“It was nearly five years ago now, but I lived next to a baseball field. This was during my third year of college. I say baseball field, but it really wasn’t anything all that spectacular, just a field with some tufts of grass. There was a backstop, a pitcher’s mound, a makeshift scoreboard next to the first base bench, and then there was a metal net that surrounded the whole thing. The outfield, instead of a nice grass, was a bunch of weeds, all dry and crumbly. There was one small bathroom, but there was nothing like a changing room or a locker room. The field belonged to this steel company that had a huge factory close by, and they hung a sign on the entrance that said ‘Unauthorized Entrance Prohibited.’ Whenever Saturday and Sunday rolled around, ad hoc teams of steel company businessmen and workers would come and play baseball. And then there was the official company team, which practiced on weekdays. Besides those there was also a women’s softball division. It looked like the company really liked baseball. But living next to a baseball field isn’t all that bad. My apartment building was just behind the third base bench, and I lived on the second floor. If I opened the window, the metal netting was right in front of my eyes. So whenever I got bored — and during the day I was bored every day of the week — I passed time by just gazing at the games or practices. But watching baseball was not the reason I came to live there. That was for a totally unrelated reason.”
After the young man said that, he paused his story, took a cigarette from his jacket pocket, and took a few drags.1
Thus begins “Baseball Field,” one of Haruki Murakami’s lesser-known short stories. Part of the story was extracted, edited and expanded into “Crabs,” published in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, but the entirety has never been published in English. The young man in the story is at a café with Murakami himself. He mailed Murakami one of his short stories (the content of which the real-life Murakami later turned into “Crabs”), and Murakami, charmed by the young man’s interesting handwriting and somewhat impressed with the story itself, read all 70 pages and sent him a letter of suggestions. “Baseball Field” tells the story of their subsequent meeting over coffee. The point of view goes back and forth between Murakami, the young man, and, briefly, the characters in the young man’s story. Voyeurism is a major theme (the young man actually moved to the apartment to spy on a girl he had a crush on), and storytelling as an act of voyeurism, looking into other people’s lives, is the central theme of the collection in which “Baseball Field” was included: Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round 『回転木馬のデッド・ヒート』.2
In this collection, Murakami experimented with techniques he used in Norwegian Wood and later in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and by looking at how Dead Heat came into being, we can better grasp the development of Murakami’s thought process. Not only did he gain valuable experience writing “realistic” fiction, he was able to sharpen the point he wants to make with his writing: reality is strange, and humans have little control over the path their lives will take.
These early novels were written in first person, telling the story of an unnamed “I” (boku), his girlfriend, a bartender named “J,” and a friend named “the Rat.” In addition to the boku persona, another notable characteristic of Murakami’s early fiction was the use of the fantastic: girls with magic ears, talking pinball machines, and a “Sheep Man.” Murakami’s short fiction during the period — with the exception of a few stories, notably “A Slow Boat to China” and “Firefly” — was also very surreal.
In the fall of 1983, there were still four more years before Murakami would publish Norwegian Wood — the bestseller that changed Murakami “from a writer into a phenomenon.”6 The period from 1983 to 1985 was a formative one for Murakami, in which he can be seen honing his unique version of realism and developing a distinct worldview. He would later note that after finishing the Rat series, he wanted to try and write “a completely new type of fiction using completely different themes.”7 Murakami’s next set of stories would depart from his standard first-person narration and fantastic themes to directly address the shared reality around him in Tokyo.
In October 1983 Murakami started to serialize a set of stories in IN POCKET, a new, pocket-sized Kodansha magazine run by his former editor at Gunzō.8 The eight stories for the magazine were written under the collective title Views of the City (『街の眺め』), indexed along with other “short serials” (短編連作). The first story of the series, “Poolside” (「プールサイド」), begins in the third person. A man has turned thirty-five and decides that it is the middle point of his life. A recreational swimmer, he looks at life in the same way he looks at swimming laps; his thirty-fifth birthday is a confirmation that he’s halfway through the pool of life. After a few pages, Murakami abruptly switches to first person, addressing the reader directly:
Before we go any further, there’s one thing I’d like to make clear; this is not fiction. It’s difficult to call it strictly fact, but it’s at least not fiction. Everything here from start to finish I’ve recorded just as he told it to me. Of course there’s some literary dramatization, and I’ve taken the authority to cut parts that I thought were unnecessary. There are also places where I asked questions to fill in some details. And there are just a few places where I made use of my imagination. But when taken as a whole, I don’t think it’s a problem to consider this piece of writing as the story just like he told me.9
Murakami writes out his run-ins with people he’s met — the lap-swimming man in “Poolside”, a former coworker he runs into at a restaurant on Omotesando Avenue (“Shelter From Rain” 「雨宿り」), a woman he’s interviewing for an article (“Man Riding in a Taxi” 「タクシーに乗った男」), a fan and aspiring writer (“Baseball Field” 「野球場」) — and for the first half of the series, life in Tokyo, the “City” of the title, is somewhat of a theme, but it peters out towards the end. The stories in Views of the City are rougher than much of Murakami’s other work, but they weave together complex narratives. Murakami jumps back and forth between first and third person, allowing the reader to feel the complete storytelling experience. Often, we follow Murakami as he runs into the person who tells him the story, and as Murakami is sucked in, he cuts to third person. Other times we begin by listening to the story and are snapped out when the storyteller makes a comment or takes a moment to think and smoke a cigarette or have a sip of coffee. This multi-leveled form itself is the central theme that links the stories together.
Murakami would later note that he only began the IN POCKET series as a favor for his former editor,10 but something within the stories made Murakami return to the collection and rework them when it came time to publish a collected edition in October 1985. Most of the stories wore only minor changes. Murakami cut what he thought was the weakest of the eight stories and added “Lederhosen,” one of the strongest and the most exemplary of the complex narrative form. However, Murakami made two dramatic changes to the collection: he changed the title from Views of the City to Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round, and he added an extended introduction that invites the reader to interpret all of the stories as examples of man’s limitations within reality.
In the introduction, Murakami extends on his initial explanation of the origin of the stories, as described in the Views of the City version of “Poolside.” He describes the contents as “not exactly fiction”11 because he wrote them more or less just as they were told to him by friends and acquaintances. The stories they tell him build up as “sediment”12 within himself. Usually this sediment gets all mixed up and gradually incorporated into his fictional works, but these stories were different:
I started this kind of series of writings — let’s call them sketches for now — at first as warm-ups for beginning a novel. It struck me that taking notes of the facts and nothing but the facts might later become a useful exercise. So, at first, I had absolutely no intention of publishing these sketches. They were slated to follow the same fate as countless other fragmentary pieces of writing, written on a whim, scattered inside of the desk in my den.
However, as I wrote through three or four of them, I came to feel as though each one of these accounts had some common trait. They all “wanted to be told.” That, to me, was a strange experience.13
They float up within him, asking to be told, and they help reveal what Murakami seems to consider the system of reality in which we live:
The more we listen to other people’s stories, and the more we catch glimpses of people’s lives through those stories, the more we are seized by a feeling of powerlessness. Sediment is exactly that feeling of powerlessness. The essence of this feeling of powerlessness is that we can’t go anywhere. We possess a system of movement called our life that can contain our selves, but at the same time this system defines our selves. This closely resembles a merry-go-round. That is to say, we are just rotating around a fixed position at a fixed speed. We aren’t going anywhere, and we can’t get off or change horses. We don’t pass anyone and no one passes us. But even so, it appears that we are on this merry-go-round, facing a hypothetical enemy, intertwined in a fierce dead heat.
It may be because of this that facts appear strange or unnatural in some cases. The overwhelming majority of that inner power we call “will” is lost as soon as it comes into being, but we are unable to realize this and the resulting vacuum gives rise to strange and unnatural contortions in various phases of our life.
At least that’s how I feel.14
There is no precedent for this kind of introduction, nor has Murakami written one like it since. A Slow Boat to China (『中国行きのスロウ・ボート』, 1983) was his first collection and contained a foreword that did little but note when the stories were written in relation to his longer works.15 The Second Bakery Attack (『『パン屋再襲撃』, 1986) and TV People (『TVピープル』, 1990), on the other hand, have no introduction, and After the Quake (『神の子どもたちはみな踊る』, 2000) has only epigraphs to introduce the collection.
A Lovely Day for Kangaroos (『カンガルー日和』, 1983) and Firefly, Barn Burning, and Other Short Stories (『螢・納屋を焼く・その他の短編 』, 1984), his second and third collections, each have afterwords which Murakami signs and dates almost in letter form, making it clear that he is talking to the reader. He takes advantage of these to make small explanations about the collections, for example noting that the stories in the former were “(something like) short fiction”16 and were published as monthly installments in “a certain magazine.”17 He also notes that he has collected all of the stories without omitting any of the pieces, out of respect for the stories that he “produced with pain and joy month by month.”18
But the introduction to Dead Heat is much longer than any of these commentaries, and in it Murakami goes into much more detail about his writing process. It reveals that he is thinking deeply about what effect the short stories will have on his readers. He emphasizes his belief that “an ordinary person’s ordinary story is far more interesting than a special person’s special story,” and that something about each of the stories also reveals to the reader a shared reality that, to Murakami, is very dark; through the storytelling acts in the collection, we can sense how powerless we all are. While his initial theme may have been “views of the city,” the title change to Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round and his explanation of this in the introduction reflect the evolution of the theme as Murakami wrote further into the series.
Viewed through the lens of this new introduction, the stories in Dead Heat have a slightly different aspect. The characters become compelling partly because of how ordinary they are and how little they admit to understanding: nearly every one of the protagonists at some point in his or her story remarks, “I don’t know why, but….” They cannot explain their experiences, but many of them have an intuitive sense of the way reality works — specifically, the limitations that reality, the world, and society impose on an individual. The protagonist’s reaction to these limitations is the central dilemma of each of the stories.
Some are content to live within the system despite these limitations: the successful businessman in “Poolside” finds himself crying on his 35th birthday because he has everything and is unsure of how to proceed, but as far as we know, he continues as he always has. Others throw out everything and try to start again: the female protagonists of “Lederhosen” and “Man Riding in a Taxi” abandon their husbands and children, the former after she sees a German stand-in wearing a pair of lederhosen, and the latter because her life as an artist in New York City has come to an end and she no longer wants to support her husband. Some cannot handle their inability to understand the world: a woman in “Pour Une Infante Défunte” falls into a deep depression following the death of her baby. Some give in to brief impulses or compulsions and then return to normal life. In “Baseball Field” and “La Nauseé 1979,” two men are overcome by urges beyond their control; the first by the inability to live without watching a girl through a telescope, and the second by severe attacks of nausea after he eats. All of them, however, are compelled to tell their stories to Murakami.
As Murakami wrote through the stories in Views of the City, perhaps he was able to clarify his vision by taking advantage of the collected edition to fit the various stories to this one theme. Dead Heat’s reality is at times strange, unnatural, and ironic, and we do not always understand it. We cannot see the merry-go-round on which we are constantly spinning, although by listening to other people’s actual stories — specifically stories that they feel compelled to tell — we can get a sense of how life works.
In 1991, six years after the initial publication of Dead Heat and three years after it was published in paperback, Murakami published an eight volume Complete Works 1979-1989 that collected his first ten years’ worth of novels and short stories. The Complete Works is notable for several reasons. First, it was published during Murakami’s lifetime. In Japan, for the most part, author’s works are usually collected after they pass away. Second, it isn’t actually a “complete” set of his works. There are stories he chose not to include and things that he added especially for the set. By 1991, four years after the publication of Norwegian Wood, Murakami’s status was so high that even handcrafting his Complete Works was possible. With each volume he included a pamphlet of supplemental commentary titled “Telling the Story of My Works” (「自作を語る」). Murakami used these pamphlets to describe his writing process, detail the publication history of the works, explain the way he compiled and edited them for the Complete Works, and comment on the individual works themselves. In the case of Dead Heat, Murakami also used the supplemental commentary to “confess” a number of lies and reveal the true nature of the work:
But these stories — I guess I can confess now — were all creations. There was no model for them at all. Every single word was my complete fabrication. It was just me using the “writing what you hear” form and creating stories. In that sense, these works are fabricated “fiction.” However, when you read them I think you’ll understand that not one of the works contained here is “fiction.” They aren’t anything more than “writing what you hear.”19
This “writing what you hear” (聞き書き) was a valuable form of training:
I had a very set goal for this series. That is, training for the style of realism. My theme at that time was, how far can I go with writing stories in the style of realism? So in order to train, the camouflage of “writing what you hear” was an absolute necessity. That I took the method of writing what you hear owes directly to the fact that I have long had a fascination with the narrator from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s book The Great Gatsby, a man called Nick Carraway. Of course there’s no meaning in the man Nick Carraway himself. However, by coming up with the character Nick Carraway, Fitzgerald does succeed beautifully in relativizing himself and creating a portrait of the character Jay Gatsby. I thought that there probably wasn’t any entrance to realism besides this. And that’s precisely why I decided to restrict the listener to myself.20
This training, Murakami also admits, was directly responsible for Norwegian Wood, which he would write two years after Dead Heat:
The eventual result of this kind of training in realism is clearly Norwegian Wood. As far as I see it, I repeated the pseudo-realism from Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round from different angles, and then drafted Norwegian Wood. Of course there are almost no similarities in their content, but without that type of training, or without feedback, I don’t think Norwegian Wood would have appeared.21
For what has been an overlooked collection, that is a mountain of praise. Murakami continues to underscore the importance of the collection; even though he misled readers about the true origin and intention of the series, the introduction was how he really felt:
“Introduction – Dead Heat on a Merry-go-round” takes the form of a foreword. This was a writer’s excuse, camouflage. Most of what was written there was lies, but what I wanted to say was every little bit pure truth. This, in a sense, is my honest literary declaration. What I was trying to do with it was to lacquer coat realism from start to finish with complete lies. I wanted to add one more twist to the worn and weary realism and try to revive it through my style. And then through that I wanted to present a kind of definite truth.22
Murakami’s emphasis on the sincerity of the introduction, which he wrote after writing nearly all the stories in the collection, reaffirms the idea that he developed the merry-go-round metaphor as he wrote the stories in Views of the City. Something about the theme and the form of the stories was very important to Murakami; even after this “confession” that he had created all of the stories — effectively destroying the camouflage that made the stories appear to have all actually happened — he added another story especially for the Complete Works: “The Silence,” an English translation of which was included in The Elephant Vanishes.
Despite Murakami’s claim that the introduction was his honest literary opinion and despite the interesting window it provides into Murakami’s writing and editing process, Dead Heat was virtually ignored by contemporary critics of literature both popular and pure at the time of publication. Not that there was a lack of critical coverage of Murakami in 1985: arguably his most famous novel to that date, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (『世界の終りとハードボイルド・ワンダーランド』), was published in June of that year. Hard-Boiled received the Tanizaki Prize — a prestigious award given out by the Chūōkōron publishing company— and so, many publications reviewed the work after its receipt of the prize. Unrelated articles in the November 1985 issue of Chūōkōron (『中央公論』) — the same issue that announced the selection of Hard-Boiled — punned on the novel’s lengthy title: articles about brain death (a topic addressed in the novel) were serialized,23 and the book was quickly labeled a “Hot Topic.”24
The fact that these two works were both published in the same year perhaps explains the lack of response to Dead Heat; the critical response to Hard-Boiled was so loud that it effectively drowned out the smaller work. While Dead Heat has long gone mostly unnoticed, four stories — “Lederhosen,” “Hunting Knife,” “Nausea 1979,” and “The Silence” — have been translated nearly completely, and another — “Crabs” — was adapted from it. Furthermore, Murakami utilized the same device in Strange Tales from Tokyo (『東京奇譚集』), his most recent Japanese collection of stories. He initially serialized the stories in literary magazine Shinchō (『新潮』) starting in March 2005, almost exactly twenty years after Dead Heat was published, claiming in a short introduction to the first story — just as he did with Views of the City in IN POCKET — that they were real stories he heard and was only copying out.25 For the first few stories this may have been the case, but in the hardcover edition he broke this spell by adding “Shinagawa Monkey,” one of his strangest stories to date about a monkey who can talk and likes to steal name-tags from high school girls — clearly not a “real story.”
Murakami must enjoy the cover of telling “true” stories to speculate on the strangeness inherent in modern life, things he refers to in Strange Tales as “strange experiences” (不思議な出来事)26. He hasn’t yet “confessed” anything about his latest collection, although perhaps the inclusion of “Shinagawa Monkey” is confession enough.
Dead Heat, on the other hand, continues to lurk in anonymity. In fact, the “lie” from the introduction is still being perpetuated; the collection was reissued in 2004 and a short Asahi Shimbun summary of the Dead Heat included in a book roundup referred to the pieces as “sketches” of “stories from other people.”27
The fact that this collection exists in three separate versions — as a set of serialized stories in IN POCKET; as an edited, revised and, through a lengthy introduction, re-visioned short story collection; and finally as a part of the Complete Works, with an additional story added by Murakami — provides an excellent opportunity to see how Murakami’s thoughts about the collection developed over time. While at first they were just content for a former editor’s new publication, something in the form or theme became important enough to warrant two revisions and extended commentary.
Through the characters in these stories, Murakami begins to ask the question that Okada Toru, protagonist of The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, asks: “Is it possible, finally, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another?”28 Storytelling is, Murakami seems to believe, how people attempt to share their experiences and relate to others. Not just any story will do, however; Murakami is chiefly interested in the inexplicable, the strange “contortions” within reality that reveal the hidden “merry-go-round.”
Reiko’s lengthy story about the young piano student who comes on to her in Norwegian Wood, Creta Kano’s story about growing up experiencing only pain in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Lieutenant Mamiya’s story and letters elsewhere in the novel: all of these are examples of Murakami using the techniques that he developed while writing the Dead Heat stories. All of these characters find themselves “powerless” before forces around them and reading their stories conveys that feeling.
In fact, the entirety of Norwegian Wood reads as another entry into the series of strange stories from Dead Heat, related from within the novel by the first-person narrator (another Toru). Just like the other Dead Heat characters, Toru is coming to terms with strange events in his life. Just like the others, lingering memories of the events eventually compel him to share the story:
And nothing but scenery, that view of the meadow in October, returns again and again to me like a symbolic scene in a movie. Each time it appears, it delivers a kick to some part of my mind. …The kicking never hurts me. There’s no pain at all. Just a hollow sound that echoes with each kick. And even that is bound to fade one day. At the Hamburg airport, though, the kicks were longer and harder than usual. Which is why I’m writing this book. To think. To understand. It just happens to be the way I’m made. I have to write things down to feel I fully comprehend them.
1 Kaiten-mokuba no Deddo Hiito(『回転木馬のデッド・ヒート』 ), (1985; Tokyo: Kōdansha-bunko, 1988) [cited hereafter as KDH] 144-145.
2 Murakami took this title from a mediocre James Coburn heist movie, which is most notable as Harrison Ford’s first movie appearance.
3 Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words , (2003; Harvill Press: London, 2005) 29-31.
4 Rubin 48, 74.
5 Osakabe Yoshio’s “Murakami Haruki Zensakuhin risuto” is a tremendous resource for tracking Murakami’s publication history. He constantly updates with new works. Document dated 4 Apr. 2007, http://www.geocities.jp/yoshio_osakabe/Haruki/Source-J.html (accessed 29 Apr. 2008).
6 Rubin 160-161
7 “Jisaku o kataru — Hosoku Monogatari-gun.” Supplement to Murakami Haruki Zensakuhin [cited hereafter as MHZ] 1979~1989 Vol. 4. Kōdansha, 1991. v.
8 Supplement to MHZ 1979~1989 Vol. 5, ix.
9 “Pūrusaido,” IN POCKET Oct. 1983: 84.
10 Supplement to MHZ 1979~1989 Vol. 5, ix.
11 KDH 9.
12 Ibid. 10.
13 Ibid. 10.
14 Ibid. 14-15.
15 Chūgoku-yuki no surō bōto, (1983; Chuōkoron-shinsha, 1986) 4.
16 Kangarū-biyori, (Kōdansha-bunko, 1986) 250. “mijikai shōsetsu — no yō na mono…”
17 Ibid. 250-251. For some reason he does not name the magazine in the afterword, but the bibliographic information notes that the pieces were published in Trefle (『トレフル』).
18 Ibid. 251.
19 Supplement to MHZ 1979-1989 Vol. 5, ix.
23 Chūōkōron, (November 1985). In the same issue that announced the Tanizaki Prize, a series of nonfiction articles titled “Brain Death” (「脳死」) began publication. There was also an article entitled “Fin de Siecle Half-Boiled Entertainment” (「世紀末のハーフボイルドエンタテインメント」).
24 話題の本. Several of Murakami’s other early books were also distinguished with this unofficial tagline, including Hear the Wind Sing and A Slow Boat to China.
25 The most excellent first line in the first story is, “僕＝村上はこの文章の著者である。”
26 “Chance Traveller” trans. Philip Gabriel Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (London: Harvill, 2006) 235.
27 “Bunko — shinsho,” Asahi Shinbun 7 Nov. 2004, Chōkan:26.
28 The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, trans. Jay Rubin (1998; Vintage International, 1997) 24.
29 Norwegian Wood, trans. Jay Rubin (Vintage International, 2000) 5.