Hi Kevin, which book are we talking about?
Piercing, by Ryū Murakami.
What’s the synopsis?
In his own unique style, Murakami explores themes of child abuse and what happens to the voiceless among us, weaving a disturbing, spare tale of two people who find each other and then are forced into hurting each other deeply because of the haunting spectre of their own abuse as children.
The protagonist washes his baby, hands the kid over to the mum, and out of nowhere wonders if he could drive a pickaxe through the child.
Initially, how does he deal with this disturbing thought?
From the start, the reader should know that Kawashima is a little off. The author places you in this character’s head, allowing you to experience the depravity firsthand. Something is obviously very wrong with the dude, despite the outward appearance of “normality” we all seem to strive for in this life. He is a successful businessman, with a cozy home in the suburbs, happily married, who has achieved what can be considered a healthy amount of success. The author even goes one step further – describing a place infused with the pleasant aroma of buttery baked goods and the warmth of love – his wife reaping the rewards of a successful baking school run from the happy home. All this in addition to the new baby.
What else could he possibly need?
For me, the author sets the opening scenes up with equal parts shock and wonder. I mean, holy shit. How could a man contemplate something so heinous, so damn evil, when looking at the outline of his sleeping infant? Where the hell did that come from, and why the hell is he caressing an ice pick all sweaty and intense like a fucking weirdo?
This is a short book, so Murakami has to drop little hints along the way about the protagonist’s past. No word is wasted. Memories of neglect and abuse that led to Kawashima being taken to a boys home, and now much later he has become the man standing there in the dark looking down at a sleeping baby with an ice pick in his fist, repeating to himself that he won’t stab her with it. According to him, everything began ten days earlier in the scene you mentioned, where he passed the clean baby into the warmth of a fluffy towel his wife was holding. Suddenly a thought – a morbid sort of seemingly random idea – takes him somewhere else.
“I wouldn’t ever stab that baby with an ice pick, would I?”
Well, I fucking hope not, man. I know kids are tiring and stressful, but seriously? How about the tricks you used to deal with the pain as a kid? Alcohol is out of the question for him, but dissociation always seemed to help. This is a peek at something dark that lies within him, and the frightening thoughts about his 4 month old daughter prepare the reader for one hell of a crazy ride.
So at first, he represses the crazy thoughts. Anyone would, right? Feverish and almost overcome with the imagery and sensation of a memory that threatens to reveal itself, he does exactly what everyone else would: He shoves it down deep into the emptiness, ignoring how serious this shit really is, until he can’t take it anymore. At last, he makes a decision to alleviate the fear of hurting his own daughter by making a decision:
“There’s only one way to overcome the fear: you’ve got to stab someone else with an ice pick.”
Well obviously, dude. So he decides to leave everything behind and hire a girl from a local S&M club named Chiaki. Turns out, she might be just as fucked in the head as he is, and suicidal to boot. The story begins.
That’s a start which would have many readers put the book down and put the Hallmark Channel on.
His murderous thoughts are clearly the result of the abuse he faced as a child. But are they triggered by this safe, cozy environment he lives in now, as if he feels guilty about the safe life he has?
Definitely. Layers of it.
First, there is guilt because this happiness, a perfect marriage, exists beneath the looming shadow of a terrifying secret he has kept from his wife. Now that everything’s going so well, there is one thing she doesn’t know about him – that he has done it before. Of course he’s never told her about the time he stabbed a stripper with an ice pick, it never came up in conversation. Or that she was old enough to be his mother. Sigmund Freud would probably be ready to climax by the time this was revealed to the reader.
But that’s still later on.
Right now, and more important, is that perhaps Kawashima feels inadequate because he has been lucky enough to get away from an abusive mother and shit childhood, while others did not have the same good fortune.
I mean, why should he deserve to feel happy?
Compared to some of his friends from the boys’ home, he has done quite well for himself in life. So because of all this, yes he is safe, but he is also plagued by this desire…to hurt. In fact, he has everything meticulously planned for taking out this frustration on a random prostitute, and the girl who ends up in his hotel room is Chiaki, another broken individual who immediately fucks up all his ideas.
Don’t worry, it’s still violent.
I think in his writing Murakami shows how well someone can hide the pain that may have formed them, as both Kawashima and Chiaki have done, but that everyone has something underneath being ignored. Violent and ugly, or delicate and painful. If there was a way to acknowledge the pain beneath the mask, people would be healthier and happier.
Japanese society, and I don’t have direct experience, is known for strict social codes. Is there an impotence he feels that he has no other channels to run his anger through, so his only choice is to erupt through society’s norms?
Only been through a couple of times myself, never stayed long enough to do anything but guess at this one too. I think you’re on to something, though. Maybe ignoring the base emotions and our initial reactions allows them to grow – until we explode.
Maybe being successful is neglecting everything else.
What if a strong business, healthy marriage, wealth, and growing family – everything we work toward in life – get in the way of just being who we really are? Humans are complex creatures, with a huge range of emotions, all trying to adhere to rules that society and law and morality and history have given us to survive. To progress. And evolve.
Stripping away most of what isn’t absolutely necessary.
Until a thought sparks somewhere back in the brainstem that goes against what we’ve always been told, everything we’ve believed until that very instant. It comes from somewhere deep inside our Lizard Brain: the place that deals with emotion and the most primitive needs we’ve got, and remains unchanged. Then, if this spark grows into a thing we can no longer suppress, a need that burns so intensely it becomes all-consuming, we have to act on it.
Even if it’s as mysterious, though simple, as the desire to experience a sound you’ve been told is unmistakable:
“When you cut the Achilles tendon, the sound it makes is as loud and sharp as a gunshot.”
Really? Let’s find out.
Kawashima wanted Chiaki as a symbol on which to project his pain and anger, if I’m reading you right. So how does she affect his world view?
He doesn’t expect her to, at least at first. He’s going into this knowing when he has these days, these “episodes” of violent fantasy, he feels miserable afterward. The main question on his mind is whether he would continue to experience them for the remainder of his life. He also looks at what he is about to do as a sort of martyrdom, an act for everyone out there who has been forgotten. All the other kids like him from the boys’ home, he does this for them too. When Chiaki shows up at the door, she’s just hoping he’s into something different that will bring her libido back. Honestly, she’s bored with business lately. What neither expects to find is another tortured soul that aligns so perfectly with their own. As the thing progresses, damage is done, pain is inflicted, but she doesn’t contact her employer. Neither phones the authorities. It’s like they both just know that using the other will bring them the gratification they need, but also bring the other a sort of pleasure.
So once they get together and find something in the other, what’s their plan?
Well, everything goes to shit almost immediately. Things are about to go down, and Chiaki excuses herself to powder her nose, where she goes a little nuts. Now, Kawashima is torn between trying to help her, and finishing what he came to do.
The “kindred spirits” grow more attached, yet still can’t trust each other, even as they each continue to learn more about the other and deal with their own shit along the way, until they end up back at her place.
There is some foreplay, some introspection, some gore, some food, some pills, some deep-rooted trauma shows up, some panic and rage, a bit more gore, and of course – piercing.
The book is short, so I don’t want to go into too much detail, but it’s a cool story. Really an interesting take on mental health, all the violence and abuse that tarnish the mask of normality everyone tries to project. At one point, Murakami jumps between their broken heads and sits you in the corner to watch them work shit out. But not like you think.
Murakami said his aim is to target a single reader and show them how to be angry. How to channel it. Do you see that throughout his novels?
Murakami is a very smart dude. Pretty sure he can see the future, too. I can definitely see his ability to stir up anger in his readers, pushing people to stop being so damn complacent all the time. Maybe there is such a thing as being too content, allowing tradition and culture to interfere with change. Indecision and indifference are the great disablers of humanity, and through his writing he uses violence, sex and anger to push readers to pull their heads from the sand. Rage is an extremely passionate thing, and if they use it to affect something for themselves, good.
Do you think culture can be a trap?
Sometimes, yes. Kind of a double-edged sword I guess. Culture can be a good thing, of course, certain accomplishments deserve to be held up high for future generations to appreciate as well. Knowledge and history are important in helping our children grow and move forward, but sometimes customs and tradition can hinder progress. I think it is important to respect how you came to be where you are, and everything around you, but not just let it all die there. Experience more, try more, learn more. Expand your own understanding, and pass this to your family and share it with those around you. Help everyone grow, without completely abandoning the identity.
Is there any humour in this dark world? Can you give an example?
I think the way Murakami does humor is a bit different, it’s the small things he can do with storytelling that make me smile. The place where I usually get the laughs is how his characters react to awful, almost unthinkable situations. He can paint a very vivid picture of pain or torture, real discomfort and horror, but the characters seem to be oblivious to it all. They are living inside gripping thrillers and extreme horror, and pages of intricate mindfucks, but they often wonder about professional baseball players, or how clean the sofa is, or where they left something, and how badly they are craving instant noodles. It’s really brilliant, because the story doesn’t stray and these tangents work so well at finding a laugh at one of the unfortunate characters. They’re not bumbling idiots, though, just seem to have other concerns, sometimes right in the middle of pretty intense moments. Brings a bit of light to the story, maybe it makes it easier for readers to handle. In Piercing, there is a perfect example of this as it ends, but again, I don’t want to ruin anything. You’ll catch it if you look. He does it a few times throughout the story, and in pretty much everything of his that I’ve read. I think the humor we can find in any Murakami story lies in word choice and characterization. It’s the observational humor, that can help you identify with a character and distract yourself from an agonizing moment.
Almost like a nod to the absurd that is every day.
Have you seen Nicholas Pesce’s film version of the book?
I haven’t, but it’s definitely on the list of ones to watch for me. I don’t want to ruin the experience I have with the book, but I’m also interested to see where Pesce goes with Murakami’s vision.
I have seen Takashi Miike’s adaptation of Murakami’s Audition, however, which I actually saw before I read the book. Really great film. Now, I’ve read it several times, along with Piercing and In the Miso Soup and the others, cementing Murakami as one of my favorite authors. Every time through one of his stories, I always find something new.
Good news, I’ve read rumors that Murakami was so impressed with Audition that he asked Miike to do Coin Locker Babies as well. Really looking forward to that project if he ever gets it out there.
Has he influenced your writing? Your books have had some wild reactions – positive and negative. Do you mine similar psychological extremes?
I think he has definitely been an influence on my writing, and the reactions might just be the best part. I want to try and push readers to experience something with my books, not everything is meant to be pleasant, though. For the first one, that was kind of the point.
One of the things I admire most about his stuff, is the ability to take readers to a place – probably the worst situation they could ever imagine – and surprise us with an observation of the everyday absurd for a laugh, then keep going forward with the pain. He can just play with readers’ brains, flipping from horror to humor and back again, finding any emotion he needs in between for a story to really hit home.
That’s fucking skill.
I think I’m getting better at finding the right mix of good and bad, and I will keep trying to push readers to feel something when they read my work.
From what I read, one of Murakami’s major themes is the alienation of youth as a result of Japan’s long stagnation. Do you have a major theme running through your stories?
Sometimes I try to point things out that might make people uneasy, I think everyone has become too comfortable with where we all are and what we pay attention to. Myself included. The first book was about how selfish and cruel people have become, each character has their own motivations, but a piece of me was in each and every one of them, too. Maybe a lot of it was to get myself right, I guess. The second was about trust and focus, how work and money and material bullshit distract us from what really matters. Again, maybe more for me since I write for myself, but I think it’s important to think about. I’m not here to change the world with my writing, maybe just entertain some people while I learn to express myself a little better and work some shit out.
Sometimes it feels like we are all guided by the opinions of imaginary friends on social media, boring reality television with romanticized versions of ourselves playing in the background, and the avoidance of anything that might offend someone. To me, we are becoming boring, and we all get a fucking participation ribbon. Wouldn’t want to hurt the feelings of anyone ever, even if they aren’t real. I’ve spent too long concentrating on the unimportant, life can’t just be that for me anymore. I write what I would find entertaining, hopefully figure something out along the way, and maybe even pick up a few people that have an opinion on something.
What really matters to you?
Good question, probably be my shortest answer so far. Family is most important to me. Making sure my kids have fun growing up, try to help them be good people. When everything else works out – a roof over our heads and food in our bellies – I can concentrate on enjoying our time together instead.
How’s The Dead Girl Beside Me, your next book, coming along?
It’s moving along pretty well now I think, thanks. I’ve been taking a long break after a big move with the family, so everything stalled while we got things adjusted, and I just recently got back into the writing mode.
I’m making progress on the book, as well as a collection of 22 short stories called Ants in My Blood that will probably come out first, and a nonfiction that has been placed on the back burner for now. Just not feeling that one at the moment, so I’m stepping away from it.
Now that I’m back into the writing game I’m staying busy and having fun again, almost like when I first started. I was pretty burnt out for a while, which is why I wasn’t in a rush to come back to it all. But I read some really great stuff, watched some awesome movies, got things handled here after the move, spoke with a writer friend or two about things, and decided to keep going. It would be too easy to just give up. Right?
Once you start, there’s no going back. Ever.
What are you reading now?
I just finished a couple of great ones pretty recently: Bury the Children in the Yard from Andersen Prunty and The Rebel’s Sketchbook by Rupert Dreyfus. Both collections, but sometimes finding the motivation can only come in small chunks for me, and I enjoyed them both. I need to read Spark, also by Dreyfus, since the sequel should be out sometime soon, as well as The Big Machine Eats by Beau Johnson. Fantastic stuff, right around the corner.
Right now I am picking my way through Tokyo Decadence again, a short story collection from Murakami, which shows a different side to the author for me. Kind of mulling things over while I decide what to read next. Also reading Know Me From Smoke by Matt Phillips which is pretty good so far.
I have a bunch in my TBR, a ton of freebies and ones I bought that look good, all just waiting for their turn. This has been a great year for fiction, and I’m guessing next year will be too. I might see a book on social media and think it looks cool, or from an author I like, then I find it already sitting in my order history, buried under the countless others that found their way onto my Kindle. Like a hoarder with words. I won’t get rid of any of them, but maybe I should read through what I have before I keep piling on more. That never works.
My Kindle is a bunch of unopened Christmas presents, too.
Kevin, your answers have been meaty and full of goodness. Thanks a bunch.
Thanks for the opportunity, it’s been fun.
You can buy Piercing here.
You can get hold of Kevin Berg’s work here.
Paul D. Brazill said City of Forts “masterfully blends urban noir with coming of age drama. Tense, atmospheric, and haunting.”
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