The Old Switcheroo


(above: Haruki Murakami)

There’s really just no way to write this post without spoilers, so be forewarned.

Sometimes, when I’m having trouble deciding what book to start next, I’ll re-read a short story. I was in this situation Sunday and found myself once again turning to Haruki Murakmki’s collection “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.” Murakami is an author of whom I was wholly ignorant just a few years ago and only discovered after joining the book blogging community (thanks, if I’m remembering correctly, to the blog, Dolce Bellezza). The story I chose, somewhat randomly, was the oddly-titled “New York Mining Disaster.”

I remember the first time I read this being reminded of the old song by the Bee Gees “New York Mining Disaster 1941.” I think we had this single in the house when I was a kid – maybe it was a b-side of something else, I don’t remember. I thought at the time it was a tribute to a real tragedy but, checking today, it seems it was totally fictional. I always thought that was such a weird title for a pop song. It was. It is also a title of a “weird” short story. Weird, but great.


The story (as it appears in the collection I own) features an unnamed narrator, who starts by describing a strange friend who likes to go to the zoo during “typhoons” and sit in front of the animals and drink beer. We learn this friend is important to the narrator because the friend owns a suit that the narrator (who doesn’t own a suit) has had to borrow in order to attend a funeral. What is odd is that the narrator, being only in his late twenties, has had an unlikely number of similarly-aged friends die recently. It’s an incredible run of misfortune, especially considering their ages. What can it all mean? The narrator apologizes for not owning a suit himself, but rationalizes that he’s afraid “…if I buy funeral clothes, it’s like saying it’s OK if someone dies.” One of the deaths is a suicide, but the others are accidents

“Unlike my first friend, who killed himself, these friends never had the time to realize they were dying. For them it was like climbing up a staircase they’d climbed a million times before and suddenly finding a step missing.”

Another oddity of the narrator’s friend is that he “trades in” his girlfriend for a new one every six months. To the narrator, the new ones are indistinguishable from the old ones. They’re all essentially the same girl. At this point, the reader is surely trying to decide what ties all these things together. I know I was. Another episode involves the narrator and his friend discussing television, and the friend says, “One good thing about television, you can shut it off, and nobody complains.” He does so, and when they switch it back on later, as a man talks on the screen he says, “See? He didn’t even notice we switched him off for five minutes. When you switch it off, one side ceases to exist.”

The final episode involves the narrator at a New Year’s Eve party, where he meets a mysterious young woman who claims that she knows someone who looks “exactly” like him. He says he’d like to meet such a person, but she replies that it would be impossible. The man is dead. She claims she killed him, but is evasive as to how, joking at one point that she threw him into a beehive. She does say, however, that “It took less than five seconds. To kill him.” As their conversation ends, midnight is falling. This is almost the end of the story.

The scene fades out and is replaced by some trapped miners awaiting rescue. They snuff out their lamps to conserve air and struggle to listen for sounds of approaching rescuers over the creaking of supporting beams. Murakami writes:

“They waited for hours. Reality began to melt into darkness. Everything began to feel like it was happening a long time ago, in a world far away. Or was it happening in the future, in a different, far-off world? Outside people were digging a hole, trying to reach them. It was like a scene from a movie.”

I loved this ending. Somehow the trapped miners and the world of the narrator are related, but we don’t know how, exactly. It’s that kind of mystical air I’ve come to expect – and enjoy – in Murakami’s writing. I also enjoy endings that are open to interpretation on the reader’s part, as this one certainly is.

The real shock for me, though, was after reading the story this time, I looked it up on-line and discovered that, when originally published in The New Yorker, the passage with the trapped miners was placed at the beginning of the story. This seems a far less effective method than was presented when he included the story in the “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” collection, where it came to rest at “its proper place” at the end of the story. I’m glad I only read this story after “The Old Switcheroo” had been completed.


Have YOU read this story? What do you think of Haruki Murakami?

(below: the first couple pages of the story as it appeared in the New Yorker (snapped on my iPad from the digital edition); you can see the part with the miners is placed at the beginning)