In Haruki Murakami's 1995 novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, there's a terrible scene where a man is skinned alive. The man is a Japanese spy, and he is caught by some Soviets during a time of border conflict between the two nations. The scene is slow and almost tenderly descriptive. I had to keep putting the book down and breathing through my nose. I thought, for a second, I might actually throw up.
Most of the book isn't about war at all. Most of the book is about a man named Toru Okada who quits his job at a law office because he isn't happy. He clears some space in his days to figure out what he wants to do. Then his cat goes missing. His wife leaves him. He spends a lot of the book at the bottom of a dry well, in complete darkness, thinking about his life. New Age-y healers and prophets give him messages and signs. Some of them tell him stories about terrible things that happened, a generation before, when Japan was at war. One old man, named Lieutenant Mamiya, tells him about the skinning he witnessed. When he finishes his story (contained in a letter), Lieutenant Mamiya writes, “To tell you the truth, I have no idea what this long, strange story of mine will mean to you, Mr. Okada. Perhaps it is nothing more than an old man's mutterings.”
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle wants the reader to believe that Mamiya's story is a parable of direct relevance to Okada's happiness--his career prospects, his marriage, and the location of his cat.
I realized, not too long ago, that none of us is guaranteed an easy, pleasant, or long life. I have had an easy and pleasant life, and I like to look for messages written in the clouds that suggest how I might get more of what I want. I make bargains with the Universe. I ask the cards about my future. I read my past like a map. What is my purpose? Where am I going? I love parables, which promise and promise the simplest truths but hide them at the last moment. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle itself registers like a parable, with lots of strange, specific details cobbled together. I read it quickly, all the way to the end, hoping that a simple moment of enlightenment would help me understand the broken pieces.
To tell you the truth, I have no idea what this long, strange story of mine will mean to you.
I was reading an apocalypse novel at the time of the Parkland, Florida school shooting. The novel was Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. The book promises nothing--it does not promise the good people will recreate happiness from the ashes or even survive. It doesn't promise that the bad guys will learn to be good. Most importantly, it doesn't promise that the "great sickness," which kills almost everyone, can be made into a metaphor. In the end, a little happiness starts to bloom anyway, in people's memories, in people's families, in people's efforts to help.
At the time, when I tried to write about the shooting and Station Eleven, what I wrote sounded like I was trying to make the shooting into a metaphor. I wasn't, although I was trying to grieve and understand at the same time, which is a fool's game. I was trying to understand how teenagers could die, and how their parents could go on, and how I could properly mourn a national tragedy that did not directly affect me. What are the rules of life? Why are we promised and promised the simplest truths, only to have them yanked out from under us at the last moment?
Here is something true: terrible things happen, with crushing finality, to people who do not deserve them. Terrible things happen on a national, international, and personal level. Go to the bottom of a well and look around in the dark, the damp, and the quiet. This isn't a bargain with the Universe. The Universe won't reward you for knowing yourself. The answer isn't in the clouds, in the maps of your past, in your alphabet soup. Your missing cat might come back, or not. The parables have no hidden meanings. That doesn't mean they are meaningless. The parables themselves are written in special ink that can only be read in the dark.