This latest from the internationally celebrated Japanese author of A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997) eschews Murakami’s trademark comic extravagance, offering instead a muted portrayal of dream-driven midlife crisis.
Narrator Hajime, an only child (a condition that obsesses him) whose very conventional upbringing includes a sexless (if emotionally intense) friendship with a crippled girl named Shimamoto, discovers in his mid-30s that his settled bourgeois existence masks an urgent desire to resume and consummate the relationship that dominated his youth. Having endured a frustrating teenage romance (which was ended by his own unfaithfulness) and an unrewarding job as a textbook editor, Hajime later married happily, fathered children, and—thanks to his wealthy father-in-law—became the proprietor of two popular “jazz bars.” One night Shimamoto walks into Hajime’s popular Robin’s Nest, they talk for hours, and the fantasies of adventurous lives and exotic faraway places that had absorbed their earlier years gradually resurface. Persuading himself that “I was living someone else’s life, not my own,” Hajime surrenders to Shimamoto’s spell, accompanying her on an enigmatic “pilgrimage,” then tumbling into an affair terminated only when she inexplicably departs again, abandoning Hajime to the workaday world and domestic routine he had imagined escaping. In a slowly moving narrative made even more attenuated by shapeless lengthy conversations, Murakami presents Hajime as a hopeful dreamer chastened, though not changed, by his realization that “I could hurt somebody so badly she would never recover.” It seems scant material for a novel, though there are fine moments, including a hilarious anecdotal account of adolescent sexual panic and an eerie climactic encounter with Izumi, the girl Hajime had wronged many years earlier. Brief Encounter meets Blue Velvet? Or a book written to exorcize personal demons?
Whichever, it’s only middling Murakami—what we—all have to make do with until the next wild sheep or wind-up bird comes along.