Murakami’s Emotional Blandness as Shield

Cover illustration for “Kafka on the Shore”

Every once in a while I become obsessed with a novelist and want to read everything he or she has written. I was fixated upon English novelist Margaret Drabble at one time in my life. In more recent years, there has been John Irving (whom I have now tired of), Louise Erdrich (the same), and Margaret Atwood (who somehow seems to stay forever fresh). This past summer I haven’t been able to stop reading the novels of Japanese author Haruki Murakami.

I have learned that these fixations teach me interesting things about myself. Margaret Drabble came into my life when I wanted to learn more about the dynamics of interpersonal relationships. Erdrich captured my longing for community in adverse circumstances. Atwood was very important in helping me better understand feminism and where I fit as a man.

An article in Threepenny Review has helped me better understand my attraction to  Murakami. I thought I was drawn to Murakami’s strange fantasy worlds, which function as elaborate allegories for interior states of mind, but reviewer Jess Row points out that I may also be drawn to the bland emotional responses of the protagonists. Murakami, she notes, writes in the tradition of existential authors like Kafka, Hemingway, Camus, Beckett, Pinter, and Carver, and to this list I would add hard-boiled detective novelists Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. All of these authors, each in his own way, give us characters with tough outer shells which they used for dealing with a dark and disorienting world.

Murakami’s contribution to this tradition, Row points out, is the emotional blandness of his characters:

Even when Murakami’s characters are under great emotional stress, or in the midst of a dangerous act, they—or rather the sentences that make them—almost never lose this placid, observant neutrality. A sentence that crops up over and over again in his novels is, “I didn’t particularly care about dying.”

Row goes on to explore the significance of this emotional response:

The Sino-Japanese character for “blandness” contains within it the characters for “water” and “fire.” Looking at it from a different direction, we might call this a state of “homeostasis”—the surgical term for a body that is self-sufficient, not in danger, and at rest. Homeostasis, of course, is not in itself desirable or undesirable; it’s simply the condition in which a human being can survive. It’s not interesting. And it’s not, in itself, a story. It requires some outside stimulus (say, the disappearance of one’s cat) to become one.

An appreciation for blandness as a separate category of experience—and not a new one—may help us understand how Murakami has managed to produce an intensely interesting body of fiction around characters, and sentences, that operate in a kind of continuous monotone. He follows a century of Western writers of negation, absence, and “plainness” (Kafka, Hemingway, Camus, Beckett, Pinter, Carver) but the resemblance is—perhaps by design—only superficial. Blandness, for Murakami, is not a symptom of late capitalist culture, the endpoint of cultural disintegration, or a post-apocalyptic end of history, but a condition that precedes those things and, more disturbingly, renders them harmless. Depending on one’s position, his characters’ calm acceptance of wind-up birds, sheep men, and cat towns, their ability to regain emotional homeostasis in the most dire circumstances, might seem the essence of weightless global cool or the soulless literary equivalent of a shrink-wrapped airline meal . . .

Maybe I am drawn to Murakami’s style because I myself worry about being overwhelmed by my sadness about the world and swamped by my disappointments. With such discordant emotions, there is something attractive in the stoicism of Murakami’s characters (and of his prose). I am given strength to keep on going, even in the face of my own versions of dictatorial secret cults (1Q84), soul-sucking politicians (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), soul-sucking fathers (Kafka on the Shore), suicidal despair (Norwegian Wood), and mind-controlling governmental agencies (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World).

Finding an authentic identity is at the core of all these novels, as is the search for love and meaningful relationships. Somehow, as in Murakami’s literary predecessors, human emotion finds a way to penetrate the hard outer shell.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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