The common element among miso soup, blood, and semen is the taste of salt. All three share the qualities of the wet and the sticky—and the sexual connotations of wet, sticky blood and semen are the dark ingredients in the “soup” of Murakami’s thriller. Murakami is no stranger to the dark side: Coin Locker Babies is cyberpunk for grownups that makes the efforts of Gibson and Sterling come off as the work of pampered babies, while the Burroughsian fever of the semi-autobiographical Almost Transparent Blue brutally yanks the chain of anyone who remembers the Seventies (the few that do) as boring.
In the Miso Soup is the stuff of nightmares, but its narrator, just-turned-twenty Kenji, is matter-of-fact. Kenji is a guide for foreign tourists to Tokyo’s sex trade, from the fetishistic to the unfettered by a longing for feet or fists. He’s just trying to make a living, so when the overweight American Frank contracts with him for a few nights’ worth of directions and interpretation, Kenji shakes off his feeling of dread and shows Frank around.
Dead bodies turn up soon after Kenji and Frank pass by. And not just dead, but cruelly and ritualistically murdered ones. Kenji can’t be certain, at least not at first, but he has a suspicion it’s the American with the metallic skin (and, we learn secondhand, the strangely lumpy penis) who is the psychotic culprit. Suspicion turns to certainty in the sex club where Frank, inexplicably, hypnotizes the patrons and then…blood and semen soup.
Frank, it turns out, is not just a psycho, he’s also a philosopher (that may be redundant). That, rather than the explicit scenes of gore and cruelty, is the real attraction of this novel. Like Susanna Moore’s brilliantly disturbed In the Cut, the fascination here is in the linguistic penetration of the dark, wet, sticky places of the human psyche. Like Frank, Murakami hypnotizes: we follow Kenji as Kenji, against his better judgment (and the wishes of his teenaged girlfriend, who wants Kenji to spend New Year’s Eve with her), follows Frank. We’re entranced by the, as Frank would say, anxiety of our imaginations.
Toward the end of the book, Frank tells Kenji that “people who love horror movies are people with boring lives. They want to be stimulated, and they need to reassure themselves.” Horror movies “act as shock absorbers—and if they disappeared altogether it would mean losing one of the few ways we have to ease the anxiety of the imagination.” Without the mediating shock absorbers, “I bet you’d see a big leap in the number of serial killers and mass murderers.” So don’t blame violence on fiction, Frank concludes: “anyone stupid enough to get the idea of murdering people from a movie could get the same idea from watching the news.”
No, the desire to murder comes from a place much less facile. Knowledge of that place is truly frightening, for it is knowledge of home itself. Not in the Freudian sense of the traumatic childhood (though, indeed, Frank began his bloody career while very young), but in self-knowledge, the true home, the one the dying Socrates urged us to strive to know. This is perverse indeed: the Socratic imperative’s bleeding edge, the touchy-feely New Age revealed as a stranglehold.
Murakami avoids the conclusion of Desmond Morris, Robert Ardrey and their ilk: we’re not “killer apes.” Rather, it’s that we truly are ignorant of ourselves, our cultures, our histories. That’s the point of bringing into collision the ugly American and the naïve-cum-worldly Japanese. Forget the civilizational clash between Islam and Christianity: we’re at war with ourselves, but we don’t even know it. Indeed, we need the foreigner’s eyes in order to see our true selves. As Frank remembers for Kenji, “Like those girls in the pub… They didn’t know anything about their own country. Not only did they not know anything, they didn’t even seem to be interested. All they cared about was expensive bourbon and handbags and hotels.” It’s our grubby clutching at material things, our insistent, anxious suppression of imagination, that makes us cruel and stupid. And it’s just that sort of cruel stupidity that really pisses people like Frank off.