SSM: Repetition and Haruki Murakami’s “Sleep”

19 May

You don’t know it, but Haruki Murakami is the master of repetition. He writes mostly long novels, chock-full of surreal happenings, strange characters, sheep-men, wars, bizarre disappearances. But, naturally, it’s a short story that best exposes Murakami’s mastery of reiteration. Repeating things, I mean. But also, describing a life.

You don’t know it, but Haruki Murakami is the master of repetition. I knew I loved Murakami’s work after reading a mere twenty pages of his work. Why? He describes his characters eating—long scenes detailing boiling noodles, chopping vegetables, obsessing over cubed tofu—and going to the bathroom. He talks about what happens when his characters go to sleep. Anybody knows that these things add up. We spend at least a third of our lives sleeping, for instance. A writer damn well needs to talk about it.

You don’t know it, but Haruki Murakami is the master of repetition. I’m talking about a story, “Sleep,” from the collection The Elephant Vanishes. It’s about a woman and her life. And it’s about what happens to this woman when, suddenly, after a terrible, “slimy,” trancelike dream, she is unable to sleep at all. For weeks. And it’s about what happens when she discovers long-dormant passion for Anna Karenina and for milk chocolate and brandy, and what happens when she begins to read Tolstoy’s masterpiece over and over again—over and over again—without sleeping.

You don’t know it, but Haruki Murakami is the master of repetition. In “Sleep” and, I’d venture to say, in all of Murakami’s fiction, the repetition of a life seems positioned contrary to the extraordinary. Look harder and read more deeply. Count how many times he uses the words “routine,” “ritual,” “same,” “always,” and count how many times he uses the normal, simple present tense to describe things that have been recurring for days, months, years, lifetimes. Sometimes he’s sneaky about it. It seems as though the woman’s life of “tendencies,” of rote motions, disappears when she stops sleeping and encounters the surreal. But it doesn’t. Repetition isn’t anti-surreal—it stands right there alongside it. Stepping out of one set of motions means stepping into another. The woman in the story changes, but she changes within a framework. Repetition and the fantastic work together. Both are needed to construct reality.

You don’t know it, but Haruki Murakami is the master of repetition. The heroine of “Sleep” muses,

So that’s my life—or my life before I stopped sleeping—each day pretty much a repetition of the one before. I used to keep a diary, but if I forgot for two or three days, I’d lose track of what had happened on which day. Yesterday could have been the day before yesterday, or vice versa. I’d sometimes wonder what kind of life this was. Which is not to say that I found it empty. I was—very simply—amazed. At the lack of demarcation between the days. At the fact that I was part of such a life, a life that had swallowed me up so completely. At the fact that my footprints were being blown away before I even had a chance to turn and look at them.

She says, (he says), pages later, “After I gave up sleeping, it occurred to me what a simple thing reality is, how easy it is to make it work. It’s just reality. Just housework. Just a home. Like running a simple machine. Once you learn to run it, it’s just a matter of repetition.”

Join ASF daily throughout May for the celebration known as Short Story Month 2010. Raise your glass high alongside staff and contributors to toast some of our most cherished stories and writers. From classic to contemporary, here’s to another year of the short story and to the readers and writers who make them possible—cheers!
Looking to extend the party? ASF web editor Stacy Muszynski also joins a month-long discussion at Emerging Writers Network.

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