By Dennis Abrams
How’s everybody enjoying it so far?
Let’s start with the basic plotline concerning Aomame:
We learn that she went to college to study physical education and worked for a sports drink and health company, later becoming a sports club instructor where she taught women how to defend themselves again men – primarily by instructing them to kick them in the balls, hard. It is there that she met the dowager who she tutored privately and became friends with.
At a bar on the prowl for men, Aomame met Ayumi, who she was surprised (and somewhat alarmed) to learn was a policewoman. They spot two men in their forties, and Ayumi went to talk with them.
But the next day, Aomame wakes up in bed naked, with a hangover (which she never gets) and no idea of how she ended up where she was. Ayumi calls and recounts the details of the evening. Aomame worries how much longer she can keep up her sexual exploits.
She goes to Willow House to give the dowager a massage: she tells Aomame to enjoy her youth while she can, but cautions her not to cheat herself of happiness and marriage – going wild won’t solve all her problems. Aomame reflects back on her first real friend – Tamaki Otsuka who married a wealthy but abusive man, driving her to suicide at the age of just twenty-six.
It is this that inspired Aomame to murder: she decided to punish the husband and kills him with a sharp needle she develops on her own. But, after she kills him, she discovers that she has intense (if only occasional) desires for the bodies of men.
We then saw how Aomame lives –eating a healthy diet, preferring vegetarian dishes, along with fish and a little chicken. She has few possessions, keeps few books, and when she has finished reading one, she usually sells it to a used book store. She doesn’t even like accepting money for her…work.
She has dinner with her new friend Ayumi at a French restaurant, and reflects on the fact that she hasn’t had dinner with a friend like this since Tamaki dies. She tells Ayumi about a boy she was in love with when she was ten, who held her hand. (Who could it be I wonder?) They talk about their sex lives, and free will, which Aomame things might be an illusion. They go to a bar after dinner, get drunk, and return to Aomame’s apartment where Ayumi spend the night, and Aomame once again considers the possibility that there is something wrong with the world.
The next morning – Aomame sees two moons in the sky. She remembers one moon, but now there are two. She wonders (naturally) why, and asks herself what else in the world has been altered.
The Professor reveals to Tengo that it has been impossible to communicate with Fuka-Eri’s parents since she came to live with him when she was eleven. The girl, who had once been lively and talkative was quiet and withdrawn when she left the commune. We learn that the farm, which has shut itself off from the outside world, supports itself by selling vegetables, but the Professor believes that something else must be going on: the farm seems to have evolved from a farming experiment into as vastly-wealthy neoreligious cult.
Alone on the train ride back home, Tengo sees a little girl and her mother, and remembers a girl from his own childhood, who belonged to a very traditional Christian sect called the Witnesses, which forbade surgery and other medical practices. He would see the girl and her mother around town trying to convert people (while at the same time he was with his father bill-collecting). The girl was made fun of in fourth grade and one day when it was particularly bad, Tengo came to her defense. The girl (I wonder who it could be?) takes his hand and looks at him and he sees a profound depth in her eyes – the same depth he saw in the eyes of the little girl sitting on the train.
Komatsu meets with Tengo at a café – Tengo wants to stop the story from being published because he is worried that it will reveal Fuka-Eri’s “scandalous” past – Komatsu promises he can and will protect her, and refuses to cancel the printing of the story. Thrilled with Tengo’s work, he asks that once the prize is won, that he fills out a section describing two moons (!) in greater detail. Tengo agrees.
And Tengo thinks more about his mother and his father’s role as a fee collection agent. He also thinks back on his love as mathematics as a child – to him, math was freeing and consistent and infinite. But over time, that love of numbers evolved into a love of words and novels. Tengo also reflects on his love of music and his own musical talent.
Tengo revises “Air Chrysalis” and submits it to Komatsu – having finished the assignment, he feels both excited and at ease. He realizes, though, that he put more passion into rewriting the novella than he’s ever put into his own work. He doesn’t understand why, but he begins to write.
In early May, “Air Chrysalis” wins the prize (was there ever any doubt?). Komatsu tells Tengo it is now his mob to prepare Fuka-Eri for the press conference, after which her public appearances will be few and far between. Tengo agrees, but doesn’t want to participate in the sham company Komatsu wants to set up in order to maximize the financial awards from the press coverage and winning the award.
Tengo and Fuka-Eri meet at the Shinjuku Café. And, not surprisingly, she is neither happy nor unhappy about the prize. He gives her some sample press questions, and she answers them instantly and deliberately. He emphasizes to her that she needs to be clear that she wrote the story without any help. She agrees.
And some of my favorite things etc.:
The whole passage regarding Aomame and kicking guys in the balls was rather extraordinary – more on this further down.
It strikes me that Aomame is all physical – her body, her muscles, sex for her body, etc. Tengo is all mental and emotional.
Tengo: “As she was standing, though, the girl took one last look at Tengo. In her eyes, he saw a strange light, a kind of appeal or plea directed at him. It was only a faint, momentary gleam, but Tengo was able to catch it.”
And now we know how Tengo and Aomame met.
“May Thy kingdom come to us.” It must be important.
“She stood next to him, and without the slightest hesitation, grabbed his hand and looked up at him. (He was ten centimeters taller, so she had to look up.) Taken by surprise, Tengo looked back at her. Their eyes met. In hers, he could see a transparent depth that he had never seen before…”
Aomame’s methodical self-examination/reassessment after her night out with Ayumi and the guys. She’s so…matter-of-fact.
“All of that sex did seem to have done her body a lot of good, though. Having a man hold her and gaze at her naked body and caress her and lick her and bite her and penetrate and her and give her orgasms had helped release the tension of the spring wound up inside her. True, the hangover felt terrible, but that feeling of release more than made up for it.”
The Dowager telling Aomame to enjoy having sex “Now and then may not be enough…You have to enjoy it while you’re still young. enjoy it to the fullest. You can use the memories of what you did to warm your body after you get old and can’t do it anymore.”
Aomame confessing to the Dowager that she is in love with someone. “Unfortunately, though, he’s not in love with me…He doesn’t even know I exist.”
Aomame’s long-lasting virginity.
Tamaki’s suicide, Aomame’s vengeance. Her prayer after killing him, then, “It was after this that Aomame came to feel an intense periodic craving for men’s bodies.” Thoughts?
Fuka-Eri as Pandora’s Box.
Making the two moons in the story more real: “Think of it this way, Tengo. Your readers have seen the sky with one moon in it any number of time, right? But I doubt they’ve ever seen a sky with two moons in it side by side. When you introduce things that most readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction, you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible. What you can eliminate from fiction is the description of things that most readers have seen.” Again – Murakami?
Tengo and his girlfriend and the white slip and his mind misting over.
“Everybody needs some kind of fantasy to go on living, don’t you think?”
Tengo and math and “As a little boy, he noticed that he could easily move into a mathematical world with the flick of a switch in his head. He remained free as long as he actively explored that realm of infinite consistency. He walked down the gigantic building’s twisted corridor, opening one numbered door after another, Each time a new spectacle opened up before him…the world governed by numerical expression was, for him, a legitimate and always safe hiding place…where mathematics was a magnificent imaginary building, the world of story as represented by Dickens was like a deep, magical forest for Tengo. When mathematics stretched infinitely toward the heavens, the forest spread out beneath his gaze in silence, its dark sturdy roots stretching deep into the earth. In the forest, there were no maps, no numbered doorways.” Marvelous.
The magic of no clear-cut solution – “The role of a story was, in the broadest terms, to transpose a single problem into another form.”
Tengo runs away from home, the older teacher, her return at the judo meet. Why?
Loved this description of Aomame’s life:
“She lived frugally, but her meals were the only things on which she deliberately spent her money. She never compromised on the quality of her groceries, and drank only good-quality wines. On those rare occasions when she ate out, she would choose restaurants that prepared their food with the greatest care. Almost nothing else mattered to her – not clothing, not cosmetics, not accessories. Jeans and a sweater were all she needed for commuting to the sports club, and once she was there she would spend the day in a jersey top and bottom – without accessories. She rarely had occasion to go out in fancy clothing…”
Her childhood. “What she longed for was an ordinary life like everybody else’s.” Of course, what she got…
The Dowager insisting that Aomame get paid for her “work.” “Because you are neither an angel nor a god. I am quite aware that your actions have been prompted by your pure feelings, and I understand perfectly well that, for that very reason, you do not wish to receive money for what you have done. But pure, unadulterated feelings are dangerous in their own way. It is no easy feat for a flesh-and-blood human being to go on living with such feelings. That is why it is necessary for you to fasten your feelings to the earth – firmly, like attaching an anchor to a balloon. The money is for that. To prevent you from feeling that you can do anything you want as long as it’s the right thing and your feelings are pure.”
The Dowager is Aomame’s guide; Fuka-Eri is Tengo’s.
And her French dinner with Ayumi: “I did have one person I fell in love with…It happened when I held his hand…We were in the same third- and fourth-grade classes in Ichikawa in Chiba, but I moved to a school in Tokyo in the fifth grade, and I never saw him again, never heard anything about him. All I know is that, if he’s still alive, he should be twenty-nine years old now. He’ll probably turn thirty this fall…What I want is for the two of us to meet somewhere by chance one day, like, passing on the street, or getting on the same bus…that’s when I’ll open up to him, ‘The only one I’ve ever loved in this life is you.’”
And when Ayumi tells her that she may never meet him again, or that he might be married, etc, “But at least I have someone I love…If you can love someone with your whole heart, even one person, there’s salvation in life. Even if you can’t get together with that person.”
How beautiful is that?
And then, leaving Ayumi asleep in her bed (non-lesbian style): “There were two moons in the sky – a small moon and a large one. They were floating there side by side. The large one was the usual moon that she had always seen. It was nearly full, and yellow. But there was another moon right next to it. It had an unfamiliar shape. It was somewhat lopsided, and greenish, as though thinly covered with moss. That was what her vision had seized upon.”
“Maybe the word really is ending, she thought.
“And the kingdom is coming,” Aomame muttered to herself.
“I can hardly wait,” somebody said somewhere.”
Tengo writes about the two moons; Aomame sees them.
I’d like to finish there, but…Fuka-Eri’s taste in classic Japanese literature…and Bach. So mathematical. And if you’d like to listen to her favorite BWV 244, click here.
Question: Do you think Tengo and Aomame are even living in the same “year?”
From Jay Rubin:
“From the moment we meet him, Tengo is identified as a man with a problem:
‘Tengo’s first memory dated from the time he was one and a half. His mother had taken off her blouse and dropped the shoulder straps of her white slip to let a man who was not his father suck on her breasts. The infant in the crib nearby was probably Tengo himself. He was observing the scene as a third person…The infant was asleep, its eyes closed, its little breaths deep and regular…This vivid ten-second image would…envelop him like a soundless tsunami. By the time he noticed, it would be directly in front of him, and his arms and legs would be paralyzed. The flow of time stopped. The air grew thin, and he had trouble breathing. He lost all connection with the people and things around him. The tsunami’s liquid wall swallowed him whole. And though it felt to him as if the world were being closed off in darkness, he experienced no loss of awareness. It was just a sense of having been switched to a new track. Parts of his mind were, if anything, sharpened by the change. He felt no terror, but he could not keep his eyes open. His eyelids were clamped shut. Sounds grew distant, and the familiar image was projected onto the screen of his consciousness again and again. Sweat gushed from every part of his body and the armpits of his undershirt grew damp. He trembled all over, and his heartbeat grew faster and louder.’
These brief ‘attacks’ incapacitate Tengo at several points in the book, though they case after he comes to terms with his origins and begins writing his own fiction. While he recognizes the possibility that this ‘memory’ from an impossibly early age may be a convenient fiction to explain his hatred for his father, Tengo does have an extreme breast fixation; perhaps from never having been suckled by his mother (or merely from his having been created by Haruki Murakami, who rarely misses a chance to comment on the mammary endowments of his female characters).
The scene in which Aomame first punishes an abusive male is among the most startling and Murakamiesque in the entire novel, and as with all of Murakami’s best writing, it is firmly anchored in mundane (and even historical) detail piled on just past the point of literal believability. It occurs in Chapter 13 of Book One, during Aomame’s first year of college, when her best friend, Tamaki, has become a victim of date rape.
‘Aomame decided to take it upon herself to punish the man. She got his address from Tamaki and went to his apartment carrying a softball bat in a plastic blueprint tube. Tamaki was away for the day in Kanazawa, attending a relative’s memorial service or some such thing, which was a perfect alibi. Aomame checked to be sure the man was not at home. She used a screwdriver and hammer to break the lock on his door. Then she wrapped a towel around the bat several times to dampen the noise and proceeded to smash everything in the apartment that was smashable – the television, the lamps, the clocks, the records, the toaster, the vases: she left nothing whole. She cut the telephone cord with a scissors, cracked the spines of all the books and scattered their pages, spread the entire contents of a toothpaste tube and shaving cream canister on the rug, poured Worcestershire sauce on the bed, took notebooks from a drawer and ripped them to pieces, broke every pen and pencil in two, shattered every lightbulb, slashed all the curtains and cushions with a kitchen knife, took scissors to every shirt in the dresser, poured a bottle of ketchup into the underwear and sock drawers, pulled out the refrigerator fuse and threw it out a window, ripped the flapper out of the toilet tank and tore it apart, and crushed the bathtub’s shower head. The destruction was utterly deliberate and complete. The room looked very much like the recent news photos she had seen of the streets of Beirut after the shelling.’
Who but Murakami could even think of such a thing? And who but Murakami could manipulate realistic detail [MY NOTE: the specificity of the Worcestershire sauce, the ketchup] to the point of leaving the reader simultaneously shocked and amused? Another passage that only Murakami could have written involves the self-defense training that Aomame gives to women at the health club.
‘The number of people who could deliver a kick to the balls with Aomame’s mastery must have been few indeed. She had studied kick patterns with great diligence and never missed her daily practice. In kicking the balls, the most important thing was never to hesitate. One had to deliver a lightning attack to the adversary’s weakest point and do so mercilessly and with the utmost ferocity – just as when Hitler easily brought down France by striking at the weak point of the Maginot Line. One most not hesitate. A moment of indecision could be fatal…
As a woman, Aomame had no concrete idea how much it hurt to suffer a hard kick in the balls, though judging from the reactions and facial expressions of men she had kicked, she could at least imagine it. Not even the strongest or toughest man, it seemed, could bear the pain and the major loss of self-respect that accompanied it.
“It hurts so much you think the end of the world is coming right now. I don’t know how else to put it. It’s different from ordinary pain,” said a man, after careful consideration, when Aomame asked him to explain it to her…
Some time after that, Aomame happened to see the movie On the Beach on late-night television. It was an American movie made around 1960. Total war broke out between the US and the USSR and a huge number of missiles were launched between the continents like schools of flying fish. The earth was annihilated, and humanity was wiped out in almost every part of the world. Thanks to the prevailing winds or something, however, the ashes of death still hadn’t reached Australia in the Southern Hemisphere, though it was just a matter of time…
Aomame was primarily in charge of classes in muscle training and martial arts. It was a well-known, exclusive club with high membership fees and dues, and many of its members were celebrities.
Aomame established several classes in her best area, women’s self-defense techniques. She made a large canvas dummy in the shape of a man, sewed a black work glove in the groin area to serve as testicles, and gave female club members thorough training in how to kick in that spot. In the interest of realism, she stuffed two squash balls into the glove. The women were to kick this target swiftly, mercilessly, and repeatedly. Many of them took special pleasure in this training, and their skill improved markedly, but other members (mostly men, of course) viewed the spectacle with a frown and complained to the club’s management that she was going overboard.
As a result, Aomame was called in and instructed to rein in the ball-kicking practice…
In any case, Aomame had mastered at least ten separate techniques for kicking men in the balls…If the need arose, she knew, she would never hesitate to apply her sophisticated techniques in actual combat. If there’s any guy crazy enough to attack me, I’m going to show him the end of the world – close up. I’m going to let him see the kingdom come with his own eyes. I’m going to send him straight to the Southern Hemisphere and let the ashes of death rain all over him and the kangaroos and the wallabies.’
Here, Murakami has managed to weave in both historical and cinematic references to outrageous effect. That quirky brilliance of his is still there, and though the book is full of familiar Murakami tropes (a strangely philosophical cab driver like the one in A Wild Sheep Chase, a beautiful teenage girl with telepathic powers, a cartoonishly grotesque messenger/detective named Ushikawa like the one of the same name in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, passages between worlds, the preparing and consuming of healthy ‘simple meals,’ detailed appreciations of both jazz and classical compositions, parallel narrative tracks that seem destined to intersect, and, yes, cats), it contains more surprises than a reader perhaps has the right to expect from a novelist headed into his middle sixties. Indeed, more so than the attention paid to religious cults, which Murakami examined at length in the non-fiction Underground, the focus on the abuse of women can be counted as one of those surprises. Aomame combines the two – and the insistence on healthy eating – in one startling observation: ‘It was a simple meal, but ideal for preventing constipation. Constipation was one of the things she hated most in the world, on part with despicable men who commit domestic violence and narrow-minded religious fundamentalists.’”
There’s really not much I can say after that.
My next post: Tuesday, September 23rd, Chapters 17-24 (through the end of Book One)