My own experience with Haruki Murakami started at the crack of dawn. Very literally: I was on vacation, and the time difference between my home in the Middle West and my hotel in the Middle East woke me up at four o’clock every morning. Because I liked Franz Kafka, I had randomly bought a copy of Kafka on the Shore and I read it in bed as the sun rose. (As it turns out, Franz isn’t a character there.) Later, I did a double-take when I read a profile that began: “Haruki Murakami got up at four o’clock every morning to work on his latest novel. Five hours later he would rise from the keyboard . . .”
It was an eerie similarity that could have come right out of his novels. Even without one of his signature cats, I was hooked. I burned through another novel on that trip, and a few more once I was back in America. For a few days, I thought of his books as a wonderful secret, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that his writing is anything but.
Is it fair to call Haruki Murakami the literary ambassador of Japan? At this point, he’s published thirteen novels, four short-story collections, and several nonfiction books, and every new arrival is greeted with cheers and jubilation in the American book world. It rivals the enthusiasm of those anime-watching sunshine-deprived American teenagers obsessively reblogging Pokémon memes on Tumblr, and is less of a national embarrassment for all of us.
In Japan, Murakami has become so fetishized that last year his Japanese publishing house simply released an announcement that there would be a new Murakami book in two months. No title, no cover, no details. The Japanese public went as crazy as when Beyoncé unexpectedly released Beyoncé. The book, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, went on to sell over a million copies in Murakami’s homeland, and on the other side of the Pacific, we poor non-Japanese-speaking readers have had to wait a year until Philip Gabriel finished translating it. WORD Bookstore, Spoonbill & Sugartown, and Community Bookstore all had midnight parties on Monday night for the most rabid fans.
Fortunately for those of you who haven’t drunk the Murakami Kool-Aid yet, or who simply haven’t discovered the joy of his best books, there’s no shortage of great places to start. Murakami’s stories straddle the middle ground between the scroll-painting sparseness of Yusunari Kawabata and Yukio Mishima, and the heart-attackingly frenetic underworlds of the other Murakami, Ryu. In contrast, Haruki Murakami’s sentences hurtle forward, people actually meet each other, have weird dreams, talk to ghosts and strangers—and they change.
Music has something to do with it. For years, he ran a jazz club, and music is everywhere in his books: characters listen to it; narrators describe it; even his sentences sing. In an essay he wrote, he explained: “I learned the importance of rhythm from music—and mainly from jazz . . . If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony—the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow . . .”
And that flow allows Murakami to write about people and events that strike a chord with his readers. All of his novels are filled with isolated characters slowly trying to get a bearing on their lives, and bumping around until they finally manage to go in a decisive direction. Often there are ghosts or memories or entrances into supernatural worlds. Sometimes there are cats. Occasionally there are thousands of cats. And coming to the end of one of his novels feels like rising from the bottom of a swimming pool to the surface, and gasping for air abovewater: radiant, extraordinary, difficult to forget.
For those lucky few of you just making your way into Murakami’s multifacted universe, here is a traveler’s guide. It includes three universally acknowledged masterpieces, three merely excellent novels—and a sneak peek at Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki at the end. We’ve also helpfully provided a suggested musical accompaniment for each text, because seriously, Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James made up an entire playlist for every single one of her books, and Murakami knows way more about good music and good art.
The Part that Changes Everything: “And yet, as clear as the scene may be, no one is in it. No one. Naoko is not there, and neither am I. Where could we have disappeared to? How could such a thing have happened? Everything that seemed so important back then—Naoko, and the self I was then, and the world I had then: where could they have all gone? It’s true, I can’t even bring back Naoko’s face—not right away, at least. All I’m left holding is a background, sheer scenery, with no people up front.”
The Way It Will Suck You in: This is the book that made Murakami truly famous back home in Japan, because it resonated so well with his readers’ nostalgia for the sixties. He’d already published plenty of short stories and four novels, all of which were quirky and weird—but then he went classical and went viral. It’s a simple but honest story: Toru, a man, reminisces about the love he had for a quiet girl, Naoko, and his boisterous classmate, Midori. A mutual friend commits suicide; the students at their college go on strike; and Toru slowly grows up in this ever-changing world. It’s more beautiful than mysterious or strange, although it ends, as does every Murakami novel, with many unanswered questions.
And Listen to: The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” Duh.
The Part that Changes Everything: “Ten minutes, please,” said a woman on the other end.
I’m good at recognizing people’s voices, but this was not one I knew.
“Excuse me? To whom did you wish to speak?”
“To you, of course. Ten minutes, please. That’s all we need to understand each other.” Her voice was low and soft but otherwise nondescript.
“Understand each other?”
“Each other’s feelings.”
The Way It Will Suck You in: When I read this in Israel, I nearly skipped meals to keep reading. It’s the sort of book that invades your own waking life: a man’s cat goes missing, and his wife not long after. He starts searching for them, but not very thoroughly. He meets a strange woman named Malta (like the island; her sister’s name is Creta), as well as the girl next door. Then things get seriously strange. Somehow the story plunges from the present day down into World War II and a veteran’s memories. And of course the narrator goes and has a good think in a well (this happens a lot in Murakami’s books, although he’s been consciously cutting back lately). And the whole thing keeps spinning in new directions, like a dream you know is a dream but want to keep experiencing. By the time the whole 600-page behemoth comes to a close, loose ends and all, you’ll be ready to call Murakami a fucking genius.
And Listen to: Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie,” which the narrator says in the first sentence “has to be the perfect music for cooking pasta.”
The Part that Changes Everything: “My fifteenth birthday is the ideal time to run away from home. Any earlier and it’d be too soon. Any later and I would have missed my chance.”
The Way It Will Suck You in: First off, there are cats. Second off, there is a man who can talk with cats. Third off, there is a boy who runs away from home and somehow he has a psychic link with this man who can talk to cats. Then there is a young truck driver, a prophecy that sounds suspiciously like the one given to Oedipus, and also a massive stone that most likely turns out to be a portal to another world. But it’s Murakami, and when you’re reading Murakami, it all makes sense. The same way a dream makes sense while you’re in it, and not so much when you’re out of it. Watching all these disconnected strands interweave and join together is unbelievably fascinating, and there’s a lovely feeling of curiosity pulling readers through this story more powerfully than in any of Murakami’s other books—except perhaps The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. But when you’ve finished that, and you start wishing you could have that wonderful feeling of reading a truly great Murakami book for the first time, Kafka on the Shore will be waiting for you.
And Listen to: Beethoven’s “The Archduke Trio,” which echoes throughout Kafka while all sorts of crazy shit is happening.
The Merely Excellent
The Part that Changes Everything: “I’m still not sure I made the right choice when I told my wife about the bakery attack. But then, it might not have been a question of right and wrong. Which is to say that wrong choices can produce right results, and vice versa.”
The Way It Will Suck You in: Murakami is certainly most famous for his novels, but as he writes in his introduction to this short-story collection, “I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.” And this assortment of pieces is, although not consistently perfect, still as tasty and colorful as a garden. The three best stories, in my opinion, are “The Second Bakery Attack,” wherein a husband and wife realize that they are cursed with some kind of hunger and therefore decide, for lack of a late-night bakery, to go and attack a McDonald’s; “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning,” which is both truly touching in its own right and, by some accounts the kernel from which 1Q84 grew; and “Sleep,” a story of a woman who finds herself perpetually unable to sleep that absolutely should not be read right before going to sleep.
And Listen to: Duke Ellington, who somehow isn’t mentioned in The Elephant Vanishes, but who still gets more love than any other jazz musician in Murakami’s oeuvre.
The Part that Changes Everything: “In the spring of her twenty-second year, Sumire fell in love for the first time in her life. An intense love, a veritable tornado sweeping across the plains . . . The person she fell in love with happened to be seventeen years older than Sumire. And was married. And, I should add, was a woman. This is where it all began, and where it all wound up. Almost.”
The Way It Will Suck You in: How do I put this? Click on this link where Blake Butler writes down Famous Authors’ Thoughts While Being Photographed. Scroll down to the caption under Murakami’s picture. Skip past “I am Cat God, motherfucker” to “Seems different, but not too different. Just different enough.” That’s exactly what Sputnik Sweetheart is. It’s technically another book by Murakami, but it’s not very different. It opens with the usual introverted male protagonist who meets a scintillating girl just as he’s struggling with Life’s Big Questions. The “just different enough” part is that the girl might or might not be a lesbian. Cue a flurry of letters. Cue a mysterious woman who makes things more complicated. Cue a trip to Greece. And cap it all off with an ending that has people going wha? As I said, this is not Murakami’s best book, but nobody else could have pulled it off.
And Listen to: Mozart’s “The Violet.” Sumire was named after the Japanese version of the Mozart piece, and so it’s little surprise that Mozart’s music shows up here and there throughout the book . . .
The Part that Changes Everything: “Aomame had caught the cab near Kinuta and told the driver to take the elevated expressway from Yohga. The flow of traffic had been smooth at first, but suddenly backed up just before Sangenjaya, after which they had hardly moved . . . [Aomame got out of the cab and] started walking carefully along the left edge of the elevated road toward the emergency turnout some ten meters ahead . . . Reaching the turnout, Aomame stopped and looked around. It took only a moment for her to find the emergency stairway.”
The Way It Will Suck You in: Two moons, Little People that come out of a dead goat (yes, really), and a slim assassin whose name is Japanese for “green peas.” And also its sheer size. 1Q84 (pronounced “que-teen-eighty-four”) is a doorstop at nearly 1,000 pages, and not always a pageturner. This is clearly Murakami’s most ambitious work, both in size and in scope, but unlike The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, his ambition hasn’t translated to success. The two characters pulling together this big baggy monster are the assassin, and a man named Tengo who will have to ghostwrite a novel. Somehow they both end up in an alternate version of Tokyo where the year is not 1984 but 1Q84, and have to make their way toward each other and toward love. I didn’t love it, but even in its slowest parts, it’s undeniably Murakami at work. It’s also not a bad projectile if you ever have to defend yourself from a well-armed David Foster Wallace fan.
And Listen to: Leos Janáček’s Sinfonietta, which opens the novel and recurs in characters’ memories. In a profile for the New York Times, Murakami said that he first heard it live with “15 trumpeters behind the orchestra. Strange. Very strange. . . . And that weirdness fits very well in this book . . . [It was only] after I published this book, the music became popular in this country.”
There are other books, lots of them. Like his prizewinning debut, Hear the Wind Sing, or Underground, his book of interviews with victims of the sarin-gas attacks on the Tokyo Subway. If you’ve loved these six books, you’ll be very happy with the rest. But you only have so much time before getting your hands on . . .
The One to Get Excited About
The Part that Changes Everything: “The reason why death had such a hold on Tsukuru Tazaki was clear. One day his four closest friends, the friends he’d known for a long time, announced that they did not want to see him, or talk with him, ever again. It was a sudden, decisive declaration, with no room for compromise. They gave no explanation, not a word, for this harsh pronouncement.”
The Way It Will Suck You in: It’s a nice, smooth ride. The main character is Tsukuru Tazaki, jokingly called “colorless” because his four closest friends all have names with colors in them (such as Shirane, “white root,” and Akamatsu, “red pine”). Unlike Murakami’s other protagonists, though, Tsukuru Tazaki is determined to make things right even rom the beginning. So we readers will grab our hats and coats as the book covers his trip, many years after being banished, to find out why it happened and if he can make amends. “As we go through life,” one of the four former friends tells Tsukuru, “we gradually discover who we really are, but the more we discover, the more we lose ourselves.” This book may have 75% fewer cats than previous Murakami novels, and 100% fewer Little People, but it still has strange dreams and extended trips across Japan and across the world. (It also, unfortunately, treats women as the lesser sex just as painfully as nearly all of Murakami’s other novels. It would be nice if he had a few more assassin women, or even women who spoke for themselves instead of appearing as muses and in dreams.) It feels like a dessert version of Murakami in general: every bit as small and intimate as Norwegian Wood, but cleaner, simpler, and with a wholly new trajectory that will surprise even Murakami’s most staunch supporters.
It also has to be said that this is also one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever held in my hands. Chip Kidd did his work perfectly. It’s tiny, just slightly larger than my hands, but its dust jacket has cutout panels that show the actual book cover, the four friends’ colors, and a subway map. In size and in length, it’s the perfect thing to take on a four-hour plane trip—or on a bullet train across Japan.
And Listen to: Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage, which Tazaki listens to throughout the novel. In Japanese, nouns by themselves can be singular or plural, so the book’s Japanese title literally refers to Tsukuru Tazaki’s single year of pilgrimage, as well as Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage.