Haruki Murakami pens many a short story about a disenchanted character walking through life without much of a reason to be there. His protagonists share a sense of isolation from the other characters; their siblings, significant others, parents and coworkers all fail to get through to them in their different quests to find answers to life’s most important questions. Example: why did a strange man appear at the foot of my bed and lead to my eventual inability to get a good night’s sleep? The literal isolation of the characters from meaningful relationships creates an overarching sense of isolation in the mood of the stories, making the reader too feel as though no one understands them.
The protagonists of each of Murakami’s stories share a sense of loneliness and disconnect with the people around them. In “Sleep,” the protagonist is a woman who has inexplicably lost her ability to sleep. This leads to her discovery of her disinterest in her life. The mundane aspects of her marriage, her relationship with her son, her duties in her everyday life, all become suddenly and horribly apparent to her. However, she does not feel propelled to tell her aforementioned husband or son about her problems with sleep. “Neither my husband nor my son has noticed that I’m not sleeping. And I haven’t mentioned it to them. I don’t want to be told to see a doctor. I know it wouldn’t do any good. I just know. Like before. This is something I have to deal with myself. So they don’t suspect a thing.” This inability to share experiences with family members illustrates the general attitude Murakami creates within his stories.
Obsession with things separate from the self is very apparent in Murakami’s work. “The Kidney Shaped Stone that Moves Everyday” is a short story in which the protagonist himself is a short story author. Junpei’s own life experiences, in particular his father’s advice that only three women in a man’s life have real meaning to him, informs a story Junpei himself writes, about a doctor who finds a stone that eventually overtakes her life: “She is engaged in hurried coupling with her lover one evening in an anonymous hotel room when she stealthily reaches around to his back and feels for the shape of a kidney. She knows that her kidney-shaped stone is lurking in there.
The kidney is a secret informer that she herself has buried in her lover’s body… The lady doctor grows gradually more used to the existence of the heavy, kidney-shaped stone that shifts position every night. She comes to accept it as natural. She is no longer surprised when she finds that it has moved during the night… After a while, it becomes increasingly difficult for her to take her eyes off the stone, as if she has been hypnotized. She gradually loses interest in anything else.”
These excerpts from the story illustrate Junpei’s inability to rid himself of the advice given to him from his father, and in a way illustrate a person’s inability to let things go, how small things like stones grow to large sizes inside of us, and when we try to cast them away, it is not always easy to rid ourselves of them. “Having cast away the stone, she feels a new sense of lightness. The next day, however, when she goes to the hospital, the stone is on her desk, waiting for her.” This metaphor is a two-layer cake (excuse the metaphor to explain a metaphor!) in which the top layer is, of course, Junpei’s inability to let go of his father’s possibly misguided advice, and the bottom layer is our culture’s inability to unplug the phones, and get off the internet. Social networking digs inside of humanity to create a deep addiction that cannot simply be cast away.
Nearly all of Murakami’s stories use a sort of emptiness in the life of his characters to show the effects of the narcissism of the modern age on people and their loss of faith, disconnection from family and friends and the general sense of loneliness. The isolation in Murakami’s work is an elegant metaphor for the isolation social networking creates in modern day society. The hilarious juxtaposition between being just the touch of a button away from someone, whilst being incredibly far away from them at the same time, is shown in Murakami’s character’s inability to truly connect with his or her families.
This loneliness and disconnect is created by showing a deep-set misunderstanding between the characters and those around them. In “Sleep” the protagonist feels unable to share her problems with her family partly because of the fact that previously, people did not notice her going through major turmoil, “I lost fifteen pounds that month, and no one noticed. No one in my family, not one of my friends or classmates, realized that I was going through life asleep.” She believes that her family truly will not notice, or understand her predicament. She does not want to go to a doctor, because she believes her problem to be something she must go through alone.
While this belief that she should not see a doctor could arguably be seen as misguided, it stems from the sense of isolation she already feels from the world. In a certain way this character is invisible to her family. They see her everyday, they quietly appreciate the meals she prepares for them, how she keeps the house for them, but they do not understand the deeper aspects of her personality, or so she feels. The protagonists in Murakami’s stories often feel as though no one in their lives truly knows them, or understands the way that they are feeling.
The elegant metaphors in Murakami’s stories hit readers where we least like to be hit. They outline the aspects of our culture’s narcissistic obsessions with the self. Self help books, carefully, obsessively groomed profile pages, meticulously managed comments, and continuously growing corporations all geared towards making a better ‘you.’
For this essay I specifically addressed two of Murakami’s stories, “Sleep” and “The Kidney Shaped Stone that Moves Everyday.” These two stories exemplify the aspects of isolation in Murakami’s work, and how that isolation bakes the double layer cake, with the top layer the general goings on in the stories, and the bottom layer the overarching themes of narcissism, and cultural collapse.
Pessimistic viewpoint and objectifying attitude towards women aside, Murakami weaves a tight tapestry that is certainly beautiful to look at.