By Geoffrey Bunting
Originally published in Idle Magazine Issue #3
In 1978 Haruki Murakami sat in the bleachers of Jingu Stadium watching a baseball game when Dave Hilton hit a double and Murakami realised in that instant that he could write a novel.
In 2009 I read The Wind-up Bird Chronicle for the first time, starting a now seven year love affair with Murakami’s writing, and in that instant realised that the absurdity and surrealism in my life, mind, and writing, were completely appropriate – thus ending years of uncertainty.
For those that know me it would be hard to believe that I used to be pretty uncool. When I was eighteen I was living alone with no life, no friends, and in love with a woman (let’s call her B.) that had spent the previous four years ruining my life and would continue to do so for the next four. I was struggling through the composition of my first novel, the writing – and reading – of which could be likened to wading through a mire in shoes two sizes too big, all the time wondering whether I really wanted to write, play music, or act – despite not being good enough at any of them.
To say I was lost would be clichéd, yet entirely true. As far as I was concerned I was just a flat consciousness lost in a colourless world, looking for something solid; trying to find some real data to grasp hold of. Yet I found none, so instead I fostered a dependency on my futile love affair and did nothing.
It wasn’t for lack of ambition, I was just missing the drive and means to do anything about it. Somewhere in my adolescent mind I felt that my chronic heartbreak should be channelled into everything I did. It wasn’t a choice, love had rewired my brain. It made for lacklustre, miserable art and a similarly lacklustre life.
The trouble was that I wasn’t me. I was living in a world of self-imposed barricades designed to keep the bad stuff out, exiled to a world of secrets beyond simple privacy by myself and those around me. What I didn’t realise was those barricades also kept the bad stuff in, allowing to fester malignancies that I held onto for years that were slowly poisoning me like a cancer of the soul. I was hiding from who I was; perpetually under the covers where the monsters couldn’t get me, and everything I did propagated that. Instead of doing what was healthy, I was staying up late, watching Countdown at four in the morning, and thinking about a girl who couldn’t have cared less about me and, hindsight suggests, might have been trying to kill me.
Retroactive reflections aside, to put it bluntly, I was fat, lonely, and weird, and doing all I could to convince myself I was none of these things. All I needed to do was to accept myself for who I was, yet I didn’t have it in me. My one salvation was reading and writing. But in my writing I was suppressing my natural surreal tendencies, trying to write “normal” stories, and trying to follow the rules I learned in school – all the while heaping pressure on myself to get better faster. I was well on the road to nowhere.
At the behest of a friend, I picked up The Wind-up Bird Chronicle expecting little more than another book to add to my reading list. But I was wrong.
Halfway through I noticed colour seeping back into my life. I started seeing the world around me rather than just the space immediately in front of my eyes. Those walls I built around my real personality crumbled and I started seeing things differently, interacting with the world in the way I wanted and needed to for years, but had never had the assurance to do so. In Toru Okada I found a character as nonplussed and stoic as I, in a world of cats, warped histories, and strangely tame adventure. In the characters around him I saw caricatures of the people around me. It began a process of awakening and opening through relation that progressed with every Murakami book I read.
Over the period of a few months – the time it took to get through Murakami’s catalogue – I had emerged a new (yet entirely old) person. Those facets of my persona that I suppressed for so long while I tried to function within accepted norms, flourished. My writing evolved almost overnight, to include the weirder and more interesting aspects of my imagination. In welcoming the surreal, I began to be more realistic, I let myself focus on what I really wanted – writing – and working out how best to make what I wanted happen. For the first time in years I was comfortable and had a plan, and it was all thanks to one man.
Six years later and my first novel is getting positive responses from agencies. I went to university and lived through it, I got rid of B., and, more than anything, I got myself to a stage where I can write about the past without bringing it all back to me. The key word is myself, I suppose. However, I hate to think where I might have ended up if I’d not discovered Murakami when I did.
The process is ongoing, but the change was instantaneous. Perhaps that’s the power of the strain that runs through Murakami and to his readers. Much as the decision to write a novel came in an instant, so too do the realisations his writing effects.
Hindsight and perspective are wonderful things. They allow me to look back at years of misfortune and laugh, they allow me to learn from my mistakes, and they allow me to see the potential for fiction in the stark realities of my life. And looking back – past B. and the fantasies of my adolescence – I see one friend stand out, a man I’ve never met, who helped me navigate my way through one of the toughest periods of my life and come out the other side a better man.
It seems strange to me that one person could change my life so – though perhaps B. proved it could be done – and maybe Murakami only reassured me that I was “okay”; that I was “normal”. There were others along the road too, both immediate and distant, that could be credited with making me who I am today. But since him, no one person has had so much of an influence on me. I often wonder what I would say if I ever happened to meet Haruki Murakami, and I think the only thing I would be able to say is “thank you” – and I fancy he might understand. And while I was at it, I would probably thank Dave Hilton for hitting that double back in April 1978.