In Slate this week, I assess Haruki Murakami, the internationally celebrated Japanese novelist whose new book, 1Q84, is currently climbing the best-seller lists. For years now, Murakami has been known for his “un-Japanese” style and sensibility, taking his cues from American culture as much as from the world in which he’s set his roots. He is also known for stories that veer off in wild, surreal, often comical directions.
1Q84 to some extent comes as a culmination of these tendencies. The book takes the basic form of a love story, yet the long arc that brings us to that romantic convergence involves (to name just a few things) telepathy; alternate realities; enormous, glowing chrysalises; spontaneously exploding dogs; spontaneously pregnant women; acupunctural assassination; Leoš Janáček; and Sonny and Cher. Trying to follow the logic of Murakami’s style and allusions can, at times, feel like getting tangled up in the loops and baited hooks of one’s own fishing line.
For these and other reasons, coming to Murakami’s writing for the first time may seem daunting. 1Q84, which appeared in Japan in three separate volumes, runs more than 900 pages in its American edition, making it something more than a casual commitment for most readers.
Where to start? Herewith, some introductory reading for Murakami neophytes.
This 1987 novel is the book that made Murakami famous—and he’s been running from it ever since. Unlike his previous four novels, which incorporated the surreal elements that have since become his hallmark, Norwegian Wood marked his efforts to write in a “realistic” mode. The book is pop not just in style and allusions but in mood: In it, a thirtysomething narrator, Toru Watanabe, recalls his heady college days in Tokyo in the late ’60s through a wistful gauze. After Watanabe’s best friend kills himself, he falls in love with that friend’s former girlfriend, a laconic, troubled echt-Murakami inamorata who accompanies him on long walks through the city. In recent years, Murakami has said he “expected” the book to be a best-seller, which it was—more than 4 million copies sold in Japan alone—and has gently tried to cast it as a career-maker rather than a major work. Yet the novel’s late-adolescent sentimentalism holds up: This is Murakami doing one of the things he does best.
This three-part novel—which came out piecemeal in Japan in 1994 and 1995 and appeared in the United States two years later—helped establish Murakami as more than a favorite of Japan’s cool, Westernized youth. It famously won the support of Kenzaburō Ōe, the literary doyen who had previously been one of his most damning critics. Like many Murakami stories, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle moves forward on the almost Hitchcockian premise of an unsuspecting citizen—in this case, Toru Okada, an erstwhile legal assistant—getting drawn into a vast—and, this being Murakami, quite eccentric—web of revelation. Toru’s cat, which has the same name as his brother-in-law, disappears. Then his wife does. From an aging lieutenant, he hears unsettling stories about Japan’s wartime role in Manchukuo, its point of ingress into China. Murakami wrote the book while living in the United States, an experience he’s said drove him back on the Japanese identity he’d fled from in previous efforts. Still, it’s Toru’s constrained, sometimes comically low-slung narration that makes this ranging novel work so well.
Although Murakami is best-known as a novelist, many American readers have grown familiar with his work through his short fiction. Murakami’s first publication in The New Yorker came in 1990; since that point, publishing there and in other magazines, he has become something like the voice of Japanese short fiction in the West. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, his most recent short-story collection, brings together work written over 25 years, starting in the early ’80s. If Murakami’s novelistic style these days is kinetic, contrapuntal, and thickly plotted, his shorter efforts tend to be coyer and fragile, starting from singular, odd predicaments and wandering toward unsettled (and sometimes unsatisfying) conclusions. In “The Shinagawa Monkey,” a recent New Yorker story included in this collection, a young wife finds herself increasingly unable to remember her own name—a loss that came about, we learn, because a talking monkey stole her high-school name tag from her house. (He also took bananas.)