The other day my boss asked if it Christmas was weird for us as 20-somethings. My co-worker and I looked at her, puzzled. Why would it be? My boss explained that for her it was an uneasy in-between time. You aren’t a kid anymore so no one is leading you on with promises of things, or wanting to see your face light up when you receive said things, or just wanting to see you playing in the snow to remind them of their own childhood Christmases. You aren’t a parent, either, so you don’t have someone to comb the stores for obsessively, or to have other relatives come over and admire and potentially influence in ways you don’t like but you have to live with because hey, you can’t raise a kid in a bubble. As a childless adult—moreover, a niece-less and nephew-less adult, young as you are—you do not fit into the Christmas paradigm sold to us in movies and fables and greeting cards, was more or less my boss’s point.
But, while tenuously avoiding repetition of the points of holiday posts past, I have to again say that my perspective has totally changed since the year+ I spent locked away in a country I didn’t much care for. I don’t regard the holidays as the torturous gathering most people [say they] do, maybe in part because my family was always so small and isolated that there was no reason for there to be any drama over the holidays—just Twilight Zone marathons, orange-glazed cinnamon buns and lounging around in your pajamas all day. It’s not even just relaxation for me (and believe me it will be relaxing this year; my wrists are a mess from this frantic last-minute knitting I’ve been doing; it hurts to type and lift my dogs and carry dishes to the kitchen). I want to be around people who know who I am. I cannot emphasize enough—and I’d bore you if I tried; I know how quickly the “when I was in Country X” stories get old—how important this is now. I know this is trite, but it has been over a year since I’ve been back and I am just now returning to the rhythm of natural sustained friendships in a world where more or less anyone would be willing to be friendly to you, or at least open to the possibility of familiarity. Where chance meetings can happen on neutral ground, untainted by the reek of exoticism or laden with the crass assumptions of nationalistic stereotypes. You can’t ever divest yourself of all labels, of course—I will be attending this year’s Christmas festivities expressly as a daughter- or sister-in-law, after all. But at least my in-laws know something of me beyond that label. They know where I work and what I do, and what I was learning two or five years ago. They know they lengths I will go to for my messed-up dog, or for getting my work in on time no matter how crazy the schedule. I’m a person, and they know that, and treat me as such.
Over there, though, I was only ever a foreigner. The foreigner in the class. The foreigner at the bar. The foreigner on her bike by the river.
And I will never be able to make clear how fantastic it is to be free of such a flat, all-encompassing, utterly nondescriptive label. Maybe this is part of the reason I react so horribly to people tossing labels around now. “Yeah, man, hipsters are so X, Asians are so Y, and bros, they are just so Z.” I go apeshit when people start doing that. You are doing such damage when you reduce people to ridiculous labels like that. You have no idea. Christmas and Thanksgiving and all these togetherness holidays are in-your-face reminders, for me, that it is indeed possible for people you don’t see every day to remember you and care about you, and to know you by more than a mere label. And how dare you tell people otherwise.
(warning: 1Q84 spoilers up to chapter five)
I think the most pressing problem is a recurring one. I cannot stand the Aomame chapters, for more reasons than can be chalked up (entirely) to Murakami himself. True, the gratuitous same-sex flashback so soon, and as a “random” titillating memory, came off as a repugnant attempt to draw in those who wanted Norwegian Wood without the depression. That was infuriating. Those people do not deserve to be catered to—and don’t prattle about economic realities because we all know Murakami isn’t exactly hurting.
It’s more than that, though. It’s Aomame’s endless awareness of her body and its effect on people, it’s her vanity and her cruelty and the occasional frustration that is supposed to temper her into an acceptable (or at least interesting) character for us. But come the hell on. A sexy female assassin? How innovative.
I was getting to the part where I blamed personal foibles for my dissatisfaction with the novel, rather than poor overdone fetishistic choices on the part of the author. So.
As with actual women, I have little patience for the vicissitudes of female characters’ pernicious moods. Aomame is a total bitch to that guy in the bar, and for no reason other than that he failed to rise to the role she wanted to jam him into in her sadistic little mating game. Or rather, that he paused to question the (questionable!) circumstances of her offer, rather than accepting blindly and with puppy-grateful eyes her snottily-proffered goods. It’s not that I find the core of her actions in the bar morally problematic, but that she goes about them in the meanest, most cocksure way she can. And that’s a problem for me. One that cannot be assuaged by the occasional pseudo-metaphysical musing Murkami plonks into Aomame’s mind, as if covering up a particularly embarrassing stain on a rug.
Tengo and even Komatsu, I cut slack. Why? It isn’t as though it’s a conscious move on my part—there isn’t, as of yet, baggage that requires the cutting of slack. But I get the feeling that Murakami, as always with his swollen international audiences in mind (and influenced, as he is, by considerably more exposure to and discourse with external cultures than many of his compatriots could claim), is trying to turn Tengo’s nature and the sum of his life thus far into a problem that, to many contemporary readers in Japan, it probably isn’t.
I gather that we are supposed to view his once-a-week sexual liaisons with the bored housewife as a tremendous underachievement (he’s a MAN, he should be tapping that TWENTY-FOUR SEVEN, like MEN do! and also beating up her husband for good measure), likewise his present employment situation (nevermind that he both likes it AND it pays the bills). Interestingly, the only aspect of his professional life that anchors him in the highly successful Japan of the mid-eighties is the fact that he lives alone—everything else speaks more to the mindset of today’s twenty- and thirty-somethings, with their lowered expectations and value systems that shy away from the linear march to corporate success that so characterized their parents. In other words, Tengo is written as a post-bubble character who happens to live in the bubble of 1980s Japan, pre-burst.
All of that is tangential to how I am thinking we are meant to read the males in this book so far, and my failure (so far) to read them thusly. I’d be bringing too much of my former studies (for which, predictably, I harbor no small degree of distaste) to bear if I were to provide quotes and case studies to elaborate, but suffice it to say that both Komatsu and Tengo fall well within the realm of expected, acceptable figures of manhood sketched out in the literature and politics of their country’s near and distant past. Not to mention its present. To expect us to judge them on heteronormative, western standards of manliness may be lucrative (given the vast international audience he maintains), but it’s a bit demeaning. To us, and to himself, and possibly to the characters in question. How he imposes a transformation on them remains to be seen. But I care enough about Tengo and his efforts as a writer to stomach gratuitous Aomame and her gratuitously dangerous allure.
Vegan scones with blackberry jam. Of course baking follows literary angst. Are you surprised?
Murakami has been wrecked for me by my incarceration there. I wrecked it for myself. I can feel my lips curling reading it, knowing the translator and the good old boy crap he has written and the boots he has licked to get where he is. The original lurks pained (but self-indulgent, which I never thought before, which hurts) in the room with that vain hack of a jester in a baseball cap guarding the door. This is the fourth time I have tried to get through to the part where Philip Gabriel will pitch in and fix things. It’s agony.