One of the most consistently interesting writers of the last twenty years is Haruki Murakami, the Japanese dynamo whose novels defy categorization. Well, actually, they can be categorized under a rubric all their own. Murakamism, let’s say. By that I mean . . . the strange and surreal dislocation of humans and their interactions approaching the gateway. The gateway being the door into or out of another dimension, a hidden world, for a moment.
In most of his novels, Haruki Murakami makes this dance with the gateway even more brilliant, strange, and unique by giving us a narrator who seems quite ordinary. Something Edgar Allan Poe did to perfection in many of his best short stories. In Murakami-land, that narrator is usually a young man, thirty-ish, a loner, smart, savvy, and very laid-back. He’s also cross-culturally adept, at home with the Beatles, with American Jazz, and with the cadence of hard-boiled, tough-guy writers like Hemingway, James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler. Murakami’s narrator is almost permanently nostalgic, wistful about his childhood and the childhood of the world, without being naive in the present. And there’s always a girl to think about, things to regret and mourn. There’s always a beautiful girl to remember, and a tragedy to explain, a mystery that can’t be solved.
Murakami returns frequently to the idea of sisters, be they of the same blood or just sisters in spirit, symbolically related, connected. The older of the two is generally the more physically attractive and self-absorbed, a femme-fatale of sorts. The younger is typically street-wise, tough but vulnerable, and often deeply hurt for being passed over so many times in favor of the older, more ostensibly beautiful girl. The narrator may or may not realize the difference between them in time. May or may not discover the importance of that difference and how it impacts his life and what he should do about it.
These women are not really stock characters. They are obsessions, recreations, derived from Murakami’s own experiences. In Jay Rubin’s wonderful study, Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, we discover just how much his surrealist novels gain their starting point from real life. His obsessions sometimes take the form of symbols, and those symbols often appear as women, but underneath all of that is substance taken from his own life, translated into a composition we find no where else in literature.
This, of course, seems counter-intuitive at first glance. That real experience is behind his bizarre creations. But that is the case. The result is a deepening, a layering of realities designed to form mysterious skin, mysterious bones and mysterious blood.
My favorite of his novels is Dance, Dance, Dance, though Norwegian Wood ranks a very close second. The latter of the two is sometimes considered more traditional, less involved in Murakami’s alternate worlds. It also probably comes closest to providing his readers with a Rosetta Stone of sorts. Reading Norweigian Wood brings us closest, perhaps, to the bare bones of his obsessions, stripped of some forms of surreality. Closer, in a sense, to the world we all inhabit. Or could.
After reading six or seven of his books, I still can’t get enough of them and plan someday to devour his entire oeuvre. The pages fly past me, and I can’t put his novels down. I don’t want to leave his created world, his wild juxtapositions, his mundane cityscapes, Jazz bars, hotels and motels crowded with the desire to escape into the extraordinary. I don’t want to leave Murakami-land, with its wounded young women, with their special, funny ears, their entirely lovable idiosyncrasies, their tragic pasts and that Jazz-loving, Beatles-loving, oh so ordinary voice in the center of it all.