Originally published in The New Yorker, Mar. 19, 2001. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 8.
[Translated, from the Japanese, by Jay Rubin.]
A bit of an opportunistic reprint, here, by The New Yorker's fiction editor Deborah Treisman, an openly empty story (though I feel -- or rather don't feel -- that about most of Murakami's writing) that just happens to be loosely related to the 1995 earthquake that hit Kobe, Japan. In a series of tangents and anecdotes, Komura's wife grows obsessed with disaster footage and leaves him; an aimless, grieving Komura agrees to deliver something for his co-worker, flying all the way from Tokyo to Hokkaido to do so; while there, the friend of the person he's delivering the package to, Shimao, seduces him with the telling of a personal story involving sex in a bear-populated forest; finally, the story ends with Shimao pointing out, "But really, you're just at the beginning."
Murakami is a clear writer, and it's easy to get strung along on his uncomplicated sentences. In fact, this tends to assist him in his later novels, which would otherwise lose readers with their heavily supernatural and/or metaphysical sections. But there's an unconscionable lack of content here: a nice intro, then seven pages of smooth jazz, if you will, to finally lay down one riff on life. Shimao's perspective:
You need to lighten up and learn to enjoy life a little more. I mean, think about it: tomorrow there could be an earthquake; you could be kidnapped by aliens; you could be eaten by a bear. Nobody knows what's going to happen.
And then there's Komura's view:
Next to his clean, classic looks, his wife could not have seemed more ordinary. ... And it wasn't just physical: there was nothing attractive about her personality, either. ... Still, though he himself did not quite understand why, Komura always felt his tension dissipate when he and his wife were together under one roof; it was the only time he could truly relax. He slept well with her, undisturbed by the strange dreams that had troubled him in the past. His erections were hard; his sex life was warm. He no longer had to worry about death or venereal disease or the vastness of the universe.
On the one hand, there's an argument for taking risks and chances; on the other, there's the cry for safety. The earthquake, which should shake up everyone's views -- Komura, suddenly realizing that he shouldn't live in fear; Shimao, wondering if security might not be such a bad thing after all -- doesn't change anything. It just sets things into motion, a motion with a main character who is described as "good and kind and handsome" but with whom being with is "like living with a chunk of air." And that's really it; Murakami's story is hyper-casual, with so much weight given to the normalcy of those vacant middle pages that when it comes time for action -- or even an active choice for no action -- the story fizzles.
"For a split second," teases Murakami, "Komura felt as if he were on the verge of committing an act of incredible violence." That line comes out of nowhere, and just as quickly vanishes. So, too, does this boring story.