The Elephant Vanishes, by Haruki Murakami

Copyright by Brent Peterson, 4/9/06


  I first encountered Haruki Murakami through his Norwegian Wood, the novel that made him a household name in Japan. I found that book to be memorably well-written: subtle and precise, affecting without drifting into sentimentality. There was a kind of strangeness to certain scenes, but it wasn't overdone. The characters were believable, and Murakami wasn't straining to be deep where the material didn't warrant it. There were unexpected but perfectly believable developments like the college-age narrator sleeping with his girlfriend's middle-aged friend after the girlfriend's suicide, as a form of mutual comfort. I felt like Murakami was someone I wanted to read more of, but I didn't get the chance until now.

  But the Haruki Murakami I encountered in the pages of The Elephant Vanishes, translated by Jay Rubin and Alfred Birnbaum, seemed to be a completely different writer - and, unfortunate to say, in most cases a markedly inferior one.

  For one thing, there's a kind of intentional blandness to the tone and setting. The protagonists in these stories are usually urban and suburban middle-class husbands and wives in their late 20's and early 30's, who do routine middle-class things like make spaghetti, listen to classical music (almost every other story has a reference to a classical composer), and feel a vague tension and distance while around their spouses. Much can be done with these mainstays, but Murakami drones, describing each fold of laundry, each trip for groceries. The quotidian details could be sketched rather than enumerated, and they enact the fallacy that banal existence requires equally banal writing.

  So to make things 'interesting', Murakami inserts, well, random crap - I suppose his apologists would classify these intrusions into the mundane as 'surreal' or 'magic realist', but surrealism and absurdity result from precise spirals of logic leading to irrational but somehow appropriate conclusions; when implausible things have no cause, explanation, or purpose, there is no tension because anything can happen.

  Consider 'The Second Bakery Attack', in which a husband and wife, suddenly overcome by an unearthly hunger, drive to a McDonald's early in the morning with a shotgun and demand food. Now, this is an example - one of many in The Elephant Vanishes - in which, having conceived a potentially rewarding idea, Murakami botches its execution.

  For example, if the husband and wife were poor enough to actually need to hold up a McDonald's, there could be real tension and interest to this premise. But in the story, their hunger and eventual action result from a kind of curse hanging over the marriage, resulting from an earlier 'bakery attack' in which the husband and his friend held up a bakery to get a week's worth of bread. (not because they needed to, they just didn't want to work - the unexamined middle-classness remains firmly in place). Tellingly, both 'attacks' aren't seen as particularly stupid or unnecessary - the logic Murakami provides seems to be that a second attack was required to complete or finish the first. Once the couple have stuffed themselves with Big Macs, the curse - and the story - end.

  Again, think of all the ways this story could have gone right. All the possibilities of a couple holding up a McDonald's for food - them actually having reasonable motivations, other customers in the place getting involved (Murakami completely whiffs on this one, the only other customers are a sleeping couple) are bypassed. Everything goes off without a hitch; there's no tension, no suspense, no point. Now, again, you might be asking 'But does there need to be?' In answer to that, let's look at the actual level of writing and plot-construction and see how Murakami fares. Once the narrator has told his wife about the first attack, she insists they complete a second one. Murakami then describes them riding in their car, "stretched out on the back seat, long and stiff as a dead fish, was a Remington automatic shotgun." Why this couple would have a shotgun in a country with gun laws as strict as Japan is never explained, but certainly strains the already attenuated credibility. Murakami passes this off with:


  "Why my wife owned a shotgun, I had no idea. Or ski masks. Neither of us had ever skied. But she didn't explain and I didn't ask. Married life is weird, I felt."

  This is not surrealism, magic realism, or absurdity. This is Murakami trying to joke off his laziness. Clearly, Murakami had the idea that "It'd be cool if a couple held up a McDonald's," but he couldn't be bothered to craft a convincing scenario. The above lines could work in the context of pure farce, but Murakami is going for something portentous, tossing in, in the same story, anecdotes about Wagner changing the protagonist's life and a menacing subconscious image of a volcano protruding from beneath the sea. What any of this means is beside the point - in nearly every story, Murakami evades resolution and passes everything off with a few rhetorical and leading questions - the old "What did it all mean? I couldn't tell. What does anything mean? Isn't it funny being alive..." trick.

  In 'The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women', the protagonist receives mysterious phone-calls from a woman claiming to know him and demanding he come to "an understanding of our feelings." The phone-calls take a turn for the pornographic, while the protagonist's wife sends him on a mission to find their missing cat. En route, he encounters a teenage girl who lectures him on death. There is some mild flirtation between them, but nothing comes of it. The protagonist returns home without having found the cat, and when his wife returns, she accuses him of killing the cat through negligence. End of story.

  Now - here's the catch - there is actually a Murakami novel called The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. From what I can tell, "The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women" is the first chapter. Well...okay. It might work as a first chapter. But it manifestly does not work as a stand-alone short story. I can think of no reason why this was included (as the first story in the book, much less) other than to get the reader to have to fork up more money for the novel to find out what happens. Weak, weak stuff.

  Taken from the same story, this is how Murakami thinks sixteen year old girls talk out loud:


  "I think about what it would be like to cut the thing open with a scalpel. Not the corpse. That lump of death itself. There's got to be something like that in there somewhere, I just know it. Dull like a softball - and pliable - a paralyzed tangle of nerves. I'd like to remove it from the dead body and cut it open. I'm always thinking about it. Imagining what it'd be like inside."

  Real-life conversation can, of course, take turns for the bizarre. But the story fails completely to capture this happening.

  In 'The Kangaroo Communique', a product control clerk sends a long, rambling tape to a woman whose complaint form sexually aroused him. The message, or 'communique' has no real structure, and is full of - again - random crap. Murakami tries to get all deep, rambling about the life-cycle of kangaroos and 'the Nobility of Imperfection', but the story itself is so disjointed, ill-written, and vaguely unwholesome (the clerk, although apparently meant to be funny or moving, is only creepy in his attempts to come onto the writer of the complaint form) that whatever insights were intended are completely lost. Even if the entire story is only intended to be the mental ejaculations of a madman, it still doesn't contain enough to warrant even a cursory reading.

  In 'The Little Green Monster', the eponymous creature (a kappa, perhaps) burrows through a woman's garden and breaks into her house, confessing its love for her. The woman kills the monster by imagining herself torturing it. End of story.

  Murakami tries very hard to come up with something like the prose equivalent of Twin Peaks, without much luck. Rather than suggest worlds of darkness and mystery beneath the surface, his 'odd' stories, while striving not to 'conclude' anything, nevertheless miss the mark of suggestive understatement - usually, this results from Murakami failing to connect his conceits with sympathetic characters. The protagonists are usually too generic for it to matter when Murakami tries to skew the mundane rhythm of their lives.

  The most frustrating thing, though, is that The Elephant Vanishes isn't completely bad. At times, the Murakami of Norwegian Wood manages to break through, the one attuned to loneliness and detail and the actual randomness of life. It seems that in short stories, Murakami is best when he sticks to brief, nice ideas and doesn't try to stretch them to depths they can't support. This happens when he restrains himself, when he forces himself to deal with human emotion and not merely dick around with his fabulist conceits. Throughout the unsuccessful stories, there is no especial joy in any of the language, no sense of urgency that would make the bizarre elements exciting. It's only when he narrows his focus, stops showing off, and reaches for the real that his writing succeeds.

  "On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning," about what happens after you randomly meet your perfect partner on the street, is a success at only five pages. The story is little more than a conceit, but Murakami doesn't try to piss all over it with trite ruminations, and as such, it stands out nicely.

  In "Family Affair," the protagonist is pushing thirty but still living with his sister, who is on the verge of marrying a man the protagonist finds boring. This story is nice - nothing remarkable, but well written and believable. True, the characters learn 'lessons' at the end, but the tone isn't unbearable and there's no evidence of dramatic life-change - just the gradual adjustments people make to accomodate other personality types.

  "The Window", a story of the loneliness of a woman who joins a letter-writing society just to have someone she can unfold her feelings to, is another success. Here's the ending, after the protagonist, who corresponded with the woman, visits her apartment while her husband is away, sharing a brief connection with her:


  "Should I have slept with her?
  That's the central question of this piece.
  The answer is beyond me. Even now, I have no idea. There are lots of things we never understand, no matter how many years we put on, no matter how much experience we accumulate. [italics mine] All I can do is look up from the train at the windows in the buildings that might be hers. Every one of them could be her window, it sometimes seems to me, and at other times I think none of them could be hers. There are simply too many of them."


  Even though the italicized sentence is a cliche and could easily have been deleted, the last line is effective, implying that not only are there too many windows, but there are too many lonely people - a reality Murakami could apply himself to more rigorously if he gave up on the dancing dwarves and little green monsters.

  The most interesting story is "Sleep", in which a housewife, suffering from insomnia that leaves her with full energy, finds time for herself after her family has gone to sleep. Although she is initially troubled, the woman's sleeplessness is a catalyst for liberation, in that, finally given enough free time to indulge her passions for Russian literature and swimming, she comes to resent the blandness of her husband and son. The emotions generated here are more palpable and unsettling than anything else in the collection, and I got the sense Murakami might actually pull off something awesome - but, tellingly, the ending completely fails to resolve anything, or even offer a glimpse of some future development or revelation. All we get is some incredibly cliched rambling about the unknowability of death, and then the woman's car being attacked in the night by strangers. Having thrown some interesting balls up in the air, Murakami shows that he doesn't know how to catch them with any reliability. Let's look at some of this:


  "Perhaps death was a state entirely unlike sleep, something that belonged to a different category altogether - like the deep, endless, wakeful darkness I was seeing now.
  No, that would be too terrible. If the state of death was not to be a rest for us, then what was going to redeem this imperfect life of ours, so fraught with exhaustion? Finally, though, no one knows what death is. Who has ever truly seen it? No one. Except the ones who are dead. No one living knows what death is like. They can only guess. And the best guess is still a guess. Maybe death is a kind of rest, but reasoning can't tell us that. The only way to find out what death is is to die. Death can be anything at all."


  Even given the possibility of a bad translation, this simply isn't good writing. It's teenage angst, unoriginal and not particularly well-phrased. The same thing happens in most of the other stories. Having conceived an interesting idea, Murakami merely describes it, sometimes tacks on some cliched sentiments, and ends. Repeat. Halfway through the book, I was simply tired. Here's the narrator of "The Last Lawn of the Afternoon," on writing:


  "And then to put these things out as saleable items, you call them finished products - at times it's downright embarassing just to think of it. Honestly, it can make me blush. And if my face turns that shade, you can be sure everyone's blushing."

  Sadly, this is pretty much correct. The control isn't there. For most of this book, Murakami is just noodling. There were times during The Elephant Vanishes when I was very, very embarassed for you, Haruki.


Postscript: Blurbs


  As usual, this got blurbed with a bunch of nonsense that has nothing to do with Murakami's writing in general, much less the actual contents of the book. Taken from the front and back covers:


1) "A remarkable writer...he captures the common ache of the contemporary heart and head." - Jay McInerney


  Generic nonsense - completely meaningless.


2) "How does Murakami manage to make poetry while writing of contemporary life and emotions? I am weak-kneed with admiration." - Independent on Sunday


  He doesn't make poetry. None of his prose can really be considered 'poetic', even in the broadest, most baseless descriptive sense. Even in the total effect of his best stories, they aren't particularly poetic, just realistic and recognizeable. It's nothing to get weak-kneed about.


3) "These stories show us Japan as it's experienced from the inside...Even in the slipperiest of Mr. Murakami's stories, pinpoints of detail flash out warm with life." -New York Times


  Whoever wrote this knows nothing about Japan and probably didn't bother to read Murakami, either. None of these stories really describes a recognizeable Japan, not just because Murakami often detaches from reality (and quality) completely, but because he's too busy fellating the West (he never stops namedropping Western music a baby-boomer would find cool, while current j-rock gets a single dismissive paragraph) to really deal with anything like contemporary Japanese social issues. Not that there's any real necessity to do that - just saying he doesn't, is all. There's no sense of 'Japan from the inside' - if the names were changed, all the stories could easily take place somewhere else.


4) "Enchanting...intriguing...All of these tales have a wonderfully surreal quality and a hip, witty tone."


  Read: Murakami name-drops Western music, not just classical but stuff like Miles Davis and The Doors. This makes him "hip." Or else, he writes sentences like "A long, flimsy tin sign arching its sickly spine like an anal-sex enthusiast." This is also very "hip." And he has story titles like "The Fall of the Roman Empire, The 1881 Indian Uprising, Hitler's Invasion of Poland, and the Realm of Raging Winds." It's all very hip. Not. As for surrealism, I already explained why it doesn't apply here.


5) "Murakami is a true original and yet in many ways he is also Franz Kafka's successor because he seems to have the intelligence to know what Kafka truly was - a comic writer."


  This would be ridiculous hyperbole under any standards, but Murakami is not particularly comic. If you think the above-stated anal-sex sentence, or the concept of a malevolent dancing dwarf ("The Dancing Dwarf") is funny enough to sustain stories without any real narrative heft, you might disagree. I'm sorry, but I'm not seeing it. Murakami doesn't do particularly well with humor: the attempts at it here are lame and juvenile. Nothing is especially surprising or cutting. There's no bite. You wonder whether sentences like "Alone in this funhouse, only I grow old, a pale softball of death swelling inside me." are ridiculous on purpose or not, and whether it makes a difference.


  Brent Peterson is an old school classicist who aspires to be a state-class mandarin of the Tang dynasty. He spends most of his time studying languages and texts that have been irrelevant to most people's lives for millenia while trying to finish his thesis.

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