Book Reviews

After the Quake
Sputnik Sweetheart
Wind-up Bird Chronicle

Norwegian Wood
Hear the Wind Sing
Pinball 1973

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After the Quake
Author Laura Miller  
Date September 5, 2002  

In the first story in this collection by the author of "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," a salesman's wife sits mesmerized by the coverage of the 1995 earthquake that killed thousands of people in Kobe, Japan. Then she leaves him, with only a note reading "you are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air," by way of explanation. A co-worker offers to pay his airfare to a northern coastal city if the salesman will just take with him a small box ("nothing fragile and there are no 'hazardous materials'") to deliver, by hand, to the co-worker's sister. The box is tightly wrapped and weighs practically nothing.

The salesman arrives, hands over the package, winds up in bed with a friend of the sister and tells her about his wife's note. "I may have nothing inside me," he says, "but what would something be?" Only then does he get around to wondering what's in the box, and to wondering why he hasn't wondered about it earlier. "I'll tell you why," says the woman. "It's because that box contains the something that was inside you. You just didn't know that when you carried it here and gave it to Keiko with your own hands. Now, you'll never get it back." That's how easily life in Murakami's stories glides from domestic travail to the edge of an uncanny abyss.

The world Murakami's characters live in has an atmosphere a bit like that of the first season of "Twin Peaks"; it is both ordinary and spooked, trivial and full of portents. Furthermore, like the residents of Twin Peaks, these people are never going to get any clear-cut answers, but for Murakami at least, the whole point of existence is to inhabit its mysteries.

This is a slim book, but you'll need to read it twice. The stories are connected overtly by the Kobe disaster (they all occur during the following month), but also in a dozen subterranean ways -- motifs like bears, snakes, frogs and boxes keep floating to the surface and sinking back down again. The subconscious is Murakami's natural habitat, and sometimes these stories seem to be dreaming of each other, their elements taking on different forms, picking up the threads dropped earlier. They are enigmatic without being obscure; by the second reading you'll know what the author is trying to say, even if you can't quite nail it down in so many words.

Murakami's characters are like everyone else -- haunted by old losses and betrayals, afraid of being trapped, perplexed by the demands life makes of them. A story like "Honey Pie," about a writer's emergence from a detachment he only thinks has been imposed upon him, is entirely realistic, but the child in it has nightmares about the "Earthquake Man," a bogeyman ("tall and skinny and old") who wants to stuff people into impossibly tiny boxes.
On the other hand, in the weirdly heartbreaking "Superfrog Saves Tokyo," Mr. Katagiri, the "assistant chief of the Lending Division of the Shinjuku branch of the Tokyo Security Trust Bank," is visited at his bachelor apartment by an enormous and very noble frog. The frog, named Frog, needs the support of Katagiri in his epic battle with Worm, an underground serpent who threatens to destroy Tokyo with another quake, this one to be set off by Worm's irate, mindless writhings. Why Katagiri? It turns out that Frog has been watching the bank officer's life of unsung decency. "To be quite honest, Mr. Katagiri," says the gigantic amphibian, "you are nothing much to look at, and you are far from eloquent, so you tend to be looked down upon by those around you. I, however, can see what a sensible and courageous man you are." Perhaps this story sounds preposterous, but somehow, after the first few pages, it's not.

None of the stories here deals directly with the earthquake; the catastrophe is technically peripheral to the characters' lives but its figurative tremors affect them nonetheless. Murakami wrote a nonfiction book, "Underground," which was based on extensive interviews with the victims of the Aum Shinriko cult's gassing of the Tokyo subway; that terrorist attack occurred only two months after the Kobe quake. Both events seem to have struck Murakami to the core, forcing him to reassess his aloofness toward his countrymen. While the people in his stories still tend to be loners, he's preoccupied now with the nature of connection, the ways that even those who try to remain isolated still put out invisible tendrils of fellow-feeling, often without realizing it.
And, in fact, "After the Quake" enacts that very idea. It is only superficially a story collection; seldom have I read another that feels more like a whole rather than a collection of parts. This is breathtakingly close to a flawless book, but in a very modest way. Like Mr. Katagiri's heroism, its perfection is there to be savored by those who know how to look.

Our next pick: A family finds gems, mystery and adulterous passion on the island of Elba
Twenty-two-year-old Simire is in love for the first time - with a woman 17 years her senior. But whereas Miu is a glamorous and successful older woman with a taste for classical music and fine wine, Sumire is an aspiring writer who dresses in an oversized second-hand coat and heavy boots like a character in a Kerouac novel.

Surprised that she might, after all, be a lesbian, Sumire spends hours on the phone talking to her best friend K. about the big questions in life: what is sexual desire and should she ever tell Miu how she feels about her?
K., a primary school teacher, is used to answering questions, but what he most wants to say to Sumire is "I love you". And so, in this extraordinary tale from Japan's most celebrated novelist, each character is trapped in their own world, lost satellites adrift in the infinite darkness of space; lonely souls who meet, pass each other, and part, perhaps never to meet again.
Frustrated in his love for Sumire, K. consoles himself by having an affair with the mother of one of his pupils. but when a desperate Miu calls him out of the blue from a small Greek island and asks for his help, he soon discovers that something very strange has happened to Sumire.
Author Scott Tobias  
Date September 4, 2002  

In the early months of 1995, Japan was shaken to the core by two disasters in close succession: First, the Kobe earthquake claimed the lives of more than 4,000 people and left nearly 300,000 homeless; then, members of the Aum Shinrikyo religious cult launched a sarin-gas attack on Tokyo's subway system.
After a long period abroad, novelist Haruki Murakami returned home for reasons both practical (his parents were among the Kobe homeless) and artistic, seeking to rediscover a country that had suddenly lost its equilibrium. Arriving fast on the heels of Underground, his ambitious and deeply moving collection of testimonials by witnesses to the gas attack, Murakami's slender, delicately wrought short-story cycle, After The Quake, isn't so direct in its psychological inquiry. But it's just as probing and insightful. The six stories each take place within the short period between the two tragedies, when the earthquake's tremors reverberated through everyone's lives, even those not remotely connected to the victims. Much like in the movie Signs, which inadvertently (and powerfully) speaks to the experience of most Americans on Sept. 11, the characters in After The Quake receive their information from secondhand sources, picking up fragments from television, radio, and newspapers.

The earthquake doesn't uproot their lives so much as call them into question, triggering a mood of reflection that slowly morphs into action, as they confront their own mortality and spiritual emptiness, often for the first time. In "UFO In Kushiro," the hero's wife stares blankly at the television for five days straight, then disappears on the sixth, ending their stable marriage with a note informing him, in no uncertain terms, that she's never coming back. As he couriers a small, mysterious package from Tokyo to snowy, arid Hokkaido, news of the earthquake rarely surfaces, yet he's haunted by his wife's suggestion that she could no longer abide his vacant humanity.
People seeking an identity are common in After The Quake, from a lonely businesswoman who seeks guidance from a Thai chauffeur while on vacation ("Thailand") to a confirmed bachelor whose born-again mother claims he's the Lord's son ("All God's Children Can Dance"). In the latter, the mother's charity work in Kobe gives her doubting son a chance to seek out the man he believes to be his real father, but in a strange and mesmerizing final scene, he brushes unexpectedly with the Divine. Murakami's penchant for bizarre, dreamlike imagery reaches a peak in the horror-comedy of "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," about a talking frog who convinces a man to help him fight a giant worm that's threatening Tokyo with an even more devastating earthquake than Kobe's. But the other stories are merely a prelude to the intensely personal "Honey Pie," which concerns a shy, passive middle-aged writer forever at the short end of a love triangle involving his two closest friends.

When the opportunity arrives for him to claim the woman he loves, he's seized by ingrained feelings of fear and doubt, with the implications of the earthquake weighing heavily on his conscience. Murakami typically keeps the parallels between himself and his writer-hero vague and slippery, but their dilemma is largely the same. Faced with the specter of human tragedy, Murakami has accepted his own call to action: Taken as a companion to Underground, After The Quake continues his strong and eloquent response to the changing tenor of Japanese life.
Author Becky Ohlsen  
Date 2002  

There's nothing tidy or organized about an earthquake, no real signal that marks its absolute end. Earthquakes can echo for days, the repercussions shaking all those poor souls who thought they were safe.

These six stories by Haruki Murakami, Japan's most popular living fiction writer, work in much the same way. Beneath their crystalline surfaces, subterranean changes of tremendous import are occurring. Rather than wrapping up with a tidy conclusion, the stories disintegrate beautifully, leaving readers shaken long after they turn the last page.
The stories are inspired by the quake that devastated Kobe in January 1995. The earthquake itself only appears at the edges of each tale, but Murakami's characters all face sudden, uncontrollable changes in their lives wrought by external forces. In effect, each of them is struck by his or her own shattering personal earthquake.

In "UFO in Kushiro," an electronics salesman is stunned when his wife, after watching TV news reports of the quake nonstop for five days, abandons him ("living with you is like living with a chunk of air," she writes). A colleague intervenes and sets him on a journey that turns out to be much longer and stranger than expected. In "Landscape with Flatiron," a runaway girl finds first comfort, then despair, in a bonfire artist on the beach. "All God's Children Can Dance" is a stunning internal safari through the dangerous emotional landscape of a fatherless young man with a terrible hangover. In "Thailand," an exhausted pathologist is softened and broken by the revelation that comes at the end of her week's vacation. "Honey Pie" is a meditation on love as sweet as its title, but its sweetness is tempered by nightmares and grief.
"Super-Frog Saves Tokyo" is the strangest of the stories, and the most closely tied to the Kobe quake. A loan collector, Mr. Katagiri, comes home to find a six-foot frog in his apartment. Naturally, he's a little surprised, although he remains typically polite: "It's not that I don't trust you, but I don't seem to be able to grasp the situation exactly." The frog explains that he needs Katagiri's help to fight the giant Worm underneath Tokyo and prevent an earthquake even bigger than Kobe's. The story, which begins as a fun romp through absurdity, becomes a dark, even nauseating tale of a fierce battle that takes place both literally and metaphorically beneath the surface.

The protagonist of "Honey Pie," a struggling fiction writer called Junpei, declares in a melancholy moment that "the short story is on the way out. Like the slide rule." Reading this collection filled with undeniable passion, intensely fascinating characters, and sparkling prose ("Time wobbled on its axis inside him, like curtains stirring in a breeze"), one can't help but think --- and hope --- Junpei is wrong.
Author Julie Myerson  
Date November 17, 2002  
Media The Telegraph  

The fragility of urban life, of love, of marriage, the emptiness that lurks in human souls, all lie at the heart of Murakami's collection After the Quake (tr by Jay Rubin, 132pp, Harvill, £10). The most perturbing - and attractive - aspect of Murakami's books is that they usually amount to far more than the sum of their parts. They resist definition, yet they seem to stand for an unnamed something - they seem to have a life outside themselves.
This new collection has lots to recommend it, but the finest story by far is "Honey Pie". Three friends, two men and a woman, hung around together 20 years ago as students. Junpei (the writer of short stories!) was always, secretly, hopelessly in love with Sayoko, but Takatsuki ended up marrying her - simply because he asked her. They had a child together but now, years on, Takatsuki has left her, and Junpei is still her friend and constant soul mate, even helping out with her daughter. Why, then, can't he bring himself to ask her to marry him?

Gender is always a big deal in Murakami. His male protagonists are mostly good men, kind, straight, calm, but also uptight, passive, frozen and unable to act. His women are, on the whole, enigmatic, decisive, seductive, far-reaching. This story is tough and tender, opaque and funny - but the scene where Sayoko performs a trick with her bra (such things happen in Murakami) had me fighting tears on the Northern Line.
This isn't just a love story. It's a piece of writing about the threads and snags of time, the tangles, the way things pan out and why. I couldn't even begin to explain why I find it quite so moving and, in a sense, that's Murakami's magic. He speaks to a place so deep inside us that we can scarcely even
Author Alan Cheuse  
Date August 4, 2002  
Media The San Francisco Chronicle  

A month or so ago I was moderating a panel of fiction and nonfiction writers, and one of the questions on the table was how to write after the Sept.
11 attacks. Would the writers choose to write about those events as fiction or nonfiction?

One of the writers said she didn't think it was possible just yet to do anything about an event of that magnitude in fiction. Another offered the example of "UFO in Kushiro," a story in a recent issue of the New Yorker by the gifted Japanese novelist and story writer Haruki Murakami. It begins with images of the devastating 1995 Kobe earthquake -- "crumpled banks and hospitals, whole blocks of stores in flames, severed rail lines and expressways" -- and introduces us to a woman so shattered by this natural disaster that she picks herself up, packs and abandons her marriage, leaving her husband to find his way through a world he first believes to be empty of possibility.

That story happens to be the first of six in Murakami's new collection, "After the Quake," all of whose contents play off the great Kobe earthquake in one way or another. The story follows the husband, a high-end hi-fi salesman from Tokyo, as he grapples with his wife's sudden departure. He tells his colleagues he's going to take time off. Why not take a trip? one of the men suggests. A trip to Hokkaido. And while you're there deliver a small package to my sister. The salesman makes the journey, and changes his life forever.

That narrative action, that of the accidental turn, in this case the earthquake, that leads to new fortune, recurs in a number of these wonderfully inventive stories. In "Thailand," a lonely and burned-out Japanese doctor, an expert on diseases of the thyroid, takes a colleague's advice and takes a vacation in the countryside of that Southeast Asian nation. Her connection to the Kobe quake seems tenuous at first. A man she despises for reasons that eventually become clear lived in Kobe, and she hopes he has died there. While in Thailand the doctor does nothing to change her life, just swims and reads and eats, while her driver delivers himself of portentous disquisitions.

"Strange and mysterious things, though, aren't they -- earthquakes?" the man says. "We take it for granted that the earth beneath our feet is solid and stationary. But suddenly one day . . . the earth, the boulders, that are supposed to be so solid, all of a sudden turn as mushy as liquid."

So the earthquake at Kobe is an occasion for philosophical speculation as well as psychological disruption. But it's also a source of prophecy, as in the reading an old Thai peasant medium gives the Japanese doctor ("there is a stone inside your body. A hard white stone. About the size of a child's fist. .

. . There is something written on the stone . . . small black characters of some kind. The stone and its inscription are old, old things. . . . You must get rid of the stone. Otherwise, after you die and are cremated, only the stone will remain.")

And the earthquake gives rise to mythology, too, as in the fantastic-minded story "Super-Frog Saves Tokyo," in which a man, who turns out to be dying, or at least delirious after suffering a gunshot wound, is visited by a giant frog who solicits his assistance in fighting a giant worm that lives beneath the Earth's surface and whose tossing and turning creates the big quakes. And then there's "Earthquake Man," who appears to a small child in dreams in the story "Honey

Pie," threatening to stuff her into a little box and yanking so hard on her arm her joints crack. The lonely but successful short-story writer Junpei, the main character of this story, finds himself in love with the frightened child's mother, who is married to his best friend. Junpei is also affected by the quake more than he cares to admit.

"Whenever anyone mentioned the earthquake," Murakami writes, "he would clam up. It was an echo from a past he had buried long ago. He hadn't set foot on those streets since his graduation, but still, the sight of the destruction laid bare raw wounds hidden somewhere deep inside him. The lethal, gigantic catastrophe seemed to change certain aspects of his life, quietly, but from the ground up. . . . I have no roots, he thought. I'm not connected to anything."

Junpei the story writer develops an aesthetic out of this world of disaster,

geological and psychological and mythological. We know he deploys a successful style in his fiction "which enabled him to transform the most deeply reverberating sounds and subtle gradations of light and color into concise, convincing prose."

However, in his life, he has been ineffectual, if not a complete mess. Not until his best friend and the love of his life end their marriage does he seize something valuable from the ruins and devise a new aesthetic ("I want to write about people who dream and wait for the night to end, who long for the light so they can hold the ones they love") and a forceful new way of living: "But right now I have to stay here and keep watch over this woman and this girl . . . even if the sky should fall or the earth crack open with a roar."

These stories, both mysterious and yet somehow quite familiar, may have the same effect on you, living, as we aall are now, with the possibility of imminent disaster.