First Encounters: Murakami

I first encounter Murakami in a stylish, urban cafe in Denver called Pablo’s. It’s the kind of place Murakami would like, would write about, would sit an unnamed thirty-year-old male protagonist in. At this point, he’s just a book being read by an off-shift barista who is about to ask if I’m familiar with Murakami. I’m not. He’s good, I’m told. I look forward to finding out what he’s like but figure that with a title like Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, he’s either prolific or trying hard and failing. I’m on the fence but curious.

Six months later I ask for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle for my birthday. I am given The Complete Works of Franz Kafka. Apparently I’m not ready for Murakami. Eschewing my fate, I read one story—”The Hunger Artist”—to appease the person who gave me the book and let it collect dust on my shelf. I must have Murakami.

A year later, I move to Illinois to get away from all the noise in my head and decide it is time to be ‘that guy’. That guy who delves into a single author until he’s wrung out every drop of goodness and then sets the collection prominently on his shelf and raises an eyebrow whenever someone has the audacity to look directly at it, immediately inquiring, “Have you read him?”

I start with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I read half of it and life gets in the way and too much time passes and now if I pick it back up where I left off I won’t remember what happened but if I start over from the beginning I will have read the first half twice and that’s no good so I’ll just read a different one. I settle for Norwegian Wood this time.

Wow, now we’re talking. Later I will discover that Norwegian Wood is the simplest of all of Murakami’s works. It’s a love story. The unworldly elements are subtle, if even present, and like all of Murakami’s stories, when you start to debate the nebulous possibilities you learn more about the reader than the writer. Murakami is good at this. He writes reflecting pools for readers to throw their change into, making wishes and connecting their own dots. He frequently leaves his protagonists unnamed, a stylistic choice he bites off of Dashiell Hammett. It was only through Norwegian Wood that I was able to start seeing what was really going on with Murakami.

If I hadn’t found Norwegian Wood, I would probably still be half way through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, because just as Murakami developed as a writer, I had to develop as a reader of his imaginative stories. He loves to be boring. His favorite sport is baseball. Why? Because it is boring, he explains. He coolly self references in 1Q84 that sometimes it’s better to take the long way—he says this over a thousand pages in. He even admits that 1Q84 is really just a rewrite of “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning,” a story that is two-and-a-half pages long. Murakami has no interest in writing page-turners. So he doesn’t. He writes cool, hard-boiled stories about love and talking cats and using the right and left halves of the brain to count change in separate pockets at the same time. He’s ridiculous and over the top without ever acknowledging how far gone he really is, frequently throwing cavalier remarks at his readers to see who’s paying attention:

“If the Dalai Lama were on his deathbed and the jazz musician Eric Dolphy were to try to explain to him the importance of choosing one’s engine oil in accordance with changes in the sound of the bass clarinet, that exchange might have been a touch more worthwhile and effective than my conversations with Noboru Wataya.”

The genius of Murakami’s wit is in its matter-of-fact delivery.

I read 1Q84 and I loved it, but it took me over a year to finish. Partly, I’m a slow reader, and I also read lots of books simultaneously, but the real reason it took me so long was because I wanted it to. His rhythmic, consistent, reliable style quiets the mind. He isn’t someone you breeze through and then put back on the shelf. He is an author that demands to be read at his pace, slowly meandering his way into your psyche over two pages or maybe a thousand, depending on which story you’ve decided on. Murakami is zen.

I would hate to hear someone started reading Murakami with 1Q84. I’d be a little concerned if they started with Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle? About the same. I think Norwegian Wood is the perfect book to give someone a slightly undercooked Murakami that errs on the side of pedestrian and can’t be described as schizophrenic. It’s just a love story with all of the meals carefully described and all of the characters quite believable. It isn’t Murakami at his very best, but it’s him at his most accessible.

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One Comment on “First Encounters: Murakami”

  1. A Little Blog of Books and Other Stuff
    June 28 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    I agree that Norwegian Wood is the most accessible of Murakami’s novels and that 1Q84 definitely wouldn’t be a good one to start with… I think Kafka on the Shore is probably my favourite in that it probably falls somewhere in between those two.

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