Haruki Murakami is not what one would consider a genre writer, but he writes with such a deep sense of surrealism that one cannot help but compare his writing to urban fantasy novels. His novels feature gateways to other worlds, ghosts, monsters, and ordinary characters that embark on their own form of the hero’s quests.
The plot summaries of his books are not enough to solicit my attention, but there is some quality to his writing and story-telling that grabs me by the collar and never lets go.
In his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Murakami writes of three qualities that are most important for a novelist to have. He claims that the first and obvious quality is talent. “No matter how much enthusiasm and effort you put into writing, if you totally lack literary talent, you can forget about being a novelist.” The next most important quality, Murakami deems is focus — “the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment.” Later, he notes that the third most important quality for a novelist is endurance. “If you concentrate on writing three or four hours a day and feel tired after a week of this, you’re not going to be able to write a long work.”
I mention Murakami’s philosophy on writing because it is so clear that these traits pervade his writing and his life as a whole. He is regimented at waking in the early morning hours to write and is an avid long-distance runner, completing several marathons and other more-challenging races. While his novels do not conform to any common structure, there is a sense of discipline in his writing. The complete absurdity to the magic in his novels has strict limitations as do the characters in following their pursuits. This tempered approach gives the novels — as other-worldly as they may be — a sense of control and grounding. Murakami keeps us at bay as his characters experience the fantastical with every twist and turn.
Murakami’s writing is also very effective in controlling pace. He delivers all of the right beats during dialog exchanges and his prose is effective in changing tempo. Take for example, the following exchange from Kafka on the Shore:
“Just one thing,” she says, raising her head and looking me straight in the eye. “I want you to remember me. If you remember me, then I don’t care if everybody else forgets.”
Silence descends on us for a time. A profound silence.
A question wells up inside me, a question so big it plugs up my throat and makes it hard to breathe. I somehow swallow it back, finally choosing another. “Are memories such an important thing?”
“It depends,” she replies, and lightly closes her eyes. “In some cases they’re the most important thing there is.”
This scene takes place between the story’s main character, Kafka, and a woman whom he has a close relationship with named Miss Saeki. Contextually, this dialog takes place at a very key point in the novel — a point where the reader’s natural tendency is to start scanning in anticipation of what is to come. Murakami slams on the brakes. He describes the silence in two sentences and then spends another couple sentences describing the question that wells up inside of Kafka. As emotional and powerful as this moment is between Kafka and Miss Saeki, the real-time events occur slowly. Without telling us in so many words, Murakami controls the pace with repetition and by showing us the heaviness Kafka feels at that moment. Lesser writers will not change sentence length or the amount of description to get the reader to move at a speed that complements the narrative. Murakami is a master at this.
Many readers have a natural attraction to foreign writers because of the unfamiliar elements they bring, even if the fiction is completely realistic. Certainly Khaled Hosseini’s, The Kite Runner, enjoyed success not only because it was an excellent novel, but because it gave Western readers a glimpse into Afghan culture. I’m not so certain it is the same with Murakami. Even though his novels take place in Japan, I don’t get as strong of a sense that he is trying to reveal Japanese culture to his readers — especially Western readers. In fact, I’m not so certain his novels are written to a particular audience at all. There may be an autobiographical sense to his writing, as his novels feature protagonists that rarely achieve even moderate success by cultural standards. Murakami, who now will get stopped while running by an adoring fan, was not always the literary figurehead he now is. He was married early in life and ran a jazz club, only to decide that he was going to give up the club to focus on writing full time. This decision turned out to be a good one, but it came at the chagrin of his friends and family. Murakami chose a path that was criticized by societal standards. It was a choice to pursue a path that would likely end in poverty and failure. Fortunately, it ended up being a good one.
Above all else, what I think attracts me to Murakami’s writing is the weirdness of it. I love the fact that if a person is walking down the road and sees a cat, the cat may speak to that person. Is the person crazy or is it a talking cat? Or is it even a cat at all? These are the kinds of questions I ponder while reading Murakami, knowing that anything is possible. Beloved characters can live or die — succeed or fail. They can speak to people through dreams, visit them in the afterlife, or discover them, lost in a parallel universe. Murakami raises the tension, be it sexual, emotional, or physical, only to break it down in new and unexpected ways.
In many ways, Murakami’s writing is a paradox. He is a writer with great discipline, but limitless worlds. His novels feature powerful magic that is used to solve mundane problems. His characters act with a great sense of purpose, but often pursue trivial goals.
I have only read a few of his novels and have found The Windup Bird Chronicles to be the most endearing. You can scan best-of lists and find many conflicting recommendations of where to start. It probably doesn’t matter where you do, because each novel is special in its own way. But I will warn you — if you haven’t read Murakami before, his novels are like a bag of Doritos — “Bet you can’t eat just one.”