“For me, writing a novel is like having a dream. Writing a novel lets me intentionally dream while I’m still awake. I can continue yesterday’s dream today, something you can’t normally do in everyday life.” — Haruki Murakami
“There is another world, but it is in this one.” — Paul Eluard
On April 12, 2013, a new novel by Haruki Murakami was released in Japan. Fans lined up at bookstores, and Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage topped the bestseller list on the Japanese Amazon site almost immediately. Why the excitement, when, according to one Twitter user as reported in the Guardian, no one needs to read it to know “it’s about a man who is smart but lonely, has no friends, but somehow attracts women and makes spaghetti”?
In Murakami’s novels teenagers are preternaturally wise, plot threads are picked up and abandoned, the sex scenes seem to be written by aliens, and characters spend weeks alone in their apartments cooking meals, reading, working out, and ironing their clothes. These are the kinds of things that drive his detractors bats. And I get that. But I can’t stop reading Murakami. Here’s what I’ve read so far:
An assassin steps off the freeway into a parallel world, where the moon is a funny shape. In order to find peace, she must meet her destiny and bridge the gap between worlds.
A man falls in love with a woman who falls in love with another woman. The two women go to Greece, where the younger woman disappears — possibly to a parallel world. The older woman tells the man a story about being trapped in the gondola of a ferris wheel and watching her alter ego have sex with a stranger in her apartment.
A love affair between a student and the emotionally troubled girlfriend of his late best friend is complicated by his attraction to a free-spirited classmate. One of his friends reads The Great Gatsby and sleeps with a lot of girls.
A man searches for his lost cat and missing wife, meets a variety of enigmatic helpers, descends into a well, and discovers a portal to a parallel world. A teenage girl with a lot of interesting questions works in a wig factory. Terrible things happened in Manchuria during the Second World War.
A fifteen-year-old boy runs away from home because of an Oedipal curse. A sixty-year-old cat-finder teams up with a twentysomething truck driver to open a portal to a parallel world. They’re helped by Colonel Sanders, a pimp who arranges for the truck driver to have the best sex of his life.
Lots of surprising things happen in the Murakamiverse, a dreamlike and strange dark wood where a confused protagonist is suddenly dropped, in limbo between the past self and a new identity. But there are a few elements that crop up over and over. Among them:
- Cats — talking cats, lost cats, cats who take over the town at night
- Descriptions of girls’ ears
- Rain, weird things falling from the sky, thunderstorms that presage a breakdown between worlds
- Detailed descriptions of people’s clothes
- Smart teenage girls who like to have existential conversations with men while sunbathing or watching fires
- People spending time in apartments alone for long periods of time, doing very ordinary things like cooking meals, exercising, and drinking coffee
- Discussions about classical music, jazz, or the Beatles
- Dialogue that is by turns funny, puzzling, naturalistic, and philosophical
- Bizarre, godlike creatures who perform strange, disturbing, violent acts
- Intense, transformative, and dreamlike sexual experiences, or sexually charged dreams
- Liminal places: train stations, bridges, rivers, roads, beaches, islands, forests, hotels, and dormitories
- obnoxious security guards, soldiers, police officers, detectives, schoolteachers and other authority figures
It’s these common elements that give Murakami’s books their texture and mood. The writing style itself is rather plain, in keeping with the narrator’s impassive reaction to events. But the Murakami protagonist is only seemingly unemotional. The “parallel world” that Kafka Tamura, Aomame, Tengo Kawana, and Toru Okada enter is the inner life turned inside out. The dissolving border between the “real world” and the strange, dream world of passion and fear is the non-place that each must go through to find love and identity.
That existential journey is one that people on the verge of adulthood, or those who have experienced change, can identify with very well.
And that’s why I can’t stop reading Murakami.