“All the stories you’ve been telling tonight,” a character says to an unidentified speaker or speakers in Haruki Murakami’s most recent collection of short fictions, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2006), “seem to fall into two categories”: “There’s the type where you have the world of the living on one side, the world of death on the other, and some force that allows a crossing-over from one side to the other…. The second type involves paranormal phenomena or abilities, premonitions, the ability to predict the future. All of your stories belong to one of these two groups.” Not our narrator’s story, though, or rather not the story of his life so far. Until recently he had never seen a ghost or had a premonition, but the tale he now tells involves the sight of a second self that hates the first (“It was me, of course, but another me…. The one thing I did understand was that this other figure loathed me”), glimpsed in a mirror that turns out not to have existed in ordinary space-time. An implied prediction in an alternative world: He has stumbled into both categories at once.
Murakami is mocking and simplifying his own signature fictional devices, which often involve crossings between apparently incompatible worlds. In his remarkable novel Dance Dance Dance (1988), several characters slip through a crack in time into an older, hidden territory whose inhabitants cry the tears that are not cried in everyday life. “We shed tears for all the things you never let yourself shed tears,” they say, “we weep for all the things you did not weep.” In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1985), a character’s unconscious life is extrapolated and simulated on a computer and then reinserted surgically, in the form of a virtual movie, into the man’s brain. He lives half his life (and half the novel) inside this simulation. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), the novel that catapulted Murakami from cult status to stardom–Christian Caryl tells us in a recent issue of The New York Review of Books that there is a cafe in Taipei named after Murakami as well as a bar in Moscow, and that his work has been translated into thirty-six languages–is littered with modes of transportation between worlds. And here perhaps the problem begins. It is the litter that Murakami is mocking in his story, but what is he to do about it? Is there an escape from gimmicks in doubling or twisting the gimmick? Yes, but you can’t do that forever, and the mockery suggests something of an impasse as well as an alert faculty of self-criticism.
After Dark, Murakami’s ninth novel, doesn’t start well. “Eyes mark the shape of the city. Through the eyes of a high-flying night bird, we take in the scene from midair.” No, this is not a metaphor for a plane arriving in Tokyo; it is a figure for narrative point of view, later identified as that of “an imaginary camera.” Murakami’s “we” is that semi-retired functionary, the omniscient narrator, and we are more than a little hampered by our self-consciousness. As befits our job description, we do know everything (“This is the continuation of their earlier conversation,” “This is the man who was photographed by the surveillance camera,” “We are probably the only ones who know that”), but we are not allowed to interfere (“We know. But we are not qualified to become involved”; “We observe but we do not intervene”).
The diligent awkwardness of the technique is obviously intentional, but does that help us? In the end I think the answer is yes, but there are still a few more doubts to overcome. About the writing, for example. Does Murakami’s own prose actually contain lamentable sentences like “A pregnant silence reigned” or “You can feel her pain”? Or: “Shirakawa is lying on the floor, doing sit-ups”? Does the Japanese language allow sitting and lying at the same time? I can only ask, but I have to ask. The novel also has weary and obvious images of the city as an immense creature (“Countless arteries stretch to the ends of its elusive body”), of the legal system as a giant octopus, that do not seem to have been found in translation. However, just when you begin to fret over the lumpy technique and the creature-city imagery, a new tone emerges and the project that defines the book begins to take shape: