“Cream”
by Haruki Murakami
translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
from the January 28, 2019 issue of The New Yorker

I still haven’t read a novel by the immensely popular Haruki Murakami, and that’s because I’ve never been particularly fond of the short fiction I’ve read in The New Yorker. Part of me thinks I should finally give a novel a try, because so many trusted friends faithfully read his new novels the moment they arrive in English, regardless of how they felt about the last one. So . . . if you have any recommendations, let me know.

And so it is with renewed vigor that I approach “Cream” and have already enjoyed the first little bit. As it begins, we meet an older narrator who jumps right into telling us about telling someone else a story with no clear resolution.

So I’m telling a younger friend of mine about a strange incident that took place back when I was eighteen. I don’t recall exactly why I brought it up. It just happened to come up as we were talking. I mean, it was something that happened long ago. Ancient history. On top of which, I was never able to reach any conclusion about it.

This pulled me in. What is held within that ancient history that still resonates such that it emerges in a stray conversation? And why is the narrator now telling us about telling this to his friend?

I don’t necessarily have faith that these questions will be clearly answered in the story. I mean, look at Murakami’s interview with Deborah Treisman (here). She asks him point blank about his framing device and why he chose it. Here is his answer: “I’m not sure. I probably thought that it was better to have the story told retrospectively, rather than in the voice of a teen-ager.”

He appears to be going with his gut here, exploring the unexplainable, the unknowable, and how that affects us, acknowledging that “[s]ometimes asking the right question is better than getting the right answer.”

Many of us wonder, when we see a story from a famous novelist in The New Yorker whether that story is an excerpt. And, speaking of going with his gut, it doesn’t appear Murakami knows either. When Treisman asks him if the story is a series or from a new collection, Murakmi answers playfully: “I hadn’t thought about it, but, now that you mention it, I could see possibly making it into a series (or a full-length novel). Thank you for the suggestion!”

So I’m interested. I’m open, I hope, to the magic of Murakami in a way I might not have been before. I’m going to finish the story later today and see where it leaves me. In the meantime, please feel free to share your thoughts below. And, if you have a Murakami novel you recommend I start with, please let me know!

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By |2019-01-21T13:20:31+00:00January 21st, 2019|Categories: Haruki Murakami, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |24 Comments

24 Comments

  1. William January 21, 2019 at 4:50 pm

    Kafka on the Shore

    Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

  2. arakere rangesa January 22, 2019 at 4:03 am

    I read this short story Cream. After reading this , go back in life and think so many events , a few retrieved from deep down. They were hidden all the time, now you search for meaning , doesn’t make sense, .this story is reflection of our
    own experiences of events( strange?) trying find rationality but if not always many times we fail? do these haunt us? may be!!

  3. William January 24, 2019 at 9:52 am
  4. Melinda January 24, 2019 at 3:27 pm

    Thank you, William. Nice link.

  5. SH January 24, 2019 at 3:29 pm

    Any of his books, they are All genius.

  6. David January 25, 2019 at 12:07 am

    This is an excellent story. I have not read a lot of Murakami’s work, but have a couple of his books on my list of books I would like to get around to reading some time soon. Reading this story only makes me look more forward to reading them. From the beginning he (and his translator) capture very well the voice of the narrator telling the story. Sometimes first person storytelling reads the same in tone as third person storytelling, but where just the pronouns used are different. Here I always was aware that there was a character with a personality telling this tale. It is beautifully constructed.
    .
    The story does have some elements that frequent Murakami readers will recognize, but does not at all have the feel of retreading old ground. The idea that the story does not have a simple resolution and probably cannot have such a resolution is a tricky thing to pull off. I am reminded of Thomas McGuane’s “Riddle”, published by The New Yorker in November 2017. I liked a number of stories I had read before this one, but “Riddle” was disappointing to me because he presents events that are supposed to be mysteriously connected in a way that comes off feeling more contrived than anything. But Murakami found a way to give us a different trio of strange events that work. Perhaps it is in part because he does not try to force the idea that there is any connection at all among them or perhaps it is just how well the presentation of them shows us more about the narrator who is telling us about them.
    .
    It’s still only January, but I would not be at all surprised if come the end of the year this story ranks as one of the five best New Yorker stories of the year.

  7. Reader January 26, 2019 at 2:36 pm

    I enjoyed this story, although I can’t say I found it profoundly moving. It uses very simple language, which is perfectly fine, and the voice is sustained and believable throughout, but it felt somehow flat throughout much of it, and for that reason I think I connect with it more on a conceptual level than a literary one. In a way, it reads almost like an essay toward the end, once the story moves out of the narrator’s personal tale and back into the frame story, wherein he provides an analysis of the events he just described to his young friend. This added to the literary flatness for me. Typically, this analysis-through-the-protagonist’s-voice technique isn’t one that I’m fond of, especially when we as readers are supposed to accept the narrator’s interpretation as authoritative and explicit, which I think is the case here. At the same time, the piece is by no means a failure to me. I suspect this is because, as David notes to, the narrator’s analysis places importance on the incomprehensibility of certain experiences and how, with proper mindfulness, those moments can serve as a kind of catalysts for individuals, inducing them to embrace introspection and thereby further sow the seeds of purpose and meaning within their own lives. (Bit of an over-simplification of Murakami’s aim here!) In that sense, the piece is overtly didactic–a generally weak literary approach. All the same, it evades getting snared in the trap of moralizing by advancing the “lesson” of ineffability. That’s the trick, I think. The reader is simultaneously told how to ‘make sense’ of the narrator’s personal tale while still being given the space to project what they’d like onto the metaphor of the circle described by the old man. Thus, the story manages to offer up a sense of meaning that is both accessible and inherently open-ended. This is how the story shines. It takes a talented writer and thinker to pull that off, so tip of the hat to Murakami. In the end, though, I think the same message could be rendered more powerfully if the piece had found a way to avoid driving the central ideas home through explicit monologues. Doing so would have made this a standout story for me rather than simply one with an intriguing guiding principle.

  8. william January 26, 2019 at 2:57 pm

    Reader —

    Thanks for expressing my reaction to this story perfectly. I am a Murakami fan, but I agree that this story is flat and abstract and conceptual. He doesn’t create a sense of the mystical, in my opinion, so all the moralizing or philosophy is not earned. In contrast, I remember a story one or two years ago by a South American woman in which she and her husband and a woman friend drive from one country to another (Uruguay to Argentina?) to buy some cheaper goods and the husband disses some soldiers and subsequently disappears. That was truly creepy and mystical.

    I’m surprised you like this, David. This story is telling, not showing, in the extreme.

  9. David January 26, 2019 at 3:42 pm

    William, the story you are thinking of is Mariana Enríquez’s “Spiderweb” from December 2016. I was not as impressed with that story as I was this one. As for your comments on this story, I do not think the “show, don’t tell” criticism applies at all here. The entire story is showing – it’s showing the character of the man telling the story. The fact this is a story about the narrator is pretty clearly signaled in the opening Trevor quoted. The narrator is now telling us a story about telling a story to a younger friend and he doesn’t know why he told it then (and offers no reason to tell it again now) and lets us know before he begins that the story really doesn’t have any clear resolution. So the issue is not the content of the events he describes so much as it is the impact they have had on the teller of the story. We see this throughout his telling of the story. The question for us is less “what does it all mean?” and more “Why does this mean so much to him?” That can only be revealed by showing it to us through his recounting the events he has recounted before.
    .
    Reader, I disagree with your use of the terms “didactic” and “moralizing”. That someone takes and defends an idea is not automatically either. There is nothing to suggest the negative aspect of those terms – that Murakami has ulterior motives for telling the story or that he is being judgmental of anyone else. He is doing neither. I also think it is important to remember that the narrator is not Murakami, so to assume that he is a stand-in for Murakami is a mistake. But without that assumption you can’t see the story as anything like an essay. I can see thinking that the narrator (not Murakami) is being didactic (although not moralizing), but that a character is being like this should raise the question of why he is like this and what it tells us about him. I would not regard any story of a didactic person as somehow problematic or inadequate.
    .
    I also don’t see why you think “we as readers are supposed to accept the narrator’s interpretation as authoritative”. I mean, I think the narrator might feel that way, but that does not mean that Murakami or we have to agree with him. In fact, there is nothing in this story that forces us to accept that the story the narrator is telling is even true. For instance, maybe all three events he describes really did happen to him, but what if they were all on different days and he just put them together? The story does not do anything to push us away from considering that idea, if we are so inclined. And even that possibility reminds us that the story is about this narrator and not just the question “Why does this mean so much to him?” but maybe more generally “Why is this a story he keeps telling people that, by his own admission, seems apropos of nothing?” These questions place the narrator himself as the central focus of interest and thought.

  10. William January 26, 2019 at 3:51 pm

    David —

    This is one of those situations where we are using value-loaded terms that don’t have any objective meaning to express our reactions to the story. I don’t think we can resolve our different reactions. Best to just agree to disagree. Maybe I’ve just become too lazy to pursue long explications.

  11. Reader January 27, 2019 at 2:16 am

    William, my pleasure. Glad to hear others had a similar take.

    David, I agree that neither the narrator nor Murakami are moralizing, so we’re on the same page there. In fact, I said as much above; maybe you misread my comments? If you’re taking issue with my implication that didacticism is a kind of moralizing, then I’m not sure what to tell you besides the fact the second definition of ‘didactic’ in Merriam-Webster is ‘to make moral observations’. Also, I don’t think a didactic story is inherently problematic, but I personally prefer stories that skirt heavy-handed monologues as a way of pushing their didaticism. To that end, the narrator is explicitly didactic toward the end of the piece, and, though I may be making an undo assumption here, I think Murakami is as well. It was Murakami after all who felt this story–both the narrator’s personal tale and the story writ large–is worth telling. There’s a reason for that, certainly, and given my reading of the piece I think that’s because Murakami himself resonates with the message proffered by the protagonist. That’s not to say the narrator is a placeholder for Murakami, but I don’t really buy the notion that the narrator’s message here–which I find to be wise and insightful–doesn’t resonate with Murakami at all. I might be wrong, but it’s the impression I walked away with, and it’s why the story seems to take on an essay-like veneer toward the end.

    Nothing in the piece suggests to me that Murakami intended to put the authority of the narrator in question, so your comments on that matter have an appeal-to-possibility edge that I don’t find very convincing.

    I’m with you that the narrator should be viewed as a central focus of interest in this story, but, to my mind, understanding him/his experience/the significance of his own understanding of his experiences only reinforces my previous interpretation of the story regarding introspection and personal meaning. If you don’t see those themes are central to the piece, what themes stand out for you? Knowing that might better help me understand why you’re arguing for the various positions you’re arguing for.

  12. Eric January 27, 2019 at 3:39 am

    Am I the only one who had a problem with the translation (at least I think it’s the translation)? To me, the whole thing felt a bit off, as if no real person would use this particular combination of words and phrases. It seemed like it was translated by putting individual words and short phrases into Google Translate and just taking the first choice every time, without worrying about whether, for example, someone who said “I had zero interest” would also say “bungled”.

    I think I would probably enjoy this if I could read it in the original Japanese, but in English the prose style feels unpleasant and false, and I never got past that.

  13. David January 27, 2019 at 10:10 am

    Reader, I owe you …. one and a half apologies :-)
    .
    First, you are right I entirely misread your comment about moralizing. For that you get a full apology. Second, with regard to the word “didactic”, I’ll just quote this comment from the M-W dictionary online:
    “Didactic” conveyed that neutral meaning when it was first borrowed in the 17th century, and still does; a didactic piece of writing is one that is meant to be instructive as well as artistic. Parables are generally didactic because they aim to teach a moral lesson. “Didactic” now sometimes has negative connotations, too, however. Something “didactic” is often overburdened with instruction to the point of being dull. Or it might be pompously instructive or moralistic.
    In my experience, people use the word “didactic” typically when they want to invoke the more critical meaning that the last part of that passage discusses, but they do say it can be used neutrally, as you did. So for this one I’m going to count my self as mistaken about what you meant, but mistaken with a reasonable justification, thus for this one I offer the half-apology :-)

  14. David January 27, 2019 at 10:11 am

    Ugh. There was supposed to be an end italics HTML tag right before “In my experience”. For that error I offer …. a quarter apology :-)

  15. David January 27, 2019 at 10:17 am

    Eric, I didn’t have any concerns about the translation. In fact, I thought it read quite well. But I am also someone who does use both the phrase “I had zero interest” and the word “bungled”.

  16. blbs January 27, 2019 at 12:42 pm

    Hi,
    Has anyone noticed the possible connection with El Aleph by Jorge Luis Boges? I mean the circle of many (maybe infinite) centers but without circumference …

  17. Larry Bone January 27, 2019 at 1:08 pm

    First, It might be great to have an Oscar like best 5 New Yorker short stories wrapup post in January. Readers would nominate their choice of best story with a short sentence as to why. With all Trevor does on this website I don’t see where there would any time for one more contest.

    Second, Murakami can be really frustrating because nothing much ever seems to be happening in his short stories even though the writing style is very well crafted.

    It is always difficult to figure out what nothing much means in writing or life even if presented in a stylish or artistically provocative way. Maybe the allure of Murakami is that he presents this blahness of life in a Oriental stylized specifics kind of way. And maybe that resonates with a Western audience because he points them towards the dull and unteresting parts of one’s life that it is difficult to make any sense of.

    New mainstream short stories and books sell so poorly that if an author has a bestseller, he or she has hit upon a writing style that large numbers of readers really like.

    A new author writing elegant simple prose where nothing much happens either during the story or at the end will get a lot of rejection until a prominent or significant editor who likes that kind of writing champions it for publication. A certain percentage of readers won’t like it but if enough like it then he or she best stay with that writing style.

    I think William is right about agree to disagree and Reader and David make some great observations. If a reader is able to make sense of a story that I find confusing or boring or devoid of any ah ha moments, it doesn’t mean that it lacks brilliance. My mind and experience may not allow me to perceive the meaningful essence of what other readers observe within the story. That I can’t see any literary payoff doesn’t mean it’s not there. Some writers and their writing move us more than others so who is excellent and who is bad can be completely unresolvable.

  18. Reader January 28, 2019 at 3:45 pm

    David, not to worry. Glad to clear things up.

    Eric, despite moderately liking the piece (although, the more I think about it, the less I find myself liking it), I agree with some of your criticisms of the language/translation. There are a number of lines that stand out as particularly lay or clumsy to me, including stuff like “ancient history” and the line about how all things is life that are worth having are hard to acquire and the crème de la crème line. That all could have been greatly improved.

    Larry, yeah, that’s Murakami for you. I’ve always considered him more of a the-pleasure-is-in-the-quirky-journey writer than someone who writes well-plotted, gripping, or especially literary stories. Moreover, I always read his work through an existential lens, which makes it more resonant for me. That being said, I do try of his stuff after awhile given how little variation there is.

  19. Reader January 28, 2019 at 3:46 pm

    *particularly lazy*

  20. Ken February 2, 2019 at 4:37 pm

    Whether or not we take the main character as a Murakami avatar or don’t and solely look at him as a fictional construct, there’s just something kind of weak and unclimactic about the way this ends with the last, philosophical, section. It’s not as if I mind a “moral” or “lesson” and I wouldn’t even call this didactic, just not very compelling. Overall, though, the story is pretty good up to this point and he creates a strange, surrealist landscape of empty suburban streets etc. that is well realized.

  21. Faiz February 20, 2019 at 2:13 pm

    TLDR: read the short stories Tony Takitani and The Second Bakery Attack (or the collections The Elephant Vanishes or Blind Willow Sleeping Woman); for novels, go with Kafka on the Shore and A Wild Sheep Chase.

    Murakami is my favorite author but I don’t expect other people to like him much, so don’t bother with the hype. all his stories are basically the same, with the same few tropes. you either find them charming and can’t get enough, or you think he’s an overrated hack. if you like cream, you’ll find the same thing happening in almost all his other stories and novels i.e. something strange and surreal that disrupts the flow of life of a very ordinary young, male narrator who goes to some remote location to find some hope of reconnecting with the world at large. later, when the narrator is older, he will tell the story of the incident to someone else who will agree that it was a pretty weird thing whose meaning remains elusive.

    i happen to like this because every story seems like a quiet and dreamy, surreal coming of age tale for an aimless and isolated young man, and that really clicked with me when I first read murakami at 21 because I was such an aimless and young man myself, and years later I remain marginally less so.

    if my comment has not deterred you, check out either the Elephant Vanishes or Blind Willow Sleeping Woman short story collections, or both. A Murakami short story has all the Murakami experience you really need. If for some reason you want more, read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which is hailed as his opus, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, his first “big one”, or Norwegian Wood, the book that made him a pop sensation when it came out in the mid 80s.

    My favorite, and personal recommendation after you’ve read the short stories, would be Kafka on the Shore. It is ridiculous and absurd, and the best of Muramaki’s brand of “for no reason at all, I wrote that this way, so that’s what the character did, because who knows — I certainly don’t” storytelling.

    If you still want more, Hear the Wind Sing/Pinball 1973 were the first stories he wrote, and they are barely novellas. Lucky for him and us, they won him immediate critical acclaim so he went on to write a Wild Sheep Chase, which continues the “story” of the protagonist from Wind/Pinball. Wrap this up with the third installment in this trilogy, Dance Dance Dance, and you will see why I hesitate to read and recommend Murakami’s novels. His protagonists’ aimlessness often seeps into the plot, and both just plod around for stretches of time. Thus the nice spooky-surreal dreamy tones of the short stories turn into full-on dull, aching nightmares that you just want to wake up from.

    But if that’s the experience you want, Dance Dance Dance and Wind up Bird Chronicle will deliver; A Wild Sheep Chase and After Dark, too, albeit in a shorter, more welcome page-count. Kafka on the Shore is the best of the bunch, a fun, enjoyable, weird page turner.

    For particular short story recommendations, check out Tony Takitani and The Second Bakery Attack.

  22. mehbe February 21, 2019 at 10:17 am

    I have enjoyed some of Murakami’s stories, but this one didn’t do it for me. In fact, I thought it was a satire for a while, a parody of some kind of “wise old Asian man dispenses koan-like, incomprehensible wisdom to callow youth” thing. I’m still not convinced that it isn’t. I did like the idea of the piano recital by the main character’s former duet partner as the draw that got the young man into the situation with the old man.

    This story desparately needs a cat, too.

  23. mehbe February 21, 2019 at 10:42 am

    By the way, there is a sort of mash-up of two interviews with Murakami that was posted on the New Yorker website earlier this month. I enjoyed reading it – he’s an interesting guy.

    https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/the-underground-worlds-of-haruki-murakami

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