by Ben Arzate
Before there was Tao Lin’s Taipei, before there was Douglas Coupland’s Generation X, before there was Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, there was Ryu Murakami’s Almost Transparent Blue.
“’A lot of things happened awhile back, right, but now I’m empty, can’t do anything, you know? And because I’m empty I want to look around some more, I want to see a lot of things.’”
Ryu Murakami, best known to Western audiences as the author of Audition, had his first novel published in 1976. It was a semi-autobiographical novel about a group of young Japanese friends living near a US Air Force base. The book is a haze of sex, violence, drug abuse, and rock music as their lives spiral out of control and all of them are left empty and unsatisfied.
The book is narrated by Ryu, a disaffected university student and aspiring musician. Although his aspirations aren’t very well pursued. At a couple points, his friends encourage him to play the flute for them, but he brushes them off.
He seems to have few interests beyond sex and drugs, despite coming off as incredibly bored by them, especially towards the end. He is, however, very observant of his surroundings and describes them in often very poetic ways.
“The rain made a variety of sounds in different places. As it was sucked down into the grass and pebbles and earth, it sounded like tiny musical instruments. The tinkle of a toy piano, small enough to hold in palm of the hand, blended with the ringing in my ears, the aftermath of heroin.”
One of the early scenes in the book is an orgy between Ryu, his friends, and several black soldiers at the American air base. The way the orgy is described is far away from erotic; it is both disturbing and hilarious.
Despite their claims of enjoying the orgies, many of Ryu’s friends spout racial epithets in reference to the men at the air base when not there. There is also obvious jealousy among the men for their girlfriends having sex with the American airmen.
Ryu is surprised when one female friend, a heroin addict, states she wants to get married someday. A conflict between the traditions of pre-war Japan and the new zeitgeist of international post-war Japan is a subtle theme here.
Ryu’s best friend and sort-of girlfriend is named Lilly, an American girl living in Japan and making money as a prostitute. She seems to be the only person that Ryu actually cares about.
His relationship with her, however, is strained by his inability to communicate his feelings to her until it’s too late. The “epilogue” of the book is a letter to Lilly where he expresses his desire to see her again four years later.
It’s clear that Ryu and his friends’ lifestyles are tearing them apart. Much of the friction between Lilly and Ryu begins when they get in their car on mescaline and drive without a purpose. This takes them to the runway at an airport where their drug-induced hallucinations nearly get them both killed. This results in the police showing up at Ryu’s home and dragging him and his friends to the station, though they’re let off without charges because the police can’t find their drugs.
The two end up departing for good when, later, Ryu has a psychotic breakdown, hallucinating a giant bird looming over him and preparing to crush him. Lilly runs away in fear and Ryu stabs himself with glass and has to go to the hospital.
It’s easy to see why this is regarded as a classic in its home country of Japan. It made a huge splash when it was released and it’s still in print there and, as far as I know, has never gone out of print. In the United States, the English translation only recently went out of print and there’s a good chance it will come back into print soon.
I can only hope it does. It’s a short book at only around 130 pages, but it fits a lot into those pages. It’s an intense, beautifully written (even in translation), and engaging coming of age book.
Almost Transparent Blue transcends cultural boundaries in its existential themes while also retaining uniquely Japanese ones. I believe this is a much better book than Audition (the only other Ryu Murakami book I’ve read so far) and I look forward to reading his other ones.