As a capstone course for the Language and Literature option, my department offers a “Senior Symposium.” The course is designed to allow students to apply everything they have learned in the program to an array of unfamiliar texts and literary works.
The course is usually designed around a study of multiple works by a single author. When I was asked to teach the course, I chose to assign a selection of novels by Japanese novelist, Haruki Murakami. Murakami is popular, but controversial, in Japan. He is also very popular world-wide, translated into many languages. Do Murakami’s novels and short stories represent achievements of enduring literary merit? Or are they books of the moment, designed for popular appeal? Even in Japan, critics are unsure. And why, exactly, are they so popular? We will explore these questions, among others.
My late wife was an early fan of Murakami when she was in college in Yokohama and his novels were being serialized in literary magazines in Japan. She gave me English translations of his first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, published by Kodansha in Japan before he became internationally famous with the publication in the U.S. of Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase. I also became an early fan.
Along with Wild Sheep Chase, the three early novels are often called “The Rat Trilogy.” They all feature the same nameless narrator, his friend “The Rat,” and J’s bar. Hear the Wind Sing is the novel Murakami wrote on a whim and sent to a contest, which he won. Pinball, 1973 is a sequel, also written while he was still running a jazz bar. In a strange way, the narrator, The Rat, and J of J’s bar, all seem to be versions of Murakami himself. In the course, we will start with Wild Sheep Chase.
A Murakami novel usually has a first person narrator, often nameless, who calls himself “boku,” an informal first-person pronoun usually used by young boys. The narrator lives a relatively nondescript life on the margins of Japanese society, but often experiences visions of another world through powerful dreams, or through such actions as taking an elevator to the wrong floor, opening the wrong door, or even through climbing down a well. He has often lost his wife or girlfriend and doggedly seeks her, often encountering other versions of her in the process. The boundary between the “real” world and the other world is variously permeable. Characters who are dead in the “real” world often continue to exist in the other world. Some characters, such as the Sheep Man in Wild Sheep Chase, exist primarily in the other world.
The narrator generally lacks affect, and responds to extraordinary and unexplainable events by reverting to daily routines, such as making coffee, drinking a beer, or cooking spaghetti. The only unique characteristic of the narrator is that he loves jazz (sometimes American pop music, sometimes classical) and usually has an encyclopedic knowledge of the recordings.
Though the writing is rather flat emotionally (though often evocative of emotions in the reader), Murakami novels are laden with symbols, portents, historical anecdotes, and odd metaphors. Common themes include friendship, love, marriage, divorce, sexuality, aging, identity, boundaries and borders, sanity, and responsibility. Some later novels deal with aspects of recent Japanese history, including World War II.
Not Quite Japan
The world of the novels has the geography of Japan, but is not quite Japan. The real Japan is full of salarymen in suits and office ladies in fashionable attire hurrying to and from work. If a car is seen parked on the street with a small dent in it, passersby assume that it must belong to a foreigner. Maintaining appearances is an essential aspect of social life. However, Murakami’s characters are more likely to wear blue jeans, T-shirts and sneakers, and drive old, dented cars. They are often in-between jobs. They are odd-balls, just barely getting by. They often favor American products and cultural artifacts, such as beer, music, and films. They don’t seem very Japanese. And yet, they are.
Non-fiction and Other Novels
We will also read sections of Underground, Murakami’s non-fiction account of interviews with the victims and the perpetrators of the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system. This book is filled with stories from real Japanese people, in their own words, describing their experiences on that fateful day. The ordinary Japanese in these accounts are rather different from the typical Murakami characters in the novels.
For further contrast, this time we will also read a couple of novels by Japanese women, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa and Convenience Store Woman by by Sayaka Murata. The Memory Police is a take on 1984 in which the government decrees that certain “useless” things must be forgotten. The police have some sort of mind control that causes most people to forget the forbidden things entirely. Early in the novel, birds disappear. Some people can still remember the forbidden things, but those who can are tracked down and arrested.
Convenience Store Woman is a hilarious, but sad novella about a woman who just likes running a 7-Eleven or a Lawson’s, both of which are ubiquitous in Japan. She doesn’t want a husband or a better job or anything else, but just to work in a little store. It is what brings her joy. Of course, no one in her family approves.
The students will bring everything they know about literary interpretation to these novels. They will demonstrate this knowledge and these skills in writing about these works as a culminating experience. I am looking forward to working with them.
Update (2/25/20): I created a sort of Murakami Bingo Card for students to fill out as they read each novel. It is designed to help them notice commonalities between the novels and see how his technique develops over time.