Stories 2005

“CHANCE TRAVELER”  3/2005 (BW, and in Strange Tales from Tokyo)

Strange Tales from Tokyo is the second of Murakami’s short story collections to be translated in its entirety.  It’s buried at the end of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, but it’s all there.

This story opens with a frame device in which Murakami identifies himself as Murakami and says that strange things happen in life.  He’s had a few happen to him.  He tells about two that happened the first time he was in Cambridge in the mid-‘90s, both jazz related.  So, see:  it happens.

Then, the story proper, in the 3rd person, as related to him by an acquaintance, the guy who tunes his piano.  The guy is an out gay man who had once aspired to be a concert pianist before becoming a piano tuner instead.  He’s much in demand, makes a good living at it, and is in a longterm relationship.

Every Tuesday he drives to a big-box mall in Kanagawa because there’s a coffee shop there that’s just perfect for reading.  He spends a couple of hours there.  One day he’s there reading Dickens when a woman about his age approaches him.  Coincidence of coincidences, she’s reading the same Dickens book right then.  They talk and go out to lunch.  The next week she’s there again, and they go out to lunch, and she makes a pass at him.  He turns her down gently, explaining the situation.  She weeps, but then explains that she’s been diagnosed with breast cancer – they’re going to operate, and she doesn’t know yet if it’s spread.  He wishes her well and says he’ll always be happy to talk, but in fact he never sees her again.

But a mole on her earlobe gets him thinking about his sister, from whom he’s been estranged for ten years.  When he came out it almost caused her fiance’s family to break off the engagement, and she’s never forgiven him.  She’s been crying when he calls, and they get together.  She tells him that she’s just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and that very afternoon she’s scheduled for surgery.  What made him call just then?  He can’t explain.

She survived the cancer, and they were reconciled, and now he has a part in the lives of his niece and nephew, and even his brother-in-law is learning to deal with him.  Happy ending.  So:  he says to Murakami that maybe these kinds of messages are being given to us all the time and we just don’t notice it.  Murakami says he’d rather believe in a god of jazz.  And a god of gays, the other guy laughs.

Murakami is a humanist, dyed-in-the-wool.  His earliest work is the chronicles of a conscientious objector to the salaryman life.  Later he realizes he needs to fight, to pick a side, and he comes out in favor of interrogating history, and serving society.  His early work is all about a straight Japanese guy’s perspective, but gradually he comes to see how limiting that is, and how privileged, and works overtime to try to account for the perspective of women, and of children.  Of foreigners.  And of gays:  after introducing the motif in Sputnik and Kafka, here he’s tackling it head on.  This is a story about chance, but it’s also a story that’s standing up for a gay man’s perspective in contemporary Japan, that’s normalizing what Japan in 2005 was not ready to consider normal.

“HANALEI BAY”  4/2005 (BW, and in Strange Tales from Tokyo)

Sachi is a middle-aged woman who gets a call one day saying her son has died in Hawaii.  He was surfing in Hanalei Bay on Kauai and got his leg bitten off by a shark, and drowned.  She immediately flies there to claim his body, and spends a week in Hanalei Bay trying to get herself back together.  A kindly Japanese-American cop had advised her to accept it as part of nature’s cycle.

She ends up going back there for three weeks every year, at the same season, just sitting on the beach.  One year she meets a couple of Japanese surfers the age her son was, totally clueless, and she drives them to the bay and gives them some survival tips.

We then get a flashback to her life story.  She’s a boomer – the two surfers establish that – and it’s kind of an oblique boomer story.  She’d studied piano in high school, learned enough to fake it through jazz, although she was never much of an improviser.  Went to cooking school in Chicago for two years, but made more money and had more fun playing in jazz clubs – until she got deported for doing it on the wrong visa.  Back in Japan she ended up married to a J. jazz musician, and playing on her own;  that’s who fathered her son Takashi, but then her husband died in another woman’s hotel room.  With the insurance money Sachi opened her own jazz bar and has kept it running to this day.

With her own rebellious past, she feels she’s in no position to discipline Takashi much – she tries to point him right, but when he decides he wants to drop out and go to Hawaii to surf, she ends up letting him.  Should she have been stricter?  She wonders, but she doesn’t know how she would have gone about it – she’s so busy with the bar.

Back to the present:  on her visits to Hanalei Bay she sometimes sits in on the piano at a local restaurant, just for fun.  One night she’s in there and she runs into the two Japanese surfers.  They thank her for her help, and say they’re on their way back to Japan.  An American ex-Marine comes to their table and tries to bully her into playing something for him, saying the regular piano player is too much of a fruitcake to play anything he likes.  She refuses, and he starts to spout off racist rhetoric – but the owner comes and chases him away.  Then the two surfers ask if she’s seen the one-legged Japanese surfer hanging around on the beach.

That night she weeps because, try as she might, she doesn’t see the surfer:  he’s obviously the ghost of her son.  Why won’t he appear to her?  Then she recalls the cop’s advice:  just accept it.  She goes back to Tokyo.  Now she just plays piano there, thinking about her next trip to Hanalei Bay.

This is one of Murakami’s best stories.  His production of short stories fell off drastically beginning in the ‘90s, but what he wrote was golden.  This reminds me a lot of Tony Takitani, and not just because of the jazz element – although that’s an important link.  Murakami’s at his best when he writes about jazz.  He really gets it.  What the two stories have in common is this way of showing how life and music intersect, and of capturing the complexity of an entire life in a few short pages.  Sachi’s journey is epic, really:  you can just feel all her struggles, both in America and in Japan, all she had to sacrifice as a single mother, all she had to learn to survive as a musician and club owner.  Her estrangement from her son, and yet her deep understanding of him.

And it’s a deeply moving story.  That ending – not being able to see the ghost.  All that implies in terms of estrangement from her son.  He appears to those who love what he loves – not to those who love him.  And that’s one vision of life:  we try to love those bound to us by blood, but really we love those who love what we love.

“WHERE I’M LIKELY TO FIND IT”  5/2005 (BW, and in Strange Tales from Tokyo)

I is not Murakami, but some kind of consultant or private eye.  This isn’t apparent immediately.  He’s listening as a wealthy middle-aged woman tells him about the mysterious disappearance of her husband, a stockbroker for Merrill Lynch.  They live on the 26th floor of a high-rise, his mother on the 24th, and one morning he went down to check on her, phoned his wife to say he was on the way back up, and never arrived.  Disappeared without wallet or anything but the clothes on his back.

I takes the case, but refuses payment – that would invalidate the work he does, he says.  So he goes back to the apartment with her.  Her husband always took the stairs, so he hangs out on the stairs between the 24th and 26th floor.  Talks with the people he meets.  No clues.  Finally a little girl asks him what he’s looking for.  A door, perhaps.  But he doesn’t know what it will look like – a doughnut?  An elephant?

The wife calls to say her husband showed up – on a train station bench in Sendai, missing his glasses, and with no memory of the last twenty days since his disappearance.  So he’s off the case.  Privately, though, he muses that his search will continue, for whatever it is.

So, what is it?  This is a very mysterious story.  Is this guy displaced in time or space, and looking for the portal back?  Or is he just bored?  There’s a lot of talk in this story about passing the time.  And how does he support himself (he says he has other means, but doesn’t say what)?  Very weird, very enigmatic.

Also very ‘80s Murakami.  The hard-boiled overtones, the freewheeling, lighthearted surrealism.  It reads like an outtake scene from Dance Dance Dance.

“THE KIDNEY-SHAPED STONE THAT MOVES EVERY DAY”  6/2005 (BW, and in Strange Tales from Tokyo)

Junpei is a short story writer – not a novelist, but reasonably successful with his stories.  When he was 16 his father made the sphinx-like pronouncement that a man only meets three women in his life who have real meaning for him.  In college Junpei met the first, but he was too late and she married his best friend.  Ever since he’s been on the lookout for the others, and fear of the resulting pain has led him to engage in nothing but light, disposable relationships.

Now, in his early 30s, he meets a woman at a party, Kirie.  She’s a few years older than him, and clearly a capable, professional woman, but she won’t tell him her job.  They sleep together, and then make a regular thing of it – they really have a lot to talk about.  She reads his stories and likes them, but still won’t tell him what she does, only that it’s the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

One night in bed she has him tell her about the story he’s writing now.  He’s stuck with it, but as he tells her he realizes how it should end.  The story is “The Kidney-Shapes Stone that Moves Every Day.”  It’s about a woman doctor, professional and successful, having an affair with a surgeon.  One day on a trip to a mountain resort she finds a kidney-shaped stone – size, shape, color all perfect.  Brings it back to use as a paper weight.  Perfect for a hospital.  But then something strange happens.  Every morning when she comes into the office it’s in a different place.  It moves overnight.  Weird.  Gradually it comes to obsess her – she loses interest in everything.  Decides it must be telling her to change her life.  She breaks up with the surgeon (who’s married) and tosses the stone into the bay, thinking to make a new start.  Feels worlds lighter.  But when she goes back to the office, the stone is there…

When he finishes the story he tries to call Kirie but her phone is disconnected.  And for months he has no contact with her.  Feels more and more like she might have been No. 2.  He really misses her.  Then one day he’s listening to the radio and there she is – she’s a tightrope walker, it turns out, just back from a walk in Germany.  He tries to call her.  Still can’t connect.

Decides to count her as No. 2, and then has an epiphany:  the countdown itself is meaningless.  It’s the act of deciding to accept another person as truly important to one that’s important.  We cut back to the kidney story:  the woman comes into her office one morning to find it’s gone.  And she knows it won’t be coming back.

This story is a little more transparently allegorical than Murakami usually lets himself be.  But it’s still pretty effective as a meditation on love and commitment.  In that it feels a little like an outtake from Wind-Up Bird, actually.  But no less effective for that.

What’s more intriguing are the story’s other connections to Murakami’s work.  The idea of a father’s strange pronouncement casting a shadow over a son’s life is a direct repeat of the central motif of Kafka.  In this case, however, the consequences don’t seem to be as dire.  Rather, the curse seems to be there to teach Junpei what commitment really means.

The other connection is, of course, to “Honey Pie” in After the Quake. This is a fascinating connection.  Junpei here perfectly fits the description of the main character of that story – also named Junpei.  Same writing career, right down to the inability to complete a full-length novel.  Same love affair in college, failing in the same way.  But the earlier Junpei didn’t seem to be laboring under a curse, and this Junpei doesn’t seem to still be involved with his college love.  It’s as if this is an alternate way for that Junpei’s life to turn out.  Really interesting.  Is there a full-length Junpei novel in Murakami’s future?

“A SHINAGAWA MONKEY”  9/2005 (BW, and in Strange Tales from Tokyo)

A young married woman, Ando Mizuki, has started to forget her name.  Just her name, and just when people ask her about it.  At work she still uses her maiden name, Ozawa, for no other reason than because it’s too much trouble to change it.  Her husband doesn’t mind, as he sees the logic in it – he’s very logical.  Because of that logic he would no doubt conclude that her present problem indicates that on some level she’s unhappy with her marriage, but she doesn’t think that’s it.  She goes to a counselor who works for Shinagawa-ku, where they live, Mrs. Sasaki.

Over the course of their sessions they talk about her childhood and name-related incidents.  Mizuki went to a boarding school in Yokohama, far away from her home in Nagoya.  They had name tags at the entrance to the school dorm that you turned one way to show you were in the dorm and another way to show you were out.  One night, Yuko, the most popular and beautiful girl in the school, came to Mizuki and asked her to look after her name tag while she went home for a funeral.  Yuko also asks Mizuki if she’s ever been jealous.  No.  Yuko says she’s lucky – jealousy is like a tumor eating you up inside.  Yuko leaves and never comes back – turns out she committed suicide.  Mizuki’s left with the name tag, which in fact she still has.

Or thinks she does.  But when she gets home and checks the envelope where she kept Yuko’s and her own high school name tags, they’re both gone.  But at her next session Mrs. Sasaki says they’ve caught the thief.  Thief?  It’s a monkey – her husband, who works for Public Works, caught it.  The monkey says he has a bad habit of stealing names, when he finds ones he likes.  And he’d always loved Yuko’s.  Had meant to steal it when she was alive, but then she died.  It took him this long to track it down.  And in the process he took a fancy to Mizuki’s.  Now he gives them both back and begs for mercy.

He also says it might have been better for Yuko if he had stolen her name – when a monkey steals a name it accepts both the good and the bad, and that might have cleared some of the darkness from Yuko’s heart.  Mizuki asks what darkness attaches to her own name.  When pressed, the monkey tells her:  her mother never loved her.  Neither did her sister.  And her father couldn’t stand up to them.  That’s why they sent her away to school.  And, starved for love, Mizuki has never been able to truly love anybody else.  Mizuki recognizes that this is the truth.  Thinks she can deal with it herself now.

Classic Murakami pop surrealism, this.  The misdirection is what makes it work.  First we suspect it has to be a story about a woman dissatisfied with married life, who feels her identity subsumed into her husband’s.  Then we think it’s going to be a story about jealousy – and maybe Yuko was jealous of Mizuki, but if so we have no indication of how or why.  In the end it’s a story about – well, about a monkey that steals names.  About learning the truth of one’s own situation, too, although that really comes as a bit of an afterthought.  Is there some way in which her feelings of never having been loved, her inability to love, robs her of her name?

But about that monkey:  the idea of a monkey living in the sewers of Tokyo because that’s the only place it can survive unmolested, a monkey that can talk and steal names but is ashamed and penitent when caught, a monkey that can filter the bad out of people’s names…  Very interesting.  Not to mention cute.  Ends the collection on a whimsical, funny note.

As a collection, it’s linked by the motif of strange happenings – but as Murakami himself says in the intro to Blind Willow, all his stories have something strange in them, so that’s really a pretty weak link.  One of them, “Hanalei Bay,” stands with the best of his work.  A couple of them are really interesting for how they connect to the rest of his recent work.  And a couple of them are just pleasant pieces of whimsy.  Certainly they could stand on their own more easily than, say, the After the Quake stories.  But there’s something very pleasing about being able to take them on their own as a unit.