‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland’ and a storyteller’s growing pains: How fiction impacts our art and lives

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In my freshman year of high school, riding fresh off the success of my first K-pop fan fiction — it was about GOT7 — I confidently decided that writing fiction was something I wanted to seriously pursue. I’d always heard that you need to read in order to write, so I decided it was time to start reading the adult literary fiction that I planned to write one day. Deciding to wean myself off my beloved young adult sci-fi and fantasy series, I did not really know how to enter the library of grown-ups other than finding intriguing titles with interesting covers. Yes, because I respect the art of book design, I will stand my ground on this: You can judge a book by its cover.

Enter Haruki Murakami.

Scouring the shelves of Barnes and Noble at 14 with the hope of finding something to make myself more intelligent, I stumbled upon “1Q84.” Enamored either by its glossy cover or sheer mass of 928 pages, I immediately purchased it. Two days later, unaccustomed to Murakami’s almost signature inclusion of really (and I mean really) odd sex, I returned and exchanged it for “The Wind-up Bird Chronicle.” Another really cool cover. Over the course of five months, I grappled with the bizarre work of fiction, searching for the purpose of the plot. To this day, I still cannot tell you what that book is about or what Murakami was hoping to achieve, but I immediately began researching to decide which of his books to tackle next. It was fiction I had never seen before, and, if not hooked, I was definitely perplexed.

And so, “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” arrived in my life. This was the book that changed the way I see fiction, exceeding my expectations for the type of world building mere words could accomplish. Despite the distance I felt from the characters, I felt a sheer sense of emptiness upon its conclusion, enamored by the plot and its narrative complexity. Nothing I’ve read by Murakami has ever topped this fourth novel of his. Still, Murakami soon became the author I reached for when I couldn’t decide what to read: “South of the Border, West of the Sun,” “The Elephant Vanishes” and the work that cemented my disillusion,  “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.”

And so, “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” arrived in my life. This was the book that changed the way I see fiction, exceeding my expectations for the type of world building mere words could accomplish.

By the time I embarked on my third work by Murakami, I began to feel comfortable with the characteristic quirks. Cutty Sark whisky, jazz clubs, classical music, unnamed characters, bizarre home invasions — perhaps at a brief mention, all these details seem remarkably obscure, but their repetition across novels begins to create a familiar aesthetic. Yet it was not the monotony of that dreamlike mood that estranged me from my once-favorite author. It was more simple than that: I realized I don’t like the way he writes women.

Just like the Cutty Sark whisky, Murakami’s treatment of the female voice has stuck out to me across several novels. Take the unnamed narrator’s internal monologue regarding a woman operating an elevator in “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”:

 

“The woman was on the chubby side. Young and beautiful and all that went with it, but chubby. Now a young, beautiful woman who is, shall we say, plump, seems a bit off – Walking behind her, I fixated on her body.

Around young, beautiful, fat women, I am generally thrown into confusion. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because an image of their dietary habits naturally congeals in my mind. When I see a goodly sized woman, I have visions of her mopping up that last drop of cream sauce with bread, wolfing down that final sprig of watercress garnish from her plate. And once that happens, it’s like acid corroding metal: scenes of her eating spread through my head and I lose control.”

 

I hope I do not have to explain why I find this passage off-putting. But still, one might argue that the objectifying nature of this voice is simply revelatory of the male character who occupies it. I’ve yet to decide whether I believe that argument — “defense of artistic integrity” — is valid. 

Beyond this objectifying language, I have noticed disappointing patterns in the narrative space occupied by women in Murakami’s work. The woman exists as a spiritual awakening, less a person than a symbol, a catalyst for the male protagonist’s personal development. They are not the characters experiencing events; rather, they themselves are the events propelling the story forward, not as people but as plot points.

One might argue that the objectifying nature of this voice is simply revelatory of the male character who occupies it. I’ve yet to decide whether I believe that argument — “defense of artistic integrity” — is valid. 

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In “South of the Border, West of the Sun,” for example, the narrator Hajime (meaning “beginning” in Japanese), a man characterized by his being an only child, reunites with his childhood love, Shimamoto, despite being married to his wife Yukiko. Although Shimamoto is emotionally distant, the sexual relationship, chemistry and shared history awakens Hajime to the complacency he feels toward his current married life. Women play an important role in Hajime’s life, but we rarely hear from them due to the novel’s limited perspective. 

Shimamoto is not a person with tangible wants and desires — rather, she is the essence of recklessness, unpredictability and passion, disappearing from reality in enough time to shake up Hajime’s life without actually causing permanent structural damage. This “mysterious woman” character also appears in “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” in the forms of Creta Kano, Nutmeg Akasaka and May Kasahara. I cannot speak for all of Murakami’s bibliography, but in the stories that I have read, I notice that women contribute to the surreal aura of the fictional world with their obscure and implacable personalities, and yet this creates an emotional distance that disallows them from contributing their own voice to the narrative. 

Revisiting and questioning literature that I once loved always brings me back to reevaluate my own writing. Growing up, I always loved and pursued fiction. My mother can tell you stories of horrendously illustrated picture books I produced in first grade — often with misspellings obscuring the actual stories I was trying to tell. But until I entered college, I did not receive any formal instruction. Instead I learned to write from what I read, and sometimes I took to heart the wrong lessons. For instance, from “A Tale of Two Cities” and “The Outsiders”both standard eighth-grade curriculum reads — I learned to redeem my characters with glorified sacrifice, a heroic cheat code if you will. Almost subconsciously, I imitated the color of the works that impacted me.

One memory stands out in particular: I had the opportunity to read a story I published in the Rafu Shimpo at a book festival held my junior year of high school. After the reading, a woman asked me if I was a Murakami fan. At the time I felt so proud that my work could remind someone of an author I so deeply respected. Looking back at this memory, however, I realize that my story contained elements similar to ones in Murakami’s work that I would now view more critically: I employed an eccentric, one-dimensional female character solely to disrupt the norm of my (boring) male protagonist’s life. 

Indeed, most of my stories in that era featured the same sort of women: relentlessly optimistic, quirky, existing only to enlighten the disillusioned male protagonist, existing only to magically disappear at the end of the narrative like a sexy fairy godmother of sorts. For some reason, a “boring” male character was acceptable to write, but I was bent on creating what I thought to be unique female characters. I was having my own literary version of the “I’m not like other girls!” crisis.

While the art I consumed undoubtedly influenced the art I produced, it also seeped into my own subconscious perspective. I genuinely believe that the sorts of characters we read and how they are presented impact our own views. Murakami’s female characters, along with a plethora of other depictions in pop culture, contributed to my perception of what it means to be a woman and what they have to offer. My adolescent dislike for “boring” female characters is analogous to the misogynistic shaming of “basic” women we see rampant on social platforms these days. 

Indeed, most of my stories in that era featured the same sort of women: relentlessly optimistic, quirky, existing only to enlighten the disillusioned male protagonist, existing only to magically disappear at the end of the narrative like a sexy fairy godmother of sorts.

And naturally, the female characters I wrote while in high school were idealized versions of myself; I wanted desperately to be the perfectly imperfect, mysterious, quirky love interest who gave poetic monologues. I put on myself a foolish pressure to be painfully counterculture, witty and complicated. But the same issues that arise with these characters narratively shine through in real life: There is no opportunity to build a connection with this perfect and mysterious person. 

Recently, after my two-year hiatus, I have found that I’ve coincidentally returned to Murakami. An interest in Lee Chang-dong’s film, “Burning,” led me to pick up “The Elephant Vanishes” once again. I reread Murakami’s short story “Barn Burning” on which Lee’s film is based during a lunch break behind Dwinelle Hall two weeks ago, and I physically needed to take 30 seconds to breathe after its conclusion. It was haunting, understated and beautiful. Clearly, there was a reason why his work impacted me so deeply five years ago, so I don’t think my issues with his characters should stop me from ever reading his work again. Rather, it’s important to realize the shortcomings of creators and apply this knowledge to what we ourselves create moving forward. We cannot idolize artists nor their art.

I’ve always been an avid reader. As a child, I used to rebel against my mother when she discouraged me from reading certain books. I remember her joy at the library upon me picking up a chapter book about a 7-year-old girl compared to her wariness when I drooled over novelizations of “Zoey 101” episodes at the Scholastic Book Fair. “Why don’t you read about girls your age?” she always asked me. She excitedly bought me the American Girl Doll Girl of the Year book in 2008, because the main character, Jess, was half Japanese, just like me. At the time, I was more interested in reading about Julie Albright, the 1970s historical San Franciscan American Girl Doll — I saw fiction as a way to experience something far away from myself. I thought then that my mother’s gentle nudges were examples of tyrannical censorship, but I understand now what she was trying to achieve. She already knew the power of fiction. She wanted me to see that girls who looked like me have stories worth telling.

After my years of growing pains, I think I now understand the power of fiction and the responsibility that comes with writing it. And I want to write my characters in a way that honors that responsibility. So that girls like me will know they have stories worth telling and voices worth listening to.

Sarena Kuhn is the assistant Weekender editor. Contact her at [email protected]