Perhaps because I was able to read a decent bit of mainstream fiction this summer, some of my recent postings have focused on the presence of counterfactuals in contemporary literature.
In addition to spotting some contradictory "what if" reasoning in Donna Tartt's novel, The Goldfinch, last month, I found some interesting passages in Haruki Murakami's new novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.
The novel features a group of five childhood friends in the Japanese city of Nagoya who part ways as they enter adulthood and display multiple regrets about the circumstances of their parting.
Late in the novel, two of the main characters, Eri and Tsukuru have an extended counterfactual exchange about their mutual mentally unbalanced friend, Yuzu. Eri expresses regret to Tsukuru about having become distanced Yuzu, who tragically ends up getting murdered. She compares Yuzu to "a pretty bird, [with] the kind of neck that could snap so easily" and she declares: "If I'd been in Japan that probably never would have happened to her. I would never have let her go off to some town she didn't know, all by herself."
She then confesses her teenage crush on Tsukuru and apologizes for having cut off ties with him, noting, "If I had only had a little more confidence and courage, and no stupid pride," I never would have abandoned you like that, no matter what the circumstances."
Tsukuru replies, "You don't have to worry....I get the feeling that, even if we had made different decisions then,...we might have still ended up pretty much where we are."
Eri replies "Will you tell me one thing?...If I had come right out then and told you I loved you, would you have gone out with me?
Tsukuru: "Of course I would have....I would have loved for you to be my girlfriend. And I think we would have been happy together."
The narrative then continues:
"The two of them would likely have been a close couple, with a fulfilling love life, Tsukuru decided. There would have been so much they could have shared....Tsukuru had the feeling, though, that this closeness would have been short-lived. An unavoidable fissure would have grown between what he and Eri wanted from their lives...and eventually...they would have gone off in separate directions."
The exchange illustrates several things. First it confirms the finding of social science research that regret is a common emotion associated with wondering "what if?" (usually in the vein of "if only...", otherwise known as "wishful thinking.") Predictably enough, the exchange appears to be full of fantasy scenarios (upward counterfactuals) that imagine history turning out better. And yet, the exchange ultimately settles into a "reversionary counterfactual," in which an apparently alternate course of events eventually ends up conforming to the real historical record. Tsukuru concludes that he and Eri never would have stayed together had they given their relationship a chance. The counterfactual exchange, in other words, ends up showing how history's course was predestined.
Not the most original point, to be sure, but interesting to see in a prominent novel, nevertheless. I am new to Murakami's work and found Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki to be generally satisfying (but less captivating thatn The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, which I liked quite a bit more).