The Travelling Cat Chronicles

Title: The Travelling Cat Chronicles
Japanese Title: 旅猫リポート (Tabineko ripōto)
Author: Hiro Arikawa (有川 浩)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2015 (Japan); 2017 (United Kingdom)
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 247

A man named Satoru Miyawaki is on a journey across Japan, visiting old friends as he looks for someone to adopt his pet cat, Nana. After Satoru’s parents died in a car accident, he went to live with his aunt Noriko, who moved for work every few years. Although he never stayed in one place for long, Satoru was able to make a number of close friends; and, as he drives north, he visits a friend from elementary school, a friend from middle school, and a pair of friends from high school. His final destination is Hokkaido, where his aunt has settled down.

Satoru adopted a stray cat after it was hit by a car, and he gives it the name Nana because a bend in its tail makes it look like the number 7 (nana in Japanese). As a former stray, Nana has his pride, but he decides to stay with Satoru because Satoru asks him respectfully if he wants to be his cat. The reader knows this because about half of the narration in The Travelling Cat Chronicles is from Nana’s perspective. As Satoru reconnects with old friends, Nana makes astute observations about their lives, their habits, and the nature of their relationships with Satoru. He also interacts with the pets of Satoru’s friends, who share insights of their own.

Satoru’s friend from elementary school, Kosuke, has taken over his father’s photography shop, but business isn’t doing well, and he’s separated from his wife. Satoru manages to convince Kosuke to follow his dreams, transition into pet photography, and reconcile with his wife by talking to her about adopting a cat of their own. The next person Satoru visits is Yoshimine, a friend from middle school who has left the city to become a farmer. Yoshimine has just adopted a kitten; and, in any case, he correctly suspects that Satoru doesn’t actually want to leave Nana behind. Afterwards, Satoru visits his high school friends Sugi and Chikako, who run a pet-friendly inn near Mount Fuji. Sugi and Chikako already have pets of their own, including a dog named Toramaru, who immediately takes a disliking to Nana. Needless to say, Nana is not adopted by anyone, which suits him just fine.

The Travelling Cat Chronicles is not so much a travelogue as it is a sustained reflection on Satoru’s childhood, which was shaped by his relationships with his friends, whom he bonded with over various incidents involving pets. All of Satoru’s memories are wholesome, and his friends are unfailingly kind. Nana is loyal and protective of Satoru, and he is a patient and considerate travel partner. When the pair finally arrives in Hokkaido, they encounter nothing but gorgeous green fields and delicious fresh foods. The reason Satoru feels that he can no longer care for Nana is sad (albeit predicable); but his aunt Noriko, who has always disliked cats, is a sweet and open-hearted person who learns to love and appreciate Nana.

The tone of The Travelling Cat Chronicles is warm and gentle, and both the humor and the tragedy of the novel are relatively light. It’s an easy novel to read, and its focus is on healing and the pleasures of living simply and in the moment. Some readers may find the story contrived and overly sentimental, and some pet owners may be disappointed by the lack of depth in the writer’s portrayal of the experience of living with a cat. Nevertheless, The Travelling Cat Chronicles is a lovely story of friendship and the affection that people share with their companion animals. The watercolor chapter header images by Shuai Liu are a delightful addition to the English translation of Hiro Arikawa’s bestselling novel, a cinematic adaptation of which will arrive in Japanese theaters in October 2018 (link).

Penance

Title: Penance
Japanese Title: 贖罪 (Shokuzai)
Author: Kanae Minato (湊 かなえ)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2012 (Japan); 2017 (United States)
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Pages: 229

Fifteen years ago, in an unnamed rural town, a girl named Emily was raped and murdered. Although four of her friends saw the face of the man who tricked her into going off alone with him, he was never caught. Emily’s mother, driven half-crazy with grief, accused the four girls of being responsible for her daughter’s death, and they have all carried this burden with them into their adult lives. The statute of limitations on the murder is about to run out, yet its lingering effects have not yet faded. Is it possible that one of the surviving girls, now young women, holds a clue to solving the murder? If the murderer’s identity is revealed, will these women find peace, or is the cycle of violence impossible to halt?

The first four of Penance‘s five chapters are narrated from the perspectives of Emily’s friends, each of whom is haunted by the trauma of the incident.

The first narrator, Sae, is the girl who discovered Emily’s body, and the horror of what she saw has never been far from her mind. Of the four girls who survived, she’s been the most afraid that the killer will return, so she’s been determined to remain in the immature body of a child while keeping to herself and never dating. Not long after she’s hired by a firm in Tokyo, however, she’s presented with an offer of marriage she can’t refuse from a young man from her hometown. Although this man is too young to be the murderer, he possesses a significant and startling clue, and Sae comes to realize that he has a very good – and very creepy – reason for staying silent.

The second narrator, Maki, has become an elementary school teacher, and she’s recently found herself on national news after preventing a mentally ill young man from attacking her students. Far from being hailed as a hero, she is blamed for the young man’s death, and she does not deny that she took action to harm him. Addressing an assembly of parents, Maki explains what happened to her when she was a child, why she was able to act so quickly and decisively when threatened with violence, and why she bitterly regrets her behavior on the day that Emily died.

The third narrator, Akiko, is a precious human (I love her!) who sees herself as a “bear.” She has never moved out of her parents’ house, partially because of the trauma of Emily’s murder and partially because of outwardly imposed issues regarding her body image. “Boys have it easy,” she explains. “Even if they look like a bear they’re popular […] and being big isn’t a drawback the way it is for girls” (87). Akiko isn’t a shut-in, but she never went to high school and has since distanced herself from society. She now spends her days sleeping, helping her mother around the house, and working out. When her brother Koji gets married, she finds herself gradually being drawn out of her shell and becoming friends with her new sister-in-law’s child from a previous marriage, Wakaba. Wakaba’s mother Haruka has a dark past, however, and even the innocent and sweet-tempered Akiko senses that something isn’t quite right with the new family. She ends up becoming involved in their drama by accident, and disastrous consequences ensue.

The fourth narrator, Yuka, has lived her life in the shadow of her older sister, who was diagnosed with asthma at a young age. The older sister was doted on by their mother, while Yuka became the scapegoat for her mother’s frustrations. After Yuka indirectly witnessed Emily’s death, her mother began to alienate her even more, and Yuka has grown up feeling that she should have been the girl who died. Nevertheless, she has managed to achieve a modest amount of success in her life, but her resentment toward her sister has inspired her to enact a complicated plan of revenge. This brings her to the attention of the murderer, as well as Emily’s mother, who knows far more about why her daughter was killed than she has ever revealed to anyone.

The fifth narrator should perhaps remain a mystery for readers to discover for themselves. It seems as if this person will be able tie everything together… but then she doesn’t, not at all.

Penance had me enthralled from beginning to end. Although the story contains many mysteries, the identity of the murderer begins to feel irrelevant and inconsequential as the deeper tragedies of the narrators’ lives slowly unfold. The novel is are firmly grounded in contemporary Japanese society, but the characters’ anxieties are universally relatable. Penance has a lot to say about what it feels like to be an outsider, and what it feels like to live in fear of physical and social violence, and what it feels like to have difficulty communicating with the people who are close to you.

Penance is not a novel about vulnerability, however; it’s a story of resilience. It’s also a story about a group of women who learn where their breaking points lie and then purposefully put themselves into situations that trigger them to take action. By the end of the book, the narrators share more than one murder, and the loose conspiracy that arises between them is a beautiful development fashioned from intricate plot details. The strength of Kanae Minato’s writing is in her compassionate portrayal of her psychologically damaged yet intensely sympathetic characters, but that doesn’t get in her way of creating a compelling and suspenseful mystery in this brilliant literary thriller.

Parade

Parade Novel

Title: Parade
Japanese Title: パレード (Parēdo)
Author: Yoshida Shūichi (吉田 修一)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Year Published: 2014 (America); 2002 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage Books
Pages: 230

Do you remember how, maybe around ten years ago, writers like Nick Hornby and Chuck Palahniuk were really cool? You’d read something like Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho or Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis and go, Wow, that’s brilliant! And do you know how now, when you try to pick up one of those writers again, you’re too jaded by movie adaptations trying to make hard-line masculinity and sexual violence seem edgy to really appreciate what the writers were trying to say about urban culture and the weird bonds that form between people and what happens when you’re no longer young and suddenly running out of opportunities to make a fresh start? Have you ever thought it would be kind of awesome to re-experience the excitement of those stories without the nagging annoyance of an ever-present undercurrent of misogyny?

If so, then you need to read Parade. It’s by far the most enjoyable novel I’ve encountered this year. When I first sat down with it, I thought I would read twenty pages and then call it a day; but then, the next thing I knew, I was ninety pages in and terrified that I wouldn’t be able to stop. The novel’s five chapters are recounted by five different characters, each of whom is crazier than the last. I loved all of them, and I had to pace my progress through the book so that I could spend more time in their presence. Like its narrators, Parade is young, and it’s fun, and it’s clever, and it’s psychologically unbalanced (in a good way).

The story is about four people in their twenties who have no idea what they’re doing with their lives. Almost by accident, they’ve found themselves living together in a two-bedroom apartment, where they’ve established an easy and comfortable social space that one of them likens to an internet chat room. In short, each of them is free to be as dysfunctional as he or she wishes without incurring the judgment of the others, and they get along well.

Sugimoto Ryōsuke is a sophomore in college who adores a protective upperclassman and has found himself in a Sedgwickian love triangle with his friend’s girlfriend. When he’s not stalking this girl (with her tacit approval), he’s aimlessly driving around Tokyo in a derelict Nissan March that he’s named Momoko. Ōkochi Kotomi is twenty-three, unemployed, and may or may not be dating an up-and-coming young actor. She spends all day inside the apartment watching tv and waiting for her maybe-boyfriend to call. Sōma Mirai is only a year older than Kotomi but manages a branch of a boutique that sells clothes and accessories imported from places like India and Bali. She’s also an unrepentant alcoholic who frequents gay bars and stays up all night working on digital illustrations based on close-up photographs of male bodies. Ihara Naoki, the apartment’s last remaining original tenant, is pushing thirty and seems the most normal of the group. He works at a small but successful film licensing company and goes on jogs late in the evening while listening to classical music. Every so often Naoki’s nutty ex-girlfriend Misaki appears without warning, has a few drinks, and spends the night on the apartment couch.

One night, Mirai picks up an eighteen-year-old high school dropout named Kokubo Satoru on one of her pub crawls through Shinjuku. Satoru, who does speed in public restrooms and trolls for clients in parks, has no fixed residence and somehow ends up squatting in the shared apartment. His entry into the lives of the four tenants coincides with a string of assaults in the neighborhood that become increasingly violent over the course of the novel. Meanwhile, the unit next door – Apartment 402 – is fairly obviously serving as the headquarters for some sort of shady operation orbited by creepy old men and weeping teenage girls. Despite all this, Ryōsuke, Kotomi, Mirai, Naoki, and even Satoru continue to drift through life largely untroubled by anything that happens outside the confines of their apartment.

For the reader, there is a certain Gothic appeal in unearthing the secrets hidden under the placid comradery characterizing this pseudo-family, but the lack of concern on the part of the people in question drains most of the shock from each revelation. So Ryōsuke is stalking his older male buddy’s girlfriend because he has a weird father complex? It happens. Kotomi is obsessed with an actor not because of lust or emotional emptiness but because of a half-hearted sense of guilt over something that happened when she was a high school student? Whatever, it’s no big deal. By the time the reader uncovers the more sordid secrets of Parade‘s narrators, they’re become more amusing than upsetting; and, if nothing else, knowledge of these secrets only serves to render the continued companionship of the apartment’s tenants all the more touching.

I understand how some people might interpret Parade as a horror story, but it’s really more like an American sitcom about comically mismatched roommates. “Comically mismatched” happens to mean “weaving in and out of the borderlands of sanity” in this case, but the novel still has the potential to generate a lot of warm fuzzy feelings, at least in readers with a healthy tolerance for black humor and antisocial behavior.

Philip Gabriel’s translation is eminently readable, capturing the grit and immediacy of the narrators’ different styles without resorting to easily dated slang or stereotypes regarding urban speech patterns. Yoshida is a popular writer with a distinctive literary voice, which I feel comes across much more clearly in Parade than in Gabriel’s earlier translation of the author’s 2007 novel Villain. That being said, both books are a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to more of Yoshida’s work appearing in English.

Isao Yukisada, who won a Japanese Academy Prize for his 2005 adaptation of Katayama Kyōichi’s bestselling romance Socrates in Love, directed a movie version of Parade. The film was well-received at the 2010 Berlin International Film Festival, winning a FIPRESCI Award and going on to screenings at festivals all over Europe and North America. I had a chance to catch the movie at a showing during that year’s Philadelphia Film Festival, and it was really good. I highly recommend Yoshida’s original novel, of course; but, if you get an opportunity to see Isao’s cinematic adaptation, go for it!

A review copy of Parade was kindly provided by Vintage Books.

Parade Movie Poster

Villain

Title: Villain
Japanese Title: 悪人 (Akunin)
Author: Yoshida Shūichi (吉田 修一)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Year Published: 2010 (Britain); 2007 (Japan)
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Pages: 296

Yoshida Shūichi’s Villain is not a classy novel. It’s got sex scenes, murder scenes, chase scenes, masturbation scenes, scenes of mothers abandoning their children, scenes of fathers crying over their dead daughters in the rain, scenes of catty girls, and scenes of men and women being obnoxious to each other. It’s got poison love, pathetic love, tragic love, and codependent love built on unfulfilled ideals. It’s the most unapologetically pulpy book I’ve read recently, and I very much enjoyed reading it.

Villain is the story of the murder of Ishibashi Yoshino, a graduate of a junior college who worked as an insurance saleswoman and lived in her company’s dorms in Fukuoka City. Yoshino had been involved in online dating and had occasionally taken on clients as an amateur prostitute. When her dead body is found dumped alongside a highway running between Fukuoka and Saga prefectures, an investigation opens in search of the person who strangled her and left her on the side of the mountain underneath a lonely highway pass.

The novel is less concerned with the police and their investigation than it is with the social and emotional ripples that spread from Yoshino’s death. Villain jumps between the various people who end up becoming involved, no matter how tangentially. There is Yoshino’s friend Sari, a virgin who tells lies about having dated a certain boy in high school. Yoshino’s friend Mako is chubby and good-natured and profoundly gullible. Yoshino had lied to her friends that she was dating a business major and named Masuo Keigo, a playboy who has dropped out of college in all but name. Yoshino’s dad is a deadbeat who runs a barbershop outside of JR Kurume Station that is slowly going out of business. Shimizu Yuichi is a construction worker from Nagasaki who drives a flashy car and was one of Yoshino’s johns. Yuichi has a grandmother named Fusae, who is hassled by thugs, and an uncle named Norio, who is also Yuichi’s tough-guy boss. Yuichi ends up running away with a woman named Mitsuyo, who has reached thirty without marrying and works a crappy job in a crappy department store in a crappy suburb. There are also a handful of other characters who only appear briefly, such as Keigo’s dippy friend Koki and Mitsuyo’s spinster sister Tamayo.

The thread connecting these characters is that they are all pathetic sadsacks who are weak, petty, stupid, gross, and despicable. The forward momentum of Villain isn’t created by plot or mystery but rather by the reader’s compulsion to see just how nasty the novel’s characters can become. Over the course of the book, the author delves deeper and deeper into the individual, familial, and social dysfunction that makes up the world in which Ishibashi Yoshino lived. Villain is like a long, glorious train wreck in which terrible personalities are compounded by idiotic lies that are in turn compounded by bad decisions. The sheer maliciousness of this novel must be read to be believed.

The Japanese setting of the story, and in particular the geography of the Kansai area, constitutes a significant portion of its meaning and appeal, and I’m sure that an astute observer can find all manner of trenchant social commentary embedded in the novel. In the end, though, Villain is an engaging psychological thriller. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, and it’s great guilty pleasure reading for people who find the more unpleasant side of human nature amusing rather than upsetting.

1Q84

Title: 1Q84
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上 春樹)
Translators: Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2011 (America); 2009-2010 (Japan)
Publisher: Knopf
Pages: 944

This review contains mild spoilers. Some might argue that warning for spoilers is missing the point, but I think that gradually figuring out what’s going on in this novel is one of the main pleasures of reading it. With that in mind, allow me to summarize the conclusion of my review for anyone trying to decide whether or not to start reading: 1Q84 is an engrossing book, and you more than likely won’t be able to separate yourself from it once you begin. It might be a good idea to save it for when you anticipate having lots of time on your hands. However, if you’ve read Murakami’s work before and don’t particularly like it, this book won’t turn you into a fan. The novel contains several graphic depictions of rape and child abuse. If you imagine that such descriptions might function as triggers, consider yourself warned for both the novel and this review.

IQ84 is about Kawana Tengo, a would-be writer who pays the bills by working as a math teacher at a cram school, and Aomame Masami, a semi-professional assassin who pays the bills by working as a personal trainer at a private gym. Tengo’s story kicks off when his literary agent, an eccentric editor named Komatsu Yuji, drafts him into rewriting a fantasy novella called “Air Chrysalis” written by a seventeen-year-old named Fukada Eriko. Fuka-Eri, as she calls herself, is a beautiful yet incommunicative girl who claims to have actually experienced the things she’s written about. When Tengo meets Fuka-Eri’s guardian, a retired academic named Ebisuno, the man explains that the girl’s biological father had founded a politically radical farming commune called Sakigake that has since reshaped itself into a religious compound closed to the outside world. Unfortunately for Tengo, when Fuka-Eri’s novella is published and becomes a bestseller, Sakigake takes notice. Meanwhile, Aomame works with an older woman referred to as “the Dowager,” who runs a battered women’s shelter called The Willow House. When no other recourse can free the women who take refuge there, the Dowager calls on Aomame to assassinate the men who have made their lives hell. The Dowager ends up rescuing a girl who has been horribly abused by the leader of Sakigake, and she requests that Aomame perform a job so dangerous that it may well be her last – the assassination of this powerful religious figure.

Alternate chapters are told from Aomame and Tengo’s perspectives, and their stories gradually become interwoven even though they never meet or interact with each other. They knew each other briefly as children, however, and it turns out that their bond runs deeper than mere casual coincidence. As the novel progresses, other characters with connections to Aomane and Tengo are introduced, such as Tengo’s strict and conservative father, Aomame’s gentle but romantically unlucky childhood friend Yasuda Kyoko, the Dowager’s personal bodyguard Tamaru Kenichi, an under-the-law private investigator named Ushikawa Toshiharu, and a diabolically relentless NHK fee collector. All of these secondary characters are interesting enough to be the protagonists of their own novels, and their stories and conflicts and motivations are just as engaging as those of Tengo and Aomame.

The novel is divided into three books, which are each characterized by distinctive plot developments and themes.

In the first book, Tengo meets Fuka-Eri. As he edits her novella, he learns more about and is drawn into the strange world she represents. Meanwhile, Aomame accidentally travels from 1984 into an alternate reality (in which two moons hang in the sky) that she calls 1Q84. As she attempts to figure out what happened to her, the reader learns about her daily life and her relationship with the Dowager. This first book is overtly political in its attitude concerning such issues as protest movements, new religions, publicly sanctioned sexism, and the business of literary publishing.

In the second book, both Tengo and Aomame are plunged headlong into the strange business with the Sakigake group. Even as the two characters are thrust forward into an uncertain future, the reader learns more about their pasts and the experiences they had as children. The second book seems primarily concerned with the unknowability of large swaths of reality and the challenges facing moral judgment and action in the face of absurdity. In my mind, this was the most “Murakami-esque” section of the book in that it revisited many of the themes and narrative devices present in the writer’s earlier work.

The third book concerns the aftermath of Aomame’s involvement in the Sakigake affair. Aomame has gone into hiding, and Tengo leaves Tokyo to tend to his catatonic father. Despite their adverse circumstances, the two have begun searching for each other. A chillingly aggressive NHK fee collector threatens Tengo’s neighborhood, and the private investigator Ushikawa stakes out Tengo’s apartment as Fuka-Eri comes and goes. The themes of the third book are fate and love or, more appropriately, the denial of coincidence and the belief that even the most tenuous bonds between people can be extraordinarily powerful. Because of its sentimentality, and because of the way in which the multiple pieces of the complicated plot all begin to fit together, I almost felt as if I were reading a Stephen King novel at certain points towards the end of 1Q84.

“Reading a Stephen King” novel is not necessarily a bad thing, however. One of the aspects of King’s writing that I admire most is his ability to get into the heads of even the most loathsome characters, and one of the most surprising and interesting developments of the third book is that the reader is now offered chapters from Ushikawa’s perspective. While Tengo and Aomame are being irrationally idealistic and swooning over their memories of each other, Ushikawa adds humor, realism, and a sense of tragedy to the novel’s conclusion. As he describes himself:

Maybe I am just an ugly, middle-aged, outdated man, Ushikawa thought. Nope, no maybes about it. I am, without a doubt, one ugly, middle-aged, outdated man. But I do have a couple of talents nobody else has. And as long as I have these talents, no matter what weird world I find myself in, I’ll survive.

But will he really survive if the happiness of the protagonists depends on him not surviving? Ushikawa keeps the novel from becoming too cut-and-dry towards its inevitable conclusion, and I felt that his sections allowed the reader to see the world of 1Q84 from the perspective of a true outsider.

Although 1Q84 is set in a time when most people went about their lives without knowing that computers existed, the novel clearly reflects the concerns of the digital age. Like George Orwell’s 1984, 1Q84 handles issues of identity formation and information control in a world that is unstable and confusing under its placid surface. Cult leaders, lines of power, rapidly shifting worldviews, and the creation and co-existence of multiple histories all factor into the novel, which ultimately questions what sort of agency an individual can have in an environment silently controlled by invisible systems. The subjective viewpoints of Aomame, Tengo, and Ushikawa allow the reader to approach this problem from different angles, and Murakami himself never seems to align his novel with any one political or philosophical perspective. Like Orwell, Murakami also exploits the dark humor implicit in any dystopian situation. For example, the NHK fee collector, who might be seen as a direct allegorical representative of Japanese postwar social control, is just as comic as he is frightening. When he positions himself outside of a victim’s door and starts ranting, his diatribes are gleefully malicious:

“Miss Takai, let’s not play hide and seek anymore, okay? I’m not doing this because I like to. Even I have a busy schedule. Miss Takai, I know you watch TV. And everyone who watches TV, without exception, has to pay the NHK subscription fee. You may not like it, but that’s the law. Not paying the fee is the same as stealing, Miss Takai, you don’t want to be treated as a thief because of something as petty as this, do you? This is a fancy building you live in, and I don’t think you will have any trouble paying the fee. Right? Hearing me proclaim this to the world can’t be much fun for you.”

And so on, and so on and so on, for pages. This character frightens and upsets the characters whenever he appears; but, as a reader, I couldn’t wait for him to show up again. Since he appears so often and at such length, I get the feeling that Murakami enjoyed writing the character as much as I enjoyed reading him.

Like most Murakami novels, 1Q84 is fairly dude-centric. The Aomame chapters alleviate the dudeliness to a certain extent; but, as Aomame is almost continually thinking about how in love with Tengo she is, the sex she wants to have with random men, and the sex she has had with other women, it’s difficult to completely separate her from her role as a female sex object and the object of Tengo’s sexual energy. Aomame may be a hard-boiled ninja assassin, but the reader is constantly reminded that she has a vagina. Then again, we hear a great deal about Tengo’s penis and scrotum, so the repeated descriptions of Aomame’s breasts and public hair may simply be par for the course in 1Q84. This is not to say that Aomame isn’t a fascinating character, but the way the author treats her is markedly different than the way he treats the Dowager (who is old, and thus not a sexual being) and Tamaru (who is gay, and thus not a sexual being).

1Q84 contains descriptions of underage rape and incest, which the text pardons and eroticizes. When Aomame is alone with the Leader of Sakigake, who is clearly guilty of child abuse, it turns out that he is not such a bad guy after all. Furthermore, he explains that, due to the workings of mysterious otherworldly beings known as “the Little People,” his body is sometimes completely paralyzed, at which point the pre-pubescent girls who attend him have sex with him. He can’t move or speak during these times; he can only ejaculate. The sexual activity is spiritual, and it is initiated by the girls. When he penetrated his ten-year-old daughter, the same thing happened: she had sex with him, and the bodies of both parties were controlled by the Little People. The reader finds out several chapters later that he is not lying, as an event occurs in which Tengo finds himself physically paralyzed and, as part of some ritual, mounted by Fuka-Eri (who at seventeen has never had her period and never developed sexually or mentally).

I’m not upset by the deviant sexual lives of fictional characters, and this is one of the more interesting and original plot devices I’ve encountered in serious literary fiction (although I can’t claim to have never seen it before in fan fiction). Still, I found the erotic descriptions of the young girls in question to be off-putting. For example, Tengo thinks Fuka-Eri’s hairless vagina is so beautiful and her lovely ears look just like her vagina and, as he thinks about the flat-chested ten-year-old Aomame while having sex with the childlike Fuka-Eri, he comes so hard and feels so good. It’s kind of gross.

There is a fair amount of sex and sexuality in 1Q84, and these themes are narrated from a perspective that is subtly yet undeniably male. To draw a parallel with a series I happened to be reading at the same time as 1Q84, in A Song of Fire and Ice, the narrative tone changes when the author switches between the perspectives of different characters. In 1Q84, it absolutely does not. The limited third-person narrator of the novel is definitely a heterosexual man, and this does not change when he narrates the story from the perspective of a female character or describes the rape of a young girl. However, I don’t think this type of narration ruins the story, and it’s quite interesting when accepted for what it is.

Issues of sex and gender aside, there’s a lot going on in this novel. The descriptions of Tokyo are wonderful. The descriptions of the suburbs and countryside surrounding Tokyo are also wonderful. The secondary characters are sympathetic and vividly portrayed. I loved Komatsu, and Ushikawa, and Professor Ebisuno, and Aomame’s friends Tamaki and Ayumi. The Dowager and Tamaru are a novel unto themselves. The allusions and parallels to political revolutionaries and religious cults in postwar and contemporary Japan are striking. The novel’s challenge to conventional notions of reality are intriguing. The connections between Murakami’s 1Q84 and Orwell’s 1984 (and in particular the transformation of “Big Brother” into “the Little People”) are fascinating.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review, if you’re not a fan of Murakami’s writing, 1Q84 won’t change your opinion. The Murakami tropes established by his earlier novels – disappearing women, unsolvable mysteries, perpetually loose plot threads, passive protagonists, close descriptions of genitalia, endless references to jazz records, men cooking alone in sad bachelor kitchens – all appear in force in this novel, which is more of the same, except further up and further in.

If you haven’t read 1Q84 yet, then you definitely have something to look forward to. It’s an incredible novel that will give you the sort of reading experience that the word “spellbound” was created for. This a book that will make you wish your two-hour jog on the treadmill, your fourteen-hour plane ride, or your week-long illness were actually longer. Since 1Q84 will consume your life until you’re done with it, it might be good to save it for an occasion when you can take some time off so that real life doesn’t get in the way of this book.

By the way, the cover image I used for this review was designed by Cory Schmitz.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Title: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Japanese Title: 走ることについて語るときに僕の語ること
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上春樹)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2007 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage International
Pages: 180

Yay! Another Murakami book has come out in paperback! Yay! It’s translated by Philip Gabriel (the author of Spirit Matters: The Translucent in Modern Japanese Literature and veteran Murakami translator)!

Some critics say that people would read Stephen King’s grocery list if he published it. Although I’m not sure I would go that far, I certainly enjoyed King’s essay On Writing. Although I was disappointed that the newest Murakami translation isn’t one of his earlier novels (Hear the Wind Sing, for example, or Pinball, 1973) or his latest novel (1Q84) but a memoir-length essay on running, I decided to go ahead and read it. Because some writers, yes, I will read anything they publish. Even a log of miles run per month.

Over the course of my career as a student of Japanese, I have come to realize that the essay is still a thriving form of literature in Japan. It sometimes seems like every popular writer from Yoshimoto Banana to Murakami Ryū has at some point published at least one collection of essays. Instead of taking the form of concentrated inquiries into a single subject in the style of John McPhee, however, most of these essays are personal in nature and written in a light-hearted tone. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is much the same. The memoir is conversational rather than educational and a pleasure to read.

In short, Murakami is preparing to run in the 2005 New York City Marathon. He has found that, as he gets older, it becomes harder to train and to run marathons in the amount of time that he would like to. Therefore, partly as refection, and partly as inspiration, he writtes a series of essays as he prepares to run in New York. These essays take him from Hawaii to Japan to Cambridge, Massachusetts, from summer into fall, and years into the past. He writes about running in Tokyo, running in Greece, running in triathlons, running in ultra-marathons, running next to Olympic runners, running next to John Updike, running next to Harvard freshmen, and running next to rivers. He talks about his decision to start running and his decision to become a writer. Everything is equally interesting.

The tone of the book is honest and self-effacing. Although it’s quiet, Murakami has a definite sense of humor that balances out his more contemplative passages. Aside from the fact that I don’t think he mentions drinking whiskey or cooking spaghetti even once, Murakami could very well be one of his infinitely personable narrators. Even though I have almost zero interest in running (or writing novels) myself, I was fascinated by these essays. I’m glad they were translated and published in America.

Kafka on the Shore

kafka-on-the-shore

Title: Kafka on the Shore
Japanese Title: 海辺のカフカ
Author: Murakami Haruki (村上春樹)
Translator: Philip Gabriel
Publication Year: 2005 (America); 2002 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage International
Pages: 467

Kafka on the Shore is another Murakami novel about disappearing women. That, and penises – or, to be faithful to Gabriel’s translation, cocks. The “Kafka” of the title, “the world’s toughest fifteen year old,” gets a handjob from his (maybe) sister, has sex with his (maybe) mother, and fondles himself (maybe) half a dozen times in between. There are a lot of pages in this book, but there are a lot of cocks, too. Be forewarned.

If you can get past all that, Kafka on the Shore is an utterly charming book. In 2005, when Gabriel’s bestselling translation of the book was released in America, Kafka on the Shore was given a place on the New York Times’s “Ten Best Books of the Year” list and received the World Fantasy Award. I can’t help but wonder how much of this attention was simply a manifestation of the guilt and embarrassment of the American publishing industry, which failed to recognize Murakami’s genius as displayed in such monumental novels as The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (ねじまき鳥クロニクル, 1995); but, in any case, a lot of people found this book to be utterly charming.

The plot of the novel is long and convoluted, and I see no need to go into it. I would much rather talk about what exactly I found charming about the novel. What I enjoyed the most were the parallel plot lines. Every odd-numbered chapter focuses on the fifteen-year-old runaway Kafka, and every even-number chapter focuses on the sexagenarian Nakata, a likable man who has been rendered mentally deficient by a strange incident in his childhood. Although the two plot lines never meet in anything but the most indirect and metaphysical way, Murakami handles the structure just as skillfully as he did in his earlier novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (世界の終りとハードボイルド・ワンダーランド, 1985), and I found the experience of following the two stories to be very enjoyable.

The overall atmosphere of the novel was also quite enjoyable. Over the course of his career, Murakami has become more skillful at depicting the small details of everyday life in contemporary Japan, and the attention to setting in Kafka on the Shore should dispel any lingering doubts as to Murakami’s status as a “literary” writer. Particularly enjoyable were the early Nakata chapters, in which the fuzzy-headed old man wanders around Tokyo’s Nakano Ward looking for a lost cat. Nakata apparently has the ability to talk to cats, so he is employed in his neighborhood as a finder of missing pets. Following the details of his life through his muddled but quaint way of looking at the world is, as I have said before, utterly charming. Kafka’s experiences at a small, private library in Takamatsu are rendered in loving detail and will probably send bibliophiles directly to the internet, where they will compare prices on plane tickets to Shikoku. As a side note, the Komura Library described in the novel actually exists and is apparently every bit as pleasant and charming as Murakami makes it out to be.

I hope that I have been able to convince you that this novel is “utterly charming.” Indeed, despite some bizarre cameo appearances by Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker, Kafka on the Shore is not as dark as many of Murakami’s other novels and actually manages to break out of the Murakami cycle of privileging the world inside one’s own head above living in the real world. Miss Saeki, the disappearing woman of Kafka on the Shore, is elegantly mysterious and achingly eloquent concerning love, life, childhood, and memory. Her final fate is one of the many mysteries the reader must solve on his or her own, as, like the other supernatural elements in the novel, Murakami never quite satisfactorily explains it. Thankfully, this is another one of the charming points of Kafka on the Shore.