Reviews — From the October 2014 issue

The Monkey Did It

The facts in the case of Haruki Murakami

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“When I start to write a story,” Murakami told the Paris Review, “I don’t know the conclusion at all and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. If there is a murder case as the first thing, I don’t know who the killer is. I write the book because I would like to find out.” We know that the term plot can describe not just a machination of story but also a secret plan, and if we ask ourselves whom the secret is from, and whom the plot is against, one direct object that suggests itself here is the author himself. “When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at four a.m. and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for ten kilometers or swim for fifteen hundred meters (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at nine p.m. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.” The finite Murakami, an ordinary man who listens to jazz and runs and lives outside Tokyo and has whatever thoughts he has, in this way — through the passivity of not having a plan, and the constraint of a tightly structured day — makes himself receptive to an infinitude we might succinctly term the unconscious, or perhaps the will of the world.

How does the process then manifest on the page? I don’t want to plot-spoil Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki — the plot should be a secret not just from the writer but also from the reader — but let’s consider a short story of Murakami’s with a similar shape that in its composition we know is at an extremity of his rigorously passive writing technique; Murakami has said that he wrote “A Shinagawa Monkey” in less than a week.

“A Shinagawa Monkey” begins with a woman, Mizuki Ando, who finds she has been forgetting her name. The problem isn’t debilitating, but it’s somewhat embarrassing, and so she eventually gets her name engraved on a bracelet she can refer to inconspicuously. Then one day Mizuki sees an article in the local newsletter about a new counseling center with reasonable prices. With the help of a counselor there, she uncovers a memory of having been asked to hold on to the name tag of a beautiful and intelligent girl at the boarding school she attended as a child; that girl then committed suicide; no one ever knew why. The memory doesn’t explain the name-forgetting, but it sits there suggestively. After a few more sessions the counselor tells Mizuki that she knows very definitely why Mizuki has been forgetting her name, and that Mizuki won’t be forgetting it anymore, but she can’t tell her what she knows until their next session. Cliffhanger! When Mizuki returns the next week, the counselor introduces her to a monkey. The monkey stole Mizuki’s name, which is why she wasn’t able to find it. The monkey is apologetic. He explains that the stealing is just a thing he feels compelled to do and that he knows he shouldn’t do it, but sometimes good things come from his stealing names (he thinks that if he had stolen the other girl’s name earlier — the girl from the boarding school — she might not have committed suicide). Often evil things stick to a person’s name, so in taking names he also takes away those evil things. What evil thing was stuck to Mizuki’s name? After some mild coercion the monkey tells Mizuki: Her mother never loved her. Her sister didn’t love her, either. He doesn’t know why, but they didn’t. That was why they sent her away to boarding school. The lack of love is still affecting her — it is keeping her from fully loving the nice man to whom she is peacefully but unpassionately married. That’s pretty much the end of the story. Mizuki is cured of forgetting her name! Her counselor asks her whether she’d like to continue meeting, to talk about the other things that the monkey brought up, but the woman says, no, she can handle it, and the story closes on that tentatively happy note.

We notice that the original puzzle of the story — Why is Mizuki forgetting her name? — is cleanly resolved, in a nice, finite way. The same is true of the opening unknowns in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki. But the solution to the minor mystery opens up (as it does in the novel as well) onto considerably more substantial mysteries — Why didn’t Mizuki’s family love her? Why did her classmate commit suicide? Why is there a talking monkey who lives in the sewer system of Shinagawa, and why is that monkey stealing people’s names? The solution to the original puzzle presented in “A Shinagawa Monkey” (and analogously in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki) recalls a famous footnote from Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams: “There is at least one spot in every dream at which it is unplumbable — a navel, as it were, that is its point of contact with the unknown.” Freud returned to this notion later in his book, writing, “The dream thoughts to which we are led by interpretation cannot, from the nature of things, have any definite endings; they are bound to branch out in every direction into the intricate network of our world of thought.”

At the navel of a dream there is not a one-to-one correspondence to meaning, not even a one-to-seven correspondence; the correspondence is one to infinity. Again and again in Murakami’s fiction, just as a plot strand draws to a close (it was a thieving monkey) it also opens out into a vastness. What presents itself as a key reveals itself simultaneously as a keyhole. The bounded solution in the this-world translates into an unbounded space elsewhere, a place whose logic we cannot quite apprehend. One begins to feel that a desire to catch sight of these other-worlds drives the whole procedure of Murakami’s fictions. Then occasionally there is an inversion: one feels one has passed through the looking glass and come across a keyhole opening out to the unknowable world that is ours. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is not one of Murakami’s supernatural novels; it could be argued, despite some weird dreams, that there’s nothing supernatural in it at all. But just as the science-fiction novels of Philip K. Dick change the feel of his few straightforwardly realistic novels — Puttering About in a Small Land is about people fighting over money and children, yet it feels sinkholed with existential doubt and faith throughout — the supernatural novels of Murakami make the ordinary settings of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, with scenes in train stations and car dealerships, feel at times even more ghostly and strange than the deep wells and dream hotels of its siblings.

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is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. Her story collection, American Innovations, was published in May by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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