What Makes Haruki Murakami’s Writing so Compelling?

harukimurakamiHaruki 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.”




Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Title: 1Q84

Author: Haruki Murakami


Publisher: Knopf

Format: Audio

In George Orwell’s novel, 1984, he imagines a dystopian future where man is ruled by a totalitarian state. Murakami’s vision does not take us to the future, but to a parallel world, where many things remain the same, but some things are strikingly different.

Aomame is traveling in Tokyo when the stopped traffic leads her to abandon her taxi and exit the freeway by foot. Traveling down a set of emergency stairs, she enters the world 1Q84. It is like Tokyo in 1984, but this world has two moons and some other odd peculiarities. Not knowing what else to call this somewhat strange world, she names it 1Q84 — Q meaning question.

Also drawn into this world is Tengo, a ghostwriter for a teenage girl who enters a story into a literary contest. The story is good,  but needs the workmanship of a professional writer to make it a real best seller. What Tengo doesn’t know is that the novel is a real depiction of the world 1Q84 and a religious cult tied to some supernatural forces plan to deal with him.

1Q84 is about Aomame and Tengo navigating the strange world. They shared an innocent romance in grade school which is rekindled in this new world and they seek to find each other. Aomame’s path crosses a dowager, who solicits her to covertly assassinate abusive men that the law fails to punish. But the biggest target of all is tied to the religious cult and she and Tengo soon find themselves fleeing for their lives.

I have very mixed feelings about this novel. On one hand, the world Murakami developed is imaginative and many of the characters are complex and rich. I’ve only read one previous title by Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles), but I am noticing a pattern in his male protagonists. They seem somewhat autobiographical, defying the cultural expectations for Japanese manhood. They have emotions and fancy artistic pursuits. Having failed to ascend some sort of corporate ladder, they are either jobless or indulge in a career that lacks prestige.

In Tengo’s case, he is a writer. Even though he hasn’t seen Aomame in twenty years, he pines for her, clinging to a memory of holding her hand. His affections now are much less innocent and the entire novel revolves around sex. Yes, the entire novel. The novel is not pornographic in the sense that the sex is glamorized, but it is explicit in a matter-of-fact manner. I suspect there is no other novel that uses the term flaccid or pubic more than this novel.

The tome spans more than 900 pages (or in my case, over 46 hours) and the plot and narrative really did not support its length. Many scenes are repeated two, three, even more times. The scene takes place and then the character recalls the scene, sometimes with rote detail, and it is reiterated to the reader. Half-way through the novel, I was ready to give up, but trudged on, desiring to know the fate of Aomame and Tengo.

So therein highlights the strength of the novel. Murakami is great at creating memorable characters — ones that the reader truly cares about. I never knew how the novel would end. Would Aomame and Tengo unite? Would one or both die at the hands of the religious cult? Would they forever be trapped in 1Q84?

I don’t want to deter anyone from reading this book. The characters and world are fascinating and the plot itself is interesting as well. The reader just needs to be prepared to suffer through explicit details about genitalia (you know, in an unerotic sort of way) and a narrative that is quite repetitive. For those who haven’t read Murakami, this is not the place to start.

Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Title: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Author: Haruki Murakami


Publisher: Knopf

Format: Trade Paperback

Toru Okada, by most standards, is a bum. He has forsaken his legal career to be a stay-at-home husband while his wife, Kumiko, serves as the breadwinner. With no job prospects, Kumiko gives her husband the task of tracking down their missing cat.

A forsaken career and missing pet are the least of Toru’s problems. Despite his wife’s assurances, their marriage is failing and she begins to work long hours, leaving Toru with idle time to dwell in his thoughts. Upon Kumiko’s encouragement, he enlists two sister psychics to help find the missing cat. Their abilities transcend their normal occupation and they visit Toru in his dreams as well as in real life. In addition, a mysterious woman begins to call him on the phone, neglecting to identify herself, but seems to have intimate knowledge of Toru. Then there is May Kasahara, a teenage neighbor, who has a profound interest in death.

Soon, Toru finds that Kumiko has gone missing, presumably with another man, but the facts don’t add up. Kumiko’s brother, a politician whose stardom seems rooted in the occult, warns Toru to lay off. He sees Toru as a deadbeat husband with rocks in his head and is adamant that Kumiko has no desire to see him again.

Toru refuses to give up on his quest for Kumiko and finds himself in a strange hotel room and for many days at the bottom of a well. Just as the psychics meet Toru in reality and in his dreams, Toru seems to have the ability to transcend into another plane of existence. By traveling through the well, Toru escapes to a surreal world that bears resemblance to the physical world from which he came, but is in many ways different. It is here that Toru hopes to find his missing wife.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tremendous achievement, rich in character and complete with the hyperbolic world both Toru and Kumiko occupy. When Kumiko disappeared, I saw this book as being the antithesis of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Instead of following the antihero, Rabbit Angstrom, who decidedly leaves his family on a wayward journey, we follow Toru, the remnant that remains, uncertain of what has happened. But unlike Rabbit’s wife, who finds her solace in alcohol, Toru searches to restore his family. Even when all of the facts suggest that their marriage is not repairable, Toru continues on, unafraid of death or the reality which he might encounter.

Perhaps the biggest fault of the novel lies in its stream-of-consciousness nature. The premise is simple, but the plot is scattered. There were times in the middle where I felt the story became bogged down and without direction, but my frustration soon subsided as familiar threads began to come together.

Not having read a lot of Murakami, I cannot say what novel the reader should begin with. Having read it, I can say that I am eager to read more (I am currently halfway through 1Q84). Despite the looseness of the narrative, the characters and surreal depiction of the human condition struck a chord with me. It is an intelligent read with enough puzzles to keep the reader guessing.