An emerging classic author: the novels of Haruki Murakami

Lyndsey McKiernan discusses Haruki Murakami

With fourteen novels published between 1979 and 2019 and many other short stories, Haruki Murakami has already secured his place as Japan’s most beloved, yet controversial, novelist. Murakami is not a recently published author by any means, but his novels have skyrocketed to fame worldwide in the past five years or so thanks to social media channels such as TikTok’s ‘BookTok’, YouTube, and Goodreads. Murakami’s works have been translated from the original Japanese without losing any of the poetic absurdity so characteristic of his writing, simultaneously shining a light upon Japanese culture and writing spectacular fiction. His unconventional novels touch upon a variety of genres from science fiction and detective fiction to psychological thriller and romance. Despite this amalgamation of themes, these novels are beloved by a wide range of readers. 

The first novel of Murakami’s that I read was Kafka on the Shore. Kafka, a young boy, runs away from home either to escape a gruesome oedipal prophecy or to search for his long-missing mother and sister. Meanwhile, an ageing simpleton called Nakata who never recovered from a wartime affliction is now drawn to Kafka for reasons that, like the most basic activities of daily life, he cannot fathom. I had seen positive reviews but went in with zero expectations apart from the promise that there would be talking cats and questionably written sex scenes. The book blew me away - it was unlike anything I had read before. Murakami’s books make no sense in the best way possible. It is up to the reader to form their own conclusions based upon the chaotic narrative(s). We know the two narratives should converge at some point, and hints are dropped along the way as to when or how that might happen, but it never really does. The author creates a space in which there is a suspension of reality - from an odd interaction with a murderous man to a whole parallel universe. The author’s treatment of magic realism teeters into absurdity without ever seeming to be off track. Murakami somehow balances a plot-driven narrative with character development, taking advantage of his confrontation with the absurd to ignore plot holes and adherence to common sense. This book is the epitome of escapism, getting lost in a new world that could never exist in reality. I rate Kafka on the Shore a 5/5 and still recommend it to anyone looking for a new book. 

I next read Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, where there is the interesting narrative of reality (Hard Boiled Wonderland) and the world of our shadow selves (the End of the World). None of the characters are named in this novel, furthering the idea that it is unclear which world is the true one. Personally, I found it difficult to root for these characters as much as in Kafka on the Shore because of the detachment a lack of names affords. The absurdism in this novel extends as far as the man reading dreams from a unicorn skull in one world and working as a split-brained data processor in the other. Murakami’s work almost reads as a children’s piece of literature because of its fantasy, however it can be thoroughly enjoyable if you throw your perceptions of realism out the window. While this book engaged me more psychologically, I found the dual-narrative less engaging than in Kafka on the Shore. I rate Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World a 4.5/5.

The most recent Murakami book I have read is Norwegian Wood, a coming of age narrative that depicts early encounters with love, work, and morality. Differing from Murakami’s other works I have read, this novel, though still absurd and unrealistic at points, accurately depicts the human experience. Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman. Though his depiction of the trials and tribulations of heartbreak and first love are accurate, Murakami’s treatment of women in his writing can often be offensive and should be considered before picking up one of his novels. Due to its slightly slow pace and more character-driven narrative, I give Norwegian Wood a 4/5.