There are two authors named Murakami. Don’t get them confused; this’ll be on the test. Haruki Murakami is the master of daily whimsy, the author of Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. He looks outwards from his homeland and sees endless terrain for his imagination to play freely. Ryū Murakami, on the other hand, writes about violence and nausea and sweat and blood and sperm, and turns his vision back inwards to see a Japan that is rotting from all sides at once.
Like many other people, I mistook one for the other the first time. At Tower’s Bargain Annex on 4th Street (now long gone), I found Murakami #2’s Almost Transparent Blue for $3—about the most I’d want to pay for a book that was barely 128 pages, anyway. I read it in one sitting and was unimpressed; it felt like a poor man’s reduction of the same cheerless decadence found in books like Last Exit to Brooklyn. A Newsweek blurb on the back cover described it as “a Japanese mix of A Clockwork Orange and L’étranger”, but that’s unfair to Camus, Burgess and Murakami in about equal measure—especially since all three are better represented by other works of theirs.
If I had to draw parallels, I’d say Blue falls into roughly the same category as many of Dennis Cooper’s novels about disaffected, sexually ambiguous West Coast youth—Frisk, Try, Closer, etc. Murakami predates Cooper by a good decade and change, although it’s arguable and probably irrelevant as to who was influencing whom or to what end. I suspect they were working in parallel, each from their own local cache of experience. The two writers also seem to have the same extreme-hit-or-miss flavor to their work. Cooper’s Frisk and Closer had a kind of lightning-in-a-bottle urgency and power, and while I didn’t believe for a minute that anything that happened in their pages was remotely credible by any standard of psychology or human behavior, Cooper was a talented enough writer to make me not care about such things. But Cooper’s Try and Wrong were aimless and annoying, the sort of hokum third-rate imitators of Cooper were by then already spewing out like so many broken photocopiers.
In the same way, the best of Murakami’s work (e.g., Coin Locker Babies) is so good it’s scary; the worst of it is bottom-drawer Kathy Acker. Blue is somewhere between those two poles. It’s good enough to make us want to read more Murakami stories, and frustrating enough to make us want anything but this Murakami story. And yet there are real flashes of insight and beauty in it, moments that Murakami would later mine for bigger and more substantial work.
Blue was Murakami’s first published work of fiction, and it seems designed to make us believe it stems from some degree of Murakami’s own life. The narrator is himself named “Ryū”, and the book chronicles a span of time (days or weeks or months, it’s not wholly clear, probably by design) during which he gets high, hangs out with his druggie friends, engages in various grotesque sex games which mostly involve him as a passive subject, has visions so fierce that even his drugged-out daily life pales in comparison, and attempts to kill himself and fails. Most of his days are taken up with the minutiae of drug paraphernalia, the mechanics of shooting up and getting stoned, the ever-increasing mess in the apartment (most ominously, a rotting pineapple that never seems to go away no matter what people do with it), and the impressionistic glimpses of his stoner friends. They’re defined by one or two attributes, like one buddy of his who’s constantly taking pictures and is more annoyed about the loss of his camera’s flashgun than the chance that his friends might get busted on a drug charge.
Ryū’s attention is fixated mostly on sensations, like colors and textures: he recounts his stories about his friends as if they were mainly there to reflect light. It is great writing, though; this is one of those books where you feel like you really could sink your teeth into the prose. From that comes, by degrees, the book’s other major offering—a series of progressively beguiling inner and outer visions which Ryū shares with his girlfriend, and which no amount of drugging or forced hedonism can allow him to realize. The big reveal, as it were, is that reality in all of its glory and terror is far better than any three-way with black servicemen or junkie prostitutes.
This is not all that deep a revelation, but it’s worded and expressed so convincingly that it has the illusion of being deeper than it really is. Part of the problem is the context: we know more about Ryū’s glandular functions (he’s always puking, or tasting something nasty in his mouth) than we do anything else about him. There’s a good chance that’s by design, since he refers to himself—and others refer to him—as a kind of doll, a meat puppet. This comes across most brutally during the above-mentioned threesome, where Ryū ends up acting out something like what you might find in an outré shunga illustration. There’s no there there, and from what we can see, Ryū doesn’t particularly want a there to be there. Having a self means having biases, preferences, prejudices, dreams that can be fulfilled or deferred—but by the end of the book he seems to have hit on the notion that it’s better to have your heart broken than to never know there was one there at all.
Again, it sounds more convincing as an abstraction than it does when you’re actually picking your way through it. And again, a good deal of that is due to Ryū being a blank slate, a mirror without a stain on it. A struggle like his is only interesting if it happens to someone whose behavior is worth watching in the first place. The very last page invites us (shilling for panders to us) to assume the author and narrator are the same. If we swallow that, then we can believe that the book is in some sense a confessional, or a melting down and recasting of his own experience—in short, that it’s “real”. That means, I guess, we can pat ourselves on the back and feel grateful that the oddly long time it took to read these 128 pages had a justification, even if that justification boils down to nothing more than tarted-up voyeurism.
I suspect the reason for the book’s popularity in Japan at the time (1977 or so) was the simple fact that very little like it existed at all, save possibly for Kenzaburo Oe’s “Seventeen” and a few of his other works from that period. It wasn’t as if literary decadence, or the literary evocation of decadence, didn’t exist in Japan before Blue—there was just very little like this specific flavor of it. The combination of lost-generation decadence, psychedelic sensory overload, and not-so-covert criticism of both American and Japanese military policies (the two were heavily interlocked during that time) struck the right combination of nerves.
But striking a nerve and opening a door are not the same thing. Murakami’s insights would come into fuller and more proper flower later on, so it’s better to experience them in their most complete development rather than when they were still under wraps. I am reminded of a comment someone else made about some of Kiyoshi Kurasawa’s films: they’re so well-made you feel bad criticizing them when they fall short of the mark. In the same way, Blue is so well-written, so meticulous and powerful, I felt vaguely disappointed when its insights all seem so thin. The more I try to get to the heart of what’s so ultimately moving about it, the more I end up circling empty air. This is exactly what they mean when they say it’s the kind of book that’s more interesting to talk about than to actually read, and in this case I don’t mean it as a complement.
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