Murakami’s Farewell to Despair

In a foreword to the recent publication of his two earliest novels, now made available in a good English translation for the first time, Haruki Murakami says that the novel that followed them, A Wild ...

In a foreword to the recent publication of his two earliest novels, now made available in a good English translation for the first time, Haruki Murakami says that the novel that followed them, A Wild Sheep Chase, was “the true beginning of my career as a novelist.” Hear the Wind Sing (1979) and Pinball, 1973 (1980) were his practice novels, his apprenticeship, the groundwork that had to be laid before he could make a true beginning. Murakami calls them “totally irreplaceable,” yet he has also said that if he had continued writing novels like these, “I would have soon hit a dead end.” He looks back on Wind and Pinball “with love mingled with a bit of embarrassment”; they were indispensable to his becoming a writer, and yet if he had not transcended them, he would not have been able to keep on writing.

Both Wind and Pinball revolve around the same nameless narrator-protagonist and his friend, known as the Rat. The narrator and the Rat both want to write: the narrator manages to produce the two short books we hold in our hands, and the Rat, who starts out “a virtual stranger to books,” ends up churning out multiple novels. So Wind and Pinball are books about trying to write. What’s fascinating about these novels, to a reader of Murakami’s subsequent work, is that in them we can see the now world-famous writer gradually working his way to his “true beginning.”

Murakami became a literary superstar with the publication of Norwegian Wood in 1987—an outcome he himself never foresaw—and his immense popularity has not flagged since. Readers outside Japan might see his work as deeply Japanese, yet to the Japanese literary establishment he is anything but; his fiction occupies a cultural space of its own. It takes place in a world of profound aloneness where hope nevertheless resides in the possibility of love. Magical, unexplainable things tend to happen to utterly ordinary people, leading to quests and ordeals that end with much unresolved. Each individual’s existence as an autonomous being must constantly be re-affirmed through the story one tells oneself, and the greatest danger is the possibility of losing one’s personal narrative and becoming completely empty inside. Perhaps this latter aspect of Murakami’s vision is what resonates so widely today, when manipulative imagery on ubiquitous screens not only invades but threatens to replace inner life. Whatever the ultimate reason for Murakami’s popularity, his books have been translated into over 40 languages and he may well be the most widely read living author whose work is not written in English.

The narrator of Murakami’s first two novels is a nameless would-be writer whose main literary influence is someone named Derek Hartfield. Supposedly a contemporary of Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Hartfield was a massively prolific failure who produced reams of futile sub-literature, “sterile in the full sense of the word,” and then committed suicide by jumping off the Empire State Building, “clutching a portrait of Adolf Hitler in his right hand and an open umbrella in his left.” It’s hard to imagine a less desirable role model for a writer, but the narrator says he’s learned almost everything he knows from Hartfield, whose credo of good writing he quotes: “Writing is, in effect, the act of verifying the distance between us and the things surrounding us. What we need is not sensitivity but a measuring stick.”

There is indeed an enormous distance between the narrator and the world around him. As in all of Murakami’s work, this isolation or distance is hard-wired into reality; it is our cognitive and epistemological situation as humans:

A gulf separates what we attempt to perceive from what we are actually able to perceive. It is so deep that it can never be calculated, however long our measuring stick. What I can set down here is no more than a list. It’s not a novel or even literature, nor is it art. It’s just a notebook with a line drawn down the middle. It may contain something of a moral, though.

The narrator lives in a personal isolation booth and connects with only two people, perhaps three: his friend the Rat; J, the owner of their favorite bar; and perhaps, very tentatively, a girl who has nine fingers and almost becomes his lover before disappearing from his life forever.

Now that Murakami has been a major novelist for decades, the earlier work’s disavowal of creating literature or art sounds less like a young writer’s self-doubt than a declaration of independence. I may not be able to create what you expect, and that kind of art may not even be possible anymore, but I’m writing anyway, and I do have something to say. The protagonist is stubbornly determined; he admires Derek Hartfield for having been a “fighter,” and as disillusioned as he undoubtedly is, there remains some fight in him as well. He needs that fight to survive the act of writing, which, as Murakami has said, “is an unhealthy type of work.” In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, his memoir-essay on obsessions physical and mental, he puts it this way:

When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface. All writers have to come face-to-face with this toxin and, aware of the danger involved, discover a way to deal with it, because otherwise no creative activity in the real sense can take place.

Comparing writing to the problem of eating a fugu fish, where “the tastiest part is the portion near the poison,” Murakami explains that “those of us hoping to have long careers as professional writers have to develop an autoimmune system of our own that can resist the dangerous (in some cases lethal) toxin that resides within.”

In that book, Murakami never names the toxin. He leaves the question hanging: what is this inexorable, potentially fatal force that he had no choice but to deal with? Wind and Pinball leave no doubt: the toxin is despair. These are the first lines of Murakami’s first novel: “There’s no such thing as a perfect piece of writing. Just as there’s no such thing as perfect despair.” From the start, it’s a given that writing and despair are parallel; what’s true of one must be true of the other. Despair suffuses the plot, or lack of it, in these first two books, in which aimless and alienated young men brood over how to escape their lives of stagnation. Murakami’s later novels have far more urgency, and a great deal more plot; the dangerous quests that propel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84 bear no resemblance to the almost directionless rumination of Hear the Wind Sing. The characters in his major novels are not mired in the kind of aimless passivity we see in Wind and Pinball. As fatalistic as the later protagonists may be, they still take action, knowing that what they are committing to could be a matter of life and death.

By the end of A Wild Sheep Chase, even the Rat has made a heroic decision, but in the early novels he can only insist on the futility of life and reject the possibility of ordinary happiness. In Pinball, for instance, he loves a woman but deliberately cuts himself off from her, at the cost of enormous pain to them both. When the narrator dares to suggest that “you can try to make yourself stronger, even if only a little,” the Rat replies,

“In all honesty, do you believe what you just said?”

“Sure I do.”

The Rat studied his glass for a minute.

“Do me a favor and tell me you’re lying,” he said, in all seriousness.

Near the end of Pinball, before leaving town forever, the Rat has a talk with J the bar owner, who is the closest thing either he or the narrator has to a wise elder and confessor.

“You know, J. Everyone’s rotting, correct?”

“True enough.”

“And there are many ways to rot … So here’s my conclusion. Whatever changes they go through, whatever progress they make, in the end it’s only a step on the road to decay.”

When the narrator is at his worst, life is no better for him: “My face and my soul were lifeless shells, of no significance to anyone.” Hear the Wind Sing ends with Derek Hartfield’s suicide and the quote from Nietzsche carved on his gravestone—“How can those who live in the light of day possibly comprehend the depths of night?”—that might in fact be the moral the narrator promised us his “notebook” would contain.

It’s not surprising, then, that to keep writing, to contend with a despair this deep, one must be a fighter. Not surprising, either, Murakami’s sense that writing in this mode would lead to a dead end. Hear the Wind Sing has nowhere to go except to circle the same despair: though it has a little bit of plot, it remains a mood piece, and stasis can take both writer and reader only so far. Pinball, 1973 contains somewhat more story to move it forward: the narrator’s quest to play a favorite pinball machine one more time, the “three-flipper Spaceship” that once stood in J’s bar. He finds it at last in a mysterious warehouse once used for cold storage of chicken carcasses, but he doesn’t play the machine. Instead, he has a talk with “her” about old times, as if they were former lovers:

It feels strange somehow, she said. Like none of it really happened.

Oh, it happened all right. But now it’s gone.

Does it make you sad?

No, I said, shaking my head. There was something that came out of nothing, and now it’s gone back to where it came from, that’s all.

The book ends with what seems, ultimately, like little more than the narrator’s old stasis restored; the circling has continued. The only decisive change is made by the Rat, who leaves town forever. As J points out to him, his decision to leave reveals that he still believes that making a change does matter. His despair is not as total as he claims.

Murakami, too, had to leave the world of these books. He had to make a definitive artistic departure in order to continue writing, and we can glimpse what it was he had to leave behind. At one point in Hear the Wind Sing, the narrator writes,

There was a time when everyone wanted to be cool.

Toward the end of high school, I decided to express only half of what I was really feeling. I can’t recall the initial reason, but for the next several years this was how I behaved. At which point I discovered that I had turned into a person incapable of expressing more than half of what he felt.

I don’t know what that has to do with being cool. But if a fridge that has to be defrosted all year round can be called cool, then that’s what I was.

And so I continue writing this …

Does “And so” mean that writing this is an effort to stop being cool, to express more than half of what he’s really feeling? It seems to. But as yet, in Wind, it hasn’t come to pass. The passage about being cool establishes a context for what the Rat tells J in Pinball, just before his final departure from J’s Bar:

“See, J, it doesn’t work,” he said. “The way everyone pretends to be on the same wavelength without questioning or talking about things—it doesn’t get anyone anywhere. I hate to say it, but … I feel like I’ve been hanging around that kind of world too damn long.”

Inside the story world, what the Rat has to say is existential: someday adolescence has to end. But from outside the story, from the vantage point of today, it’s very tempting to read this as Murakami’s farewell to writing this sort of novel, a not-so-coded message to himself that it’s time to go all in and say everything you mean. In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he says that when he wrote A Wild Sheep Chase, “I figured it was do or die, so I’d put everything I had into it.” Perhaps here, at the end of Pinball, that figuring was already underway.

To any reader of Murakami’s oeuvre, it’s no surprise that the figuring involves a woman. Again and again throughout his work, the loss of a lover or wife sets the story in motion. Women open the door for the protagonists to enter a mysterious “other side” where crucial events happen. They break the passivity of the protagonists and embody the possibility of connection and hope in an otherwise lonely world.

In Hear the Wind Sing, a woman’s struggle to say the things that matter most points the narrator in the direction he—and Murakami’s art—will take in A Wild Sheep Chase. That woman is the girl with nine fingers; the narrator’s stumbling and inconclusive relationship with her supplies most of what little plot the novel has. After various lies and concealments, she finally admits to him, with great difficulty, that she hears voices saying horrible things to her, and that she has recently had an abortion. It is not the content of her revelations that matters most; rather, the story hinges on how hard it is for her to say what she means. The difficulty of authentic expression is the central challenge that the early novels ultimately confront.

A Wild Sheep Chase, the novel in which Murakami found the road he has been on ever since, is narrated by the same nameless protagonist as his first two books. It begins at the funeral of a woman who was his friend, and sometime sex partner, when he was 21 (the age he was in Hear the Wind Sing). The later novel, like its predecessors, finds the narrator “stuck, unable to take one step in any new direction.” He makes a familiar reply when his female friend, wanting to know what he’s brooding over, challenges him to say what he means: “Not today,” the narrator answers. “I’m having trouble talking.”

With his first two novels, Murakami said farewell for good to the world of half-articulated emotions.

On a first reading of A Wild Sheep Chase, without the preceding novels in mind, we might have taken him at his word—that this was a momentary challenge. But after reading Wind and Pinball, it’s impossible to take this line at face value. This trouble is not about one day, it’s chronic. His friend responds, “You can’t bring yourself to say what you’d really like to say, isn’t that what you mean?” There is the heart of the issue, the same inability the Rat was putting behind him when he left town. It is the overcoming of this chronic stuckness that makes A Wild Sheep Chase a “true beginning.”

A few chapters into A Wild Sheep Chase, Murakami’s “autoimmune system,” the force powerful enough to overcome the toxin, makes its appearance in the character of a woman with impossibly beautiful ears. When the protagonist says he asked her out to a fancy restaurant because he had to see her ears, she replies, “Tell me straight, because that’s my favorite angle.” How to say it is the issue. She states her diagnosis: “It seems you need more study in the means of expressing emotions.” She certainly can express hers; she tells him they ought to become “very close friends.” “One more thing,” she adds, “For the time being—say, the next few months—don’t leave my side. Okay?”

This is a woman who knows what she wants and can say exactly what she means. She is absolutely not stuck in despair, and one of her roles in the novel is to push the narrator out of his stuckness as well.

“ … you’re loads better than you think you are.”

“So why is it I get to thinking that way?” I puzzled.

“That’s because you’re only half-living,” she said briskly. “The other half is still untapped somewhere.”

This woman is a magical helper not only to the narrator, but to Murakami the novelist. She takes the protagonist of the two preceding books in hand and teaches him how to say what he means, how to express emotions. Her explicit mission in the story is to teach her lover to reach the untapped parts of himself. But implicitly, one suspects, she is Murakami’s imagination pushing itself into “do or die” mode, finding the courage to believe that fuller communication is possible, that the isolation can be broken after all. There seems to be a specifically erotic dimension to this artistic transformation; in Wind and Pinball there are no fully realized sex scenes, whereas in Norwegian Wood and the later novels sex is rendered openly, matter-of-factly, and moment by moment. It’s tempting to infer that Murakami had to let that genie out of the bottle before he could access his real powers as a novelist.

The trajectory of Murakami’s work from A Wild Sheep Chase forward, though not linear, has been in the direction of his characters becoming more and more able to say what they mean. This is nowhere more true than in Norwegian Wood, where the characters—above all the woman that the novel’s protagonist comes to love—express their feelings with an exactitude that makes the dialogue feel almost too on-the-nose, too self-explanatory. The sincerity of the book is almost startling, now that self-conscious irony has become a cultural staple.

Whatever else might be said about that wildly popular novel, it delivered an irrefutable message that there’s more to successful writing than trying to be cool. Orbiting the dark planet of despair is not the only option; it’s no lie that “you can try to make yourself stronger, even if only a little.” In Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, Murakami, like the Rat, said farewell for good to the world of half-articulated emotions. He successfully measured the distance—between himself and his readers, between human hearts, between what we know and what we can’t know—and decided, despite the odds, to try to leap over it. icon

Featured image: Into the Rabbit Hole (2012). Photograph by Jason Mrachina / Flickr