by Nate Lippens

Growing up in the Midwest, our natural disasters came from the sky: rains that led to floods, scorching heat from an unrelenting sun that gave us drought, and, of course, our disaster birthright--tornadoes. Earthquakes always scared me. They seemed distant and mysterious. There was something so primal about the actual earth under you buckling and rippling, the idea of the ground beneath us rebelling.

When I finally went through an earthquake in Seattle it wasn't the mythic Big One. It was morning, and I was drinking my first cup of coffee. I thought a large truck was passing. I didn't realize what was happening until a friend pulled me under the restaurant table. He was holding my hand and that's when the thought came to me: I'm going to die. Afterward, when we didn't die and the city wasn't destroyed, we raced back to his apartment to watch the news.

Devastation, the actual physical geography of it (ruined buildings) and the emotional trauma (a weeping family in front of a flattened home), is the beating heart of TV news. Pan the smoldering wreckage and ask the stupid questions: How does it feel? What was it like? What will you do now?

The answers: Press on. Rebuild. Thank God for our lives. But what lies beneath the stoic pronouncements and the wet eyes raw with astonishment and horror? That is where acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami's After the Quake leaps off, using the earthquake as a backdrop and a loose thread to interconnect the tales of people trying to fill the emptiness in their lives in the shadow of catastrophe.

The stories in After the Quake are all set in February of 1995, a month after the earthquake in Kobe, Japan, the author's childhood home, and a month before cult members of Aum Shinrikyo carried out a sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway system. The twin disasters moved the author to return to Japan after years of self-imposed exile in the U.S. and to write the nonfiction book Underground, in which he interviewed the victims and perpetrators of the Aum attacks.

After the Quake is his meditative fictional response to the events in Kobe, which lies in western Japan, a considerable and seemingly safe distance from the country's most volatile fault lines. But at 5:46 on a Tuesday morning in January, a quake struck, killing more than 4,000 people and leaving nearly 300,000 homeless, including Murakami's parents. It lasted 20 seconds.

After the Quake opens with "U.F.O. in Kushiro," in which a stereo salesman named Komura is abandoned by his wife who has been glued to earthquake coverage. She leaves him a note: "The problem is that you never give me anything. Or to put it more precisely, you have nothing inside you that you can give. You are good and kind and handsome, but living with you is like living with a chunk of air." Lost, Komura agrees to deliver a box for a friend, and only after he's passed it on does he think to wonder what was inside it. Was it empty like him?

"Landscape with Flatiron" follows a middle-aged painter who has apparently abandoned his wife and children in Kobe. He meets a young woman and they form a bond, build bonfires, and swap stories until one night the man says, "We could die together. What do you say?"

"Super-Frog Saves Tokyo" is the strangest of the collection, and the only one in which Murakami uses earthquakes as the central theme. A giant talking frog shows up in the apartment of a bank officer named Katagiri and asks him for his assistance in saving Tokyo from a major earthquake. It's such a fantastical story that the melancholic undertow isn't apparent at first glance. Katagiri's dread and isolation have taken the shape of a six-foot-tall amphibian.

The stories are all unpredictable and rich in their spare tellings and abrupt endings. Murakami uses the earthquake as a prism to view his characters' their fumbling revelations, and loneliness. We are reminded of our own fault lines in love and friendships, and of trying to stand on ever-shifting ground.

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