The person who got me into Murakami was my ex-boyfriend from a few years ago. When we met for our first date, I found him at a Borders bookstore in Fort Lee, the one on Lemoine Avenue that has been closing for the last two and a half years and is finally going to shut down completely. He was sitting in the authors K-O aisle, reading Sputnik Sweetheart on the floor.
Four months later, I picked up my first Murakami book—Norwegian Wood. It was early June, and I was parked outside of this middle school kid’s house because I was his after-school tutor. The kid wasn’t home, and it was raining and I had this book with me so I didn’t mind waiting three hours in the car. I liked the novel, but what I really liked was the actual setting (stuck in a car on a rainy spring afternoon) and circumstances (feelings of liberation during my final high school semester) I was in while reading it. I associated my first Murakami experience with those feelings, which made me continue with this contemporary Japanese literature excursion, though it was not Japanese literature in general—just very specifically Murakami, who a lot of my Japanese friends actually dislike. After I finished the book that same afternoon, my boyfriend called and we had a nice chat about it. Then we made plans for the weekend and hung up. I was in a really good mood that day.
The next book I read by Murakami I was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I was living in Alphabet City at the time (early fall), reading and napping when I wasn’t at Hunter as a freshman or working at Baden Baden in K-town as a server from 4 PM to 3 AM. Honestly, the ending to this book made me so angry that I cried. I had read 600 pages only to come to some completely irrelevant ending that did not bring all the mounting strangeness to any resolution or conclusion, and some parts weren’t even that interesting. The book, though, had not been the only thing to provoke crying. I suppose the real reason was the exhaustion that had been accumulating from academic pressure, work pressure, and my boyfriend, who was at times both negligent and demanding. I just needed a little push to set off the tears and Murakami’s book did the job. But that wasn’t enough to turn me off of Murakami completely.
The next Murakami book I read was Sputnik Sweetheart. This was my boyfriend’s favorite book. I liked Sputnik Sweetheart because right around the time I’d finished reading it, my Lebanese-American friend told me a very peculiar story: he went to Lebanon to attend his cousin’s wedding and saw this girl, a family friend. Over the next three weeks, he did everything he could just to be in the same room as her while never working up the nerve to actually speak to her. On the last day of his trip, he found out that she was engaged, but had told his cousin that she had been watching him the entire time, too, waiting for him to come and say something to her. She had felt a connection just as strongly as he did, but neither ever spoke to each other, and now she was going to get married in Lebanon and live there while he was returning to New York.
Side note: This same friend suffered from acute acrophobia. He had an intense fear of flying and took a lot of drugs to keep himself calm during flight. His phobia was so bad that when he saw a bridge that ran over a creek that was literally a foot above water, he broke out into a sweat and refused to cross over. He preferred to wade through it. After this encounter in Lebanon, he said he did not need any sedatives during his return flight to New York. He said that his acrophobia had disappeared completely but he couldn’t for the life of him explain why. Just as he finished telling me and my co-workers this story, my boyfriend walked into the bar and joined us. I said to him, “Tony here had a Sputnik Sweetheart moment in Lebanon,” and he understood what I meant. It was nice to be able to put things that way and not have to explain myself. I enthusiastically continued my Murakami exploration.
The next book I read was Kafka on the Shore. It took me a long time to read because I was losing the ability to focus. I was also fighting a lot with my boyfriend. He hated seeing me read when I was over because he felt like it took time away from him, and since time was so precious and rare in his line of work (medicine), watching me read annoyed him a lot. Of all the books I’d read by Murakami, I found this book to be the easiest read and most memorable. But my boyfriend said that he hated it, that it was Murakami’s lamest effort yet. He said that Murakami wasn’t putting in the effort anymore because he was getting too cocky. Honestly, I felt the same way about how my boyfriend was treating our relationship at the time, but I was too young and blindly committed to leave. I continued to stick around and moved on to Murakami’s next book.
I purchased Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman—a short story collection—in November, just in time for my boyfriend’s birthday. We went to dinner at Blue Ribbon in Park Slope, ate three hundred dollars worth of food, and fought in the cab on our way back to the apartment over the difference between smoked and regular salmon. I remember a couple of stories from that book, which I had picked up and read whenever I was alone at his apartment, waiting for him to come home from class or work. There are two that stick out for me: the one about a kid with a bad ear, and the other called “Tony Takitani.” Years later, I saw a film adaptation of that story by Japanese director Jun Ichikawa. Both the film and story are terrific; they examine the effects of human solitude.
I also associate this book with an incredible shock and the MTA strike; after putting down >Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, I went to my boyfriend’s bookshelf and found a moleskin filled with unsent letters to his ex-girlfriend as well as a line about how he was no longer going to see me because he still loved and missed her. They were written over the previous summer while I was vacationing with him in Korea. I immediately left the apartment, flagged down a cab and car-pooled back to my apartment with a crazy white lady who kept trying to have a conversation with me about the weather and the MTA strike while I was busy crying. It was December, and my anthropology final exam was canceled due to the strike. The cab ride from Flatbush Avenue to Avenue A cost me twenty dollars. That same night, my boyfriend suggested that we meet at the Brooklyn Bridge. When we did, we were surrounded by a crowd of commuters. We talked about our relationship but never came to any satisfying resolution. A few days later, the strike was over, and we continued to take the train to each other’s apartments while saying and doing hurtful things to each other for another year.
The next and last book I read by Murakami is After the Quake. I read it in February, two months after my boyfriend and I broke up, and over a year after I’d read Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. I read the whole thing in bed. The only thing I remember from that book is a giant frog fighting a giant worm. They both end up dead.
Over the two-year relationship with my Murakami-fan boyfriend, I was constantly reading books that ran on themes of human isolation and mentally unstable young women, whose conditions often manifested themselves in some sort of sexual incapacity. My relationship was unhealthy in many ways, but reading those books during times of mental duress wasn’t the best thing for my mind, either. I often related to the characters by feeling equally hollowed out, depressed and psychotic myself, but obviously not because of societal problems that occur in a Japanese system. Rather, it had to do with being in a troubled relationship, and the bad feelings were amplified by reading books about the depressed, the maniacal and the clinically insane. It led me to a severe disconnect from reality and into a state of mental isolation.
During my recent weeklong trip to Korea, I met with a friend (an English professor and fluent speaker of Japanese who has never read a book by Murakami) and we had a huge Sunday brunch at my favorite Tibetan restaurant in Myeong-dong. We ate about 60 USD worth of food and talked about Seth MacFarlane. I said that he looks like a very lonely man, and my friend agreed. Then I said, “But then again, everybody’s lonely,” to which my friend also agreed. “So then I guess my observation on MacFarlane isn’t really all that deep or insightful since everybody struggles with loneliness.” My friend laughed and agreed.
Four years since my last Murakami book, I now see his books being read everywhere by everyone. His books have become a household item like a fork or spatula; they are on bookshelves of every home I visit. I can’t help but cringe at the sight of his books having become so common. People are drawn to Murakami’s writing because he focuses on loneliness and isolation and how an unfulfilled desire for connection and love drives people to various forms of psychosis. Loneliness is a common feeling, and equal to our desire to feel unique. It’s really an indulgent human emotion (I do think it’s an emotion), and there’s nothing outstanding or courageous about it. Loneliness is common, as is craving love and connection, as are relationships, as is Murakami. I think that human isolation and loneliness are plain facts. At this point, writing and reading about them again and again to emphasize their existence seem like a trite effort.
Two summers ago, I sold all my Murakami books at the Strand bookstore and got a dollar in return for each. While I was there, I did browse the M section (force of habit), and I did flip open After Dark, but closed it after the first page and walked away. Thing is, I was over that period in my life. As Murakami writes in that story about a man and his ex-girlfriend who reunite after many years later just to have sex only to end up not going through with it because that door had closed, I realized that the door back to Murakami and all the feelings I had during the time I was reading him had shut, too.