After the Quake by Haruki Murakami

Harvill HB, cover by Keenan

In 1997, Haruki Murakami published his first full-length work of non-fiction (later translated into English in abridged form as Underground) in which he interviewed both the victims and the perpetrators of the sarin gas attack that took place in the Tokyo subway in March 1995. After the Quake, a slim collection of six stories first published in Japan in 1999 (and in English in 2002) is in part an outgrowth of that project, being an artistic response to another devastating event that occurred in Japan only two months before the gas attack, the January 1995 Kobe earthquake. Like Underground, it focuses on ordinary lives and how they are affected by a large-scale disaster.

A key difference, though — apart from this being fiction — is that, unlike the interviewees in Underground, none of the characters in After the Quake directly experiences the Kobe earthquake. Instead, in each of the six stories, the main character has some sort of powerful, barely-dormant subterranean force of their own that they have learned to live with on a day-to-day basis, but which the Kobe earthquake, through a sort of sympathetic magic, threatens to bring into the open. It might be unacknowledged love, it might be long-held-onto hatred, but most often it’s loss or emptiness.

It’s perhaps at its purest, and most Murakami-ish, in the first story in the book, “UFO in Kushiro” (which can be read at the The New Yorker). The main character, Komura, is a hi-fi salesman whose wife, after spending days doing nothing but watching reports of the Kobe earthquake on TV, suddenly leaves him. The only concrete reason she gives is that Komura has nothing to give her: “living with you,” she writes in her farewell note, “is like living with a chunk of air”. Komura takes a week’s leave, but, unsure what to do with himself, accepts the suggestion of a work colleague that he visit Hokkaido, because the colleague has a delicate package he needs to get there, and he’s willing to cover Komura’s expenses if he delivers it. Komura does so, handing over the package to the colleague’s sister, then spending the rest of the day with the sister’s friend, Shimao. They end up in a love hotel together, but Komura finds himself impotent. He tells Shimao about the emptiness his wife accused him of having inside. Out of nowhere, Shimao says that the thing Komura is supposed to have inside himself was in the package he just delivered, and now he’s handed it over, he’ll always be empty inside. If it’s a joke, it’s too close to the mark, because, hearing it, Komura feels his own inner-earthquake pre-tremors:

“For one split second, Komura realized he was on the verge of committing an act of overwhelming violence.”

It doesn’t matter, in “UFO in Kushiro”, what the emptiness is, only that Komura finally manages to feel it. In “Landscape with Flatiron”, the second story in the collection, the main character, Junko, feels inside herself “a certain ‘something’… deep down, a ‘wad’ of feeling… too raw, too heavy, too real to be called an idea”. Having run away from home and now working in a convenience store, she gets to know a middle-aged painter, Miyake, who has an irrational feeling that he will die trapped in a fridge. He’s clearly aware this is just a symbol of his own fear of being trapped in other ways — as, for instance, by the family he abandoned in Kobe. He likes to comb the beach for driftwood, building bonfires, which symbolise, for him, true freedom. Looking into the flames of his latest creation, Junko sees not freedom but acceptance, in response to her own particular emptiness:

“The flames accepted all things in silence, drank them in, understood, and forgave. A family, a real family, was probably like this, she thought.”

In most of the stories, Murakami’s characters find some way of working with the emptiness they find within themselves, but these are almost always abstract, irrational actions, symbolic rather than practical, as though it doesn’t matter so much what you do to counter the emptiness, just that you do something. In “All God’s Children Can Dance”, for instance, Yoshiya is told by his highly religious mother that he has no human father, but is the son of “Our Lord”. He has ceased to believe in God, but finally finds a sort of self-acceptance by dancing his own peculiar form of dance, alone in the dark. In “Thailand”, meanwhile, an ageing thyroid specialist who has retained a lifelong hatred of a certain man in Kobe (and who can’t help believing, at some level, that her hatred caused the earthquake there), is told how to finally let go, because otherwise, she’s told, when she dies, only the hatred will remain.

The strangest tale in the book, and surely the most memorable, is “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo”. The main character here is Katagiri, who sees himself as something of a nobody. He collects debts for the Tokyo Security Trust Bank, and is largely successful because, having given up on life, he has no fear when confronted by the various gangsters, heavies, and criminals his work brings him into contact with. One day he comes home to find a giant frog waiting in his apartment. This frog — who insists on being called “Frog”, not “Mr. Frog” — is going to try to save Tokyo from an earthquake many times worse than the one that hit Kobe, and needs Katagiri’s help. The Frog, who is both immensely strong and impressively well-read for an amphibian (he quotes Tolstoy, Conrad, Nietzsche, Hemingway, and Dostoevsky) is perhaps Katagiri’s own repressed potential — his unacknowledged strength (his “courage and passion for justice”, which Katagiri is surprised to find Frog praising him for), and the urge to live a fuller life (Frog’s endless quotations finally encourage Katagiri to read).

In Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Jay Rubin (translator of a lot of Murakami’s fiction, including these stories), says that After the Quake is “perhaps Murakami’s most conventional story collection”, and it’s certainly his most consistent, with none of the more experimental pieces you find in his other collections. (The stories are also almost all of the same length.) Some, such as “UFO in Kushiro”, with its abandoned, suddenly empty mid-life protagonist, or the final story “Honey Pie” (whose tale of a love triangle between college friends evokes Murakami’s most famous book, Norwegian Wood, as well as one of his most recent, Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage) feel like essence-of-Murakami: characters, as Rubin says, “whose outwardly satisfactory lives leave them feeling unfulfilled and who live on the edge of some devastating discovery.”

I was very happy to get the chance to see Murakami himself shortly after the book’s publication in the UK, where he read from one of the stories (I’m sure it was “Super-Frog”), in both English and Japanese, and where I got my copy signed. This may, of course, be why it remains one of my favourites of his — After Dark, which came out shortly after, being another — and perhaps it helps that it’s short, but it’s certainly a more consistent and satisfying collection than his first book of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes (which only, for me, had a couple of really good hits).

The Light Maze by Joan North

UK hardback of The Light Maze. Illustration by David Higham.

Twenty-year-old Kit Elton comes to the countryside to stay with her godmother, Sally Nancarrow, on the back of a broken engagement. Sally’s husband, Tom, disappeared two years ago — one moment he was in his study, writing a book “about the odd ways people’s minds could work”, the next he was simply gone. Kit is given Tom’s study as a bedroom, and on her first evening there, after examining a strange paperweight “carved in the shape of two fishes — or were they tadpoles? — curved, head to tail”, falls into a dream:

“She seemed to be walking through an avenue of tall, tapering bushes which twisted and turned in the wind. It had been raining and the sun shone on them so that they glistened and danced with a dazzle of light and swayed in the air like blown candleflames… and now indeed they seemed more like flames than bushes…”

Later, among Tom Nancarrow’s papers, she finds a mysterious reference to this very “Light Maze” she’d dreamt about, and learns of a local legend, the Lightstone, of which it’s said:

“If you hold in your hand the Lightstone and hear in the silence the true note which is yourself then you will be able to the enter the Maze.”

With Sally’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Harriet, and a local boy, Barney Medlicott, Kit learns more about both the Lightstone and the Light Maze, and comes to realise it’s into this otherworldly realm that Tom has disappeared. But her investigations pique the interest of Esmerelda Melling, a local member of the Club of True Seekers (“some of our members have very wide knowledge of occult matters”), whose hunger for “wonder, joy, bliss” leads her to try to use the Lightstone for her own purposes — not evil, merely selfish, but nevertheless with the effect of disturbing the balance between the Light Maze and our world, leading to more people disappearing.

UK hardback, back cover

The Light Maze was published in the US in 1971 and the UK in 1972. On the book’s back jacket flap it says that North’s books — of which this was her last published — “bring into an ordinary and often comical picture of everyday life an awareness of other worlds, other modes of being”. The comedy, here, is very light. North is gently satiric of some of her characters, such as the social busybody Mrs Medlicott, or the self-consciously exotic Esmerelda Melling, or the boisterously adolescent Harriet, but there’s nothing that feels overtly comic. The darker side is handled lightly too: all of the main characters, for instance, have experienced loss — Kit has broken up with her fiancé, Sally’s husband and Harriet’s father has disappeared with no explanation, Barney Medlicott is an orphan, and Francis Leland, a playwright who lives in a flat above the Nancarrow’s household’s stable, has lost both his wife and his ability to write — but once established, none of these instances of loss weighs too heavily on the story. They can almost be forgotten, as though North were allowing the reader to take it or leave it.

To me, though, it felt as though, after this intriguing set up, the characters’ depths weren’t really explored, which is an issue in a book which is, essentially, about entering one’s inner depths. The Lightstone and Light Maze, it becomes clear, are part of an allegory of self-realisation or self-exploration. Achieving the centre of the Maze leads to some sort of inner fulfilment, but to do so, one must face “the Guardian of the Threshold”:

“There is a theory that if we try to turn our attention inwards, to explore our own depths, to find out who and what we are, we are liable to be confronted by a sort of shadow-self — all the parts of ourselves we have pushed out of our consciousness and refused to know.”

Or, as the oracular Barney has it:

“The brightest light brings the deepest shadow.”

Several of the book’s characters venture into the Light Maze and encounter a “sort of dark mass of corruption” within it, but if this is their own darkness, called into relief by the brighter light of the maze, it’s undifferentiated from character to character. Every character’s darkness is the same, and I didn’t get the sense that each character was confronting something personal, except that they would feel a certain familiarity alongside the fear and repugnance. Like the rest of the book’s fantasy elements, this darkness is just a little bit too abstract, and it needs North’s characters to (as they do on a couple of occasions) sit down and lay out what it all means, rather than allowing the fantasy to speak for itself.

It’s perhaps unfair to make this criticism of a YA book, but I can’t help comparing it to other, similar books of the same era. Le Guin’s Threshold, Garner’s Red Shift, or Mayne’s A Game of Dark, for instance, deal with far more powerful and personal forces of darkness. It’s that sense of a very real-seeming, often gritty and class-conscious reality coming up against meaningful fantasy that I like in the era’s YA, and The Light Maze doesn’t quite have it, though it does feel as though it’s on the edge of the same territory. The Light Maze, I’d say, could stand alongside Susan Cooper’s Blytonesque Over Sea, Under Stone, but not its sequel, the much more realistic (in terms of characters and setting) The Dark is Rising. One of the main things The Light Maze is about, though, is the avoidance of extremes — how the search for higher states, as with Esmeralda’s “wonder, joy, bliss”, inevitably calls up a corresponding darkness — so, North’s lightness of touch may well have been an intentional part of what she was trying to say.

I first heard about Joan North from Matthew David Surridge’s post at Black Gate, which is well worth a read.

Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

It’s the 1920s and the Mayor of New Orleans, sitting in his office with a good-time girl on his lap, is interrupted by a phone call:

“Harry, you’d better get down here quick. What was once dormant is now a Creeping Thing.”

The “Creeping Thing” is no Lovecraftian entity but a phenomenon called Jes Grew. Arriving at a church that has rapidly been converted into an infirmary, the Mayor learns what’s been happening:

“We got reports from down here that people were doing “stupid sensual things”, were in a state of “uncontrollable frenzy”, were wiggling like fish, doing something called the “Eagle Rock” and the “Sassy Bump”; were cutting a mean “Mooche” and “lusting after relevance.””

Jes Grew — whose name comes from a quote from James Weldon Johnson, “The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, “jes’ grew”” — is an outbreak of dancing and having a good time, a “psychic epidemic”, a “mighty influence” that “knows no class no race no consciousness”:

“For some, it’s a disease, a plague, but in fact it is an anti-plague.”

Those who see it as “a disease, a plague” are what are known in the novel as Atonists, and they are the ones who are in power in 1920s America. Self-appointed guardians of Western Culture, they are only interested in the dominance and preservation of their monoculture. Jes Grew represents everything that monoculture isn’t:

“…the ancient Vodun aesthetic: pantheistic, becoming, 1 which bountifully permits 1000s of spirits, as many as the imagination can hold.”

In short:

“Individuality. It couldn’t be herded, rounded-up…”

First published in 1972, Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo is a gleeful mix of conspiracy theories, gangster movies, Voodoo magic, and metaphorical history, very much of the same feel as Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s later Illuminatus! Trilogy (1975), which quotes Reed’s book on its title page. Both are clearly products of the 1960’s revolutions in political thinking, consciousness expansion and narrative technique, but whereas Shea and Wilson’s book is (as far as I remember) much more purely a fantasy, Reed’s is grounded in a very real moment of cultural emancipation, the flourishing of African American culture, particularly jazz and blues, between World War I and the Great Depression. (The latter engineered, in Mumbo Jumbo, by the Atonist secret society the Wallflower Order, in a final attempt to kill the free-for-all self-expression of Jes Grew.)

There’s very little on-screen (on-page?) dancing, though, as the narrative focuses on the conflict between Atonist secret societies (the Wallflower Order and, inevitably, the Knights Templar) who want to kill Jes Grew, and those few among the African American communities who realise what’s going on and take steps to try to ensure Jes Grew’s success. Among the latter are Papa LaBas, a “noonday HooDoo, fugitive-hermit, obeah-man, botanist, animal impersonator, 2-headed man, You-Name-It”, and his former colleague Berbalang, who now heads the “Mu’tafikah”, a group dedicated to liberating cultural artefacts from museums and centres of “Art Detention”, returning them to their originating cultures.

Central to the conflict is “the Text”, located in New York, which Jes Grew needs in order to survive, and perhaps transform itself into something of even greater power:

“If it could not find its Text then it would be mistaken for entertainment.”

This “Text” is an anthology of ancient writings that relate the dance crazes of Jes Grew to fertility rites first enacted in Ancient Egypt by Osiris, and opposed by the first Atonist, Set. (Something that ties the novel up with Jessie Weston’s book, From Ritual to Romance, which I reviewed not too long ago. Though, in Mumbo Jumbo, the Grail, conjuring associations of “Teutonic Knights” and the Western Christian monoculture, is made to feel more like an Atonist symbol of control than, as Weston would have it, a link to those same fertility rituals.)

The great thing about Reed’s novel is that it’s such a lively, fun read. It doesn’t just defend and celebrate the idea of self-expression and cultural freedom, it enacts it. The storytelling is jazzy in feel, full of swift changes, improvisations, riffs on an idea, and quick-fire allusions — but always tight and alive, never dull or repetitive. Speech gets no quotes, the word “one” is always rendered “1”, there are occasional photographs and illustrations, real figures from history turn up to mix with the fictional, there’s a lecture on Western history, there’s an extract from a fake epic poem, and the novel begins before its own copyright page.

There’s something about this form of narrative that clearly emerges from countercultures — Grant Morrison’s end-of-millennium comic The Invisibles is a similar “all conspiracy theories are true, all magic works” world — which attempts to destabilise monocultural ideas at the same time it destabilises readers’ minds. Mumbo Jumbo, though, never feels like it’s being intentionally post-modern and never feels like a difficult read; its experimentalism comes across as a genuine emanation of its belief in freedom of expression, something coming from the same source as the culture it celebrates — the playful, soulful, dazzling improvisations of jazz, all riding upon the despair and longing of blues.

I first heard about Mumbo Jumbo from a review last year in The Guardian, when the book was reissued in the UK as a Penguin Modern Classic.

The Angel of the West Window by Gustav Meyrink

At one time I worked my way through all of Gustav Meyrink’s novels (in Mike Mitchell’s translations, published by Dedalus), and although his first, The Golem (1914), is his most famous, it was his last, and least successful in terms of sales (selling less than 3,000 copies, compared to 220,000 of The Golem, according to this article), that stuck with me.

Published in 1927, The Angel of the West Window tells a dual story. The narrator — unnamed till virtually the last page, when he’s revealed to be one Baron Müller — learns that he is the only surviving descendent of the Elizabethan mathematician, astronomer, astrologer, alchemist and occultist John Dee, when he inherits a sizeable packet of the man’s journals and private papers. Embarking on the task of ordering these papers into some sort of narrative, Müller finds occult elements starting to invade his own life. Dee’s papers describe how, early on in life, he looked into a mirror and found his reflection talking back to him, promising what sounded to be a great future, in which he:

“…shall know neither rest nor repose till the coasts of Greenland, where the Northern Lights glow, shall be conquered… He who holds the Green Land in fief, to him shall the Empire beyond the sea be given, to him shall be given the crown of England!”

Dee immediately makes plans — which include finding a way of making sure the then-Princess Elizabeth would drink a potion to make her fall in love with him, and thus ensure his kingship of England — but finds himself frustrated at every step. Elizabeth, once she is queen, toys with him, agreeing to his plans for an expedition to Greenland only to cancel them a moment later. And though she drops hints that she knows the nature of the potion Dee contrived to have her drink, and occasionally implies that the two of them have some sort of special relationship, she makes no move towards marrying him — in fact, she orders him to wed one of her ladies-in-waiting who clearly hates him.

Meanwhile, a number of peculiar characters enter the narrator’s modern-day (i.e., 1920s) life. Lipotin, a trader in antiquities — whose nickname, Mascee, is oddly the same as that of an antiques pedlar known to John Dee — provides him with a number of occultly significant objects, including a locked Tula-ware puzzle-box and a green-glass mirror, while the Russian Princess Assja Shotokalungin drops by, wanting to buy from him a certain antique spearhead, which she seems sure he owns, even though he doesn’t.

For me, the Dee part of the novel works so much better than the narrator’s. Dee’s story is all about how his promised glories are constantly denied him, and how he turns more and more desperately to the occult, only to meet with a constant cycle of repeated promises, delays, more promises, and ultimate frustration. He enters into a partnership with Edward Kelley, an ex-criminal (his ears have been cut off as punishment for forgery) who provides Dee with a small amount of powder that can turn lead into gold, along with a book that describes how this powder might be used to make the Philosopher’s Stone. But the book is in code, and the pair soon use up their small stock of powder in making the gold they need to continue their studies (and to fund Kelley’s dissolute lifestyle). Kelley, though, can summon the Angel of the West Window, an awesome, otherworldly presence (with something of a demonic air: “the thumb on the right hand pointed downwards, it was the left hand thumb”) that promises to teach Dee the key to the book’s cipher, though always tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, never today. (It does, when their need is at its most dire, replenish their stock of powder, so they can make more gold, and continue their desperate studies.) Along with Dee’s second wife Jane, the pair leave England for Prague, where Dee wants to see what the Emperor Rudolf II, who claims to be an alchemical adept, can teach him, but Rudolf is paranoid, controlling, and on the edge of madness. Then the Angel of the West Window declares that Dee must share his beloved wife with the lecherous Kelley.

In between reading of Dee’s troubles, the narrator finds himself at the centre of an occult battle for his soul, fought between forces he only gradually comes to understand. On the one hand, there are the Gardeners, a group of enlightened beings who provide the occasional prod on his path to illumination; on the other, there’s the Goddess Black Iaïs, who “rules the realm of anti-Eros, whose power and extent no-one suspects who has not himself been initiated into the mysteries of hate”, and who wants the antique Spearhead of Hywel Dda, once in the possession of John Dee. Despite all this being a clear parallel to Dee’s story, the narrator comes across (to me, anyway) as almost wilfully stupid in being unable to tell what’s happening to him, and as a result, his part of the story seems mostly about him being shunted from one incomprehensible event to another. There’s a lot of occult talk and mysteriously significant events, but no real human-level drama, as there is with the Dee tale, and all of the narrator’s gains feel like something given to him, rather than something he’s earned.

It eventually emerges that the narrator is to experience the fulfilment of what was promised, centuries ago, to his ancestor John Dee. Dee got the nature of that initial promise wrong, interpreting it wholly in terms of worldly gains, when it was meant only in spiritual terms. (“Green Land” is used, in the novel, to refer to the land of the dead, and of the spiritually enlightened, and it was this land that was promised to Dee, not the land of the same name that exists in the material world.) By the end of the book, I found it difficult to accept that the narrator had done anything to earn his spiritual elevation — he’d seemed to learn no lesson, having merely been batted about between occult forces like a spiritual tennis ball that just happened to end up on the right side of the net.

Reviewing The Angel of the West Window in 1936, Jorge Luis Borges called the book “a chronicle of confused miracles, barely salvaged, from time to time, by its poetic ambience”. (Of Meyrink’s literary career as a whole, Borges says: “His books became acts of faith, and then of propaganda.”)

It didn’t, to me, feel that Meyrink was merely peddling some occult system. At times, the supernatural events that happen to either Dee or the narrator felt genuinely weird and shocking (in particular, the pronouncements of Bartlett Greene, with whom Dee shares a prison cell near the start of the novel) rather than being contrived. The best parts — the Dee parts — actually seemed to be all about how, the more enticing the promises of the occult are, the more empty, frustrating, and soul-destroying is their effect. It might have been better simply as Dee’s story, with no modern counterpart, but by the end, despite often tedious passages in which many supposedly significant things were happening but no real meaning emerging, The Angel of the West Window does, nevertheless, work a little literary magic.