Two books from Nihon: one odd and one that should be but isn’t

When you read a great and particular book, such as Lincoln in the Bardo, it’s kind of hard to figure out what to read next. While it may seem strange to go from the 1860s American civil war era to modern Japanese short stories, I successfully followed up all the sad and confused voices in Saunders’s book with a series of linked short stories about sad and confused people in Into the Pool by Hideo Okuda.

Each of the five stories features a character who suffers from some sort of psychosomatic illness. One guy has terrible diarrhea and stomach pains from work stress. Another has an unflagging and embarrassing erection due to suppressed anger. A woman suffers from panic attacks imagining someone is following her. And so on. In each story, the character is referred to the neurology department located, oddly, in the basement of the local hospital, where they find the equally odd Dr. Irabu and his sexy, bored nurse/assistant. All the characters are unsettled by Dr. Irabu’s  unorthodox manner, his grotesque appearance, and his treatment suggestions. They can’t tell if he’s serious or joking. Yet all persist, and at every meeting they all agree to receive injections administered by the nurse (usually while baring her thigh) while Dr. Irabu seems to get off on watching the needle slide into their skin. Yes, it’s weird. Irabu becomes personally involved with characters, and despite his decidedly unprofessional manners and approach, his treatments work. All five stories are set up and resolved in a similar way.

The author seemed like he was having fun playing with the scenario he’d created. If I were to guess, I think the titular story was his original composition, and he wrote the others as companion pieces so he could keep playing with Dr. Irabu. Five stories was entertaining but enough.

While I can’t say that I loved this book, it was just light and strange enough to keep me reading. And how often do you read two books in a row, each with a character who suffers from a perpetual erection? Now that’s odd! It’s also odd that this is one of the few books by Okuda that I can find translated into English. My husband has read and loved a couple of his novels, but none of his novels are translated yet.

I expected Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami to be odd, even though it’s considered to be one of his most accessible books, because that’s just how he rolls. Perhaps I’ve been ruined by reading his opus 1Q84 first or perhaps his work has matured,  but I found Norwegian Wood rather boring story-wise. I had a hard time getting into it and almost gave up about halfway through, particularly because of Murakami’s gender characterizations.

I think that Murakami writes from a man’s man perspective in what I consider the old-school Japanese male privilege way. His viewpoint is entirely male. His female characters, while not shallow, are either incredibly emotionally complex and therefore confusing (or confused), or quirky, petulant and entertaining. His men are much more straightforward and rationale. They are compelled by duty or honor (even when dark or despicable), but they are never whimsical or ruminating. Naturally, men need to fuck, and women, well, they are just unpredictable that way. They might just want to talk about it, or maybe talk dirty about it, or maybe appear naked, but they rarely just want to straightforwardly get it on. I can deal with Murakami’s odd gender characterizations when his stories are equally fantastic and dreamlike, but Norwegian Wood reads more like a coming-of-age, first-love story.  The characters completely annoyed me. I found Naoko boring and inexplicable. Midori was sweet and funny–but why did she have to talk dirty all the time, and why on earth did she put up with our noble but dumb-guy narrator?

I need weird Murakami. Give me sex scenes where powerful women/alien creatures mount men and channel sperm tornadadically through themselves. But spare me milky-white ghost girls who appear naked and vulnerable in the moonlight of teenage boy dreams and haunt them forever.

Into the Pool
personal copy

Norwegian Wood
personal copy

2 thoughts on “Two books from Nihon: one odd and one that should be but isn’t

  1. Laila@BigReadingLife says:

    I laughed at your comment about reading two books in a row featuring characters with perpetual erections! 🙂

    I have read one Murukami ( South of the Border, West of the Sun) and it felt very much like your description of Norwegian Wood. Lots of cringe-worthy sex.

    Liked by 1 person

    • RareBird says:

      Glad it made you laugh–I couldn’t have planned it!

      I don’t mind sex in books per se–I just think Murakami is sexist. I’ve smelled it in each book, but this one was ripe. Still, I’ll keep reading him, trying to figure out and put into words what it is that bugs so much. (But maybe I’ll avoid South of the Border!)

      Liked by 1 person

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