The first of Murakami’s bifurcated narratives. The book alternates irregularly between chapters narrated by “I” (the same “I” as in Hear the Wind Sing), and chapters concerning the Rat, narrated in the third person. The twain never meet, which distinguishes this book from Hard-Boiled Wonderland, Kafka, and 1Q84, the other major bifurcated narratives in Murakami’s ouevre.
This is a continuation of the previous book. The year is (as the title tells us) 1973, and 24-year-old I and 25-year-old Rat are facing their respective early mid-life crises. Otherwise known as Growing Up. If Hear the Wind Sing was a kind of seishun (coming-of-age) novel, focusing on love and loss, with an undercurrent of enunciating the meaninglessness of life, this one is a coming-of-age novel where the action is about coming to terms with the meaninglessness of life, with a subtext of love and loss, mostly loss. In other words, it’s kind of a reversal of the first book.
That is: “I” is comfortably ensconced in a career and a homelife. He’s co-owner of a freelance translation business, and he’s doing alright at it; and at home, he’s living with nubile, nymphomaniac twins. Twins! He’s got it made, but feels a tremendous sense of ennui. He’s emotionally uninvested in the relationship with the twins, who just drifted into his life, and at the end drift out just as mysteriously. His work, meanwhile – well, twice he protests that he’s never once considered the question of whether or not he enjoys it. That’s how uninvested he is in it.
It’s the anomie of modern life that’s getting him down. But I think it’s more than just that, but to get at that you kind of have to read it against the first book. Early in this one he includes a few flashbacks/ruminations (in what is otherwise a book that moves mostly straight ahead in time) about a girlfriend he’d had in 1969 or 1970 named Naoko who died. We get almost no details of that relationship or its end; instead we move on to an account of how, at the end of that year, he’d gotten hooked on pinball. In the present, of course, this leads to the famous Pinball Quest, where he tracks down the actual machine he’d played back in 1970, and communes with it in a deep dark deathly cold warehouse.
I’ve always thought that this encounter with the Spaceship is partly an encounter with an image of a dream of life that American culture had offered him in his youth, and I still think that. But I think there’s also some submerged grief-therapy here, left unenunciated in this book. In Hear the Wind Sing we know, by the end, that the narrator is coming off a relationship with a girl who killed herself without warning the spring before. That’s the summer of 1970, and a lot of the narrator’s ennui that summer had to be due to her death. The pinball addiction comes at the end of 1970, and that’s the period that the narrator flashes back to in 1973: I think we can surmise that the pinball addiction was a way of dealing with, or escaping, his grief (when he got back to Tokyo, scene of his affair with the now-named Naoko). But when the game center closed down his coping mechanism abruptly disappeared. It was like a junkie going cold turkey. And now, three years later, he’s realizing that, in spite of having moved on in his life, he needs that fix again, needs to commune with whatever it was that he was in touch with then. His climactic encounter with the machine is narrated almost as if it’s an encounter with the ghost of Naoko, isn’t it? The very last scene of the book, where he’s sitting in the clear autumn light, suggests that maybe, just maybe, by burrowing down into his old grief, he’s found some peace. Tentatively.
So “I”’s story here is about coping with grief, recovering lost dreams, staying in touch with joys that are joyful precisely because they’re pointless. It’s about the value of escapism, the emotional truth of anything that will help you become mindless.
But it’s all told in the same hardboiled, humorous manner as Hear the Wind Sing. The twins are, among other things, a really funny plot device. Like Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum in drag. But they also underscore the narrator’s lost state. Like, they’re any man’s wet dream, and this guy’s barely moved.
The Rat’s story, meanwhile, is where Murakami gets, as they say in Japanese, wet. All the melancholy that “I” suppresses comes out here. The Rat is left all alone in the Town with J, and spends a lot of time drinking in J’s Bar. He has a desultory affair with a woman who lives by the harbor. And in the end he decides to blow town. That’s pretty much all that happens in this half of the story, but it’s immensely affecting. Like a deeply sad jazz tune. It’s like Sonny Rollins’s “Body and Soul,” a totally unaccompanied tour through intense emotion, letting it all hang out. A meditation on melancholy – on a melancholy that, in the Rat’s case, is entirely caused by an indecision in the face of an inescapable sense of the meaninglessness of life. He’s wallowing in it, while “I” is dealing with it, in his own special way.
That’s the tension that drives this book.
[note: like Hear the Wind Sing, this was for a very long time unavailable in English except for Birnbaum’s translation, which was only available in Japan; that’s what my essay discusses. In 2015 this was finally published outside of Japan in a new translation by Ted Goossen.]