Egg McCharlies, Haruki Murakami, and That One Time My Mom Died

(James H.)– In these three months following my mom’s death I’ve struggled to find some unifying thread that ties together everything that’s happened. I’ve wanted to get my hands on some clear-cut narrative that I could whip out and shake at the world and get it over with. A sort-of “you show me yours, I’ll show you mine” approach to emotional baggage.

It felt like figuring out a narrative of grief would be helpful. A narrative allows you to salvage something concrete out of your own personal disaster zone. In a certain sense, it finally puts you in control of your emotions. All the confusion and pain and loose ends fuse together into something that fits onto a piece of paper. You get on speaking terms with the emotional boogieman who’s been pulling the blankets off you at night and fucking up your room while you’re out. You finally have something accessible you can show to people – some way of telling your friends about it. You can start the process of moving on.

I thought if I could just figure out that narrative, I’d be ok. I’d cram everyone into the Friedman Room. I’d have a PowerPoint. There’d be flow charts and clip art and maybe a little interpretive dance too. I’d get Dean Fatemi to pay for the coffee and Sugar Jones.

sad teaching

“Here it is folks, my nice little self-contained journey through grief. This first slide provides a rough outline of my heartache. Take note of these early low points: finding the grocery list she made for that week? Oh boy that’s gotta hurt! Now pay careful attention: right here is a sweet moment of serendipity in a tattoo parlor. And if you watch closely here you can see a poignant scene of fraternal solidarity. Don’t blink! You’ll miss this part where I cry alone in a closet with a cardigan that still smells like her. Doesn’t it just melt your heart?”

I’d upload it all to Moodle later for the people who couldn’t make it.

I’ve tried so hard to form this kind of concise, concrete narrative. I’ve wanted so badly to classify and clarify and wrap things up in some way. But the sum total of everything that’s happened doesn’t add up to anything tangible. It’s long and rambling, not particularly interesting, and so far it only manages to make the people who can stay awake cry.

Waiting patiently for a draft of my nebulous sob story to coalesce, I returned to the places I’d seen grief narrativized before. I re-read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking . I returned to my favorite Raymond Chandler novels, The Big Sleep and The Long Goodbye. I picked up Kazuo Ishiguro’s A Pale View of Hills. In looking at these stories, it dawned on me that I’d been unconsciously trying to mimic them in some way. I wanted to have a cover letter for my pain, but despite my efforts, no single telling of what could successfully integrate all the plotlines. (See also: me pretending to be Philip Marlowe for a day, listening to New Order on repeat, buying a baseball hat).

d.) None of the above
d.) None of the above

I think I finally found something different in the contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami. He writes frequently – maybe to a fault – about people’s puzzling (sur)realities: A woman looks up one night and realizes that there are suddenly two moons. Has it always been that way?; A man receives a mysterious call from a phone sex operator. Could that really have been his wife’s voice on the phone?; A mentally-disabled sexagenarian follows a lost cat into an abandoned lot. Is that man dressed like Johnny Walker really trying to make a magic flute out of tortured cats’ souls?

Ok. You get it. He’s a weirdo.

Still, something in all of this resonates deeply with me. Murakami’s protagonists often undergo drastic, life-altering events, but they don’t try to pick everything apart. Their lives seem forever changed, but for the most part they just continue onwards. They live the narrative, as opposed to trying to wrap it up and present it to others.

The flow continues. Plotlines fray into loose ends that never get tied up. Stupid, strange, meaningless things just happen.

In other words, the narrative doesn’t have to dominate. You don’t have to “unpack” or “navigate” everything that occurs. Toru from The Wind-up Bird Chronicle doesn’t line things up for the reader. He just listens to stories about Japanese war crimes and sits at the bottom of an empty well and has terrifyingly erotic nocturnal emissions.

That’s sort of how I feel. It’s like the moment my phone started ringing on December 10th, I just slipped seamlessly into a largely familiar but vaguely unusual reality, one where I’ve lost the plot.

In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Murakami writes:

There should have been a decisive gap separating those two different worlds. There had to be a gap. But he could not find it. The world looked the same to him as it always had. What most puzzled the veterinarian was the unfamiliar lack of feeling inside himself.

I kept telling myself that things were forever changed, that my world would be unrecognizably different, but that never really happened. The weird thing is that everything feels the same, only slightly off. I still eat Egg McCharlies. I still feel ambivalent about Organic Chemistry. I still get nervous when I talk to guys I like.

It’s the emotional equivalent of going to Canada. Seeing milk in a bag isn’t alienating enough to cause some deep existential panic, but it’s different enough to be noticeable. It’s not like being embroiled in a conspiracy plot where everyone you know is suddenly a stranger. It’s not North by Northwest.

It’s more like you were Freshman Orientation BFFs with your old reality, but you gradually stopped talking and eventually spilled a beer on him at Crossett Christmas, and now you’re just kind of acquaintances. It’s like you and your old world were Sims and you said something insulting and that red minus sign now looms over your heads. Friendship level downgraded – you’ll have to stop using his Jacuzzi while he’s busy at work being an astronaut.

So this is where I am now. I realize that explaining that I can’t find my narrative is a narrative in itself (#meta #LiberalArts ) I also know that I’ll probably feel differently some day. For now, though, I have no choice but to keep going in this Murakami-esque world of psychic prostitutes, Manchurian war criminals, and that guy who stopped texting me back.

I still miss her everyday.

maggie hildebrand