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Disorder Out of Chaos : THE ELEPHANT VANISHES: By Haruki Murakami (Alfred A. Knopf: $21; 331 pp.)

April 04, 1993|David L. Ulin | Ulin is the author of "Cape Code Blues" (Red Dust), a book of poems, and book editor of the Los Angeles Reader

For better or worse, we live today in an atmosphere of cultural cross-pollination, where words and images are transmitted across continents at the speed of television, and the writing of one society can influence the writers of another until the idea of boundaries becomes nearly irrelevant.

In some circles, it's fashionable to lament this process, to see it as responsible for a kind of mass homogenization that will ultimately render all of us, no matter where we live, as mostly the same. But such laments neglect the basic fact of imagination, the human race's great saving grace. After all, if, as E.M. Forster once said, the purpose of literature is to record "the buzz of implication" of a specific time in history, then perhaps we are on the threshold of some sort of global writing, one that will emphasize our commonalities rather than the differences between us, and allow us to reimagine our relationships with the world.

This intention seems to be central to the work of Haruki Murakami, whose collection of short stories, "The Elephant Vanishes," has just been published in the United States for the first time. One of Japan's best-selling authors, Murakami grew up reading American paperbacks in the port city of Kobe and claims Raymond Chandler as his biggest influence, although his stripped-down, off-handed prose seems more akin to that of Raymond Carver--which makes sense, since he's Carver's Japanese translator, as well.

But the 17 stories here also reflect strains of literature and popular culture ranging from classical fairy tales to "The Twilight Zone," making "The Elephant Vanishes" one of the most consistently universal volumes of fiction you'll ever come across, a book that reflects the often disassociating experience of living at the end of the 20th Century, even for those who've never been within 5,000 miles of Japan.

Part of the way Murakami pulls this off is by ignoring the most obvious markers of his Japanese settings, minimizing the importance of place in driving his narratives along. Thus, while much of the material in "The Elephant Vanishes" takes place in the suburbs of Tokyo, it's a Tokyo that's been essentially deracinated, that, except for certain surface details of geography, could be any city in the industrialized West.

"The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women," for instance--the first story in the collection--opens with the narrator cooking spaghetti and "whistling the prelude to Rossini's 'La Gazza Ladra' along with the FM radio." Even when he goes outside to look for his missing cat, we have no clear indiction of where it is exactly that he lives. And in "The Second Bakery Attack," a newlywed couple, looking to assuage "an unbearable hunger" in the middle of the night, ends up at McDonald's, where, "(w)earing a McDonald's hat, the girl behind the counter flashed me a McDonald's smile and said, 'Welcome to McDonald's.' "

"The Second Bakery Attack," actually, works as a signifier for the entire collection--starting off with a situation that's relatively mundane, then slowly and irrevocably getting out of hand. The couple, it turns out, are not going to McDonald's to buy anything; they are there to hold the place up, as a way of exorcising a demon from the husband's past. What's more, the whole thing is the wife's idea, and the husband goes along with it as if in a dream, at once a part of the action and slightly detached from it. Even after the fact, the only thing he can do is to wonder passively about what's occurred. "I'm still not sure I made the right choice," he explains. "But then, it might not have been a question of right and wrong. Which is to say that wrong choices can produce right results, and vice versa. I myself have adopted the position that, in fact, we never choose anything at all. Things happen. Or not."

All in all, it's a rather amoral perspective, but we can see the essential truth behind it, the way things do tend to happen without much conscious control. In fact, this may have a lot to do with why the work in "The Elephant Vanishes" seems so accessible, so reflective of how so many of us live our lives. For, like us, Murakami's characters inhabit a universe that is morally and socially ambiguous, and often go through the motions of their day-to-day existence at somewhat of a loss. In contrast to most Japanese literature, his narrators--all of the pieces in this collection are written in the first-person--are outsiders, if not exactly loners, then on their own, people who have jobs, not careers. And their disassociation gives Murakami's writing an ironic, quizzical edge that really hits home--because it seems like the most intelligent response to so much of what's going on.

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