Saturday, October 11, 2014

Haruki Murakami's "Scheherazade": Sex and Storytelling

Well, the Nobel Prize for Literature has been announced, and favorite Haruki Murakami did not win.  French author Patrick Modiano, not well known in the U.S., did.  Congratulations to him.

Murakami has a new short story in the recent New Yorker (Oct. 13, 2014), the title of which, "Scheherazade," immediately attracted my attention, having recently read the new translation of 1001 Nights by Hanan Al-Shakyh and Marina Warner's wonderful study, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights.

Murakami's story is about a guy who cannot, for some undisclosed reason, leave his house. A nameless woman is assigned (but we do not know by whom) to come to his house regularly to bring him food and supplies. She also has sex with him and tells him stories; thus, he calls her Scheherazade. The main story she tells him in the story we are reading is about her breaking into the home of a boy with whom she was obsessed while in high school, (she is middle-aged now), fantasizing about him, stealing trivial items, and leaving other items in their place.

Because the story provides no background for why the man cannot leave the house or who is responsible for sending the woman to attend to his needs, the reader is apt to focus on these mysteries.  Indeed, New Yorker editor Treisman begins her interview in her weekly online feature by asking Murakami if he knows why the man cannot leave the house.

If this were the account of an actual event or even a realistic story, the question might be legitimate.  However, since Murakami does not reveal in the story why the man is confined to the house, he can quite rightfully reply to Treisman: "I don't know the exact circumstances that brought about the situation." Murakami says what caused the man's situation is not important. A fan of Kafka, he might have said it is no more relevant to the story than why Joseph K in Kafka's The Trial is arrested; it just is a given of the story that makes the story possible. In some ways, we are all locked in.

Treisman also asks Murakami why he ends his story without letting the reader hear the end of the story Scheherazade is telling the man.  Murakami says this is one of the most basic techniques of storytelling since the beginning of storytelling.  Many of the stories in 1001 Nights end only as an introit to another story within a story until the reader gets drawn so far into stories within stories that reality (whatever that is) is left so far behind one wonders if such a thing ever existed.  But readers want realism and closure, some contact with what they think is the "real world," as if their notion of "reality" is the only notion possible. This desire for closure even leads Treisman to ask Murakami if there will be a sequel--a device that Hollywood movie makers use to satisfy audiences' need for the illusion that that stuff on the screen keeps on happening even after they leave the theater.

I have only found one reader on the Internet who has read the story and commented on it—the indefatigable Betsy Pelz over on the website—a valuable site I have read with pleasure the past several years.  And sure enough, Ms. Pelz spends much of her discussion pondering what the guy is doing confined in the room and who is sending that woman over to tend to his needs.

Is the man a criminal, a political prisoner? She asks. Is the woman a prostitute, a sex surrogate? How does the woman manage the very practical matter of getting over to the guy's house so regularly without disrupting her own marriage? Ms. Pelz even suggests that the woman might be hired by the mob to keep the man prisoner. Frustrated by finding no answers, Ms. Polz develops her own fantasy solution that the man is actually the young boy the woman had an obsession about when she was a teenager—that he is actually now her husband and they are playing some sexual fantasy game by which she keeps him interested in her even though she is no longer young.

Perhaps concerned that  such a reading might trivialize the story as just an old Ladies Home Journal "Can this Marriage Be Saved?" piece, Ms. Pelz also suggests that the story has a social context, claiming, "The story addresses the kind of challenge a man faces in highly gendered societies such as Japan, where this story takes place and where the ideal for men is to be strong and silent."

I am not particularly attacking Betsy Pelz's reading of this story. She certainly has the freedom to read it any way she wishes. I suspect that most readers will have the same reaction to Murakami's "Scheherazade," especially if they are not as familiar with the history of storytelling beginning with 1001 Nights as Murakami is.  Indeed, Treisman's questions in the Murakami interview suggest that she is anticipating the typical reader response of trying to "normalize" this story, ground it in "realistic" motivation and "social" context.

But as Murakami's coy responses that he does not know what brought about the situation the man is in and his acknowledgement that he is using one of the most basic techniques of storytelling "handed down the millennia" suggest that "Scheherazade" is a story that can only be understood within the context of storytelling.

"Scheherazade" begins with an acknowledgement that this is a story about the ambiguous world that story creates: "Habara didn't know whether her stories were true, invented, or partly true and partly invented.  He had no way of telling.  Reality and supposition, observation and pure fancy seemed jumbled together in her narratives."   Stories that begin with some variation of "Once there was a man who…" often end with the reader asking the teller, "Did that really happen?"  My children often would ask me after I told  them a story, "Is that really true, Daddy, or just a story?"

Murakami's narrator says that regardless of whether Scheherazade's stories were true or not, she had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart, stories that left the listener enthralled," able to forget the reality that surrounded him, if only for a moment."  Indeed, this is one of the primary effects of reading 1001 Nights.

The man in the story is puzzled by 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 has never experienced anything like this.  He is tightly bound to her, but he does not know why, for the sex is so-so and he doesn’t love her.  Indeed, the woman performs each sexual act as if completing an assignment in a businesslike manner.  Although their sex is not obligatory, it could not be said that their hearts are in it. Although the sex is not entirely businesslike, it is not passionate either.

Much of "Scheherazade" deals with the story the woman tells the man about her breaking into the house of the boy she was infatuated with while in high school.  She goes to his house when no one is at home and goes up to his room, sitting in his desk chair, picking up objects he has touched: "the most mundane objects became somehow radiant because they were his." She describes herself as a "Love Thief," feeling that if she takes something, she must also leave something. It is a reminder of the inextricable connection between story and sex that she takes one of the boy's pencils and leaves one of her tampons. She scribbles things in her notebook with the pencil, smells it, kisses it, even puts it in her mouth and sucks on it.  

She creates such a fantasy world that it no longer bothers her that in "the real world" the boy doesn't even seem to be aware of her existence. Murakami is exploring one of the most powerful aspects of love and sexual obsession that runs throughout 1001 Nights—that it is not the "real world" that matters—not even the "real" physical body of the other—only the powerful obsession that creates an alternate world. The fact that pornography focuses on physical events is what makes it so boring.

She continues to make trips to the boy's house, leaving strands of her hair, but also leaving the tampon, which the boy has never found because it was her first "token."  Leaving "tokens" is very common in the 1001 Nights stories; simple objects become transformed into magical emblems of the obsession that drives the story. Marina Warner talks a great deal about the importance of magical objects or tokens in her study Stranger Magic. All storytellers are aware of the metamorphosis of simple objects into sacred metaphoric ones. I have mentioned before Raymond Carver's comment about how ordinary objects become transformed in short stories.

A shift takes place after the girl takes one of the boy's soiled t-shirts from the laundry hamper and the mother discovers that someone has been breaking in the house and changes the door locks.  The girl does not need the boy, only the token of the shirt. When she puts her nose into the armpits and inhales, it is a as though she is in his embrace.  This "as if" is, of course, a key element of all storytelling. After she tells the man about the t-shirt, she asks to have sex with him one more time, and this time, instead of it being businesslike, it is violent, passionate and drawn out, and her climax is unmistakable.  Indeed, when she is having sex with the man this time, she is in her imagination having sex with the boy, and it is this imaginative sex that is central to the story.

When the girl stops the break-ins, her passion for the boy begins to cool.  She says that although the fever was passing, what she had contracted was not something like sickness, but rather the "real thing."  If a therapist or practical realist told the girl what she has been feeling was not the real thing but only an imaginative thing, such a judgment would just reflect a misunderstanding of what passion or desire or love or sex really is--always an imaginative thing.

At the end of his story, Murakami plays the little storytelling game so common in 1001 Nights, when the woman tells the man, "To tell the truth, the story doesn't end there.  A few years later, when I was in my second year of nursing school, a strange stroke of fate brought us together again."

The man wants to hear the rest of the story (as does the reader), but fears he may never see Scheherazade again and may never have the shared intimacy of sex with her again. "What his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while negating it on the other.  That was something that Scheherazade had provided in abundance—indeed her gift was inexhaustible." Indeed, this is the gift of the storyteller, the key to the treasure.  And as John Barth's genii reminds us, "The key to treasure is the treasure."

I hope Betsy Pelz will forgive me for using her discussion as a sort of straw man to emphasize what I think is a very important point about the short story as a genre—that to understand a particular story the reader must have some understanding of the nature of story and storytelling, especially the fact that good short stories are most often about some universal aspect of human desire and that "realism" is never an adequate means by which to understand them.

I am working on my essay on "Sex and Storytelling" in Alice Munro's Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage. My thanks for the timely appearance of Haruki Murakami's story "Scheherazade," which reaffirms my notions about this theme in Alice Munro's stories.


Sofia-Dimitra said...

The fact that stories do not need to have an ending or explained to death is what is so appealing about them. If one wants closure, they should read Nesbo or Grisham not Murakami and Kafka. The world is divided in two: movie people and story people. Just let the story flow over you; don't be so reality bound.

Mark Richardson said...

This is an incredible analysis. Thank you.

Charles May said...

Thank you.

Erica Smith said...

It is true that you cannot help but wonder about the reason the man is not allowed to leave the house. The story made me think of Julian Assange, who has effectively been imprisoned in the Ecuadorean Embassy since 2012.

PGTips said...

I wondered if the reason the man couldn't leave the house was that he was ill or incapacitated in some way. The woman is his carer/helper. From the way the story is told and ended, I thought the man was the boy she had fantasised over at school, now an adult. 'A strange stroke of fate brought us together again...' I guess the former soccer-loving boy had an accident, and needed a carer.

Anonymous said...

I thought so too, until as I read this article and remembered that Habara mentions she's four years older to him.

Anonymous said...

where do story happen? what is the setting of the story scheherazade?