The Novels of Haruki Murakami

In response to the post about Mishima’s After the Banquet a reader wrote in to ask who or what Murakami was. This was two days ago. Now that I’ve finally got over the shock of realising that there are actually people out there who’ve never read Murakami (the poor souls!) I figured I would blog about his novels, just in case there were other such unfortunates out there.

What can I say about Murakami? That he’s only the most exciting and inventive contemporary writer I’ve read (no, seriously, he makes Rushdie look tame)? That he combines an almost Kafka-esque vision of the world with the imagination of a Marquez, characters that could come straight out of Salinger, a fascination with pop-culture equalled only by Pynchon and writing that Bellow would have been proud of? That he manages, at once, to be both an incredibly intelligent and moving writer and the very essence of cool?

Murakami’s novels are about the search for meaning in the modern world. His typical novel (or short story) takes slightly extra-ordinary young people (partly because of the way he writes and partly because they are always a little off-centre, his characters have a sort of anti-establishment coolness; they’re either incredibly mature or just plain wierd and you can never figure out which; they’re like the guy in school who you never talked to because he was always off in a corner listening to Dylan and smoking cigarettes on the sly who you thought was wierd then but are beginning to think it might have been interesting to get to know; think Holden Caulfield and you get the picture), puts them in the most madly fantastical situations (in one short story a woman finds that she is no longer able to sleep – she’s not insomniac, she just doesn’t need it any more; she spends her time catching up on her reading) and lets them react in their confused, deeply human ways. Murakami’s great gift here is that he’s too smart to believe in revelation – his novels don’t conclude, they simply end, without anything really being resolved. You’re left with a glimpse of an episode that may or may not mean anything (though you suspect it has some deep implication that you’re probably missing).

What makes Murakami truly special, though, is that he is, quite simply, the most ambitious writer writing today. He is a virtuoso, who insists on pushing himself to greater, more complicated heights with every novel he writes – his appetite seems insatiable, his ability to imagine, innovate and just plain dazzle endless. Nowhere (except perhaps in Pynchon) does a storline have so much raw energy, so much free-wheeling improvisation. With almost infinite agility Murakami will pile twist upon twist on to his plot, constantly upping the stakes for the reader. Just when you think he can’t go any further without having the whole thing come down around his head, he will add something new to the mix, leaving you breathless.

For all that, Murakami is not a flamboyant writer. His writing style is quiet and introspective, filled with loving detail. His prose tends to be understated and beautiful, rich with nuggets of descriptions and glimmers of polished phrases – the writing of someone who loves the language for itself*. At his best, Murakami is a deeply moving writer – his books can leave you with a deep, restless sadness; a sense of loss too undefined to cry about. It’s this ability to appeal to both the heart and the head that makes him a great writer.

Books to read (well, pretty much everything I’ve ever read**, but figured I’d prioritise):

1. Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Probably the best example of Murakami’s unique and magical gift. A fundamentally schizophrenic novel, set partly in an allegorical country of the mind and partly in modern day Japan, Hard Boiled Wonderland is part Raymond Chandler and part Kafka. A unforgettable read.

2. Norwegian Wood

One of Murakami’s early novels, this is not a particularly ambitious book – but it’s an achingly beautiful love story, that showcases Murakami at his quietest, most moving best.

3. Dance Dance Dance

A restless roller-coaster ride of a novel, flat-out energy combined with some singing, poetic images.

4. Sputnik Sweetheart

This one could have been written by Winterson. Or Kundera. Again, an early (and therefore quieter) novel, which combines Murakami’s first steps towards fantasy with an incredible sweetness of writing. A young at heart novel.

5. The Elephant Vanishes

A superb collection of short stories – The Elephant Vanishes is sheer class. The stories here have a dream-like quality to them – but they are crafted with precise, intelligent care.

6. Wind-up bird chronicles

An incredibly sweeping, ambitious novel. The first half of this book includes some of Murakami’s most brilliant writing. I feel he meandered a little towards the end, and that the book overall could have used some editing, but still well worth a read.

7. After the Quake

Short stories again – some beautiful tales here, though overall a quieter book than The Elephant Vanishes. This is pure Murakami, but for that reason probably not the first Murakami book you should read – like fine white wine, he takes a little getting used to.

* At least that’s the way it seems in the English translations. I obviously haven’t read him in the original Japanese, so I wouldn’t know.

** His new novel – Kafka on the Shore – is sitting in my bookshelf, waiting to be read. I read the first chapter, though, and that in itself is reason to buy the book.