Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Malcontent Does Not Love Haruki Murakami's The T-Shirts I Love

The Malcontent is a pseudonymous Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on their black hats and write against the things that we all seem to love. You know: puppies, nature, Montaigne, Didion, Baldwin, Seneca, even love itself. In our private, cranky hearts, we wonder how much good universal praise does anyone. 

Who would you want to take down? How about Didion? Montaigne? Let's take some shots at the pillars of the genre. Want to pitch us a malcontent piece? 

As Edward Abbey puts it in Desert Solitaire: “Nobody particularly enjoys the role of troublemaker. But when most writers are unwilling to take chances, afraid to stick their necks out on any issue, then a few have to take on the burden of all and do more than their share.” 


1976. I finally got The T-Shirts I Love by Haruki Murakami after it was recommended to me three or four times, at least twice by the same person who knows my interest in both collections and t-shirts.

1977. I like Murakami.

1978. It took a while to even find the book on Amazon, perhaps because it’s not really a book in the way that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a book, or perhaps because Amazon also sells a lot of t-shirts and even in 2022 its search algorithm hasn’t figured out well enough how to give people what they’re obviously searching for. 

a. That’s a comforting thought.

b. I obviously should have been buying this from my local independent bookstore but sometimes you just got to have something now.

1979. The T-Shirts I Love is a tour through Murakami’s t-shirt collection for no particular reason that I could discern except I guess people found an interview he gave a ways back talking exclusively about his t-shirts—he does seem to have a lot of them—and it was an easy enough book to sell from there: internationally famous author of strange fiction talks about his weird collection!

1980. The idea of listening to an interesting person talk about an idiosyncratic collection like t-shirts is very appealing.

1981. I mean, I bought the book, so it appealed to me.

1982. I like T-shirts. I like love. I like Murakami.

1983. I did not like The T-Shirts I Love at all.

1984. The problem with The T-Shirts I Love is how unexhaustive it is.

1985. The problem with The T-Shirts I Love is how flat the prose is

1986. The problem with The T-Shirts I Love is how little depth it illuminates in the narrator or the culture—or really anything at all.

1987. The biggest problem with The T-Shirts I Love is a lack of love.

a. At least as far as I could discern. 

i. Or perhaps the love is just a really boring and unexamined love.

1. Which is not love at all. 

1988. I should say that it is a real pleasure to read a book with so many photographs of t-shirts in his collection. 

a. It’s very nicely designed.

b. I did enjoy going through his closet.

c. It’s always fun to go through someone’s closet. Like paging through a list. 

i. But a secret list, the kind only accessible to intimates (family members, lovers) or semi-intimates (housesitters, partygoers who strayed into the bedroom for whatever reason, burglers)

ii. Except this is a curated list, so it doesn’t have that rush of pleasure that you get from totally seeing something you’re not meant to see.

1989. It’s particularly funny to see a whole lot of banal t-shirts. I mean these are really boring t-shirts. 

a. A plain green Jameson Irish whiskey t-shirt

b. A plain red t-shirt that reads Coors Light

c. A Tabasco t-shirt

d. A Coca-Cola t-shirt with an image of flip flops on it

e. A Wild Turkey bourbon t-shirt

f. A Curious George t-shirt

g. A Springsteen t-shirt

h. A Beach Boys t-shirt

i. A Volkswagen t-shirt with the New Beetle on it

j. A Volkswagen t-shirt explaining how to pronounce Touareg

k. Some running t-shirts

l. A Maui Surf Club t-shirt

m. A Superman t-shirt

n. A Lego t-shirt

o. A Smokey the Bear t-shirt

p. A Guinness t-shirt

q. A Heineken t-shirt

r. A Lone Star beer t-shirt

s. An REM Accelerate t-shirt


1990. That so many of The T-Shirts I Love are apparently unlovable t-shirts definitely does pique my interest. 

1991. Why these t-shirts? Why talk about these t-shirts?

1992. The book will not answer this question.

1993. There are a handful of pretty cool t-shirts in the book also, but most of them are not cool, nor notable, nor good-looking, nor is it clear what draws him to these shirts or what these shirts tell us about him or bring out of him.

1994. It is not clear how they feel on Murakami’s body or how they affect how he thinks about his body or how he is in the world.

1995. Most of these shirts have no particular provenance and he seems to have at most very mild feelings about them. 

1996. The title should probably be The T-Shirts I Think Are Kind of Cool and Have General Feelings About but I think his editor knew better.

1997. This is a problem!

1998. Most of the essays—at least Murakami calls them “essays”—don’t go as far as you’d want. 

a. As such it’s really hard to call them essays at all. Here are some example statements:

i. “I’m not particularly interested in collecting things.” (2)

ii. “I simply brought out some old T-shirts I’m fond of, we took photos of them, and I added some short essays. That’s all there is to it. I doubt this book will be that useful to anyone (much less being of any help in solving any of the myriad problems we face at present), yet, that said, it could turn out to be meaningful, as kind of reference on customs that later generations could read to get a picture of the simple clothes and fairly comfortable life one novelist enjoyed from the end of the twentieth century into the beginning of the twenty-first. But then again—maybe not. Either way works for me.”

iii. “That was a fun life I had back then!” (4)

iv. “I like the design of this T-shirt and wear it a lot.” (8)

v. “Do you like whiskey? Put me down as a fan. It’s not like I drink it every day, but if the situation arises, I have been known to raise a glass.” (10)

vi. “Just spending a few days [on the Isle of Jura] made it feel like life was worth living.” (24)

vii. “when the world’s topsy-turvy and unsettled, getting comfortable with a good book is a pretty nice way to go. I encourage you to give it a try.” (31)

viii. “I’d run across some amazing rare finds in thrift stores like Goodwill. At a dollar a pop. For instance, I found…This could take a while, so I’ll save that for another time.” (41)

1. Fucking tell us if you’re going to tell us. There’s no other reason to say this.

ix. “The REM shirt is something I just threw in, since I really like that album” (64)

x. There’s a whole section on bookstore shirts, but in spite of listing several of the greats (Powell’s, Elliott Bay) and a few of the gems (Friends of the Library of Hawaii), we get almost no information on what makes these bookstores great, good, okay, or distinct in any way. 

1. “It’s in a huge building, sort of like a warehouse, and you can easily spend a whole day there.”

2. “If you’re a book lover, it’s like you’ve died and gone to heaven.” (87)

xi. “I’m not particularly fond of lizards, but the other day when I was straightening up the T-shirts in my drawers, for some reason a bunch of shirts with lizard designs slithered out, and I’ve lined them up here.”

xii. “I’m afraid I don’t know much when it comes to varieties of lizards” (100)

xiii. “Here we have T-shirts with the names of colleges on them.”

xiv. “the Department of East Asian Studies at Princeton University. I was on the faculty of Princeton for about two years, and during that time they said, “Here you go, Mr. Murakami,” and handed me one of these.”

xv. “The next T-shirt commemorates the 2016 graduation ceremony at Yale University. I was invited to the graduation that year to be given an honorary doctorate. Pretty cool, huh?” 

1. “Pretty cool” does not count as a thought or a feeling or a reason to buy this or any book. 

a. Job number one of art, it seems to me, is to get past pretty anything. It is also to get past cool, but it must especially get past pretty cool.

b. At no point does he explore why he has any of these thoughts about the shirts. It reads like an early draft of what could, with some considerable expansion, turn into a strong student essay—if only the student could be convinced that their own thoughts about something as intimate as a thing they wear on their body—that they use to protect and project their self—can be intricate and explored in depth. 

1999. I found it incredibly frustrating that he’s unwilling or unable to follow any of these thoughts into the places where they might reveal something useful or interesting or fun.

2000. It’s like he’s not even trying.

2001. For example, I counted 24 ellipses in The T-Shirts I Love. 

a. This may not seem like a lot, but there’s only probably 70 pages of text in the whole book (I am excluding the interview at the end which comprises the last quarter of the book because that is spoken and transcribed), so that’s one time every three (short) pages that Murakami suggests trailing off or actually trails off instead of following a thought or completing a list. The pages are also small, maybe 4x6, and hold perhaps 150 words. So that’s around 10500 words.

b. Murakami uses ellipses approximately every 437 words. 

c. Ellipses are like popcorn kernels. 

i. If they didn’t potentially contain something tasty they wouldn’t even be there.

ii. But to eat the kernel you have to pop the corn.

d. Usually these moments proceed like this one does on page 87—

i. “I don’t know how this club started (I wonder about it sometimes…) or any details at all.” 

e. —in which he trails off in the middle of a thought about, in this case, the AHS Literary Club, which is the logo on the t-shirt. He clearly realizes that this might present an interesting story or mystery, but instead of following it, he taps out with the ellipsis. 

f. This happens a lot.

g. “We know that words and symbols change their meaning. For a long time, three dots in a row along the writing baseline designated something lost and unknown, then at some point also something unuttered and unutterable; no longer only something omitted or left out, but also something left open. Hence the three dots became a symbol that invites one to think the allusion to its conclusion, imagine that which is missing, a proxy for the inexpressible and the hushed-up, for the offensive and obscene, for the incriminating and speculative, for a particular version of the omitted: the truth” (Judith Schalansky, An Inventory of Losses)

h. Really I’m opposed to most ellipses. Finish the thought! Pop the corn! 

i. I spent 2 minutes googling the AHS Literary Club and there are at least four possible AHS lit clubs, each of which might be interesting to explore or research or wonder about. 

j. Why throw these leads out if you’re not going to follow any of them, or in fact do anything at all?

k. He goes on to make a banal observation about the wolf on the AHS Literary Club t-shirt (“he is a wolf, so you’d better watch out”) and then off to the next shirt.

l. That is not a good observation. 

m. If you find yourself using any ellipsis, but especially 24 of them in an essay-length book, maybe think about popping those popcorn kernels instead of just leaving them there on the floor.

n. Popcorn kernels hurt a lot when you step on them, not even to get into what they do to your teeth. I do not know how long it takes to digest them if consumed unpopped, but certainly it takes a lot longer than digesting popped corn if in fact they can be digested at all.

i. I spent a little while popping this kernel of a question but didn’t find anything definitive. I am tempted to edit it out but am leaving it in because it’s an interesting question but not a side quest I necessarily want to commit hard to. 

1. If you figure it out before I do, let me know?

2002. In nonfiction it’s hard to make your narrator the kind of person who often populates Murakami novels, who has a thought but doesn’t feel committed to following it, or for whom an observation introduces a moment of tension which is then dismissed (typically in the novels these dismissed tensions add up under the surface; this is a cool effect in fiction). 

a. You can do that in nonfiction if the plot or subject you’re carried along on top of is sufficiently interesting or spectacular, but not if you’re the only thing on display in the book. 

b. Either you need to take that self with you as a sidekick on a quest to track something down or you need to crack it open and see what it has to reveal when it starts to really chew on something meaty.

2003. It turns out when you think about things you summon the self. If you don’t think about them that long or if you just, bro-like, dismiss it half into a thought, well, let’s talk about something else, then it remains latent. Hidden. Unsummoned. 

2004. The other problem—and this is a fiction problem, really—is that there is almost no tension in any of these shirts of Murakami. 

2005. A few probably have a story.

a. The first one, which is surely the best one, gave rise to a short story he wrote. But even his telling of the story behind the story doesn’t give us much. That’s probably the best t-shirt in the book, and the one with the most potential, but it doesn’t go anywhere. 

2006. The T-Shirts I Love also only features 108 t-shirts, which for a lot of people is a lot, but as he tells us, it’s clear this is only a fraction of the shirts, including many in storage.

2007. His feelings about these shirts are shallow, loose feelings. He likes to drink beer and likes beer t-shirts. He likes to drink whiskey and listen to jazz records on vinyl and has whiskey and record store t-shirts.

a. These are bro feelings which is to say they’re only barely feelings. 

b. Underneath bro feelings are real feelings. Those feelings are interesting and worthy of our attention.

i. Another book might have delved into these feelings, but this one does not.

c. Again, a better editor would have pushed him to go deeper on these subjects.

2008. When Murakami articulates why he would or would not wear one of the shirts, we start to watch his attention show us something new. Sometimes he draws a small amount of blood doing this. 

2009. The collective effect of these 108 t-shirts is that we wonder at how boring most of these shirts were. The boringness is the book’s most interesting subject, but it’s not a lead that gets investigated.

2010. I was talking about the book with my wife, and the more I talked about it the more it frustrated me. 

2011. It’s not the fact that I spent $25 on a hardcover, but the fact of the missed opportunity. 

2012. Clearly t-shirts mean something for me that they do not mean for Murakami.

2013. Actually that’s not true, and that’s the problem: you don’t collect hundreds of t-shirts without them meaning something intricate to you.

2014. So if you’re going to write a book about your t-shirt collection it’s the least you could do to really chew on those shirts.

2015. There was a time when I used to chew on my t-shirts, I remember. Like when I was a kid.

2016. I had some issues with dentistry then.

2017. One of my friends and former students, T Clutch Fleischmann, once gave Joe Wenderoth some weed when Joe Wenderoth came to visit and give a reading at the school I taught at then. Joe Wenderoth really appreciated the weed, or maybe just the fellowship or conversation, and promised to send Fleischmann some t-shirts later.

2018. That seems like something that would happen when smoking some weed and talking some shit and also probably while wearing t-shirts.

2019. It seems like the kind of promise that doesn’t get fulfilled.

2020. But a couple weeks later, a box arrived from Wenderoth with a bunch of t-shirts in it.

2021. Why did he send those shirts? Why did he promise to send the shirts in the first place? What kind of shirts were they? What even got the two of them talking about shirts in the first place.

2022. I don’t remember Clutch being the kind of person who wore t-shirts at all, but I may just not have been very observant. 

2023. Actually that may not be true. They definitely did wear a Magnetic Fields t-shirt at some point that I got real excited about. 

2024. At that time I put a lot of effort into my t-shirts, whether sincere or ironic. It kind of drove my wife nuts I think. 

2025. Like I’d wear this oversized Ross Perot campaign t-shirt to Meijer and I’d constantly get stopped by Republican guys to talk about it. I found this very funny. Megan was not amused. I stopped wearing that shirt out—mostly. But even in that one memory of wearing that shirt to Meijer, there’s actually a lot at stake about irony and humor and representation and how sometimes (often, really) I present as someone I really am trying to ironize. Sometimes I am not trying to ironize how I present. I’m not sure how I signal these two things properly or if I should at all. So that shirt, and the act of wearing it is complicated! I feel like I could write a whole book about this act.

2026. This is what I want out of someone writing about their extensive t-shirt collection! Not, well, I taught in the East Asian Studies dept at Yale and that’s why I have this Yale East Asian Studies t-shirt. 

2027. I mean I feel he really missed an opportunity to dig into some real personal or cultural stuff. 

2028. I was going to say “shit,” not stuff, but it felt a little too cool-guyish.

2029. This kind of deep dive into self and persona, however, is not what people usually go to Murakami to read. I’ve read maybe five of his books, only really being blown away by one of them, but my experience of Murakami is that of floating on top of a big and strange ocean. We don’t ever really go into the ocean in Murakami, do we?

2030. Maybe in nonfiction you should try going into the ocean.

2031. I emailed Clutch to ask about the t-shirts Joe Wenderoth had sent them. They were unlaundered was the most spectacular aspect of it and one had a bunch of stains on it. 

2032. I’m not sure if this was a joke or not, like a lot of Joe Wenderoth’s stuff. 

2033. That walking the line of “joke” and “not joke” is a big part of what animates my interest in his work. 

2034. It’s what makes Letters to Wendys work. 

2035. Letters to Wendys is a novel but the kind of novel that’s probably just letting the self—increasingly, as you write it, a persona outside of the self of the writer—go wild and get bigger and weirder as it goes. 

2036. I think of it as nonfiction, even if it presents otherwise.

2037. The other shirt Clutch remembered Joe Wenderoth sending them was a late-90s style very splashy anime-kind-of illustrated t-shirt “maybe with a dragon on it?”

2038. I realize in writing and editing this that I could also just ask Joe Wenderoth about it. Actually I’ll do that, even if he may not want to talk to me about it, which he may not. I’ll leave this as an intentional ellipsis, but know that I am pursuing the question privately.

a. I did send Joe an email asking about this question… 

2039. I guess this is book six of Murakami’s that I read, but I also think that calling The T-Shirts I Love a book or a book about a collection diminishes both “book” and “collection,” so I prefer not to think of it as a book at all.

2040. I’d love to forget it but clearly I can’t.

2041. It’s a glorified listicle with beautiful production values is what it is.

2042. I mean the cover is fantastic, unsurprisingly a Chip Kidd production. Really nailed it there. And the design is very good. It’s a beautiful object.

2043. It’s a beautiful, mostly empty object.

2044. Compare to something like Sophie Calle’s Hotel, which, while similarly slim and similarly lushly-designed and -presented, holds much more information than The T-Shirts I Love does. It also has substantially less text, but the text it has is denser.

a. Calle’s Hotel is a book where she worked as a chambermaid in a hotel in I think Zurich or something in the late 70s or early 80s and photographed and documented the contents of the guests’ rooms, including their laundry, trash, etc.

b. It’s quite a transgression, and a fascinating document of the time and the fashion and the décor and all. 

c. Though the narrator of that book (Calle) doesn’t tell us a lot about herself, we get a much clearer sense of her personality and sensibility than we do of Murakami’s

2045. The issue is: where is the love, and what are its qualities?

2046. We see the shirts. We don’t see enough of the love.

2047. We also don’t see enough of the shirts. 

a. “I still have a ton of shirts I could bring out, but if I did, this book would never end, so I’ll wrap up here,” Murakami tells us with shirt 70. This is the last section, on beer t-shirts. 

i. Come ON dude.

b. Yes, I’m aware that drinking Guinness in Ireland is different than drinking it out of the bottle in Tucson. I’ve seen the Guinness shirt. This section does nothing to bring me there, so my experience of reading it is mostly of annoyance. What does it taste like? Why do you love it? We do not find out.

2048. The things that make you mad reveal more about you than about the things that make you mad, I know.

a. That I’m so incensed by this book probably says more about me than about The T-Shirts I Love. 

b. For starters, I do love t-shirts, and I have a lot of them, though not as many as Murakami. 

c. I’m thinking about one now I wore when I was in seventh grade or so. It wasn’t a cool one but I thought it was BAD ASS then. 

i. It read SHARK ATTAX and had a big shred cutout in the right side like it’d been bitten by a shark. It was colored red like blood. 


ii. I was really into it. I bought it from Commercial Systems, a store in downtown Houghton that I was obsessed with as a kid. It sold, I guess, office supplies, but it also had stickers, most thrillingly the magic scratch-n-sniffs, and I collected stickers then. I liked sticking them on things. I liked how they smelled. I liked how they came in rolls or sheets. At Commercial Systems the really good stickers came on rolls and you had to snip or tear them off, and you bought them one at a time.  

iii. They also sold shirts. Kinda jokey shirts, like one I remember, I don’t know whether I bought it or not, that read I RAN THE BOSTON MARATHON in a really big font but in a tiny font read A LEMONADE STAND AT that was wedged in between I RAN and THE BOSTON MARATHON. Neither of these things was likely true, but one was a more difficult task than the other, obviously.

iv. I thought this was extremely funny at the time. I also loved that SHARK ATTAX t-shirt, which had the same energy but much less subtlety. 

v. I was about to get deep into the discography of Weird Al Yankovic, surprising no one.

vi. The SHARK ATTAX shirt was a weird shirt. 

1. I’d seen—a year or two before or a year or two after—the movie Piranha II. It was on TV in a hotel room where we were staying, and my dad wasn’t paying attention so my brother and I watched it. It’s a ludicrous movie, kind of a knockoff Jaws, in which piranhas had, for some reason, developed the ability to fly, and a lot of B-movie action proceeded from this. 

2. Piranha II is the first movie James Cameron directed. After that he’d go on to direct, in order, The Terminator, Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, True Lies, Titanic, and Avatar, cementing his name in the pantheon of the best action and Sci Fi directors of all time.

3. But first he directed Piranha II: The Spawning. It has a 3.7 (of 10) rating on IMDB.

4. The Internet tells me that it came out in 1981, so I would have seen it on TV at least a few years later. 

5. This is one of those memories I only have of watching the movie, not of any particular experience of it. I remember feeling like my brother and I were getting away with something we weren’t supposed to be doing. I remember sitting on the bed with him as flying piranhas fake-killed a bunch of sexy actors. 

vii. Later, when I was at golf camp, one of the things we did was have our swings videoed, and we’d watch them by way of analyzing how to improve our shitty games, and I was wearing my Shark Attax t-shirt, and it looked like I had ruptured an organ in slow motion as I badly hit my golf ball.

viii. I believe I was mocked for this.

ix. We watched it in slow motion a bunch of times while people laughed.

x. But, Jesus, let’s remind ourselves that this was golf camp, like one of the least cool places you could go.

xi. Not only that, I believe I went to golf camp twice. And to two different golf camps!

xii. I was pretty good at golf. Not very good, but I could play a decent game. I had a lot of time then. 

d. I wondered how accurate my memory was of this t-shirt—like especially was the shredded part on the right, like I told you, or on the left?—so I looked it up online and found it, or a listing for it that sold. 

e. Actually I found a couple different listings on various sites, having sold for $30-$50. 

f. It was on the right. 

i. I feel validated. 

ii. It feels phenomenal to have found the exact same shirt that I remembered, and that I remembered it exactly correctly. 

iii. It’s only sad that I can’t buy it now. 

1. Never mind! I found one. It’s $70, which is more than I want to pay for sure. 

2. This one, though, doesn’t have the artist’s attribution below the image. 

3. I guess it might have been the 90s. 

4. I’m kind of tempted to buy it but it’s probably a bad idea.

iv. There are a lot of Shark Attack shirts you can find online, but very few like this one. 

g. My point in recollecting this series of memories about this crappy t-shirt I had when I was I was 12 is that I have a lot of feelings bound up in shirts. 

h. This is just one shirt! But thinking about it gives me a shiver of pleasure, and brings back a lot.

i. I was also intensely uncomfortable in my body then, and had a lot of thoughts about which shirts showed most obviously that I was fat, or as we said then, shopped in the husky section of the JC Penney catalog.

j. So to see a writer with obvious gifts like Murakami just blast through more than a hundred shirts with nary an insight or a dive below the surface into a real memory, one with tension and some energy to it, really pisses me off. 

k. What a waste is what I think.

2049. I was meaning to say though that Murakami’s game isn’t generally deep psychic dives, so I didn’t expect that, but there’s something different from surfing along the surface of a novel that has a lot of stuff going on and gliding on the edge of the self, which is theoretically what this book is supposed to be doing, and not even dipping far into the water to peer under it. 

2050. If you don’t care about really opening up the self, why bother writing about your collection is what I’m asking. That’s what collections are for, and that’s why you write about them. 

2051. We put a lot of energy into collection and collections, and especially something as rich and personal as your clothes.

2052. Compare The T-Shirts I Love to Women in Clothes, a fantastic anthology of something like 650 women writing about their relationship with their clothes. 

2053. Every one of those pieces goes deeper and weirder and more personal and more cultural and more of everything—and often they go deeper in just a couple pages—than Murakami’s whole book does!

2054. I guess partly it kind of seems like a dude thing to do, which strikes me as another problem with The T-Shirts I Love. 

a. Okay, I’m going to write a whole book about a particular class of clothing that I clearly have a lot of, but at no point am I going to really go into what these things mean to me or tell me about my body and my self and my culture and my writing and my world and my doubts and my anxieties and how I imagine I’m seen and my way of being in these clothes and how they make me feel. 

b. This undersells men.

c. This undersells people.

d. This undersells clothes.

e. This undersells books.

2055. Almost all men have interesting and intricate relationships with our clothes, even if we don’t often articulate them. I guess that’s on us, but seriously, Murakami, this doesn’t help.

2056. I guess I also resent lazy books by good writers. Reading one I start to wonder what I liked about the writer at all. Was that just a mirage?

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