editions: Vintage paperbacks
Norwegian Wood – 4.5 out of 5, 1/2-1/5
Kafka on the Shore – 5 out of 5, 3/8-3/11
1Q84 – 3 out of 5, 5/24-5/31
The Elephant Vanishes – 3 out of 5, 8/18-8/28
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World – 4 out of 5, 10/23-10/28
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – 3 out of 5, 12/08-12/14
So, in a bit of a change of pace from the last two years, I opted to pick a contemporary author for this third year of the Ten Year Catch-Up: Haruki Murakami. He’s a pretty prolific author, having put out nearly 30 books in his 35 year career (fiction, short stories, non-fiction – also, note that this number does include some stuff not yet published in English), and a major one: he sells millions of copies in his native Japan and has, over the course of the time that I’ve been paying attention to the literary scene, become a similarly massive force in the West as well. Plus, he’s one of those authors who writes unlike anybody else. You know when you’re reading Murakami.
But what is it to read six books of his in the course of a year? This was the first year that I really questioned the somewhat-arbitrary organization of my experiment here, because it’s a little unnatural to read an author so widely in such a compressed amount of time. We all did it when we were younger (in particular, I remember reading like seven Palahniuk novels in the space of about 4 months) and I didn’t have too much of a problem with it with Dickens and Austen… but I found that Murakami took a lot more out of me over the course of this year than I expected.
Let’s begin at the beginning – or, well, a brief step even further back in time: the only experience I’ve had with Murakami before this year was reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running back in 2012. This is why his non-fiction doesn’t make an appearance this year, although I considered Underground. But I wanted to start with what everybody says is the place to start.
And so I started with Norwegian Wood. Which I think might be my favorite Murakami reading experience, even though it wasn’t my overall favorite of the six books. There was something about reading it in the fresh crispness of the then-brand-new year . The novel feels refreshing, even in its deep melancholy – it’s so human and beautiful. There’s humor, there’s sadness, there’s… well, there’s everything. That book felt like such a new experience to me, like treading out into untouched snow, that I was smitten with Murakami’s writing from the get-go.
This feeling of adoration kept up for Kafka on the Shore, which was probably my favorite book of the six (although – well, we’ll get there). There’s something downright magical about that book, both in the sense of there being magic in the book and also that it feels like magic when you read it. Murakami’s various tics and tropes are sort of joked about (see: Grant Snider’s Murakami Bingo cartoon) but they’re nearly all on display in this book and they all feel fresh. Is this because this was the first time I’d encountered them? Or because that book truly is that much more original than his other work? I think it might be the former, honestly: Kafka is a more recent book in his bibliography and it is clear to me that the weirdness that ran rampant early on was, in fact, tamped down a bit for these later books.
Of course, nothing is tamped down for 1Q84. I remember that doorstop ending up in the Tournament of Books and starting to really pay attention to Murakami at that point – but I didn’t read it until arguably the weirdest, most stressful possible moment: BEA week. And as I said in my review, I felt a little like Aomame as I made that weird trek over to 11th Avenue and the Javits Center – a little like I was entering another world. But also, the novel really didn’t coalesce for me. I found myself wondering just what all the fuss was about: Tengo was too damn passive and while Aomame was a cool character, I just felt like the story let her down a bit. It is not, I think it’s safe to say, Murakami’s style to really do an action story (although I haven’t read A Wild Sheep Chase yet) but at over 1200 pages, the book needed a bit more propulsion than it had. And this became something I’d come to struggle with in the back half of my Murakami reading.
The Elephant Vanishes was the first time I actually really struggled with Murakami. Even though I liked the individual stories (sometimes quite a bit), I found that I was overwhelmed by them, even as I read perhaps one every day or every few days instead of one-after-another. Murakami’s work, I think, requires distance: each time you finish one of his stories, you almost need to wait a good while before you tackle the next. Not days, not weeks – months, at least. If I learned nothing else from this collection, it was that. Of course, I also had a schedule to hit…
…and Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World was surprisingly really wonderful. I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t sure if Kafka was my favorite or another, meaning this one. Even though I rated this one less than Kafka (because there were some issues, with the voice and with the disjointedness of some parts), I think this one may stick around longer in my mind, simply because of how weird it was. Murakami takes a difficult conceit and, though he doesn’t nail all of the stunts exactly perfectly, he does pull off some really cool stuff. It was cyberpunk in a way that we almost don’t get anymore, computers being so damn ubiquitous now, and I really enjoyed the twinned narratives and the action of the plot.
As such, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was a huge let-down to end the year with. Sorry, no two ways about it. This is many people’s first entry into Murakami and, as such, perhaps I’d have enjoyed it more in the way I enjoyed Kafka so much. But also, I’m not sure. The plot is really thin on the ground in a way that Murakami’s better (in my mind) novels avoids: my big problem with this one and with 1Q84 were that there was too much talk and not enough movement. Not that this is a problem: I’m happy to read a book where there’s no movement, just talk. But knowing that Murakami is capable of some really epic mythical stuff or even just batshit crazy inventiveness, I found this novel strangely subdued. I didn’t care about Toru, I barely understood what was happening half the time, and I saw little reason to try and find out. I almost wonder WWII novella that lives inside this book would have been more interesting on its own – but, then, that isn’t the book Murakami was trying to write.
Conclusion: I was continually surprised by Haruki Murakami, I will say that. I didn’t believe the hype around Norwegian Wood and was converted. I thought I was prepared for the weird of Kafka, but delightfully wasn’t. That weird then set up different expectations, expectations that were let down when 1Q84 and Wind-Up Bird came around – but Hard-Boiled Wonderland… met those expectations in its own weird way. The most important lesson that I think I learned, though, is that Murakami is an author meant to be doled out sparingly. His writing can overpower you, for better or worse, and that (for me) is a sure sign of his mastery. But it means I don’t want to spend so much time with him – and even though I have the awesome sticker-edition of Colorless Tsukuru (thanks to the wonderful JV) and have my UK contact getting me The Strange Library… I’m not sure I’ll pick either of those up for a little while yet. I need some time.
I like to think he’d approve – and then maybe recommend another jazz record to follow the one I’ve got on right now.