In the Miso Soup, by Ryu Murakami

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Five stars, read on the last day of September 2016.

I should have written about this back then, because now I won’t be able to remember details. But this book was so notable that I still feel I need to post something about it. For several years Ryu has just been the other Murakami, the one who gets in my way when I’m looking for Haruki at the bookstore. But finally (I don’t know what took me so long) he got his own turn.

I was almost entranced by the second or third page, and though I was horrified by the violence throughout, I was impressed, too. One of my favorite things about the book was Murakami’s view of Americans, which constantly surprised me with its insight and accuracy. There are some things about your own culture that you just can’t see until someone illuminates them from outside.

He gave off this overpowering, almost tangible loneliness. All Americans have something lonely about them . . . Americans don’t talk about just grinning and bearing it, which is the Japanese approach to so many things. After listening to a lot of these stories, I began to think that American loneliness is a completely different creature from anything we experience in this country, and it made me glad I was born Japanese. The type of loneliness where you need to keep struggling to accept a situation is fundamentally different from the sort you know you’ll get through if you just hang in there. I don’t think I could stand the sort of loneliness Americans feel.

“The type of loneliness where you need to keep struggling to accept a situation”—this floored me. I would never have known that those were the words to describe that feeling; and they describe not only the feeling, but the unbearability of it all at once. Is it really something particular to the United States? I guess I wouldn’t know.

An American holding a beer aloft and roaring with laughter looks as natural as a Japanese does dangling a camera and bowing. Some of the customers around us smiled. Japanese always have a favorable impression of people from overseas who seem to be having a good time. The foreigner’s enjoying himself, so maybe old Nippon isn’t so bad after all, in fact maybe this is a world-class bar, and we drink in places like this all the time, so maybe we’re happier than we realized, is how the reasoning goes.

There’s a pervasive sort of melancholy in the book, and I find it fascinating that Murakami is able to include even unnamed background characters in it.

Of all the women you see in Kabuki-cho, Maki’s type is the lowest of the low, if you ask me. Unattractive, riddled with complexes, and dumb as a post, but because of the worst sort of upbringing ignorant even of her own ignorance. Convinced she ought to be working in a classier place and living a better life, and equally convinced that it’s other people’s fault she can’t pull it off. Envious of everybody else and therefore eager to blame them for everything. Treated so badly all her life that she thinks nothing of doing the same to others by deliberately saying things that hurt them.

I know so many people like this. In fact, everyone in the United States knows people like this now—because they’re the ones who elected Donald Trump. I read this book exactly forty days before I could have known how incredibly relevant this passage was going to be.

Aside from the unexpected social commentary, this is just a compelling and well-told story. It’s upsetting; there’s a good amount of graphic violence, with the protagonist being psychologically manipulated by a terrifying, talkative serial killer. Violence is hard for me to handle, especially when it includes torture, and I’m never sure what exactly is responsible when I find myself able to tolerate it. But there is a lot to recommend this book, whether you’re looking for a thriller or something more introspective; this book manages to be both.

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