• Pat

The Rat Series Reflection #2: Pinball, 1973


I have finished reading Pinball, 1973 for a second time. Five years ago, this novel didn't stand out nearly as much as Hear the Wind Sing did, but I am happy I gave it a second chance. In comparison, it is slightly better written than the first in this trilogy and the chapters seem to be better organized. There is a continuation of that same "being lost in your twenties" theme, but there are a few more elements involved. It is also much darker, in a kind of roundabout way.  While their relationship is briefly mentioned in regards to pinball, the narrator, "I", and the Rat don't meet at all in this novel. Even so, the story revolves around these two characters and the experiences they go through starting in September of 1973.  There are two main ideas I want to touch on:

Moving on

"I" begins the novel by telling us about his third girlfriend, Naoko, who hung herself in spring 1970 (In he forest or by the tennis courts? Just one of the slight inconsistencies of this series). He confesses that he did in fact love her. Also, that her hometown is full of wells. See, he is still in the same habit that he explains in "Hear the Wind Sing".

I enjoyed listening to stories about faraway places so much that it became a kind of sickness.

Naoko's stories were fascinating, and he loved hearing her laugh and seeing her Cheshire cat smile. The company he establishes in 1972 with his friend, working as a translator is seemingly just an extension of listening to stories. While he has graduated university, there have been no real challenges that would force him to evolve. He is still coasting along and taking things as they come. There are a few events, though, that remain in his mind. The girl who used to live in his dormitory is one, but the gap Naoko leaves is far greater and everlasting. One day, deciding he needs closure, he heads to Naoko's hometown by train. After finding a dog on the platform, a scenario she pitched to him, he leaves. He got what he came for, however he is not satisfied. The next day he wakes up to the twins. They have no backstory. Just an entrance and an exit. 208 and 209. They challenge him in all sorts of ways: their innocence, their intrigue in the apartment's old switch panel, their taste in music. Their insistence on a funeral. These girls are what push "I" into moving on. "I" and the Rat used to play pinball at J's bar. The Rat got a high-score, but then became depressed when a maintenance man came and beat it during a routine check. This is typical Rat behavior. He gets discouraged very easily. "I", on the other hand, becomes obsessed. He finds the same model at an arcade in Tokyo and plays it until the arcade is demolished and a coffee shop takes its place.  His pinball machine is gone. Naoko is gone. But Naoko is gone forever. He eventually finds the same pinball machine again after consulting with an expert and ending up at an old chicken storage center full of them. My theory is that "I" romanticizes his relationship with pinball, juxtaposing it with Naoko. Both were feverishly brief romances at impressionable times in his life. Now, as a freelance translator, what does he have? Pinball is just an extension of the ego. 

Almost nothing can be gained from pinball. The only payoff is a numerical substitution for pride. The losses, however, are considerable.

Replay, replay, replay. "A dream without substance". When he reaches "her", he doesn't even play. They talk things over. His world has changed; He has grown. Goodbye. 

This was the true closure he needs to move on. He can finally say goodbye to what had been holding the place for Naoko. The extension of his ego, the dream that is too good to be true. 

Escaping yourself

The Rat is lonely. It is that time of year again, when everyone goes back to their lives and leaves him alone. Now he feels that time stands still. He is smoking again. Nothing has changed since a few years prior. Perhaps he can't find a way of expressing himself. In contrast to most people "I" meets, the Rat doesn't want to tell his story. Unfortunately, that's probably because there isn't any. Not yet at least.

[I]f he explained himself to one person, soon everyone else he knew might demand to hear his story. From there it was a small step to having to explain himself to the whole world. Just imagining that made the Rat sick to his stomach.

Now his depression seems even deeper as his only real connection is J. He has a girlfriend "who tries to make perfection in her world", but he breaks it off with her as he spirals into darkness. Even though she is great, he still feels like he has lost most of his emotions. Emptiness. Slowly he falls deeper and deeper, until he feels he needs to get away. No more light at the end of the wharf. No more nighttime rendezvous at the cemetery. No more perfect girlfriend. He goes to say goodbye to J, in person.

“The way everyone pretends to be on the same wavelength without questioning or talking about things—it doesn’t get anyone anywhere. I hate to say it, but…I feel like I’ve been hanging around that kind of world too damn long.”

J wishes him good luck, to walk slowly, and drink plenty of water. The Rat feels completely empty after this. For 25 years, this town has been everything he has known. He met "I" there. He has been drinking at J's bar since he was a teenager. Sitting in his car at the cemetery, he pulls out his road map. His head hurts. He can't concentrate. He imagines the winter waves crashing into the sea wall.

At least I don’t have to explain myself to anyone anymore, thought the Rat. How much more warm and peaceful and quiet the bottom of the sea might be than any of those towns. But enough thinking. Enough.

Regardless, he perseveres.

While "I" finds a way of coping through pinball, the Rat can't do anything but escape. Unfortunately, he can't escape from himself. We know that he eventually goes on to write novels (as stated in Hear the Wind Sing), but he has a hard time pulling himself out of this hole he has always been trapped in.

Game Over...?

“There can be no meaning in what will someday be lost. Passing glory is not true glory at all.”

Does this apply only to games? Are relationships with people included?  Doesn't everything just disappear anyways?

These first two novels in the series serve as background for the next installment, A Wild Sheep Chase.

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