“Murakami has compared his protagonists to video gamers, detached yet engaged, moving through the startling landscape of their lives as through the levels of an open-ended role-playing adventure.”

An Introduction to Haruki Murakami

by Dennis Abrams


cover hard boiled wonderland

And so it begins. The Wild Murakami Chase – a reading and exploration of some of the works of one of the greatest writers of our time – Haruki Murakami.

Why Murakami? I was going to try to put my feelings into words – how his books make me feel while I’m reading them, how he’s one of the very few authors whose books I read as soon as they come out, how his books seem to tap into something deep and mysterious within me, and just how fun he is to read.

But then I read this essay by another of my favorite novelists, Richard Powers, and decided he said it far better than I could ever hope to:

“The Global Distributed Self-Mirroring Subterranean Neurological Soul-Sharing Picture Show”

“In a laboratory in Parma ten years ago, around the time that Haruki Murakami was writing his masterpiece The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, a team of international neuroscientists stumbled upon one of the most remarkable discoveries about mental functioning in our lifetime. As often happens, the discovery was a lucky accident. The researchers, under the lead of Giacomo Rizzolatti, were exploring the premotor cortex of macaques – that area of the monkey’s brain responsible for moving its muscles. They sunk an electrical probe into the monkey’s brain tuned to detect the firing patterns of single neurons.

Rizzolatti’s researchers located a neuron in the macaque’s brain that gave off a steady signal whenever the monkey reached out to grab an object. When the monkey’s arm rested, the neuron fell silent. They had located an individual neuron involved in moving the animal’s arm. This surreal scene already presents a Murakamiesque image: a small, defenseless creature wired up to detection devices, a faint signal passing back and forth between the flashing, high-tech outside and the murmuring network within. And the truth that the researchers uncovered could almost be a Murakami theme: in the fantastic landscape of representation begins.

But the neuroscientists were shocked when one of their animals, during a break between experiments, began signaling from its premotor cortex even when its arm was at rest. The monkey’s brain was moving something, but it wasn’t the monkey’s muscles.

Even stranger: this stream of motor-neuron activity happened only when the experimenters themselves reached out to grab the same objects. Simply watching another creature move somehow triggered internal symbolic movement inside the monkey. The arm in the world and the idea of an arm in symbol space were both controlled by the same neurons.

Rizzolatti’s crew named their new discovery ‘mirror neurons.’ Here was something never before suspected. Electrical impulses moved muscles, but images of moving muscles also made symbolic muscles move, all on the same strange, tangled loop of mental circuitry.

The report of motor neurons produced a neuroscience revolution. A part of the brain that did physical things was being cannibalized for making imaginary representations, what Rizzolatti called ‘motor ideas.’ These motor ideas underlie our grasp of space, our interpretation of others’ actions, and even our semantic categories. Science has laid bare the neurological basis of empathy: brain maps, mapping other brains as they were busy mapping ours.

Experiments soon revealed that humans, too, were crawling with mirror neurons. Mirror-systems grew tendrils, snaking into other higher cognitive processes: speech and learning, facial decoding, threat analysis, the perception of emotions, and the formation of social intelligence. Doing and imagining were not independent processes, but two aspects of the same circuitry. As John Skoyles and Dorian Sagan write in Up From Dragons: The Evolution of Human Intelligence:

‘The primary visual cortex takes up more blood when imagining something than when actually seeing it…When we imagine ourselves running…our heart rate goes up. In one study, a group of people imagining physical exercises increased their strength by 22 percent, while those doing the real thing gained only slightly more, by 30 percent.’

Now keep this looping, mirroring, collaborative model of the mind in your prefrontal cortex as Murakami describes how he conceives of the dream landscapes that fill his novels:

‘We have rooms in ourselves. Most of them we have not visited yet….From time to time we can find the passage…We find strange things…old phonographs, picture, books…They belong to us, but it is the first time we have found them…I think dreams are collective. Some parts do not belong to yourself…’
{Thompson, Matt, ‘The Elusive Murakami,’ The Guardian (UK), May 26, 2001)

Communal dreams, interior rooms furnished with other people’s possessions: this sounds like Jungian collective unconsciousness. And until recently, Jung remained the most sweeping account of how the individual self is stitched together from out of vast, shared spaces and times. Now, in the looping, shared circuitry of mirror neurons, science has hit upon an even richer description of our communal, subterranean truths, the truths that Murakami’s mirrorscape of symbols brings into existence as we read him.

Murakami’s fiction deploys, side by side, as part of one marvelously webbed story, distinct – if multiply connected – independent narrative frames. Some of these story frames could pass for conventional social realism. A contemporary, urban world much like Tokyo, filled with references to mass consumer culture and peopled with wonderfully realized ‘realistic’ characters provides the grounding for the unfolding story. But alongside this story – folded through or underneath it – fantastic chthonic worlds spring up and seep into normal existence, entwining and overpowering realism in their weird tendrils. ‘There’s another world that parallels our own,’ Oshima assures Kafka in Kafka on the Shore, ‘and to a certain degree you’re able to step into that other world and come back safely. As long as you’re careful. But go past a certain point and you lose the path out. It’s a labyrinth…the principle of the labyrinth is inside you.’

Such a parallel narrative world occurs in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. In one frame, set in an apocalyptic, data-driven Tokyo, the Calcutecs and the Semiotecs fight for possession of the mental encryption keys that give power over runaway data. In the other frame, a character arrives at a walled city surrounded by a forest, to take up residence reading the dreams imprinted in unicorn skulls. These worlds are linked, but how? Do they dream each other into existence? Perhaps the worlds of this magnificently mirroring book cast each other’s shadows inside a recursive cortex.

Murakami’s characters, set loose between these intersecting worlds, are forced to embark on detective spelunking. They venture downward into walled enclaves, climb into deep wells, or drop below the surface of seismically shaken cities, searching for the rules that connect the banal and the fantastic, the material and the mental. They climb up into volcanic craters or hide themselves on Greek islands. Where else can they go but into these subterranean terrains of symbol and surprise? As the neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga estimates, ‘Ninety-eight percent of what the brain does is outside of conscious awareness.’

Even in Murakami’s most realistic narratives, the opening into the underworld is never far away. In Norwegian Wood, Toru Watanabe describes a threatening well that Naoko, the woman he loves, insists lies somewhere nearby, invisible, just off the path that they walk along. Watanabe explains:

‘I have no idea whether such a well ever existed. It might have been an image or a sign that existed only inside Naoko, like all the other things she used to spin into existence inside her mind in those days. Once she had described it to me, though, I was never able to think of that meadow scene without the well. From that day forward, the image of a thing that I had never laid eyes on became inseparably fused to the actual scene of the field that lay before me. I can go so far as to describe the well in minute detail…It was deep beyond measuring, and crammed full of darkness, as if all the world’s darkness had been boiled down to their ultimate destiny. ‘It’s really, really deep,’ said Naoko, choosing her words with care…’But no one knows where it is.’

These striking sentences might have come directly from Rizzolatti’s lab in Parma: Naoko’s description triggers Watanabe’s mirroring participation. Her imaginary mental icon alters his actual meadow. Although ‘no one knows’ where the well is, the immeasurable depth and darkness of Naoko’s imagination becomes as palpable to Watanabe as if he himself had fallen into it. And in a sense, he has, in the world of mental mirrors. As Watanabe later learns, from Naoko’s roommate Reiko, inside the buried confines of Naoko’s sanitarium, ‘We’re all each other’s mirrors, and the doctors are part of us.’

One of the great pleasures in reading Murakami lies in imagining just what links might unfold between these two worlds of banal realism and underground phantasmagoria. These worlds obviously hinge on each other, but the hinge is most often the story process itself. When the factual and the fabulous collide, we are left wonderfully shattered, waiting to see what new collages emerge out of the shards of impact. Murakami has compared his protagonists to video gamers, detached yet engaged, moving through the startling landscape of their lives as through the levels of an open-ended role-playing adventure. We readers too are drawn along, on the far side of another tilted mirror, changed by the changing game, and even helping to alter its outcome.

The 1990s, officially proclaimed the Decade of the Brain, produced numerous discoveries about the brain as strange and marvelous as any Murakami plot. Where once the mind was a unitary thing, subsequently split by Freud and Jung into two or three independent parts, it is now divided into hundreds of distributed subsystems, every one of them a discrete, signaling agent inside a loose and tangled confederation.

In place of simple brain hierarchies with one-way flows of control, contemporary neuroscience gives us constellations of areas, each sharing reciprocal relations with many others. Eight mental maps are used to process hearing, and at least twenty-two areas combine to perform vision. Recognizing a face requires the coordination of dozens of networked regions. Even speaking a word is like getting dozens of musicians to perform a symphony. Clearly the self – floating on this jumble of processes – is not an identity, but a noisy parliament, negotiating itself into being, constantly updating and updated by all those other external selves that it brushes up against.

A break in any part of this multiple, multidirectional mental house of mirrors can radically change the selves that we improvise. For example: people who suffer bilateral damage to the anterior cingulate lose their ability to distinguish reality from imagination. They believe that they have actually visited places they’ve only heard about, and they think they have really done things that have happened only in dreams. But the new neuroscience also points out that such mental states, resulting from brain damage, may also occur in weaker forms in ordinary consciousness.

Murakami knew all this, well before the Decade of the Brain. Hence his characters who move through a landscape unable to tell whether they are following some external physical rules or are constructing them internally. As Kafka learns at the beginning of Kafka on the Shore, ‘this storm isn’t something that blew in from far away, something that has nothing to do with you. This storm is you. Something inside of you.’ In the story ‘Super-Frog Saves Tokyo’ (after the quake), Frog tells the hospitalized Katagiri about their shared epic underground struggle to save the city from an earthquake which Katagiri cannot now remember: ‘The whole terrible fight occurred in the area of imagination. That is the precise location of our battlefield. It is there that we experience our victories and our defeats’

In contemporary neuroscience, the boundary between the inner map and outer physical reality results from tentative and multilateral negotiations, constantly in danger of breaking down. A break between two brain subsystems can upset the entire construction of self, producing a plethora of symptoms which might serve nicely for a Murakami plot. People cease to be able to identify familiar objects. They grow unable to tell whether oranges are smaller or larger than cherries. They lose their ability to distinguish between two faces. They deny that their left arms belong to them. They duplicate physical places, believing that their own, familiar houses are mere copies. They lose the use of concrete words while retaining abstract ones. They think that they are blind when they aren’t, or that they can see when they’re blind. They believe that their loved ones have been replaced by imposters. They hallucinate cartoon characters in a sea of actual people.

Such states of consciousness sound familiar to any Murakami reader. Think of Miu, stranded on top of the Ferris wheel in Sputnik Sweetheart, staring down on her own apartment and seeing herself making love to a man she abhors. Think of K., the narrator of that book, describing his own depersonalization: ‘My hand was no longer my hand, my legs no longer my legs…someone had rearranged my cells, untied the threads that held my mind together…I can no longer distinguish between one thing and another, things that existed and things that did not’ Or think of the narrator of A Wild Sheep Chase: ‘The more I thought about it, the more that other me became the real me, making this me here not real at all.’

Given the endlessly bizarre states of consciousness that neuroscience describes, Murakami’s novels – even their strangest of interludes – begins to seem every big as realistic as those of his beloved Raymond Carver. Perhaps more than any other living writer, Murakami understands the paradox of the modular and distributed brain: Consciousness is only ordinary, only solid, only predictable when you remain unconscious about what it is constantly doing to you. As Toru Okada realizes, down at the bottom of his cavernous well in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle:

‘This person, this self, this me, finally, was made somewhere else. Everything had come from somewhere else, and it would all go somewhere else. I was nothing but a pathway for the person known as me.’

Murakami’s every sentence knows the world is not as real as it seems, not as simple as our raucous multi-hundred-module brains pretend it to be. And strangest of all, as his stories suggest, may be the brain’s willingness to treat just about anything that its own cacophony shouts out as a coherent story. K. and Surmire, the joint tale-spinners of Sputnik Sweetheart, work out the truth between them:

‘A real story requires a kind of magical baptism to link the world on this side with the world on the other side…On the flip side of everything we think we have pegged lurks an equal amount of the unknown…Just a single mirror separates us from the other side.’

But if his own stories are steeped in the endless weirdness hiding just inside everyday life, how then to account for Murakami’s astonishing popularity throughout the world? His works have been translated into three dozen languages. He is a perennial bestseller throughout Europe. He has spawned a generation of imitators around the Pacific rim. He is the subject of full-length books, countless scholarly articles, and television documentaries. In the United States, he is considered among the few truly important international writers. How can the same writer be a runaway bestseller in Italy and Korea, a cultural phenomenon in Turkey, and the object of highest literary respect in countries as different as Russia and China? One explanation for his astonishing international success may be this deep attunement to the strangeness of the distributed and modular brain – a strangeness not culturally constructed but in itself the fundamental transcultural and universalizing condition.

Murakami taps into the international youth culture. His models are American, from Fitzgerald to David Lynch. He is hip and accessible and funny, and he loves to refer to objects of global consumer culture recognizable from Dallas to Dacca. As such, his success, at least superficially, resembles the worldwide popular music that his characters so dearly love.

But the breezy style and familiar brand-name references mask something more profound. Much has been made, by critics such as Reiichi Miura, about Murakami’s status as a leading practitioner of transnational fiction for a globalizing world. His stories not only grasp the zeitgeist of globalization: they embody it. He extends Fitzgerald’s Lost Generation and Kerouac’s road wanderers into our current moment, where displacement has become universal and our fixed sense of national identity is vanishing.

Like his characters, Murakami is neither wholly Japanese nor wholly Americanized, nor does he advocate for any other group identity. In interviews, the question of nationality seems to fluster Murakami. He is unwilling either to embrace or reject the notion, and sometimes chooses to avoid the question altogether. This ambivalence toward nationality places him among the first truly global writers without fixed abode, free to travel everywhere. Pico Iyer, himself a supremely transnational writers, says:

‘Murakami is the first Japanese novelist I know who has been able to straddle East and West. He disarms us by writing as if he were just down the neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin, or San Antonio. He calls upon those elements of the global consciousness – pasta, Charles Mingus, Raymond Carver – that seem to float above any particular ground and so speak to Everyplace.’

Murakami’s books understand the terrifying disorientation of late, globalizing capitalism and our status as refugees inside it. As much as any contemporary writer, Murakami grasps the bewildering fluidity of commoditized life. All the countries of the earth are now party to that knowledge, and so his books speak to anyone who has felt how easily nationality, self, and all other traditional memberships disappear into the flows of global capital and commerce.

Globalization, in its massive, expanding enterprise, destroys the familiar and local, while rendering bafflement ubiquitous. In the world of high-tech, late capitalism, the banal exists right next to the inconceivable and the miraculous. I do not need to rehearse the miracles for you – the defeats of time and space, the triumphs and transformation and transcendence of the human. The most fantastic development in Murakami is no more strange or estranging than what we live with every day of our lives.

But here is the strange mirror that maps our inside with our outside: in its estranging effect upon the individual, globalization surreally resembles those maladies of disrupted consciousness that contemporary neuroscience explains so well with its distributed models. It leaves us defamilarized, face-blind, doubling ourselves, insisting that our own home is an alien mock-up. Individual destiny is under siege, both from above and below. Being driven out of comfortable, coherent national boundaries into the ‘breathtaking interchangeability’ of global markets naturally feels, down at eye level, much like being forced out of the old, single, unitary self into a loose confederation of hundreds of brain regions. In both cases, the integral ‘I’ is left hopelessly fluid, cut adrift and condemned to improvise, driven from an illusory home into deep and subterranean places, alien landscapes where our inner phantasms vibrate freely to the outer movements of others.

And through this alien, fluid, and reformulating place, Murakami’s children move, underground, by flashlight, bumping up against the end of one world even while stumbling upon the start of another. Yet strangely and wonderfully – and herein likes the secret of his astounding literary success – Murakami’s protagonists respond to the disintegration of old certainties not with terror, but with a widening thrill of discovery. When asked in an interview in The Guardian to account for his success with so broad a readership throughout the globe, Murakami suggests that ‘my books can offer them a sense of freedom – freedom from the real world.’ Freedom, that is, from the misleading belief that the world offers us a fixed and predictable abode, and liberation from the lie that we are solid, unitary, and unchanging entities.

His fiction embraces the sense that ‘we’ are the product of hundreds of different counties, hundreds of different neuronal regions mocking up a running approximation of self and surroundings. His stories find remarkable comfort in inhabiting a distributed self, a new cosmopolitianism even as old states vanish. Where can we hope to live, in the age of the universal refugee? No place but everywhere. In homelessness is our freedom to inhabit any place in the world, for all places everywhere arise from the mirroring negotiation of mind.

And our reward in reading Murakami is the pleasure of pirating, inside our own cortex, his neural cosmopolitianism. Real or surreal, global or local, familiar or strange: Murakami’s fiction knows that all of these worlds are affirmed or rejected entirely inside the theater of the brain. Such an embrace of the ultimate neural nature of all experience might easily collapse into self-absorption, as it threatens to do in the extremes of conventional and postmodern fiction that flank Murakami’s work. We would each of us be locked inside a sealed and unknowable simulation of self, were it not for the truth that globalization, neuroscience, and Murakami’s fiction have all simultaneously hit upon: there is no self unto itself. The private life is always a propagating conversation, always a mirroring of something far larger than it can ever formulate.

It comes as no surprise, then, to realize how dominated Murakami’s stories are by all the varieties of love: Romantic, platonic, familial, companionable, comic, sexual, nostalgic, kinky, archaic, lonely, selfish, selfless: as many kinds of love as there are brain regions. If his work says yes to the uncanny oddity of existence, certainly the oddest thing it must affirm is the outlandish possibility – no, make that the outrageous necessity – of connection. If his work could be said to have one overriding theme, one irresistible attraction, it must be this deep and playful knowledge: No one can tell where ‘I’ leaves off and others begin.

The maze of mind will always stand between us and the real. But the inescapable cavern of the brain leaves a single way out: the empathetic leap, transnational commerce, the mirroring neuron. We can never know the world, but in our shared bewilderment, we can know each other. As the schoolteacher writes in Kafka on the Shore: ‘As individuals each of us is extremely isolated, while at the same time we are all linked by a prototypical memory.’

Murakami’s fiction claims what the enlightened of every era and country have always claimed: existence is fleeting; certainty is illusory; thought is stranger than you can think; reality is a running compromise; the self is a house on fire, so get out while you can. Even where we have no home to go back to, we might yet inhabit a better place – someplace improvised, provisional, tentative, forever inexplicable. One where the movement of our very muscles – not least of all the heart – where our very movements somehow in fact embody all of the fictional empathetic resonance that our cells perpetually manufacture. A place where seeing and being share the same circuitry. A place infinitely larger than the old small self. Call it the mirroring motor cortex. Call it the core of symbolic connection. Call it that chief of strangenesses, the interlocking dream, the alien reality parallel to, folded through, or underneath this world: love. ‘Love can rebuild the world,’ Oshima tells Kafka. ‘So everything’s possible when it comes to love.’”

This is going to be fun.

Here’s how it’s going to work. I’m going to post once or twice a week – a synopsis of what we’ve just read, my thoughts, the thoughts of other critics and writers, questions for the group. YOUR job is to post your thoughts and questions – I don’t want this to be a Dennis Abrams soliloquy/lecture on the works of Murakami – I want this to be a discussion, a dialogue. OK?

Our first read: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World , a “narrative particle accelerator in which a split-brained data processor, a deranged scientist, his shockingly undemure granddaughter, Lauren Bacall, Bob Dylan, and various thugs, librarians, and subterranean monsters collide to dazzling effect.”  We’ll start with Chapters 1-8 (I’m not sure just how to pace this, so if it’s too slow or too fast please let me know).

My next post: Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning



11 thoughts on ““Murakami has compared his protagonists to video gamers, detached yet engaged, moving through the startling landscape of their lives as through the levels of an open-ended role-playing adventure.””

  1. This is fascinating and I’m looking forward to the rest of the discussion. I feel the same about Murakami. I devour his books and must read them the moment they appear on the shelves. I am drawn to his work in a way I haven’t been able to fully understand and this piece you share is leading towards a bit of that understanding. I recently read an old interview with Murakami in The Paris Review where he talks about the video game idea in the title of your post (http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2/the-art-of-fiction-no-182-haruki-murakami) and there was something about that description that reminded me, of all things, of the movie, The Big Lebowski and the Dude, a character who is swept away inside a narrative in such a detached yet engaged way. There is navigation through different states of consciousness there too. The Dude abides : ) I feel like Murakami would like that film!

    1. Melissa: Thanks for posting the first comment! And also thanks for the link to the Paris Review interview — I’ll need to include some of that in my posts. Interesting take on Murakami and The Big Lebowski — I’ll have to think about that one. Dennis

      1. I’ll admit, it’s kind of an off-the-wall comparison and it doesn’t always hold up but I see a lot of similarities between Coen Bros. and Murakami protagonists.

  2. I’m looking forward to this. I have previously read, I think, three of Murakami’s books, with pleasure but not complete understanding. I find this introductory piece, Dennis, really interesting and am about to print it out and read it more closely. I’m not familiar with Richard Powers, so there’s yet another road to wander down.

  3. I’m in for a penny and a pound, Dennis. I love his books as a sci-fi fan, but I am looking forward to getting a better understanding of his work.

  4. “When you read Haruki Murakami, you’re reading me, at least ninety-five per cent of the time,” Jay Rubin, one of Murakami’s longtime translators, told me in Tokyo last month, explaining what he says to American readers, most of whom prefer to believe otherwise. “Murakami wrote the names and locations, but the English words are mine.”

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