Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Murakami's Boundaries

I’ve often read that a good deal of Haruki Murakami’s writing is powerful because it evokes the unconscious trends of Japanese society. Without knowing much about Japan, it’s hard for me to speak to that, although it might explain away the strange underpinnings of his more abstract books. Personally, I find the subtle dark undertones of his writing to be mesmerizingly suggestive, but find that it's powerful because of this lack of specificity, not in spite of it. It's with this in mind that I ponder his obsession with boundaries. Boundaries between the real and the imaginary, boundaries between good and evil, boundaries between the certain and the uncertain.

His most famous boundary is the doorway that exists between the bottom of a dried up well and the mysterious hotel room in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, but it doesn’t take a lot of deep reading to find equivalencies in his other books. The most obvious one is spelled out in the title of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World in that most of the novel is about the journey between those two realities. I won’t bore you with more examples but pick up any one of his books and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

His 2007 novel After Dark is no exception. In fact, this short novel almost explicitly deals with the barriers between two states of being. These include:
  • The city before and after trains: “Between the time the last train leaves and the first train arrives, the place changes: it’s not the same as in daytime.” (p. 55)
  • Eri’s journey out of the “sleep coma” that she’s been in for the last few months
  • Takihashi’s speech about criminals vs. non-criminals: “[The criminals] live in a different world, they think different thoughts, and their actions are nothing like mine. Between the world they live in and the world I live in there’s this thick, high wall.” (p. 91)
  • One side of the mirror vs. another: Both Mari (p.63) and Shirakawa (p.127) occasionally have reflections that stay in the mirror after they have left the room – and Shirakawa’s reflection even does things that he does not!
  • Takahashi’s music: “You send the music deep enough into your heart so that it makes your body undergo a kind of a physical shift, and simultaneously the listener’s body also undergoes the same kind of physical shift. It's giving birth to that shared state.” (p. 88)
  • Night vs. Day “The new day is almost here, but the old one is still dragging its heavy skirts. Just as ocean water and river water struggle against each other at a river mouth, the old time and the new time clash and blend. Takahashi is unable to tell for sure which side – which world – contains his center of gravity.” (p. 173P
I could go on and on. The entire book is almost a meditation on complimentary opposites, ying and yang swimming both with and against each other. He even writes very evocatively of what it might take to truly be transported from one side to the other (a description of Eri’s journey through the TV screen that starts on page 102). All of these musings come to a head during this remarkable passage:
“What we see now is a gigantic metropolis waking up. Commuter trains of many colors move in all directions, transporting people from place to place. Each of those under transport is a human being with a different face and mind, and at the same time each is a nameless part of the collective entity. Each is simultaneously a self-contained whole and a mere part. Handling this dualism of theirs skillfully and advantageously, they perform their morning rituals with deftness and precision: brushing teeth, shaving, tying neckties, applying lipstick. They check the morning news on TV, exchange words with their families, eat, and defecate.

With daylight, the crows flock in, scavenging for food. Their oily black wings shine in the morning sun. Dualism is not as important an issue for the crows as for the human beings."
So what is it about Japanese society that fuels this obsession with boundaries? Again, I don’t feel qualified to speak: I’m on the far side of yet another boundary in that Murakami’s message is coming to me not only across cultures but also through the filter of a translator. It's a fascinating obsession, and I'm in awe not only that so much of his message gets through, but at how powerful it remains after repeated readings.

Related Posts:
Do You Know What I'm Saying? (Review of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle)
What Makes Murakami Addicting?

Cross-posted on Thought Ambience.


  1. Have you read Underground, Murakami's non-fiction account of the Aum cult's sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system? It is grim stuff, but I think it is connected to these questions.

  2. The focus on trains makes me think of Palimpsest by Catherynne Valente. Do you know it?

  3. I had not, until you mentioned it!

  4. Jenny, I just read the excerpt of Palimpsest on amazon. Great stuff, and hot reading too! I can see why you made the connection. Going to have to pick this one up - thanks for the recommendation!