Monday, November 09, 2009

On Doubles

In the newest volume of The Paris Review Interviews, Haruki Murakami offers an interesting analysis of his relationship to his protagonists:
Your protagonists often seem to serve as projections of your own point of view into the fantastic world of your narratives--the dreamer in the dream.

Please think about it this way: I have a twin brother. And when I was two years old, one of us--the other one--was kidnapped. He was brought to a faraway place and we haven't seen each other since. I think my protagonist is him. A part of myself, but not me, and we haven't seen each other for a long time. It's a kind of alternative form of myself. In terms of DNA we are the same, but our environment has been different, so our way of thinking would be different.
That description is sure to resonate with longtime readers of Murakami--though when I think of his obsession with doubling and twinning, I tend to think not of his mid-30s male protagonists but of the young, attractive women who enter their lives. The interviewer, too, picks up on that, and later asks Murakami about it:
There seem to be two distinct types of women in your novels: those with whom the protagonist has a fundamentally serious relationship--often this is the woman who disappears and whose memory haunts him--and the other kind of woman, who comes later and helps him in his search, or to do to the opposite--to forget. This second type of woman tends to be outspoken, eccentric, and sexually frank, and the protagonist interacts with her in a much warmer and more humorous way than he had with the missing woman, with whom he never quite connected. What purpose do these two archetypes serve?

My protagonist is almost always caught between the spiritual world and the real world. In the spiritual world, the women--or men--are quiet, intelligent, modest. Wise. In the realistic world, as you say, the women are very active, comic, positive. They have a sense of humor. The protagonist's mind is split between these totally different worlds and he cannot choose which to take. I think that's one of the main motifs in my work. It's very apparent in Hard-Boiled Wonderland, in which his mind is actually, physically split. In Norwegian Wood, as well, there are two girls and he cannot decide between them, from the beginning to the end.
"Split," though Murakami is applying it here to his male characters, seems the appropriate description: to my mind, it's less that Murakami's offering polarities than that he's sorting the elements that make up one person into two different characters, as if his protagonists' understanding of the ultimate complexity of others is fundamentally limited, affecting his ideas of how to relate to them--and, perhaps, even precipitating the losses he endures.

Soon after reading that interview, I read Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem's fantastic, creepy story "The Man on the Ceiling," which is included in Poe's Children: The New Horror (2008, edited by Peter Straub), and this passage, written in Steve's voice, jumped out at me for obvious reasons:
As a child I was a persistent liar. I lied slyly, I lied innocently, and I lied enthusiastically. I lied out of confusion and I lied out of a profound disappointment. One of my more elaborate lies took shape during the 1960 presidential election. While the rest of the country was debating the relative merits of Kennedy and Nixon, I was explaining to my friends how I had been half of a pair of Siamese twins, and how my brother had tragically died during the separation.

This was, perhaps, my most heartfelt lie to date, because in telling this tale I found myself grieving over the loss of my brother, my twin. I had created my first believable character, and my character had hurt me.

Later I came to recognize that about that time (I was ten), the self I had been was dying, and that I was slowly becoming the twin who had died and gone off to some other, better fiction.
What's particularly fascinating about this--in light of Murakami's talk of a twinned self and intentionally doubled or split characters--is that "The Man on the Ceiling" is written by a husband-and-wife team, authors of many books, who are working together for the first time, telling a story about the fears, nightmares, and strengths of their marriage and their family. Steve Tem may have lost his imaginary twin, but as becomes apparent in the story, in his wife he has found, if not a replacement, then at least a reflection; the story's honest appraisal of the odd combination of intimacy, trust, fear, and ultimate separateness that turns a pair into a couple is moving and unforgettable.

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