Whew. Worked my way through the chapters and have more impressions and thoughts to report.
Murakami is revisiting some favorite items, though here they are in very different context: on page 54 he takes about bald men, Kansai accents, and Cutty Sark (the first and third recall Wind-Up Bird, the reference to Kansai recalls one of his heroines who was particularly adept at cooking Kansai cuisine—was it Norwegian Wood? Sputnik Sweetheart?
Murakami’s obviously got some terseness of hard boiled fiction (“The bartender… gave her a professional smile like a well-timed punctuation mark.”)1 with the startling quality that I, rightly or wrongly, associate with much Japanese poetry (the narrator of Hard Boiled Wonderland bumps into a zaftig young woman who is guiding him through a secret laboratory and describes it like bumping into a soft rain cloud).
That’s always been his hallmark, for me, and the degree to which I’ve enjoyed his novels corresponds to how well he combines this tone with the vague materials that are the butter to his bread; when it works the results are fantastic (Wind Up Bird) or at least fitting (Hard Boiled Wonderland), but when it doesn’t he can sound too self-conscious or even seem disingenuous, like Nabokov decrying the quality of his English.
In any case, I think the hardboiledness, so to speak, works, and that’s partly because of the life that Aomame brings into the story. There’s a certain ironic humor in her thoughts as she trolls for a man at the hotel bar in chapter 5: initially she thinks that her suit, utilitarian bag, and heavy bad make her seem like a business woman and not a prostitute; but then, a prostitute would want to fly under the radar and so just might sit with a suit, bag, and bulky book. There’s a bit of humor in the lines and in the boring man who doesn’t get that she just wants a quick encounter.
There’s and something titillating in seeing a woman who has no compunction about crossing social boundaries. She is Lisbeth Salander all the way, right down to her disparaging take on the size of her chest and her quasi-sociopathic thinking (“’I know your thinking my breasts are small,’ she said coldly… ‘I bet you feel cheated’” “There was no reason to expunge this man from society, aside from the fact that he no longer served any purpose for Aomame” 61-62)
But I think the tone also works in the chapters about Tengo. Take this line from six, as Tengo thinks about his older girlfriend. She has just told him obliquely that she can make their afternoon rendezvous because she is on her period. While that’s the way she communicates, “there was nothing delicate or euphemistic about her in bed, but that was another matter.” It’s a noir-ish line, but it works, likely because I can see a big galoof of a guy bragging in a restrained, uncomfortable way in just those words. There’s layers to it, and it is a subtle effect.
Another one of the effects that he’s going for is indecision and the uncertainty right underneath the surface of his characters. Several times the narrator has cut back on himself—Aomame is very firm about her ability to remember specific dates (3-4), but that ability gets scrambled on page 30 as she climbs down from the highway. Then in first paragraph of chapter 4, the narrator says that Komatsu gives no thought to calling someone at any hour of the night, even if it was his wedding night; but in the next paragraph says that Komatsu would only do that to Tengo, and so clearly Komatsu does have some consideration. I am not sure how this will play out, but thought it was worth noting.
The narrator has also used military metaphors at several points in the text: Aomame’s mysterious cabbie speaks ““like a retired staff officer talking about a past military success” (5) and “[Komatsu] made all judgments instantaneously and carried them on decisively, unconcerned what other people might say. This was a quality indispensable to a brilliant commanding officer on the front lines, but it was a quality that Tengo himself did not possess.” (66).
This is a bit strange because it departs from the way that Murakami has previously treated military characters in his other work. He’s associated higher ups with right wing politics and nefarious intent (Wind-Up Bird Chronicle); those lower on the totem pole get a bit more sympathy (Honda and Mamiya in Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the two soldiers in Kafka on the Shore); they can have conscience necessary to consider their situations, but are removed from responsibility and take few independent actions. In this they are very similar to Murakami’s other protagonists; they’re all passive (as Honda tells Toru; when you go up, go up; when you need to go down, find the deepest well you can). Certainly most of the women in Wind-Up Bird are always being pushed around as well, and the whole book could be considered as Toru getting up enough gumption to help Kumiko take action against her brother.
So then here we have Komatsu; he might be unpleasant, but there’s a sense that his personality type is suited for what he does, and there is no judgment placed on what he does. There is a sense that his plan may cause a scandal but that it is somehow right and that Tengo, a more typical Murakami protagonist, has no choice but to play out his role in it, that “already [his] feelings are headed in that direction.” (66).
For her part, Aomame seems to have quite a decisive manner of conducting herself, but she’s not totally in control either—consider her ruminations on her peculiar name and the it has given her life (4).
And yes, it seems that the relationship between Tengo and Fuka-Eri (or the relationship between him and her story Air Chrysalis) will let Murakami talk a bit about inspiration and the authorial process and the relationship between writers and readers and all that other stuff that post-modernism can’t get enough of.
For one, Tengo says that he likes writing for the opposite reason that he likes math on page 46. When he writes he changes a bit of the world; he exists, whereas math would go on existing even if he had never existed in the first place.
For two, Tengo’s urge to edit Fuka-Eri’s story is a “a totally natural, spontaneous desire,” as if there were something drawn out of him (50). Murakami isn’t exactly explaining why people inspire each other, but he is touching on the process, and seems to be suggesting that people complete each other. In chapter 2 Komatsu says that Fuka-Eri has the story but not the skill to tell it while Tengo has the skill and not the story. Could this also be the connection between Tengo and Aomame? I’ve read too much of Murakami’s other work to think that this will pan out as well as Komatsu thinks his scheme for Fuka-Eri and Tengo, but it will be an interesting ride.
For another, Tengo believes that Fuka-Eri wrote Air Chrysalis for an audience, and thinks, suggestively, that if you were writing just for yourself, just to remember things, you may as well compose a list. (67). And so one of story’s defining qualities is that it is meant to communicate with someone else. This is a pretty fine point to make, but my gut tells me that it is important. It also begs the question of who your audience will be; “A story, which was unmistakably writing meant for other people to pick up and read” (67). But who will read it?, Tengo (and Murakami) asks. For now I’ll have to put that particular question on the shelf and see if it comes in handy later.
In any case, Tengo’s thoughts on writing stories come in close proximity to a phone call with his older girlfriend, by which conversation we learn that she has several children, and that one of them is being bullied. Tengo and she have a short conversation on the motivations behind bullying. The conversation serves as a very elegant primer on in group-out group model of Japanese psyche, and recalls Tengo’s thoughts on stories: “The whole point of bullying is to make the other person notice it’s being done to him or her. You can’t have bullying without the victim noticing” (72). The silver lining is that being a part of the out group might help you think for yourself, but it remains to be seen if that is what happens with the daughter.
It may not work out, but I just want to note the connection between bullying and writing. As Murakami’s presented them here, they are both essentially social activities. The comparison is challenging, to be sure (you don’t force someone to read your work in the way that you force someone to be bullied, Murakami’s storytellers are usually a part of the out group, and so are on the other end of the equation from bullies), but I’ve got the feeling that it could be a good thread to tug on when I’m finished with the book and am trying to figure it out; it could be a secret key to the whole she-bang or would just be a dead end; that may just be the point.
Fuka-Eri herself, I don’t know what to make of her. She is not as oddly charming as May Kasahara or some of Murakami’s other teenaged protagonists are, but I may just not be far enough into the book. Her conversations so far are cryptic and suggestive, but she doesn’t have much grip to her yet, either for me the reader or for the other characters. Cautious Tengo reflects that “Intelligent teenage girls were often instinctively theatrical, purposely eccentric, mouthing highly suggestive words to confuse people. He had seen a number of such cases when it was impossible to distinguish the real thing from acting. Tengo decided to bring the conversation back to reality—or, at least, something closer to reality” (51). This touches on another of Murakami’s favorite themes—just what is someone’s real self, and what is just a show?—and gives us a viewpoint that contrasts with the cabbie in chapter one. Aomame’s guide assured her that there is only one reality, but here we’ve got someone who thinks there may be more than one.
 A sentence which, for a long time, encapsulated my idea of what a bartender was supposed to be: efficient, polite, and well aware of when to butt out.