bit of dessicated wisdom that Watanabe can’t accept until it becomes his own lived reality. At the end of the novel, in the aftermath of Naoko’s death, Watanabe telephones his second lover, Midori, and tells her he “wants to begin everything from the beginning,” and she responds by asking, “Where are you now?”:

I had no idea. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again, I called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place.

This is both a potent image of post-1970 Japan—the Japan in which Murakami has lived his adult life—and, in a certain light, a statement of a kind of radical subjectivity in which love can arise only from the “dead center of this place that was no place.”

It’s out of this same “dead center,” twenty-two years later, that 1Q84 emerges: a massive consolidation of all the themes Murakami has developed over his career. There’s a secret, nearly omnipotent cult, led by a mysterious leader with occult powers (A Wild Sheep Chase); a complex web of relationships spawned by the revolutionary movements of the late 1960s (Norwegian Wood); a mysterious young woman, also with mystical powers, who appears out of nowhere, and a portal into an alternate or parallel reality (The Wind-up Bird Chronicle); and a male protagonist entranced by tragic and seemingly unattainable women (Sputnik Sweetheart, South of the Border, West of the Sun).

But 1Q84 is, as the stock phrase goes, at heart a love story. The plot centers around Tengo, a math teacher and aspiring novelist, and Aomame, a fitness coach and masseuse who moonlights as an assassin of abusive husbands. Aomame and Tengo were classmates in their early teens, and shared a single brief embrace; though they haven’t seen each other since, they’re both convinced that the other is their only true love. The plot that brings them together is convoluted, bizarre, and also peculiarly drawn-out, but the novel as a whole is much more symmetrical and intuitively designed than Murakami’s other “system” narratives (Sheep Chase, Bird Chronicle, Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World).

What’s perhaps most striking about 1Q84’s overall design is that, for a book invoking Orwell and dwelling for long passages in the revolutionary politics of the late Sixties, it is entirely, avowedly apolitical. The sinister machine which appears to control everything is in fact nothing more than a phantasm; rather than a dystopian future, Murakami has constructed an alternate reality in the recent past, perhaps as an indirect reassurance that, again, nothing has really changed. Tengo and Aomame are prototypically bland, self-sufficient, resolutely neutral Murakamian heroes; the only thing that drives them to take risks (even risking their lives) is the possibility of meeting one another again.

And when they finally do come together, emerging out of the parallel 1Q84 into the real 1984, it’s tempting to ask: is that all? That is, was it quite worth the construction of an entire mythic universe, with astral projections, ghostly spirit-teenagers, devious supernatural beings, torture, assassinations, and a novel-within-a-novel, so that two young lovers can look at the moon together? Looking at the moon, of course, evokes a venerated Japanese tradition, tsukimi, going back to the Heian period, and the hoariest of “Oriental” clichés—so obvious that Murakami almost dares us to mention it. Judging from the reviews I’ve read in the American and British press, no critic has yet taken him up on it.

Perhaps another way of asking the same question is this: can we accept bland existence simply as a given, perhaps even as a necessary condition of the catastrophic failures of ideology in the twentieth century, from the Greater East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere to the millennarian Buddhism of the Aum Shinrikyo cult? Or is blandness itself a debilitating delusion, a construct-less construct, a vehicle for suppressing questions instead of answering them? There are very potent answers to these questions literally under Murakami’s fingertips, but the one portal he refuses to open, it seems, is the one that leads back beyond clichés, the “dead language” of the Japanese present, into Japan’s own literary and cultural history. In this sense, the most convincing myth Murakami has created is that of his own originality.

Jess Row, a Threepenny contributor since 2002, is the author of two collections of short stories, The Train to Lo Wu and Nobody Ever Gets Lost. He is at work on a novel about race and plastic surgery.

Home PageCurrent IssuePast IssuesReading RoomGallery
BooksLinksAdvertisingSubmissionsSubscribeContact UsDonate

The Threepenny Review