Haruki Murakami’s Art of the Literary Erection

by Dave Hurlow

Dave Hurlow is a writer and musician living in Toronto. His first collection of fiction, Hate Letters from Buddhists, was published in August of 2014 through Steel Bananas.

I think sex is an act of … a kind of soul-commitment. If the sex is good, your injury will be healed, your imagination will be invigorated. It’s a kind of passage to the upper area, to the better place.

—Haruki Murakami

The first girl I ever seriously dated suggested Murakami to me. That was maybe 2003. After we broke up, I developed a petty aversion to reading him. A decade later, I realized that I was in need of a good summer read. I walked up to a second-hand bookstore after work one day and picked up The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I spent the next week in a park near my house devouring it.

In the two years that have passed since then, I’ve consumed eight of Murakami’s novels plus a story collection. Not that this is any great feat, but usually my reading habits tend toward variety—I don’t like getting hung up on a single author. Partly to blame is the fact that I remained a Murakami celibate until the age of 28. When that tension finally broke, I dove headlong into the world of a man who’d been sold to me all those years back as “this crazy Japanese author who writes about suicide, sex, whiskey, and cats.” I found myself swimming on the surface of stories that withheld their secrets in some distant, impenetrable cavern. For whatever reason, this created an insatiable hunger for more Murakami.

The last author that inspired such obsessive devotion in me was R.L. Stine. Between 1992 and 1997, 62 books were published under the original Goosebumps moniker. I remember losing interest around number 30: It Came from Beneath the Sink. I was 11 years old, and the idea of a sinister sponge with magical powers offended my sensibilities.

What draws me to Murakami is not dissimilar to what drew me to Goosebumps. In both cases, you calmly enter a world that feels familiar and wait patiently for the weirdness to begin. Goosebumps was categorically fantastical, but even in Murakami’s more realist works, it often feels as though invisible spells are being cast from just beyond the fringes of the narrative.

The weirdness that readers automatically come to expect of Murakami appeals to a universal sense of adolescent curiosity—a sense that between the pages of his books, anything is possible. When I read Murakami, I don’t quite feel like the 11-year-old who loved Goosebumps. I feel slightly older—like a 12-year-old just slipping out of youth, caught in that forgotten snap-second when you realize books are cool, smoke your first cigarette, and experience the stirrings of a sexual awakening that will throttle you in coming years.

In The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995), I was captivated by a passage in which the narrator (Mr. Wind-Up Bird) has a dream about a mysterious woman named Creta Kano:

My erection grew larger and harder. I felt I was about to burst wide open. It was the strangest sensation, something that was beyond simple sexual pleasure. It felt as if something inside her, something special inside her, were slowly working its way through my organ into me.

Later, as Creta Kano divulges her extraordinary life story, we learn that she is a “prostitute of the mind” and that in the narrator’s dream they “actually” had intercourse. In the quoted passage, as the narrator penetrates Creta Kano, he feels something “working its way” into himself: an inversion of traditional heterosexual intercourse. This inversion brings to mind a clever metaphor employed by Rivka Galchen in a recent issue of Harper’s Magazine:

Again and again in Murakami’s fiction, just as a plot strand draws to a close it also opens out into a vastness. What presents itself as a key reveals itself simultaneously as a keyhole.

Just as the narrator’s dream-penis slips neatly into Creta Kano, she works something back into him: his key is transfigured into a keyhole. The unknown “something” that passes through the penis/keyhole is an illusory object that simply disappears into Murakami’s impenetrable cave of secrets.

As with Mr. Wind-Up Bird’s encounter with Creta Kano, I often feel as though some strange, indescribable thing has been imparted to me after reading Murakami, something impossible to grasp. I love discussing stories, but I’ve always suspected that the best part of a book is the part you can’t describe, the part you keep for yourself. Murakami’s books are factories of murky secrets and dead ends, what Galchen describes as an ever-expanding network of keys and keyholes. Reading Murakami can be agonizing—I often become disoriented in his narratives and wonder what could possibly be motivating me to read on. I assume it’s some combination of curiosity and whatever invisible part of my mind loves the torment.


If, as Murakami argues, good sex is a passage to the “upper area” or “better place,” the act of reading can be seen as an alternate route to a similar destination that was discovered much later in human development. The intimate exchange between author and reader offers an experience that can be both healing and transformative. For each new reading of a book, a new passage opens up, tunneling in material that forms a unique interpretation of the narrative.

When the writing is good, that passage creates a “good book” feeling that is like a tonic; it transports you (via a drastically different method) to a similar place as the “good sex” passage that Murakami talks about. In the case of reading, I’d like to refer to this sensation as the literary erection; the stirring of something profoundly deep within you brought on by good literature.

“Whatever it is about Murakami’s writing that stimulates such a powerful reaction in his readers, it is unmistakably caught up in the complex longing that is often the affliction of his characters.”

Murakami’s fiction is overtly sexual. While readers have come to anticipate a variety of references to cats, classical music, jazz music, food, alcohol, etc. (the usual suspects have been neatly catalogued in this bingo comic), it would be remiss to exclude sex and erections from this list. Murakami’s specialized tropes produce a Pavlovian response in readers and serve as foreplay in the act of coaxing out a literary erection. They’ve become iconic, a celebrated aspect of his unique style. Within these tropes, erections are frequent and conspicuous. The context and deeper significance surrounding their presence often jumps out at me as if it were the key to better understanding why Murakami is such a good writer.

If an erection is a physical representation of longing for the other, I’d argue that a literary erection is an intellectual version of a similar longing that conflates sexuality and spirituality in an uncanny manner. Whatever it is about Murakami’s writing that stimulates such a powerful reaction in his readers, it is unmistakably caught up in the complex longing that is often the affliction of his characters. The surreal role that sex takes on and the metaphysical fetishism that is consistently present in his narratives becomes the ultimate expression of this longing.

The correlation between sexual longing and existential longing plays a crucial role in two of Murakami’s earliest works: A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) and Norwegian Wood (1987). In A Wild Sheep Chase, a severed whale penis becomes the object of obsession to the narrator as a young boy:

At times it would remind me of a tiny, shrivelled palm tree; at other times, a giant ear of corn. In fact, if not for the plaque—WHALE GENITAL: MALE—no one would have taken it to be a whale’s penis. More likely an artefact unearthed from the Central Asian desert than a product of Antarctica. It bore no resemblance to my penis, nor any penis I’d ever seen. What was worse, the severed penis exuded a singular, somehow unspeakable aura of sadness.

After making love for the first time, the boy’s mind drifts to the whale penis, and he is overwhelmed by a feeling that his situation in the world is hopeless: “It was then and there I came to the realization I have borne in mind ever since. Which is, that I am not a whale.” His sentimental attachment to whales and their penises is tender and endearing, a manifestation of misdirected pathos. As he grows up, the melancholy inspired by the whale penis sticks with him—a token of his nostalgic obsession with youth. Nothing can cure these feelings. The narrator has more in common with the whale penis than perhaps he realizes.  He himself is a husk of a man: he is cut off from a past that is beyond his reach and incapable of facing the future.

In Norwegian Wood, a beautiful woman named Midori falls in love with the narrator, who in turn is pining for an emotionally troubled girl he’s known from childhood called Naoko:

I just went on holding her tightly. And as I did so, I was able to feel inside her body some kind of stony foreign matter, something I could never draw close to. And that sensation filled my heart for Naoko and gave my erection a terrifying intensity.

This erection represents the narrator’s longing to experience something beyond his grasp. The “stony foreign matter” within Naoko is that unknown quantity within the other that we as individuals can never access. The narrator’s erection grows terrifyingly intense as it grapples with the unknowable.

In two of Murakami’s later works, Kafka On The Shore (2002) and 1Q84 (2010), the erections and the sexual acts to which they are a party become integrated into the mechanics of Murakami’s plots, igniting some of the most essential developments in the stories.

Kafka On The Shore is the story of a 15-year-old boy (Kafka) who believes he is destined to have intercourse with his sister and his mother (they left home when he was an infant and he has no memory of them). Early in the story he gets a hand job from a girl he imagines to be his sister. Later on, he sleeps with Miss Saeki, a beautiful older woman who he imagines to be his mother. A character called The Boy Named Crow narrates the following passage:

Little by little you’re sucked down into the warm mud. The whole world turns warm, wet, indistinct, and all that exists is your rigid, glistening cock. You close your eyes and your own dream begins. It’s hard to tell how much time is passing. The tide comes in, the moon rises. And soon you come. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. You come over and over inside her. The warm walls inside her contract, gathering in your semen. All this while she’s still asleep with her eyes wide open. She’s in a different world, and that’s where your seed goes—swallowed down into a place apart.

The nature of the sexual act is steeped in mysticism. Kafka has been sleeping in a room previously occupied by Miss Saeki’s dead lover. The spirit of Miss Saeki as a young girl has been visiting Kafka nightly. Is he sleeping with the real Saeki or her spirit? Is Miss Saeki actually his mother? True to form, Murakami provides no definitive answers.

As the protagonist here is a sexually charged teen, the pages are dense with awkward erections and ejaculations. Kafka is something of an anomaly insofar as Murakami usually likes to deal in characters that are hardened and world-weary. While Kafka is exceptionally wise for a 15-year-old, the desire to rid himself of a perverted prophecy by fulfilling it reveals his youthful paranoia. In the end, his worrisome erections guide him through the thorny path to adulthood.

1Q84 contains perhaps the most epic Murakami erection sequence in existence (a keyword search of the e-book returned 18 “erections” from the chapter in question), on which the entire second act of the three-part novel hinges:

I was sleeping, Tengo realized. He had fallen asleep erect. And even now he was firmly erect. Had the erection continued the whole time he was sleeping? Or was this a new erection, following the relaxation of the first (Like Prime Minister So and So’s second cabinet)?

When Tengo (one of the novel’s two protagonists) awakens to this mysterious hard-on, he finds he is paralyzed. A teenage girl named Fuka-Eri—an escapee from a sinister cult—climbs on top of him and brings him to ejaculation. As with the narrator in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Tengo finds something “beyond simple sexual pleasure” in the act and rightly so; Fuka-Eri acts as a mystical conduit for Tengo’s semen, which ends up impregnating the female protagonist (Aomame) who is on the other side of town assassinating a cult leader. Tengo’s ejaculation is transformed into a nameless gust of wind in this complementary sequence:

Outside the window, the thunder-without-lightning rumbled with increased force. Raindrops pelted the glass. The two of them were in an ancient cave—a dark, damp, low-ceilinged cave. Dark beasts and spirits surrounded the entrance. For the briefest instant around her, light and shadow became one. A nameless gust of wind blew through the distant channel. That was the signal. Aomame brought her fist down in one short, precise movement.

Everything ended in silence. The beasts and spirits heaved a deep breath, broke up their encirclement, and returned to the depths of a forest that had lost its heart.

1Q84 is an exhausting epic that tests the reader as often as it rewards. By breaking the narrative into a trilogy and rotating the focus between three characters, Murakami allows readers access to parts of the story that are usually enveloped in shade. At times it’s easy to forget that he’s telling a love story, that 1Q84 is Murakami’s Sleepless In Seattle. The above excerpts encompass the heart of the story: unhappy adults who’ve been longing for each other from a distance since they fell in love as children. When Tengo ejaculates a “nameless gust of wind” through a distant channel, their paths finally begin to converge.

For the past few years, Murakami has been steadily releasing short fiction in The New Yorker in a slow burn lead up to his newest collection, Men Without Women (published in Japan in 2014). The role that sexual energy plays in these tales is invariably linked to the central dilemma.

The conceit that drives “Samsa In Love” (2013) poses the question: what if Gregor Samsa (the ill-fated salesman from Kafka’s Metamorphosis) were transformed back into a human but still thought he was an insect? In the story, Prague is under siege and the Samsa household has been abandoned. A hunchbacked female locksmith shows up to fix a door, and Gregor, still struggling with his newfound humanity and already flustered, is further perplexed by the arrival of an erection that he’s not quite sure what to make of. The locksmith, seeing the erection, becomes displeased, but Gregor somehow manages to talk his way out of the awkward situation:

Samsa looked down again at the bulge. “I don’t know how to explain it, but that has nothing to do with my feelings. It must be some kind of heart problem.”

“No kidding,” she said, impressed. “A heart problem, you say. That’s an interesting way to look at it. Never heard that one before.”

“You see, it’s out of my control.”

“And it has nothing to do with fucking?”

“Fucking isn’t on my mind. Really.”

“So let me get this straight. When your thing grows big and hard like that, it’s not your mind but your heart that’s causing it?”

Samsa nodded in assent.

The playfulness of this scene is downright joyful. “Samsa In Love” contains the ultimate abstract erection: its proprietor doesn’t even understand what it is. There is a child-like purity to Gregor Samsa in this story whereby he fails to make the connection between his penis and sex. “Samsa In Love” is a happy reminder that sex and affection are complementary, that love is connected to the loins and erections are a matter of the heart.

Another recent Murakami story from The New Yorker bundles the themes of lovemaking, affection, and storytelling into a tidy allegory. “Scheherazade” is about a man named Habara who lives in a house that he cannot leave for reasons that remain mysterious. Twice a week, a woman he calls Scheherazade brings him groceries, makes love to him, and tells him curious stories from her life. Early in the story, we learn of Habara’s paradoxical feelings about his caretaker:

The other thing that puzzled him was the fact that their lovemaking and her storytelling were so closely linked, making it hard to tell where one ended and the other began. He had never experienced anything like this before: although he didn’t love her, and the sex was so-so, he was tightly bound to her physically. It was all rather confusing.

Other than basic sustenance, the two most important things that Scheherazade offers Habara are sex and stories. As humans, we’re constantly reminded of our animal appetites for food and sex whether we like it or not. Conversely, it’s easy to forget that we’re addicted to narratives because we’re constantly exposed to the stories that shape our own lives as well as those around us. Habara, on the other hand, is shielded from random events and interactions that naturally arise from simply being out in the world. We’re told that Habara has access to books and DVDs­—tidily packaged narratives that conform to his expectations. But the messy, unexpected anecdotes that arise in an active day-to-day life are off limits. For this reason, Scheherazade’s stories are so valuable to him.

Within Murakami’s story, Scheherazade leads Habara towards the climax of her own tale, and it becomes clear that Murakami is making a joke about the joke he’s playing on you: “[T]here was something spooky about the whole thing—it was like one of those old ghost stories. Events took a rather unbelievable course. Would you like to hear about it?” She walks out before finishing, and the reader is trapped alongside the mysterious Habara.

“Even when we think we are getting the full story, we are still only getting a small fragment.”

The way that Murakami often squirrels away secrets that are never resolved can seem cruel, but that’s part of his magic. In his writing, Murakami makes Habaras of his readers all the time, but it’s a sly reflection of the way we experience reality. In our day-to-day lives, we only ever get a small part of the story. Even when we think we are getting the full story, we are still only getting a small fragment. In life, we are Habaras on a daily basis.

The pacing and structure of “Scheherazade” make for an unusual story, even by Murakami’s standards. The way that it’s written from a third-person point of view (rare for Murakami) makes it feel like Murakami is playing the role of Scheherazade for the reader. In this sense, it can easily be read as a metaphor for the relationship between author and reader.

“Scheherazade” can also be read as a fable on solitude. For all of the surrealism and silliness that goes along with Murakami’s stories, his thematic use of solitude is very realistic. Usually solitude is pronounced in the texture of his stories, but in “Scheherazade,” Habara’s house is unmistakably a representation of the ontological barrier that contains us as individuals.

Most of the time we make love or exchange stories with others, we fail to chip away at the stony foreign matter blocking the doorway. Murakami is very good at writing about this barrier. But what is much more vital in his work is the “nameless gust of wind” that blows the door open, that makes us feel, for a brief time, that we are not alone. Just as in life, the gust of wind is always welcome, but rare and unexpected, often arriving when looking for something else. A first time reader might be put off by the sheer weirdness of Murakami, but they will quickly find pleasure and consolation in his emotional realism, in gusts of wind, and in the incompleteness of stories which deliberately mirror life’s incompleteness.

As Murakami’s stories develop, the reader comes to recognize his or her own longing in that of the characters, in the way that they connect or fail to connect with others through sex, stories, and conflict. Through experiencing the journey of a character trying desperately to overcome his primal state of solitude, the reader’s parallel suffering is diminished. Murakami’s stylistic fetishes such as sex, talking cats, and raining fish make the journey more exciting, but beneath that hypnotic sheen, the engine that delivers us to the better place is a carefully rendered language of incompleteness.

Murakami’s characters are profoundly altered by the unexpected connections that they form through their dreamlike sexual encounters. Though the things we seek usually elude us, we often find something meaningful accidentally and through the act of searching. Mr. Windup Bird encounters Creta Kano. Kafka makes love to a spirit in the night. Tengo ejaculates a nameless gust of wind through a distant channel. It is in seeking that we allow ourselves to be transported to the better place. Good sex and good storytelling are unique exchanges in which it is occasionally possible to poke holes in ontological barriers, to chip away that stony foreign matter, and to blow open the doorway to Habara’s house. In this way, our inner landscapes are eroded and reshaped over the years as people come into and out of our lives and form a narrative that is both baffling and incomplete.

 


Dave Hurlow is a writer and musician living in Toronto. His first collection of fiction, Hate Letters from Buddhists, was published in August of 2014 through Steel Bananas.

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