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Up at The Tusk, “This Shit Ain’t Ever Going to Work”

Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People-10_1410The Tusk has posted a new piece of mine about the tortured history of my new novel Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People. A sample:

And how could I forget my friend’s father returning home one afternoon from work, tie loose and hair splayed, bedraggled from wrestling some top-secret problem? Most likely not a problem scientific in nature, but bureaucratic. Thirteen years of age or so, a computer geek-in-training (largely because I wanted to grow up and write video games, unaware that a prerequisite for writing video games is to have never grown up), I was fascinated with the engineering problems these nuclear scientists must have faced every day. Sitting cross-legged on the lime-green living room shag playing Axis & Allies (and losing badly), I asked how his latest project was proceeding.

He leaned down to my ear and whispered: “Jim, this shit ain’t ever going to work.” Then he went to the kitchen and cracked open a beer from the refrigerator. By “this shit” he meant the LLNL’s latest budget-busting project, the Strategic Defense Initiative, a la Star Wars, a system of laser-equipped satellites promised to protect our country from ICBM attack and end the Cold War. You know, that Cold War, the mad weapons race the laboratory at Livermore had enabled and fostered and contributed to over the prior thirty years.

Read the whole thing at The Tusk. And while you’re at it, read Nate Waggoner’s brilliant dissection of how authors’ are learning to burnish their own laurels in today’s world of social media and independent publishing, “On Self-Promotion”.

Announcing Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People

Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People by Jim NelsonIt’s with a great deal of relief I announce the publication of my new novel, Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People.

Yes, relief. I’ve worked on this book for over ten years taking it through six major revisions, including one of Melvillean proportions (the manuscript was too large for Microsoft Word, forcing me to split it into two files). What started as a throwaway line from an unrelated short story—”His father studied thermonuclear reactions. He could explain Nagasaki at the subatomic level”—grew into an undertaking that has consumed a double-digit percentage of my adult life and a fair chunk of personal sanity. I pushed the manuscript aside twice out of resignation, only to return to it years later convinced I could get it across the finish line. Most achingly of all, it received substantial interest from an agent who was patient enough to read three revisions…only to walk away from it, not convinced it was something she could get behind.

No matter. It’s done now. Saying “It feels like a weight has been taken off my shoulders” is too wordy. Strike “It feels like” from that sentence. It’s not a simile. Finally I can see straight, for the first time in over a decade.

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Edward Teller Dreams of Barbecuing People

Into the Wild and the continued fascination with Christopher McCandless’ death

Into the WildOriginal published November 10, 2014. Revised July 15, 2015.

When I learned that Christopher McCandless’ sister Carine had published The Wild Truth, a memoir of growing up with Christopher as well as revelations of abuse within their family, I was surprised at my personal reaction. Many of my feelings I recognized from the time I first read about Christopher over a decade ago. Some of the feelings were new, however—defensive emotions for Christopher, unusual for me regarding a person I’ve never met.

Of course, I did meet Christopher “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless via Jon Krakauer’s bestseller Into the Wild. If Krakauer had published Into the Wild as fiction, he’d be lauded to this day for constructing a sturdy and memorable character, a modern ecotopian Prince Hal whose untimely tragedy stood as a sharp warning to America’s tabloid-driven, go-go 1990s. That Krakauer’s book was based on true events only cemented its standing.

Since its publication over twenty years ago, well-worn copies of Into the Wild have been passed from eager hands to eager hands with the assurance that this is the Baedeker to living an authentic, truthful life. It’s a brilliant read, brilliantly constructed and brilliantly executed. For all the complaints Krakauer has received over the years (he’s often accused of mythologizing McCandless’ exploits), the criticisms would hold no water if the book was a stiff recounting of facts, timetables, and inventories. Christopher bursts off Krakauer’s pages full of vim and vigor, a complicated young man of effusive talents, predictable weaknesses, and eccentric foibles.

I’ve not seen Sean Penn’s film adaptation, but it sounds like he chose to portray McCandless like Christ in the Gospel of John, enlightened and inspired and inspirational—not of this earth. Krakauer, a more evenhanded journalist, knew better. He humanizes McCandless even though he’s obviously intrigued, even infatuated, with the young man. For example, in Into the Wild Krakauer details his own foolish and head-strong solo attempt to climb Alaska’s Devils Thumb. He surely knew doing so he risked criticism of self-indulgence, but the tale perfectly explains by example his affinity for Christopher McCandless.

Into the Wild challenges the reader from beginning to end in all manner of ways. Time and again you must answer a personal question about McCandless: What exactly do I think of this guy? The proof of Into the Wild‘s sturdiness is that you might answer that question a dozen different ways throughout the book.

So, why my own mixed feelings on hearing of a Carine’s new book on her brother? Jon Krakauer introduced me to a vivid and lucid life, one that will stay with me for years. What could trouble me hearing Christopher’s story once again?

Born under a bad sign

Christopher McCandless was born in 1968, making him three years older than me. I have little in common with him otherwise. He was the golden son of a well-to-do family, a star athlete, popular and gifted, a graduate of Emory University with degrees conferred for history and anthropology. I flopped out of high school, technically graduating with a B+ average. Only by the grace of God did I stumble into a good university, then dropped out a year later while enveloped in a smog of marijuana smoke thickened by beer carbonation, much like Pig-Pen in Peanuts walks about in a cloud of grime.

Shortly after dropping out of college, I got in my car and drove. I drove down the California coast all the way to the Mexican border, made the hard decision not to jump across, and then aimed the hood ornament at Las Vegas and hit the gas. Halfway to Vegas, some time around midnight, I pulled off the highway onto a dirt road and cruised a hundred yards into the pitch black Nevada desert. I sat in the dark, the packed dirt of the road freezing my butt, my back against the front tire, and stared out into the darkness trying to figure out…something. Whatever pushed me into the Nevada desert was ineluctable but formless. When I woke up, shivering, I climbed into the backseat and slept a few more hours. The next morning I entered Las Vegas grimy as hell. I had a meal, drove around the city’s downtown, and asked myself what exactly I was doing there. Then I drove back to my rented room in San Luis Obispo.

A few months later, jumpy again and frantic about my life’s direction, I loaded into that same car a cheap tent, a grocery bag of food, some paperbacks, and a Hibachi I borrowed from a friend. I drove north on the winding Highway 1 this time, the endless Pacific yawning out to my left. I ended up at a beach outside of Monterey. I pitched the tent between two sand dunes. The Hibachi proved useless. I had in my haste forgotten to pack charcoal and matches, or for that matter, raw food to cook. I’d also forgotten a sleeping bag, a pillow, or blankets of any kind. A six-pack of beer and a bag of mixed nuts made for a hearty dinner that night.

I have a few more stories like this, but I’ll leave them be. There was a pattern of escape in that stage of my life, one that I recognized immediately while reading Into the Wild. I can’t compare these rather empty and brave-less jaunts to Christopher McCandless’ ruminative journey across the American West and into Alaska’s interior. I was never in any real danger. I was never gone for more than three days. I always had a bank card in my wallet for extra money. I could have called any number of people from a pay phone for help in a moment’s notice.

What I cannot fully explain, even to myself today, is why I undertook any of these manic unannounced departures. They continued until I was about 23, my last one when I was living with a woman and had to explain my way out of it to her when I returned.

What struck me about Krakauer’s book is that he can’t explain why McCandless flew from the good life either. Krakauer tries and tries, even bringing in his own tale about Devils Thumb as way of example, but a lucid explanation is nowhere to be found. It’s not his fault. Without a subject to interview, Krakauer must deduce an awful lot from interviews with McCandless’ acquaintances and the paucity of clues he left behind. But every reader’s first and central question—Why did Christopher flee from his past?—remains unanswered to the last page.

In the forward to Carine McCandless’ The Wild Truth, Krakauer explains he chose not to include details of the familial abuse Christopher suffered to honor the family’s wishes. I respect that. What I don’t respect is Krakauer’s either-or of how readers interpreted this exclusion from Into the Wild:

Many readers did understand this, as it turned out. But many did not. A lot of people came away from reading Into the Wild without grasping why Chris did what he did. Lacking explicit facts, they concluded that he was merely self-absorbed, unforgivably cruel to his parents, mentally ill, suicidal, and/or witless.

I suggest there are other critical interpretations that don’t require dismissing Christopher McCandless in this manner. From Krakauer’s follow-up writings—in Outside and elsewhere—he appears unwilling to entertain those interpretations.

But without this information, readers of Into the Wild form ideas of their own, positive and negative, and most of them clichéd. Impetuous youth—young man seeking Truth—the life of the tramp—even Hemingway-esque man versus nature—all reflect light on McCandless’ bravado but lack true explanatory power. Abuse or McCandless’ disillusionment upon learning of his father’s infidelities, while intriguing, hardly seem like enough jet fuel to carry him from a tony Washington D.C. address to the depths of Denali National Park.

This is why I don’t look upon Carine McCandless’ book with hope. No, I’ve not read it, so don’t view this as a condemnation or even a recommendation against picking it up. It’s just that I suspect her book will be one more attempt to decode Christopher’s psyche as A leading to B leading to C, neatly arranging his motives and back-story the way an English teacher enumerates the salient facts of Hamlet’s situation prior to Act One.

My defensiveness is in earnest. To date, all attempts to explain McCandless’ impulses only reduce him from a human being to a symbol or a metaphor, a grab bag of terminology and ideology.

No, worse: It’s reduced him to two grab bags of ideology.

On one hand, there’s the Authoritative framing. Terms like reckless, irresponsible, and schizophrenic have a comforting effect when applied to someone who steps beyond the norm and suffers for it. Framing Christopher through the authoritative lens leads to summing him up as a head case who stumbled naively into certain doom. That’s why he died in Alaska.

(Haruki Murakami notes a similar framing in Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche when he admits to “looking away” from the Aum Shinrikyo cultists because they represented a “distorted image of [the Japanese].” Like Kraukauer, he too has trouble locating their motivations, and it hurts his book. He later admitted the Aum cult was the “black box” of Underground.)

On the other hand, thinking of Sean Penn and the “cult” of Christopher McCandless, there’s the Romantic framing. Web sites memorializing Christopher have sprung up on the Internet, including one (christophermccandless.info) which solicits and publishes essays on how Christopher has changed lives by example. The abandoned bus in Alaska has become a Mecca for young people—in particular, young white men—who brave the bush and snow to visit his death scene. For the followers of Christopher McCandless, terms like enlightenment, questing, and burning desire define and give meaning to his life. Chris was an inquisitive soul seeking truth, beauty, and purity. That’s why he died in Alaska.

If this framing—reckless versus romantic—sounds wearily familiar, it’s because the debate over McCandless’s death has become nothing more than a flash-point in a broader argument we’ve had in America since he and I were born: “The Fifties” versus “The Sixties.” In America those numbers have grown into symbols, binary oppositions of light versus darkness, forward versus backward, good versus evil. I find them frustrating and reductive, but it’s the language we’ve inherited, and so I invoke them.

Seeds, alkaloids, mold, amino acids

While the core question of Christopher’s fate may be Why would he flee? (or, for some, What was he running to?), the factual question that eludes a clean answer is the medical cause of his death. (Nearly half of the Wikipedia article on Into the Wild is devoted to this mystery.) Disappointingly, the contention over McCandless’ legacy—this inane, ceaseless debate of the constrictive Fifties versus the liberated Sixties—has boiled down to chemical analyses of some seeds.

Christopher McCandless in Denali National Park & Preserve, Alaska. His corpse was discovered in the bus he’s resting against here. The bus remains a kind of mecca for Into the Wild devotees.

While living out of a bus in the Alaskan interior, miles from civilization, McCandless subsisted on a diet of squirrel and bird meat, rice he’d packed in, one moose he bagged (but whose meat he failed to preserve), and wild seeds he’d foraged. In his later diary entries he indicated that he believed the potato seeds were killing him, and Krakauer agrees. But how? These seeds had been gathered for thousands of years by indigenous peoples for food, why would they kill him now?

Over twenty years’ time, Krakauer has advanced four—count them, four—theories:

  1. In his original article for Outside magazine, Krakauer suggested Christopher had misidentified the toxic seed of a wild sweet pea with potato seed. (This is presented as his cause of death in the movie.)
  2. While writing Into the Wild and with more time to investigate, Krakauer came to believe the potato seed contained swainsonine, an alkaloid that stifles ingestion of nutrients. In other words, Christopher was receiving sufficient calories and nutrition to live, but his bodily processes to absorb those calories had shut down.
  3. After that had been scientifically ruled out, in 2007, with the movie adaptation about to hit theaters, Krakauer suggested that the seeds McCandless had collected were wet and developed a poisonous mold.
  4. In a 2013 New Yorker article, Krakauer announced the mystery had been solved: Rather than an alkaloid, the potato seeds contained an amino acid called ODAP which, like the alkaloid of his second theory, caused death by inhibiting ingestion of nutrients.

I don’t blame Krakauer for continuing to puzzle over this mystery. The medical cause of Christopher’s death is the only question of factual importance remaining unanswered. But with Krakauer’s Theory #3 came a whiff of desperation, of someone determined to sustain a favored pet theory no matter what the facts demonstrate. With Theory #4 that whiff became the odor of denial. Theory #4 has been disputed by chemists who’ve tested the seeds for the presence of the amino acid, leaving the question of McCandless’ death once again up for grabs.

There’s quite a bit at stake here. The irresponsible/reckless side of the debate often argue that McCandless’ own ignorance led to his death—not ignorance of toxins, but ignorance of the gauntlet he was undertaking when he struck out across the Alaskan interior. Krakauer’s continued announcements of new answers gives buoyancy to the conviction that McCandless could have continued living his authentic life in Alaska under a more favorable set of circumstances. Who would fault McCandless for failing to recognize an undocumented biotoxin in the wild seeds he was gathering? Ignoring, of course, that no laboratory can detect this poison.

Those on the romantic side of the debate have welcomed each of Krakauer’s new theories as further buttressing to prop up the Legend of Christopher McCandless. For example, Salon’s story on Krakauer’s fourth theory was first headlined “Chris McCandless’ death wasn’t his fault”. Later, Salon revised the headline to “’Into the Wild’s’ twist ending”. The original headline is preserved in the article’s URL. (Headlines are often included in the URL to improve search engine results. Changing the URL later can cause problems, so it remains fixed even if the headline is edited.)

It’s worth pointing out that Outside magazine’s web site no longer hosts Krakauer’s original 1993 article “Death of an Innocent”. Selecting that link redirects to “The Chris McCandless Obsession Problem” by Diana Saverin, dated December 18, 2013. Saverin’s article discusses the legions of McCandless fans who expose themselves to physical harm, and even death, in order to touch and walk within the bus McCandless perished in. It appears Krakauer’s story has been purged from Outside magazine’s web site. Links to it in Saverin’s article return 404 “not found” errors and searching the site locates no usable copy. Saverin’s article is not critical of Krakauer, and it’s difficult to know what to make of Outside‘s missing pages and URL redirection.

(Fortunately, Krakauer’s original 1993 article was reprinted elsewhere, including at The Independent. It was later removed from their site, leading me to now link to a copy stored at the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.)

“He understood the risks he was taking”

From Carine McCandless’ 2014 interview with Outside magazine:

Because of Chris’s childhood situation, he felt this need to push himself to extremes and prove something. Things came pretty easily to Chris—and by that I mean he was smart and he was good at everything he tried to do—so he had to up the ante a bit and make things harder. Chris believed firmly that if you knew exactly how the adventure was going to turn out, it wasn’t really an adventure. He understood the risks he was taking, and they were calculated, and there was a reason for it.

(Emphasis mine.) This is the crux of my issue with Krakauer’s continued defense of Christopher McCandless. He’s attempting to have it both ways—to claim Christopher was not suicidal, not reckless, and completely in control of the situation, and then claim his death was understandably unavoidable, all in the service of assuring McCandless’ fans that, under slightly different circumstances, Christopher would have fared well in Denali National Park.

But if Krakauer’s perpetually evolving hypothesis is correct, Christopher did not understand the risks he was taking. In engineer-speak, his survival had a single point of failure: He relied too heavily on a single food source, a poisoned source, according to Krakauer. Note that I’m not suggesting McCandless was reckless. Krakauer’s morphing defense of McCandless serves to perpetuate him as a paragon of living a full life. I’m saying the tragedy should be treated as a warning rather than a model.

There’s a fifth theory pursued by filmmaker Ron Lamothe in his documentary Call of the Wild: Chris McCandless starved in Alaska. Not ingested an agent which caused him to stop receiving nutrition, but simply starved due to a lack of available calories. Over the course of 119 days, “despite some success hunting and gathering,” Lamothe theorizes, “McCandless was not able to secure enough food on a daily basis.” It’s so simple it sounds too obvious, but Lamothe makes a strong case with numbers and research from the World Health Organization for support.

Why Krakauer’s and others’ determination to avoid this conclusion? Admission of caloric starvation is admission of defeat in the larger ideological battle. McCandless’ life has been converted into a proxy for this country’s culture wars, a string of battles where no one—no one—raises the white flag. Instead, the soldiers and field marshals and aide-de-camps simply pretend the last loss never occurred and move their attention to another stretch of the battle front. I’m unable to see how this situation honors or respects Christopher McCandless’ life.

“I often felt like a wild animal”

In Christopher’s diaries, he referred to his quests in warlike terms. (“The Climactic Battle To Kill The False Being Within And Victoriously Conclude the Spiritual Revolution!”) Sometimes his plans sound like he’s describing an experiment. Many years ago I learned about another young man who also decided to forgo modernity, to escape civilization, if even for only a few weeks. In the case of this other young man, it was, in fact, an experiment.

In 2002, Alastair Bland, a student at the University of California Santa Barbara, launched what he called “My Project”. For ten weeks he only ate food he gathered in and around Isla Vista, UCSB’s student community. Like McCandless, he opened this experiment full of high hopes. Also like McCandless, Bland was an anthropology student. At UCSB Bland learned hunter-gatherer societies

live freer lives, with more leisure time, than agriculturalists. Twelve to eighteen hours per person per week is all time needed by the famous !Kung people of the Kalahari Desert, for example, to collect all the food they need. This leaves more time for reflection and relaxation than most people in our affluent society ever have—the !Kung don’t need to work to pay rent.

Both Bland’s and McCandless’ rose-tinted exuberance was fueled by a disdain of our modern consumerist society. That disdain was shared by those around Bland:

They marveled at how great [the experiment] was and exclaimed that they would some day try to do something similar. They thought it was a good thing to boycott the American market and a shame more people didn’t appreciate nature’s bounty the way I did.

But Bland’s enthusiasm waned as his experiment progressed:

The people closest to me, more often than not, criticized what I was doing. They said I was becoming weird and that my obsession was taking over my life. They said that I was alienating myself and that all I ever did was gather, cook, and eat…

Even now I don’t believe what I did was very constructive. It was a memorable time in my life, to be sure, and it was a good thing to have tried. But to carry on like that forever would have been, for me, social suicide.

Krakauer stresses throughout Into the Wild and in later writings that McCandless was not in Alaska to commit suicide. I agree. Christopher comes across as too vibrant a personality for that. For him to be suicidal is to believe he was living in a pure manic state for years, hiding or suppressing his depression until his last days in Alaska. But Bland’s term “social suicide” hangs in the air as a remarkable description of what his experiment was truly proving.

I would try to tell myself as consolation that I was somehow perfecting my body and soul, but everywhere and everyday I encountered other people, people smarter and healthier and stronger than I.

The first half of the above sentence could have come straight from Christopher McCandless’ mouth. The second half is nowhere to be found in Into the Wild. And Bland discovers the above while foraging not in Alaska but Southern California, possibly the mildest climate in the Western hemisphere. He foraged along a coastline rife with an incredible variety of edibles, yet Bland’s staple was tree figs because they were the easiest to secure. When he gorged himself on them, they left him nauseous and bleeding from the mouth. Even though Bland didn’t suffer a caloric deficiency (he gained weight during his experiment), he was deteriorating from the inside out.

In Bland’s writings, both in 2003 and later, he comes across as an imperfect Xerox of Christopher McCandless, the toner ink a little less strong, the lines a bit fuzzier, a photostat who survived the journey rather than succumbed to its ordeals. In 2011, Bland’s blog rings of grandiose announcements:

“I was drenched in sweat and rather uncomfortable in the ripping gale that stormed about the mountaintop.”

“A hero’s journey through the Baja badlands in search of a hidden kilo.”

“A Daring Bicycle Ride Through Greece”

While these declarations hold superficial similarity to “Alexander Supertramp” McCandless’ bravado, they are only a surface veneer applied to more quotidian goals. Here Bland enjoys fine wine and craft beer, and he seems unconcerned about surviving off the land. He appears to view nature as a kind of experience to return to in-between necessary bouts of city life. Bland may be described as a bon vivant in the roundest sense of the phrase, one who relishes fresh air as much as he does the bottle of 2007 Pinot Noir he uncorked at the summit of California’s Mount Diablo.

Bland’s 2003 experiment is a vital data point when weighing Christopher McCandless’ fate. Krakauer’s never-ending pursuit to discover new Alaskan biotoxins is an atrophying defense of a way of life Alastair Bland discovered unworkable, an “alienating” “social suicide” that consumed his life. Krakauer and McCandless’ fans hang on to the belief he would have survived Alaska if not for an understandably unavoidable mix-up. They assert that, given a better roll of the dice, McCandless’ battle to “Kill the False Being Within” would have been a clear and decisive victory against modernity, consumerism, and whatever other 1950s ills you wish to conjure up. Bland’s experiment acts as a control to these notions.

Bland concluded his “My Project” experiment eating at a “horrible Mexican restaurant” with his father:

I really felt that I had become a shameless thief and a coward; that I had given up all my self-respect; and that I was going a little crazy, all for the sake of My Project.

Like those who encouraged Bland to keep fighting the good fight (even as he knew what a falsehood his life had become), Krakauer, Sean Penn and too many others are still rooting for Christopher McCandless to win the day—and leading many young people to make harmful, even fatal, decisions. Maybe it’s time to step back and admit that McCandless’ survival was a matter of him conceding defeat and returning to civilization. That concession doesn’t means McCandless was reckless or foolhardy. It would’ve indicated growth and maturity. And I suspect he was experiencing just that.

As Krakauer documented from McCandless’ own diary, he attempted to return to society but was blocked by a river swollen with snow-melt. I have to wonder if McCandless was not merely starving but also realizing his vision of a pure and authentic life was a one-way ticket.

“Even when full and satiated and liberated from the physical desire for food,” Bland wrote, “I couldn’t relax, I was held captive by thoughts of food. I sometimes dreamed of figs and climbing around in trees.” Is this the authentic life McCandless strove to achieve? His corpse weighed 66 pounds when discovered.

When I drove home from Las Vegas drained and feeling a bit defeated—when Bland took that first bite of his carne asada burrito—that’s the moment in the Hero’s Journey where the hero turns around and walks back on the path he cut with his own feet. That’s the hero’s journey, dammit, heading home graced with a wisdom one did not originally possess, the journey Chris McCandless didn’t take.

Twenty Writers: Haruki Murakami, Underground & Studs Terkel, Working

See my Introduction for more information about the “Twenty Writers, Twenty Books” project. The current list of reviews and essays may be found at the “Twenty Writers” home page.

On sale now! My short story collection
A Concordance of One’s Life and novella Everywhere Man


UndergroundHaruki Murakami is the enviable writer who, in certain circles, has become a canon unto himself. Murakami is often compared to many different authors—Kafka, Carver, Brautigan—but the list is so diverse it’s difficult to pigeonhole his body of work as one style or another. Just about everyone I know has a favorite Murakami book, usually Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-up Bird Chronicles.

I’ve read only two of his fictions. The first, Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, was not nearly as hardboiled the title suggests and not nearly as cyberpunk as the book blurbs led me to believe. The other was After the Quake, a short story collection I consumed in ryokan and on various train trips between Osaka, Kyoto, and Hiroshima. It too left me cool. It was After the Quake that led me to understand why Murakami is so often compared to Raymond Carver. His stories were of “average” people in modest circumstances pushing back ever-so-lightly on pressure applied, all told in unadventurous language. Quiet conversations around beach campfires and characters wandering city parks recalling painful memories are the norm in After the Quake. It’s hardly fair for me judge his work as a whole from these two books, but they left me scratching my head wondering about his glowing reputation.

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche changed that. The book is brilliant in its foundation: give the victims of the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attacks an opportunity to tell their stories of that crazed rush-hour morning. Murakami the novelist takes his hand off the rudder and lets those victimized assume control of the conversation, and the results are gripping. Thirty-two victims, mostly commuters and subway workers, discuss the morning’s events and the aftereffects of exposure to the nerve agent. More importantly, they reveal (sometimes subconsciously) their attitudes toward work, career, family, friends, and country.

It’s a backhanded compliment to tell a fiction writer that his best work is a collection of interviews, but as any journalist knows, an interview is not merely recording what was said, it’s shaping what was said. Murakami may be the best writer imaginable to shape these stories and present them internationally: a Japanese native conversant in Western-style writing who’d lived abroad for nine years before returning home to interview the sarin gas victims. From studying Murakami’s biography and reading his comments in Underground as the interviews unfold, Murakami was obviously attempting to come to grips with the mentality of his countrymen as well as the attackers, the Aum Shinrikyo, a Japanese cult led by self-described Christ-figure with political ambitions.

It’s one of the real strengths of Underground that the author finds himself questioning his cultural and social affinities with his subjects when by all rights he should in a comfort zone no non-Japanese could claim. Murakami speaks the language, he was educated in the same educational system, he was raised on the same cultural and media diet. Murakami knows the unwritten norms of Japan, yet he is as amazed as any gaijin about the interviewees daily schedules, perceptions, and reactions to the attacks—and the way they’re isolated from their social circles after the attacks. Books about foreign lands tend to enjoy a boost from the exoticism of it all: different food, misunderstood customs, language troubles, the country’s history as backstory. The exoticism in Underground is different. It’s like humanistic science-fiction or Borges, where alien norms and mores are treated as everyday and commonplace by the characters and the narrator, leaving the reader to tease out the logic of an alternate universe. It’s the tingle of decoding what’s really being said, of detecting what’s being eluded to and what has been elided, that makes Underground an open rather than a closed text.

“A grumble under the breath”

In Underground‘s Preface, Murakami relates that some time after the attacks he was flipping through a Japanese popular magazine when his attention was caught by a letter on the letters-to-the-editor page:

It was from a woman whose husband had lost his job because of the Tokyo gas attack. A subway commuter, he had been unfortunate enough to be on his way to work in one of the cars in which the sarin gas was released. He passed out and was taken to hospital [sic]. But even after several days’ recuperation, the aftereffects lingered on, and he couldn’t get himself back into the working routine. At first, he was tolerated, but as time went on his boss and colleagues began to make snide remarks. Unable to bear the icy atmosphere any longer, feeling almost forced out, he resigned.

…As far as I can recall, there was nothing particularly plaintive about [the letter], nor was it any angry rant. If anything, it was barely audible, a grumble under the breath.

Like a well-crafted novel, this opening grumble (and Murakami’s reaction to it) foreshadows almost everything that is to follow.

First, it’s difficult to imagine this work situation being tolerated in the United States—it sounds like grounds for a lawsuit, one that many tort-minded Americans would be happy to pursue. There’s not a hint here of such thinking. Then there’s the letter-writer herself, the wife now emotionally shredded by the double-blow of a bizarre physical assault on her husband followed by the isolation by her husband’s work unit. If the perception of Japan is one of efficient and cohesive group dynamics, how did this family wind up in this situation?

And then there’s Murakami’s reaction: equal parts confusion, despair, and frustration. As a Japanese native speaker, he detected the grumble from language nuances I suspect an outsider might not have noticed. But that’s as far as his insider status allows him inside. Like Valentine in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Murakami is the alien who returns to his birthplace unable to recognize the land from which he sprung.

This barely audible grumble was the impetus for Murakami to interview the victims of the Tokyo subway attacks, and so Underground is as much a way for Murakami to understand his own country as it is to explain it to those outside of Japan, us gaijin. Murakami also designed Underground as a mirror for him to hold up to his countrymen and ask them to consider fully the way of life they’d carved out for themselves. How successful that enterprise has been, I do not know, but I am not optimistic.

Working

There was one other element of the Preface that captured my attention. It’s in a footnote that’s literally attached to the word “Preface” at the top of the page:

I would like to make clear that I borrowed useful ideas toward the composition of this book from the works of Studs Terkel and Bob Greene.

Studs Terkel, WorkingI’m unfamiliar with the work of Bob Greene but I’m very much a fan of Studs Terkel, in particular a book he wrote in the early 1970s called Working. Unlike Underground, where Murakami’s subjects are intertwined by a single defining event, Terkel’s subjects in Working have only the barest of commonalities: they live in America and they are employed (and for some, not even formally employed). Studs Terkel interviewed more than one hundred people of all walks with the old-fashioned joy of a sportswriter in the baseball bleachers alongside dockworkers and plumbers gathering their expert opinions of the game for his next column. Terkel’s ability to capture natural language and paint it on the page is legendary, and Working is his masterpiece toward that end.

Terkel documented the travails and mundanity of employment as a hotel doorman, a strip miner, a receptionist, a cabbie. Pauline Kael is interviewed here, as is Rip Torn, jazz musician Bud Freeman, and a handful of sports figures. Otherwise, the remaining 130-odd people are not those who would be called “of note” although they are now immortalized in this classic of American journalism, even if their immortality is near-anonymous. (Fortuitously, as I was writing this post Longform reprinted a selection from Working on their web site.)

For me, a fiction writer, Working is a kind of master class on capturing attitude and character through voice, of revealing psyche and spinning out personality on the page in a flowing, natural manner. Any class on first-person narrative should be reading from this book. Terkel records so much more than the words of his interview subjects, he preserves their essence in a way that captivates rather than categorizes, much like Quincy Troupe’s masterful preservation of Miles Davis and his voice.

Terkel is beautifully invisible in Working. In the interviews themselves he’s barely present. Whole pages of confessions and revelations emerge from his subjects without a single question or prompt from Terkel himself. Of course this is not how interviews pan out—people rarely talk openly and cogently about a single subject, unprepared, for two hours. Given free reign, most people will talk themselves into mundane subject matter and personal minutia, like water seeking the path of least resistance. Terkel stitched together what must’ve been numerous false starts and meandering discussions into pitch-perfect exegeses on the nature of life as a farm worker, a desk receptionist, a realtor, an auditor, and so on.

Studs Terkel proves the American language as practiced is unique, controlled but not stiff, and perhaps most vital of all, so very tied to our professions. In other parts of the world people identify with their family and their family name, the town they came from, the place they were born, the religion they were raised in. In America, people identify by their jobs. It’s why when Americans first meet we ask each other what we do. Working is almost encyclopedic on the subject, categorizing subjects by their fields (“Working the Land”, “Communications”, “Brokers”, “Bureaucracy”) as well as their positions in society (“In Charge”, “Cradle to Grave”, and perhaps reflective of the rise of feminism at the time, “Just a Housewife”, a section featuring two women who are so much more than housewives). The book’s organization is democratic and pluralistic, just like the society Studs Terkel himself strove to see America progress toward.

Working is the kind of book you can dip into randomly, just flip to a page and start reading. Here’s Terry Mason, an airline stewardess:

We had to go to stew school for five weeks. We’d go through a whole week of make-up and poise. I didn’t like this. They make you feel like you’ve never been out in public. They showed you how to smoke a cigarette, when to smoke a cigarette, how to look at a man’s eyes. Our teacher, she had this idea we had to be sexy. One day in class she was showing us how to accept a light for a cigarette from a man and never blow it out. When he lights it, just look in his eyes. It was really funny, all the girls laughed.

…The idea is not to be too obvious about it. They don’t want you to look too forward. That’s the whole thing, being a lady but still giving out that womanly appeal, like the body movement and the lips and the eyes. The guy’s supposed to look in your eyes. You could be a real mean woman. You’re a lady and doing all these evil things with your eyes.

This is why I react with suspicion when I read a contemporary American short story or novel of literary ambition that is praised for capturing the voice of the “average” American. Terry Mason is about as down-to-earth as I can imagine, but as the above selection reveals, she’s not dim or easily impressed by authority. That’s often what I find in contemporary American fiction when the setting takes place outside of urban centers. A character watching an Olive Garden commercial in their McMansion arise from their barcalounger like a Manchurian Candidate, jump into their SUVs or minivans, and then drive to the nearest Olive Garden (flanked, as the author can’t resist, by a Chili’s and a Fresh Choice). They flatulantly squeeze their overweight body into the booth and order an absurdly large meal. Studs Terkel doesn’t need to supply his interview subjects with dignity, they already possessed it, if only someone would listen. Terkel did just that.

The discussions often turn wonderfully philosophical. Vincent Maher, a police officer:

When I worked as a bartender, I felt like a non-person. I was actually nothing. I was a nobody going nowhere. I was in a state of limbo. I had no hopes, no dreams, no ups, no downs, nothing. Being a policeman gives me the challenge in life that I want. … I don’t think it’s necessary for a man to prove himself over and over and over again. I’m a policemen, win, lose, or draw.

This trifecta of occupation, identity, and one’s future is a core preoccupation with Terkel’s subjects. Barbara Terwilliger:

I really feel work is gorgeous. It’s the only thing you can depend upon in life. You can’t depend on love. Oh, love is quite ephemeral. Work has a dignity you can count on.

Terry Mason again:

A lot of stewardesses wanted to be models. The Tanya girl used to be a stewardess on our airline. A stewardess is what they could get and a model is what they couldn’t get. They weren’t the type of person, they weren’t that beautiful, they weren’t that thin. So their second choice would be stewardess.

What did you want to be?

I wanted to get out of Broken Bow, Nebraska. (Laughs.)

That’s the Midwestern honest-speaking that I’m familiar with. I’ll never forget a Minnesota cousin of mine working at the movie theater food concession one summer. Reflecting the exorbitant food prices, she called it the “chump counter.” It’s too bad Studs Terkel didn’t get a chance to interview her.

Underground

As joyful as I find Terkel’s Working, he makes it clear in his introduction that he does not view what follows as a celebration:

Something unreal. For me, it was a feeling that persisted throughout this adventure. (How else can I describe this undertaking? It was the daily experience of others, their private hurts, real and fancied, that I was probing. In lancing an especially obstinate boil, it is not the doctor who experiences the pain.)

Something similar is echoed by Murakami in his epilogue:

Eventually I stopped making judgments altogether. “Right” or “wrong,” “sane” or “sick,” “responsible” or “irresponsible”—these questions no longer mattered. At least, the final judgment was not mine to make, which made things easier. I could relax and simply take in people’s stories verbatim. … Especially after conducting interviews with the family of Mr. Eiji Wada—who died in Kodemmacho Station—and with Ms. “Shizuko Akashi”—who lost her memory and speech and is still in the hospital undergoing therapy—I had to seriously reconsider the value of my own writing.

What Working does not have that Underground has in spades is a nucleus of violence, sacrifice, and above all, lingering confusion. It’s why Underground at times reads like a suspense thriller, although one that twists your stomach rather than elevates the senses. There is no pleasure in reading about the station workers who, resolute that the subway trains spend no more than sixty seconds unloading and loading passengers, get on their hands and knees to mop up the liquid sarin thinking it was some kind of spilled oil or paraffin.

The crime blotter details of the attack go like this: On the morning of Monday, March 20, 1995, five teams from the Aum Shinrikyo cult boarded separate Tokyo subway trains during rush hour. Each carried plastic bags of sarin, a nerve agent developed during World War II that is usually aerosolized and deployed in gas form. (Aum Shinrikyo had failed to perform this final step.) While in transit they punctured the bags and exited the trains, leaving the liquid sarin to spread on the floors and evaporate into inhalable vapor. Some 6,000 people were wounded, many permanently. Thirteen people died.

I recall the day of the sarin attacks; my first reaction was What—Tokyo? Japan’s culture of security and safety is legendary to the point of absurdity. That these attacks could be orchestrated by a charismatic cult leader with grandiose political ambition, a man who’d attracted not only the poor and the depressive but also academics and business leaders, sounded straight from the California playbook circa 1969 to 1979—Charles Manson, The Source Family, and Jim Jones all wrapped up in one. Even with my limited understand of Japanese culture, nothing of the attack’s reports in the American media sounded likely, and when I spotted Murakami’s book I picked it up to satisfy this long-standing itch. I now feel like Murakami gave me so much more.

Unlike Working, Underground is not designed to be dipped into randomly. It’s important for the interviews to be read sequentially, evidence of Murakami’s hand guiding the narrative, if only loosely. The overall organization of the material does reflect Terkel’s strategy to some degree. Instead of consolidating interviews by jobs, Murkami groups the interviews by train lines and stations. Since the release of the sarin gas was more-or-less simultaneous across Tokyo, this might seem counterproductive to a writer attempting to shape a narrative out of these interviews, but Murakami sets the right stories in the right places to achieve some devastating effects.

Beyond Murakami, the one work of Japanese literature most Americans are familiar with is Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “Rashomon”, although that’s mostly due to Kurosawa’s film and not the story itself. What’s lesser-known is that the film is a commingling of two Akutagawa stories, “Rashomon” and “In a Grove”. The Rashomon effect is a partial misnomer; it’s “In a Grove” that regards the contradictions in multiple attestations of the same event. (There’s a kind of irony that the Rashomon effect’s misnaming is due to people hearing the story secondhand.)

So it’s interesting to me that this misnamed effect is in play in Underground as well. The first interviewee, Kiyoka Izumi, offers in her story a broad on-the-ground retelling of the attack on the Chiyoda line and the resulting chaos. Izumi discovers difficulty breathing while en route to her job. When she emerges from the Kasumigaseki station she walks into the chaos of commuters passed out, gasping, blind and staggering for the exits—”‘hell’ describes it perfectly.” She leverages her prior experience as a Japan Railways (JR) employee to offer assistance with the trains and the sick. (By doing so she increased her exposure to the sarin gas.) Her opening interview is perhaps the perfect choice in terms of giving a matter-of-fact account of how the attack turned the station, and all of Tokyo, upside-down. She is also one of the more frank storytellers in the book, a Japanese who is acutely aware of her culture’s nuances and curiosities.

The Rashomon effect comes to play in the interviews which follow, as the very JR workers Izumi saw and coordinated with now tell their stories. Unlike “In a Grove”, where the conflicting accounts are unworkable toward puzzling together some kind of truth, these stories complement Izumi’s and flesh out further the morning’s events. To read four separate accounts of station attendant Takahashi’s death is particularly heartrending. Perhaps it’s a kind of rebuttal to Akutagawa that when four stories offer strong agreement, not just the truth but a greater truth begins to emerge.

With the basics laid down in these initial interviews, Murakami opens the book up to the other victims. Here Underground begins to feel more like Working in that we meet individuals from various backgrounds and livelihoods, not just the JR workers and TV crews who descended on the spectacle. Often those interviewed in Underground sound as American as anyone in Working:

…we must make every effort to ensure that this prosperous and peaceful nation, built on the labors of previous generations, is preserved and passed on for generations to come. … I can’t see any future for Japan if we blindly persist with today’s materialistic pursuits.

Here Kozo Ishino is joining a broader discussion in modern Japan, a caution that has been expressed from as diverse figures as the Heisei royal family to Hiroo Onoda, the World War II army officer who lived in the Philippine bush for thirty years fighting a war that was over. And then Ishino admits:

I’ve just turned 40 and up to now I’ve been living carelessly. It’s about time I took control of myself, gave some deep thought to my own life. … I’ve been concentrating on my career all these years, so I’ve never known real fear.

These words would have found in a comfortable home in Terkel’s Working, where so many of his interviewees are surprisingly philosophical about their lot in life.

“To the spirit as well as to the body”

Murakami admits (bravely I think) that at first he was not terribly affected by the Tokyo gas attacks. That morning in 1995, lacking a television or radio, a friend phoned him with the news and advised him to stay out of Tokyo for a while. “I went back to sorting [my bookshelves] as if nothing had happened.” I’ve read and seen too many recollections of 9/11 where the author or TV host manages to crowbar into the narrative their personal experiences of that day. They are gripped by what they see on television; they weep; they phone loved ones; they are moved; they are beside themselves; they must control their rage. Murakami acknowledges that innumerable tragedies pass by us every day, and that his cup of humanity is no larger or smaller than our own.

Photo from the morning of the sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway.

Photo from the morning of the sarin attacks on the Tokyo subway.

Much has been made of one commonality Murakami highlights in his Japanese subjects, namely the way so many of the workers were going to work an hour or two early to look good for the boss—”brownie points,” as Kiyoka Izumi calls it. Then, blinded and lungs scorched by the sarin gas, they fervently attempt to reach work on time rather than lose face among their coworkers. Like other Western images of Japan (the stark rock gardens, the anime stocked with cute magical creatures), this image of obedient workers putting job and company over their own well-being locks comfortably into Western views of the Japanese people as a cohesive unit.

I think it’s unfortunate, perhaps even racist, to box up these accounts as traditionalistic reactions to a modern kind of violence—as though insular Eastern Japan is still catching up to the gritty, authentic Western world Americans are so accustomed to. Murakami offered the victims of the gas attacks a chance to speak out and they delivered up something not enclosed by borders or defined by nationality or hemisphere. Kozo Ishino’s reflections on turning forty and needing to take control of his life are surprising considering he’s an air commander in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces, hardly the kind of career Americans (including myself) associate with deep inner soul-searching.

I wish I could say there was a similar kind of soul-searching in America after the Oklahoma City bombing or 9/11, but such introspection is hard to locate. When the Murrah Building was bombed in Oklahoma City one month after the Tokyo subway attacks, it did not take any time at all for Americans to suspect terrorism—the surprise for us was that it was homegrown and not from abroad. Some compare the Tokyo gas attacks to 9/11, but I suspect psychically for the Japanese it was closer to the Oklahoma City bombing, that is, the kind of event thought to happen in other countries, certainly not here, and not by their (or our) own.

In contrast to many Americans’ reactions to 9/11 (and even to the Oklahoma City bombing), of the Japanese Murakami interviewed, few expressed anger at Aum Shinrikyo. Kiyoka Izumi confesses,

As to the criminals who actually planted the sarin, I honestly can’t say I feel much anger or hatred. I suppose I just don’t make the connection, and I can’t seem to find those emotions in me. … The fact that someone from Aum brought sarin onto the subway…that’s not the point. I don’t think about Aum’s role in the gas attack.

Some reason it out (“I don’t feel especially angry toward the individual culprits. It seems to me they were used by their organization”) while others confess to rage and a desire for violence against the perpetrators. Most admit that they’ve shut out Aum Shinrikyo from their lives, even turning off the television when any news about the group comes on. These rather human and revealing inner tensions stand as a rebuttal to the predominant image received by Western reviewers: the Japanese dedicated worker-ant I mentioned before, an unfortunate and flattening stereotype perpetuated by people who should know better.

But this “shutting out” of the attackers also plays into one of Murakami’s questions in his epilogue essay, “Why did I look away from the Aum cult?” Unlike the Hare Krishnas, Murakami writes, he found himself actively turning his gaze away from the Aum cultists when they paraded on the streets of Tokyo or campaigned for election. Murakami’s reason for looking away is that the Aum cultists were a “distorted image of ourselves.” I think the word Murakami is looking for is uncanny. It would be helpful if he could’ve pinpointed what was overly familiar about the Aum cultists rather than tiptoe around the presence of some unnamed familiarity. Aum Shinrikyo is never really explained satisfactorily, merely eluded to as an organization of promises for those Japanese in need of promises. (Murakami admits as much in his introduction to part two, calling Aum the “black box” of Underground.) It’s unfortunate that the cult’s allure couldn’t have been enumerated for foreign readers, no matter how phony it may have been.

As a book, Underground wound up having a life of its own. The Japanese edition included sixty interviews, but that number was whittled down to thirty-two for the English edition. Murakami also received substantial criticism—unfair in my eyes—for not interviewing members of the Aum cult, although he never claimed Underground was a work of objective journalism. Interviews with eight cult members are included in the English edition; I did not find them particularly edifying. For that matter, I’ve never found any explanation for Jim Jones’ hold over his church members to be all that educational either. In both cases the cultists seem unable to verbalize what drew them in, no more than a shipwrecked passenger can explain the lunar forces that washed him up on an island.

The Japanese media’s insistence to characterize—as Murakami puts it—the “moral principles at stake in the gas attack” as good versus evil, right versus wrong, pure versus impure, sounds like the framework for every debate in contemporary America. Murakami frets that the sarin attacks have been packed away by his countrymen and left to gather dust, and that Japan needs “another narrative to purify this narrative.” I question the word purify. Purification usually means subtracting from the original substance but leaving it largely the same. The word I would suggest is distill: to reduce the substance to its base essence, removing not merely impurities but benign additions as well. I’m not certain Underground is that narrative. It’s not a distillation of the issues, and I don’t even think it’s a purified form of the narrative Murakami objects to. Perhaps it will be the impetus or grist for another more distilled narrative for Japan to ponder over, the raw data for someone else to mine and develop into that alternate narrative which I’m sure is sorely needed.

Let that new narrative open with these lines from Studs Terkel’s remarkable introduction to Working:

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. … It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the great many of us.