(As the English-speaking world eagerly awaits the translation of the newest Haruki Murakami novel, 1Q84, here's Meg Wise-Lawrence's appreciation of the Japanese author's full body of work. Meg teaches English at Hunter College in New York City.)
How often does literature truly transport you?I remember walking out of the theater after first seeing Mad Max in The Road Warrior in 1981. I was shocked to find a sunny day in New Jersey, and not post-apocalyptic outback. When I read Ray Bradbury’s “Rain,” I felt soaked. Usually the transformative effect is more prevalent in movies -- Terry Gilliam, David Lynch and Wim Wenders come to mind.
To read the novels and short stories of Haruki Murakami is to enter an alternate universe that is uncannily similar to your own, and yet different enough that it brilliantly illuminates your own life. To read Murakami -- to engage with art -- is to enter an altered state of consciousness, to experience a reader-writer mindmeld. You don’t want the trip to end, but when it does you know you’ve been transformed -- even if it was just for a few seconds in the bright sun after a good movie.
Murakami’s books pay off. They are the odd friend you can’t explain but you know your other friends will like. Pick any of his works, and you’ll be invited into a semi-familiar, alien world, where his characters are guides. In Sputnik Sweetheart, Sumire is going through a Jack Kerouac phase, carrying a “dog-eared copy of On the Road or Lonesome Traveler” in the pocket of her tattered, oversized herringbone coat. Her passions are literature and music; she’s working on crafting a “Total Novel” but the magic hasn’t happened yet. Murakami’s narrator says, “If she’d been able to grow a beard, I’m sure she would have.” She meets the lovely, older Miu who had “a vague sense that [Kerouac] was a novelist of some kind.” Wasn’t he a Sputnik? She asks.
“You know ... like Shiga Naoya was in the White Birch School.”
Finally it dawns on Sumire. “Beatnik!”
And thus Miu becomes her Sputnik Sweetheart. When she goes missing on an island, the search begins. Sumire is one of Murakami’s elusive lovers in a plot where reality and dreams blur. In novels such as the earlier, lighter Dance Dance Dance and the later, more politically conscious Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the dream world becomes an alternate reality in the Garcia Marquez/Pynchon/Freudian sense of the word. Murakami has the uncanny ability to make the dreamscape seem existentially more real than our own reality (at least for a moment).
Subterranean worlds are frequent Murakami themes (funny that Sumire didn’t carry that particular Kerouac book). In Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which includes references ranging from Dostoyevsky to Bob Dylan, a flunky becomes a hero when he travels underground to save Tokyo from subway tunnel monsters known as Inklings. On another level of this same character’s consciousness, he’s fighting to reconnect with his fading shadow in a strange, beautiful underworld. Murakami’s characters are all unlikely heroes, like Katagiri and Frog from the short story “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo.”
“You know Mr. Frog ... I’m an absolutely ordinary guy. Less than ordinary… I live a horrible life. All I do is eat, sleep and crap. I don’t know why I’m even living. Why should a person like me have to be the one to save Tokyo?”
“Because, Mr. Katagiri, Tokyo can only be saved by a person like you. And it’s for people like you that I am trying to save Tokyo.”
In response to his non-fans: yes, some of Murakami’s writing is weird. To those, I'd suggest trying his nonfiction, or his Norwegian Wood. Norwegian Wood is the simplest of his novels, a sad yet somehow uplifting little love song (with some suicide). Not as weird -- and as a result, this is his biggest bestseller all over the world, even in Japan, where it was made into a movie. Oh and of course, because of a lesbian storyline, it’s been taken off New Jersey’s suggested student reading list.
In Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche, Murakami presents a pastiche of responses to the Tokyo sarin gas attacks of March 20, 1995. It is a thoughtful book and by the end I was immersed enough that I could no longer read it comfortably on the subway. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running gives readers a small glimpse into Murakami's psyche. Not surprisingly, he's chock full of literary and musical references (like Raymond Carver in the title), but don’t expect a peep into his private life. While it can be a dangerous enterprise, more can be gleaned about the author from his fiction than his nonfiction. From his nonfiction you will learn that he met his wife in college in 1969, but you will not learn that her name is Yoko, or what she does for a living, or what she thinks of his characters. You won’t learn that his parents were literature professors, and that he has an eclectic mix of songs on his iPod (from classical and jazz to Lady Gaga).
For most people, I’d suggest starting with Murakami’s short story collections. After the Quake gives Jim Jarmusch-like scenarios of post-earthquake Japan. It's a slim, tremor of a book. Possibly the loveliest collection is Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. These stories within stories remind me of Henry James’s "The Turn of the Screw."
Possibly justifiably, Murakami’s most critically acclaimed novel is Kafka on the Shore. In this Oedipus tale revisited, capitalism is king, talking cats turn dotty old men into seers, a guy who looks like Johnny Walker gets killed, all while the mysteries of identity (psycho, sexual, spiritual, you name it) unravel.
Murakami is that rare fiction writer who really masters both the short and the long form -- meta to mega. He was first published in the United States in the New Yorker in 1990. “TV People” shows his quirky humor while “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women” introduces us to some of the characters and ideas that would become The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. It was the wind-up bird itself that grabbed me -- like an instrument I hadn’t even noticed in a song that became all I could hear. As the narrator searched for his cat, and then his wife, I listened whenever I went outside for that strange portend of a bird. I remembered as a young girl in my grandparent’s big backyard, a bird -- I think it was a magpie -- that seemed to be calling my name. I can hear it so clearly in my memory. Where have those types of birds gone? Haven’t I been listening?
Recently Stephen Earnhart's multimedia stage production based on The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle played at the Edinburgh Festival. According to the festival guide, Earnhart explained, “One of the first connection points between myself and Murakami was David Lynch. What Murakami shares with Lynch is a dream logic.” Where cupboards are portals, we all want to find a way to slip through the looking glass. Murakami’s writing illuminates reality while providing an escape from it.