Stories 1989-1991

“SLEEP”  1/1989 (in EV, and TV People)

A woman (the I in the story) is narrating from the point of view of her seventeenth day without sleep.  Once before, in college, she had a month-long bout of insomnia, and was so tired all the time that it nearly killed her.  This time, though, she’s not tired at all.  It started with a dreamlike trance, or trancelike dream, in which a mysterious old man in black poured water over her feet, endless amounts of water.  She awoke covered in sweat and couldn’t get back to sleep.  Started rereading Anna Karenina – had read it once before, in fact had been a voracious reader, but gave it all up with marriage.  She reflects on her marriage – her dentist husband who she loves but doesn’t quite like, her grade-school son who’s just like his father.  She lives mechanically.  And in fact once she stops sleeping she can carry off her daily chores without effort – nobody even notices she’s stopped sleeping.  She spends the extra time reading and swimming and eating chocolate and drinking brandy – personal pleasures.  And she gets prettier, more in shape.  She’s amazingly productive, and not tired at all.  One night she goes out driving and a cop cautions her about rapists on the loose, though.  And then one night, she starts thinking too deeply about her husband, her son, her marriage, and then about death – is death this kind of eternal wakefulness, thinking about darkness?  Not a rest at all?  Disquieted, she goes for a drive, parks by the bay in Yokohama.  Closes her eyes. Then dark forms are surrounding the car, rocking it.  She can’t get it started.

As Rubin says, this seems like a new Murakami.  A turning point for him.  He’s writing from a woman’s point of view, and even if his evocation of her hemmed-in life of cooking and cleaning seems like something he’s learned of from women’s writing, he’s trying to empathize, trying to represent.  But more than that it’s the tone of the story.  What at first seems like a pleasant fantasy – what would any of us do with the extra hours we waste sleeping?  What if we could use that time for personal growth and fulfillment rather than work? – ends in horror.  And what kind of horror?  Is this the punishment she gets for being a woman independent?  The rapists come to get her?  Is the author suggesting that the world won’t let her get away with it?  Or is this a deeper horror, where what seems like an escape from biology turns into a confrontation with metaphysical terrors?

It’s a horror story, is what it is.  Dance Dance Dance added horror to the detective/noir elements of the Rat series.  But this is straight-up horror.  It just takes a little while to realize it, because you’re so caught up in the woman’s liberation.  And that’s what makes it literary horror:  the intersection of genre elements with deeper themes.

“TV PEOPLE” 6/1989 (in EV, and TV People)

I is an ad exec at an appliances firm who in his own life tends to shun modern conveniences – has no TV, doesn’t use elevators.  One Sunday afternoon while his wife is out, he’s lying on the couch unmotivated when the TV People show up.  Three strangers dressed like workmen, and they’re 70% of normal size.  Just shrunken.  And they come in and install a TV set, without once acknowledging his presence.  Wife gets home, and though she’s normally meticulous about the state of the house, doesn’t even notice the change.  I never says anything.  The TV isn’t connected to the antenna either, so he can’t watch anything.  He doesn’t sleep that night.  Next day at work he sees the TV people there – they walk right into a meeting he’s attending, carry a TV (a Sony, a rival brand) all around the room, and then out.  Nobody else notices.  He tries mentioning it to a coworker later, and the guy gives him the cold shoulder.  That night his wife doesn’t come home.  He dozes off on the couch, dreams everybody in the meeting but him had turned to stone.  Wakes up to find the TV on with the TV People showing him a documentary about making an airplane. Doesn’t look like an airplane but they swear it will be one.  One of the TV People crawls out of the set and stands in I’s living room and tells him his wife is gone.  He starts to believe it. TV People guy says the phone will ring in five minutes.  I waits.

In spirit this is real close to “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women.”  An average guy suddenly assaulted by surreal manifestations that don’t make sense but nevertheless suggest impending loss.  The significant thing here is the use of the TV image, a loaded symbol if ever there was one.  It seems to echo Dance Dance Dance’s concern for the ubiquity of image-making/reality-destroying media in contemporary Japan.  You can’t escape TV:  if you don’t have one, the TV People will force one on you.  In the case of this guy, it threatens to directly replace reading as his evening activity.  He, it seems, was the last holdout – everybody else is so habituated to TV that they don’t notice it.  (Except his wife.  There’s no explanation for that.  Which is part of the horror.)

Again Murakami turns out a real dark story.  This is much darker than “Tuesday’s Women.”  That was puzzling and disturbing, but also amusing.  This one is almost a descent into madness.  Murakami continues striking off into new territory here after Norwegian Wood.


A short one, in the third person.  Some unspecified number of years ago, a 20 year old guy is sleeping with a 27 year old married woman.  She asks him if he’s always talked to himself.  He’s unaware that he talks to himself.  She says he does – he talks about airplanes, as if he’s reciting poetry.  She transcribes one of his airplane poems.  He’s floored.  She says that when she was a child she used to talk to herself, but her mother locked her in a closet until she stopped:  it wasn’t ladylike.  She’s always wished she could set her mother straight, but her mother’s dead.  In the last line, in the present, the guy reflects that back then, he did indeed talk to himself as if reciting poetry.

This is a very experimental one.  Third person, for one thing, when in the past he’s only done that with characters we were already familiar with (well, just with the Rat, really).  And yet in the narration we’re just as close to the guy’s thoughts as with any first-person narrator, and we only get hers as reported to him.

It’s so unexplained, like the other stories around this time.  Not horrifying, though.  Gentle.  A detailed evocation of infidelity – they’re taking every precaution never to get caught, he’s always wondering why she sleeps with him.  Echoes “Sleep” in its suggestion of housewife discontent – she always cries when they’re together, and he suspects she sleeps with him just so she can have someone to cry to.  Echoes “TV People” in its use of the airplane as a motif – a detail that here feels significant but also inexplicable.  He vows he’s never once thought about airplanes – why would he be reciting unconscious poetry about them?

Which is kind of the point:  he’s only partially aware of himself.  Being with her allows him to discover otherwise unreachable parts of himself.  And presumably the same is true of her – especially if she doesn’t cry to her husband.  But in his case, what comes out is poetry – a nod to the subconscious as the source of art.


Narrated, seemingly, by Murakami Haruki the author.  He starts by recounting, briefly, how wonderful it was to grow up in the ‘60s, the idealism, the excitement, the last time that “everything was simple, and direct.”  That period he thinks of as “a Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism.”  And the girls – some were free-love, some were strict virgins, and most were in the middle – case-by-case.  Like any generation, it takes all kinds.

Then he tells a story that was told to him by a high school classmate.  In high school this guy was golden:  good grades, natural leader, seemingly liked by everybody, beautiful girlfriend who was the same.  Now Murakami runs into him in Lucca, Italy, and over dinner the guy tells his story.  He’s a successful businessman now, a Tōdai grad.

His story involves this girlfriend.  They didn’t have sex.  Just touching with clothes on.  He wanted to go farther in high school, but she wanted to stay virgin.  He could never understand it, but he respected it.  Then in college – he went to Tokyo, she stayed in Kobe – he brought it up again, feeling like their relationship was dying.  She again said she wouldn’t.  He suggested marriage.  She said marriage was when the guy had a job and was ready to take the girl into his life:  he was still in college.  But, weeping, she said that after she married somebody else she’d be happy to sleep with him, because she loves him and always will.  The guy can’t understand this.  Eventually they break up.

She marries somebody else.  He starts his business, and stays single.  Then one day she calls him up out of the blue and invites him over.  Her husband is gone.  The guy can’t figure out why she’s inviting him over, and then he remembers her promise.  He’d never thought anything of it, but evidently she considered it binding.  He goes over to her place – but they can’t go through with it.  They pet, just like before, then say goodbye.  In the present, telling Murakami about it, the guy can’t help but laugh.

Murakami laughs too.  Then point out to us, the readers, that this story has no moral or lesson, but he does think it’s emblematic of his generation – it “happened to all of us.”

So, how does he mean that?  By invoking late-stage capitalism in the title, and grousing (in a Dance Dance Dance like way) about the present day in the opening passages, he seems to be suggesting some kind of parallel between boomer disillusionment with their adult lives and sexual frustration.  Maybe the freedom and liberalization they fought for has arrived, but now they don’t know what to do with it?  Or is it prosperity?  Or just maturity?  Or is it that they gave up on their youthful idealism, compromising with society, but always intending to reclaim their idealism when they held society’s reins, but now that they do, they can’t go back on their compromise?  Can’t transgress the bounds they’ve set for themselves?

In form, of course, this is a throwback to the Dead Heat stories.  And in its meditation on the ‘60s it’s a throwback to Norwegian Wood.  It seems a little backward-looking, in other words;  even its general sourness about the ‘80s echoes his last novel.  Doesn’t seem the deepest of stories, I guess:  and yet the title makes this grand claim…

“TONY TAKITANI” 6/1990 (in BW, and in The Lexington Ghost)

Rubin’s right, this story is a masterpiece.

Entirely told in the third person, it starts with the story of Tony’s father, jazz trombonist Takitani Shōzaburō.  A truly happy-go-lucky guy, he leads a charmed life, first in interwar Tokyo, then in Shanghai through the war years, then in Occupation-era Tokyo.  Always making the right friends, always gigging enough to make ends meet, always with a girl by his side.  Tony himself was the product of a very brief marriage, and named after a US Army major that Shōzaburō had befriended.

Tony grows up motherless, and virtually fatherless since, in Murakami’s wonderful formulation, Shōzaburō was not cut out to be a father, and Tony was not cut out to be a son.  He also grows up friendless – his foreign name gives him a lot of grief, and his artistic talent further isolates him.  He draws meticulously, clinically detailed renderings of machines and leaves and such.  In college in the late ‘60s this gets him branded as fatally nonideological, but once out of college it makes him a natural for professional technical illustration.

And soon it makes him rich.  He owns real estate, as well as his illustrating business.  Lives in a huge house in Setagaya.  Never sees his old man.  Stays single, works all the time.  Then one day in his 30s he falls in love with a young woman.  Finally convinces her to marry him.  They live happily and wealthily.  Even see his father play once – Tony drinks the whole time.

But his wife, though otherwise happy, develops an addiction to buying expensive clothes.  The money’s no problem, but Tony worries about her.  And when she finally owns a thousand or so dresses and 112 pairs of shoes, he says something to her about it.  She knows he’s right, and vows to try to change.  She returns a coat to the store, but on the way home she’s obsessing about it so much that she doesn’t see a truck coming and dies in the resulting accident.

Tony’s devastated, but reacts very calmly to his grief.  Mostly he’s bewildered by the clothes:  what to do with them.  He hires a woman to be his secretary and wear the clothes, a different outfit each day, but hours after he hires her he gives up the idea.  Sells all the clothes for pennies on the dollar.  Now he has an empty room.  Then his father dies, leaving him little but a huge, valuable collection of jazz records.  Tony decides not to keep these either, and sells them.  Now – the story ends by saying – he was really alone.

This story does many things.  It’s a very successful piece of third-person narration, but unlike other attempts at that, this one doesn’t at all mirror his typical first-person narratives.  In this one there’s no dialogue.  In fact, the story contains a full novel’s worth of incident, but only takes up about forty pages in English:  it’s told in condensed, summary fashion, like a legend or a fairy tale.  And it’s all the more haunting for it.

It’s almost unnecessary to say that it’s a moving portrait of a man for whom loneliness and alienation are the essence of life.  His very name dooms Tony to solitude, and the two great bereavements he suffers at the end of the story seem to represent a return to normalcy for him:  this is the way he’s most comfortable, it seems.  He’s a figure of great pathos.

And a huge contrast to his father.  We spend almost as long getting to know the father as the son, and it’s easy to see them as mirror opposites:  the father was happy-go-lucky, extroverted, never tied to one place or relationship for long, so the son is introspective, ultra-responsible, and when he fell in love he fell hard.  One feels things shallowly, the other too deeply – or shallowly, but in a numb rather than a devil-may-care way.  So it’s a story about fathers and sons, about the pendulum swings in temperament that parent-child relationships can see.

But it’s also a wonderful exercise in specificity.  It’s just a great story – the characters are utterly original, and fully realized in spite of the lack of dialogue.  Their situations, the times and places in which they live, are evoked powerfully, in spite of the story’s brevity.  The details are few but amazingly well-chosen and evocative – the lederhosen theory of storytelling.  I mean, the story wouldn’t have worked at all if the dad had been a trumpet player or a piano player.  It had to be the trombone.

“THE SILENCE” 1/1991 (in EV, and in The Lexington Ghost)

This too takes a similar form to the Dead Heat stories:  somebody telling his story to the narrator, who’s assumed to be Murakami the author.  The story was originally published in Collected Works in 1991, but there it was put into Dead Heat, and that’s the period to which Rubin assigns it in his book – although he doesn’t come right out and say it was written then.  So I read it here.

In this case they’re waiting for a plane that’s been delayed.  The interlocutor is named:  Ozawa.  Narrator learns that Ozawa boxes, and asks him if he’s ever hit someone in anger.  That elicits the story.

In junior high, once, he’d done that.  It was right after he’d started boxing, before they even let him put on the gloves.  A classmate spread a rumor saying that he’d cheated on a test.  Ozawa confronted him, the kid was snide, and Ozawa hit him.  Immediately regretted it.

The kid, Aoki, was popular and smart, always at the top of the class (he started the rumor to deal with his own embarrassment at for once being bested by Ozawa), always smug about it.  And he lay low and waited years for his revenge.  In their senior year of high school another classmate committed suicide, and it was revealed that he was getting beat up at school.  Aoki spread the rumor that Ozawa was the bully.  The cops even questioned him.  The whole school ostracized him.  It was almost defeating Ozawa – he fantasized about beating Aoki to a pulp – then one day he and Aoki were on the train together and Aoki gave him a smirk, and Ozawa realized how pathetic Aoki really was.  Right then and there he won.  Still got the silent treatment at school until graduation, but didn’t care.  Graduated, moved on.

What he still has nightmares about is not people like Aoki, but those who were willing to believe whatever lies Aoki spread.

It’s a sober meditation on evil, is what it is.  Simple, like the Dead Heat stories.  It evinces an almost Hitchcockian concern with mistaken guilt, an acute sense of what it feels like to be bullied (which is Ozawa’s situation), and a distrust of shallow elites.  Aoki is a virtual blueprint (or distillation) of Gotanda in Dance Dance Dance, without the niceness.  And it’s an utterly believable construction of society – of people’s readiness to believe the worst of others, and miss the rot in front of their eyes.

So believable that it’s actually a bit banal.  This one does have a moral to it, and it’s so obvious that in another writer this story would be pretty unremarkable.  With Murakami it’s actually kind of striking, since he’s never done much of this conventional stuff, Norwegian Wood aside.  For him, this is wildly experimental.

“THE LITTLE GREEN MONSTER” 4/1991 (in EV, and in The Lexington Ghost)

A housewife, the narrator, is sitting alone at home after her husband goes to work.  A little green monster, scaly with a long thin nose, digs its way up out of the garden and comes into the house.  It can read her thoughts.  It wants to propose to her – in an almost adorable fashion it plights its troth.  But she realizes she can chase it away with her thoughts, so she starts to imagine torturing it.  It reacts as if being tortured.  She tortures it to death.  Just before it dies it seems like it wants to say something – some bit of wisdom.  Then darkness falls.

Wow.  Pure surrealism.  Almost adorable monster.  Almost too easy to start assigning meanings to it – it could be anything erupting from her subconscious.  And she takes a sadistic pleasure in beating it down, in squashing its existence.  But then she’s deprived of whatever knowledge it might have imparted, and she’s left alone in the darkness.  Wow.

“THE ICE MAN” 4/1991 (in BW, and in The Lexington Ghost)

The narrator, a woman, recalls how she came to be married to an Ice Man.  She met him at a ski resort – he was sitting and reading.  They talked.  He knew all about her past – the ice preserves everything from the past – but had no past of his own.  She fell in love.  They married.  Her family rejected them.  But he’s kind, deep, a hard worker.  They can’t have kids, though.  One day, bored, she suggests they go on a trip to the South Pole.  He hesitates, then agrees.  Then she gets scared, but he insists they go through with it.  Once they arrive at the town at the South Pole (!) he changes – she can’t say quite how.  He quickly learns the language and fits in with the townspeople, and she feels totally left out.  But there are no more planes or boats.  They’re stuck through the winter.  And then she gets pregnant.  Now she knows they’ll never leave.

So Murakami’s making a sustained effort in this period to explore female points of view, female narrative voices, it seems.  One could still argue that he’s unable to escape a certain ingrained sexism – his female p.o.v. characters’ anxieties still seem to entirely revolve around their relationships with men.  The result is a kind of male empathy with women that results in more male anxiety about women – when he allows himself to imagine what they’re really thinking, inevitably it’s a dissatisfaction with their men.  Scary.  But then again, his male characters are usually bothered by their relationships with women – obsessing over them, or recovering from them.  So it’s sort of mutual.

And these are some of his most sober, chilling (no pun intended) stories.  This one, in what by now must be considered trademark Murakami fashion, explores marriage anxiety from a female viewpoint in symbolic language.  Is the Ice Man a symbol of the eternal difference between men and women, the eternal foreignness of husbands to their wives?  That’s probably not all of it, though.  What about this business of preserving the past but having none of one’s own?  She doesn’t become an Ice Woman at the end (although the image of ice forming in her womb is one of great horror – ice is colonizing her):  she can still remember her past to narrate it to us.  And because she can’t learn the Ice People’s language she’s cut off from whatever past of the world they might be preserving.  She’s rather the opposite of him:  he can only remember her past, and she can only remember her own past.

More horror, in other words.

“MAN-EATING CATS” 7/1991 (in BW, and in Collected Works)

I has run away to a small Greek island with Izumi, a woman ten years younger.  Each of them was married, happily, to someone else, but when they met they had a connection they’d never dreamd of.  Total empathy, more than love, but they do start sleeping together.  When the affair comes to light they drop everything and run off to Greece, figuring they can live for three years on the money they have in the bank.  One the plane I has a panic attack, feeling as if he has vanished – is no longer himself.  Izumi holds his hand and brings him through it.  In the present moment on the island they read a newspaper story about an old woman who died locked in her house, and her three cats ate her.  This reminds I of a cat he had as a child that climbed up a tree and was never seen again.  That night he awakens to find Izumi gone.  He goes out, thinking she went for a walk – hears distant bouzouki music – then again feels himself vanish, replaced by a non-real version of himself. Izumi’s voice tells him that the real him has been “eaten by the cats.”  He thinks back on the life he left behind.  The music stops.  He goes back to the apartment and thinks of the cats eating him.

Rubin says that this story is mainly notable for what shows up in Murakami’s next three novels.  But, as with “Wind-Up Bird,” this has a haunting quality of its own that comes largely from its brevity.  We get, as in “Tony Takitani,” a surprisingly detailed and vivid evocation of the couple’s past lives, but the way it all disappears in the Greek night is moving.  Disturbing.  Is Murakami celebrating their decision to leave everything behind, or presenting it as yet another horror?

The translated stories from this period really do love the horror genre.  Or “mode,” perhaps we should call it:  like Dance Dance Dance, which seems to have started this in him, they don’t have much in common with the generic conventions of horror, but they do use surrealistic events and mind games for the frisson of dread they can create, rather than the sense of wonder or humor or bittersweet nostalgia that he used them for in his earlier work.