The Secret to Haruki Murakami’s Success. Hint: It’s not Great Writing

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
Nov. 16 2011 11:27 AM

Haruki Murakami

The secret to his success. Hint: It’s not great writing.

Haruki Murakami, 2006.
Haruki Murakami during a ceremony where he received the 2006 Franz Kafka Award in Prague.

Photography by MICHAL CIZEK/AFP/Getty Images.

Novelists tend not to rise and fall by the normal physics of pop culture—even a successful book is a weak force compared with the box office and the airwaves. Recently, though, Haruki Murakami has achieved a measure of fame even certain rock stars might be moved to envy. His fiction has been translated into more than 40 languages. Each new book arrives to an Apple-release-like throb of expectation. Murakami’s daily rituals have become the stuff of lore; so are his home-office accoutrements, the landmarks mentioned in his stories, and the Mac G4 and Sony VAIO and Apple iBook laptops on which he has composed. What’s striking is not so much the strength of this popular fetish—readers’ core temperatures rise just as much near Philip Roth (as Philip Roth, of all people, would know)—as its scale. It is hard to call to mind another writer of adult fiction whose novels instantly become cultural events on six continents. Murakami seems to many people specially positioned to rescue serious fiction from its prophecies of doom, if only because no one else’s work can conjure such a strong magnetic field in every time zone on the globe.

Nathan Heller Nathan Heller

Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

To many onlookers and students of the craft, however, Murakami’s forces of attraction aren’t just a cultural anomaly. They are a parlor trick. 1Q84, his nearly 1,000-page new novel, is currently climbing the New York Times best-seller list, and whether this is evidence of achievement or of mere hype has lately been a subject of debate. Skeptical reviewers like Janet Maslin recently described “even his most ardent fans doing back flips as they try to justify this book's glaring troubles.” When Sam Anderson’s revealing profile of Murakami ran on the cover of the New York Times Magazine not long ago, certain readers rushed to their battle stations. “Calling Murakami a ‘global imaginative force’ is a nice way of saying he writes superficial American literature in Japanese,” read one subsequently published comment. 1Q84 is probably too odd a novel to qualify as superficial American literature, but such sentiments are unlikely to vanish anytime soon. It's a paradox of a book: an engrossing and kinetically imaginative novel on one hand and, on the other, a work whose craftsmanship and sentence-to-sentence composition is surprisingly, almost puzzlingly, weak.

This is a sweet and pungent dish that Murakami has been serving for decades. His first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, appeared in 1979 after winning a literary magazine’s new-writer prize and went on to set the stylistic tone for much of what followed. The book was received as a “pop,” American-style novel, not without reason: Murakami famously had an early romance with Chandler, Fitzgerald, and other English-language writers, and he remained a student of American culture well into adulthood. (His university thesis was titled “The Idea of the Journey in American Films.”) Yet Murakami’s debut did not hail an exceptional new literary talent: The judges who awarded him the prize were as ambivalent as judges bestowing an honor can possibly be, variously giving the manuscript a something like a C grade. Murakami himself has said his style at this point was wrought from limited skill as much as from any aesthetic goal. “It’s true that at the time I was fond of Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan, and it was from them that I learned about this kind of simple, swift-paced style,” he’s explained, “but the main reason for the style of my first novel is that I simply did not have the time to write sustained prose.”

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That simple, swift-paced style remained his native mode, though, even as his material found its form and audience elsewhere. “When I start to write, I don’t have any plan at all,” he explained in a Paris Review interview some years back. “I just wait for the story to come.” Until the mid-’90s publication of his more ambitious, societally oriented novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami was seen chiefly as a young people’s novelist, a kind of literary Beatle who could speak to the experience of love and cultural ambition in a Japan straining ruttishly westward. And although his popularity among ’80s and ’90s youth tends to be pinned on the pop-cultural references and lifestyle brands that fill his early work—Murakami’s writing, at its most allusive, can feel like a walk through Times Square and up Madison Avenue—his slightly ragged prose style is a crucial part of that youthful appeal.

Reading Murakami's prose as an adult can feel like listening to an 18-year-old trying to convey some inner revelation and having trouble finding the words. Norwegian Wood, the sentimental 1987 novel that sold more than 4 million copies in Japan and brought Murakami international fame, takes up grim subject matter—a haunting double suicide, the loss of youth. But the book’s brisk, cliché-friendly writing gives it a skin of naiveté and optimism that keeps the narrative afloat. “I read Naoko’s letter again and again, and each time I read it I would be filled with that same unbearable sadness I used to feel whenever Naoko herself stared into my eyes,” the narrator explains on learning that the girl he loves has decided to live in a “sanatorium kind of thing” in the hills. “I had no way to deal with it, no place I could take it to or hide it away.” It’s an effective passage not despite its bunting literalism (unbearable sadness described as “unbearable sadness,” trouble dealing with it all conveyed as “I had no way to deal with it”) but because of it. The narrator’s inability to write into the interstices of his feelings helps convey their pathos and their scale.

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and that basic tone has hardly changed. 1Q84  is a novel braided in the tradition of Dickens, its chapters moving between separate but converging story lines. Aomame, the first character we meet, is a martial-arts instructor by vocation and an assassin on the side; she soon becomes aware that she’s entered a separate, parallel world she designates 1Q84. Tengo, the hero of the interwoven story that runs contrapuntally against hers, is a cram-school math teacher by day and aspiring novelist by night; an editor friend asks him to doctor and revise a novella written by a troubled and beautiful 17-year-old girl, Fuka-Eri, so she can win a literary prize. Aomame joins up with a simpatico policewoman to undertake random acts of promiscuous seduction and a wealthy dowager to kill off sex-crime perpetrators. Tengo gets tangled in a scheme to lure Fuka-Eri’s early-childhood tormentors to light. The two plotlines, and two characters, come together in a love-story convergence set in motion by their mutual investigation of a strange, remote cult.

And yet for all of its plotting flourishes, 1Q84 reads, paragraph-to-paragraph, as some of Murakami’s weakest writing in years. Obvious things are overexplained. (“If we're through choosing, we'd better close the menus,” Aomame at one point instructs. “Otherwise the waiter will never come.”) Figurative language is often forced. (“Little children might pee in their pants, the impact of her frown was so powerful,” goes one description.) And when the book’s frenetically evolving plot requires explanation, as if often does, much of the crucial data is simply dropped into the mouths of characters:

“You know about the Takashima Academy, don’t you?”

“In general,” Tengo said. “It’s organized like a commune. They live a completely communal lifestyle and support themselves by farming. Dairy farming, too, on a national scale. They don’t believe in personal property and own everything collectively.”

“That’s it.”

Without the youthful first-person filter of books like Norwegian Wood, the limitations in Murakami’s style start to show through. Many characters take on caricaturish hues—a private detective is smarmy and perpetually smoking; a professor wears nerd glasses and a frumpy sweater—and express their inner lives through outré pantomime. When Aomame comes to realize that the 1Q84 world she’s living in doesn’t entirely match the world she knows, her first response is to grimace “hugely,” stretching every face muscle “as far as it would go”—a signature gesture that is easier to imagine from a chimpanzee than from an actual human. Elsewhere, as in Murakami’s description of Tengo’s rapport with his married lover, these off-the-mark character portraits nudge the story in bizarre directions:

She demanded only two things of him: good erections and well-timed ejaculations. “Don’t come yet,” she would command. “Hold on a little longer.” And he would pour all his energy into holding on. “Okay, now! Come now!” she would whisper by his ear, and he would let go at precisely that point with as intense an ejaculation as he could manage. Then she would praise him, caressing his cheek: “Oh, Tengo! You’re wonderful!” Tengo had an innate knack for precision in all realms, including correct punctuation and discovering the simplest possible formula necessary to solve a math problem.

It didn’t work this way when he had sex with younger women. He would have to think from beginning to end, making choices and judgments. This made Tengo uncomfortable. All the responsibilities fell on his shoulders. He felt like the captain of a small boat on a stormy sea, having to take the rudder, inspect the setting of the sails, keep in mind the barometric pressure and the wind direction, and modulate his own behavior so as to boost the crew’s trust in him. The slightest mistake or accident could lead to tragedy. This felt less like sex than the discharging of a duty. As a result he would tense up and miss the timing of an ejaculation or fail to become erect when necessary.

Haruki Murakami books
Haruki Murakami is the international rock star of Japanese novelists

Probably there are men somewhere who have this kind of problem, just as there are, probably, women whose romantic hopes consist “only” of tumescence and “well-timed” emission. But it’s not immediately clear why such people should find their way into a novel. Murakami’s efforts here, as elsewhere in the book, read like attempts to bend the laws of human interaction to suit the moment’s creative demands. The scene above is meant to show that Tengo is a neurotic, punctilious, somewhat passive young man. Yet nothing that happens is specially suited to make that point: The approach to adulterous climax is not exactly a peak of neuroticism and precision in the human species; and where another novelist might choose to back out of the sex riff and replace it with a better-suited scene, Murakami simply jams this desired meaning into the frame at hand. The result is his bizarre cuckoo-clock model of extramarital orgasm—and a passage that seems as labored and unlikely as anything to cross the seminar table in a freshman fiction workshop.

It is tempting to explain these weaknesses in terms of what is lost in translation, just as it is tempting to dismiss Murakami as an artless writer. Neither judgment is fair. Unbelievable characters, forced exposition, and rambling dialogue are unlikely to read any less awkwardly in Murakami’s native tongue. And a novelist who can draw in, and retain, so large and avid an international audience must be doing something right. What Murkami is doing right, in fact, goes to the heart of his creative style—and the reason his new book is, despite its catalog of weaknesses, so captivating to read.

1Q84 succeeds by re-creating a childhood experience of storytelling. The plot moves relentlessly forward. Banalities like menu-closing etiquette are offered up as new and privileged knowledge; adult congress exists as a child might conceive of it. Several plot points suggest an almost preschoolish extemporaneousness: To get back at a nice lady, the bad guys make her dog explode! A man has superpowers, but he has to be careful, because sometimes he suddenly freezes! There are some little people, called the Little People, and they come out of animals' mouths while they sleep, but then they magically grow, and … Murakami’s work is often called “dreamlike,” but its twists and turns are more willful and less emotionally fraught than anything in adult imaginative life. A better proxy for his craft might be a 4-year-old faced with the prompt “And then what happened?”

For those of us whose last, joyful experience with this kind of storytelling took place in some quiet corner of the playground, Murakami’s fiction offers a welcome delight. And yet 1Q84 may feel curiously familiar in the eyes of certain Western readers. The novel’s comic caricature, conspiratorial through-lines, shaggy long-range plotting, and sentimental denouement will put some people in mind of the kinetic, outlandish, real-and-unreal books that helped shape English-language literature in the last decade—works like The Corrections, and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and White Teeth. Given Murakami’s history of American homage, it is tempting to regard his latest project as his bid to imitate these Anglo forms.

Who’s ripping off whom, though? When writers like Chabon, Franzen, and Smith speak about their efforts in those novels, they tend to discuss a “return” to old values or long-lost literary pleasures. What joins the books is an effort to escape from the constraints of high-literary formalism through the early thrills of storytelling: In an essay called “The Pleasure Principle” not long ago, Michael Chabon described his creative ideal as reclaiming “entertainment as a job fit for artists and for audiences, a two-way exchange of attention.” To some extent, writers like Chabon are merely discovering what Murakami already knew. His work for years now has sought to send readers back to an earlier period of their own aesthetic joy, to bring fiction back to its childlike, ecstatic roots.

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