"After the Quake" by Haruki Murakami

From the author of "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," mysterious stories of love, loss and frogs set in a Japan harrowed by earthquakes and terrorism.

Published September 5, 2002 9:31PM (EDT)

In the first story in this collection by the author of "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle," a salesman's wife sits mesmerized by the coverage of the 1995 earthquake that killed thousands of people in Kobe, Japan. Then she leaves him, with only a note reading "you are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air," by way of explanation. A co-worker offers to pay his airfare to a northern coastal city if the salesman will just take with him a small box ("nothing fragile and there are no 'hazardous materials'") to deliver, by hand, to the co-worker's sister. The box is tightly wrapped and weighs practically nothing.

The salesman arrives, hands over the package, winds up in bed with a friend of the sister and tells her about his wife's note. "I may have nothing inside me," he says, "but what would something be?" Only then does he get around to wondering what's in the box, and to wondering why he hasn't wondered about it earlier. "I'll tell you why," says the woman. "It's because that box contains the something that was inside you. You just didn't know that when you carried it here and gave it to Keiko with your own hands. Now, you'll never get it back." That's how easily life in Murakami's stories glides from domestic travail to the edge of an uncanny abyss.

The world Murakami's characters live in has an atmosphere a bit like that of the first season of "Twin Peaks"; it is both ordinary and spooked, trivial and full of portents. Furthermore, like the residents of Twin Peaks, these people are never going to get any clear-cut answers, but for Murakami at least, the whole point of existence is to inhabit its mysteries.

This is a slim book, but you'll need to read it twice. The stories are connected overtly by the Kobe disaster (they all occur during the following month), but also in a dozen subterranean ways -- motifs like bears, snakes, frogs and boxes keep floating to the surface and sinking back down again. The subconscious is Murakami's natural habitat, and sometimes these stories seem to be dreaming of each other, their elements taking on different forms, picking up the threads dropped earlier. They are enigmatic without being obscure; by the second reading you'll know what the author is trying to say, even if you can't quite nail it down in so many words.

Murakami's characters are like everyone else -- haunted by old losses and betrayals, afraid of being trapped, perplexed by the demands life makes of them. A story like "Honey Pie," about a writer's emergence from a detachment he only thinks has been imposed upon him, is entirely realistic, but the child in it has nightmares about the "Earthquake Man," a bogeyman ("tall and skinny and old") who wants to stuff people into impossibly tiny boxes.

On the other hand, in the weirdly heartbreaking "Superfrog Saves Tokyo," Mr. Katagiri, the "assistant chief of the Lending Division of the Shinjuku branch of the Tokyo Security Trust Bank," is visited at his bachelor apartment by an enormous and very noble frog. The frog, named Frog, needs the support of Katagiri in his epic battle with Worm, an underground serpent who threatens to destroy Tokyo with another quake, this one to be set off by Worm's irate, mindless writhings. Why Katagiri? It turns out that Frog has been watching the bank officer's life of unsung decency. "To be quite honest, Mr. Katagiri," says the gigantic amphibian, "you are nothing much to look at, and you are far from eloquent, so you tend to be looked down upon by those around you. I, however, can see what a sensible and courageous man you are." Perhaps this story sounds preposterous, but somehow, after the first few pages, it's not.

None of the stories here deals directly with the earthquake; the catastrophe is technically peripheral to the characters' lives but its figurative tremors affect them nonetheless. Murakami wrote a nonfiction book, "Underground," which was based on extensive interviews with the victims of the Aum Shinriko cult's gassing of the Tokyo subway; that terrorist attack occurred only two months after the Kobe quake. Both events seem to have struck Murakami to the core, forcing him to reassess his aloofness toward his countrymen. While the people in his stories still tend to be loners, he's preoccupied now with the nature of connection, the ways that even those who try to remain isolated still put out invisible tendrils of fellow-feeling, often without realizing it.

And, in fact, "After the Quake" enacts that very idea. It is only superficially a story collection; seldom have I read another that feels more like a whole rather than a collection of parts. This is breathtakingly close to a flawless book, but in a very modest way. Like Mr. Katagiri's heroism, its perfection is there to be savored by those who know how to look.

Our next pick: A family finds gems, mystery and adulterous passion on the island of Elba

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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