Reviewing Murakami right after Rushdie feels right to me for several reasons. If you’ll forgive a violin analogy, both of these brilliant authors rub the bow of the fantastic against the strings of the mundane and make them sing. But each does it in their own distinctive way. While Rushdie takes an embarrassed blush and amplifies it into something that can scald, Murakami takes something surreal like a talking cat and treats it like a sip of beer. Also like Rushdie, Murakami has written a masterpiece which isn’t my favourite.
In my humble opinion, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is Haruki Murakami’s greatest achievement. It digs deep, both into the depths of history and the individual psyche, perhaps even going so far as to suggest where these tunnels intersect. Most novelists can only hope to produce something like this in their lifetime.
Despite how much Wind-Up Bird Chronicle has to offer, I still enjoy Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World more. This long-titled gem is, you guessed it, simply more fun. Though not exactly a beach read, it’s much more of a page turner than Wind-Up. It’s got more adventure (on the run from subterranean monsters), more mystery (what’s the deal with those unicorn skulls), and much much more glorious weirdness.
It’s the weirdness in Murakami’s work that I love so much, which is why I prefer books like A Wild Sheep Chase, After Dark, Kafka on the Shore, and Sputnik Sweetheart. Whether you’re talking about a nefarious super sheep, a creepy figure emerging from a television, fish raining from the sky, or a woman who encounters her own doppelganger, these stories hook you with their utter strangeness and don’t let go.
On the other hand, when I look at Norwegian Wood, South of the Border, or Hear the Wind Sing, I enjoy them but can’t get past the feeling that something enormous is missing. What, no giant frogs? No portals to other worlds? Nothing?
Unfortunately, not all of Murakami’s signature strangeness is welcome. There are three undeniable facets of life that Murakami tackles head on: food, sex, and death. I used to appreciate his unflinching frankness, but a little while back, I listened to a YouTuber complaining about his depictions of sexual violence. I dismissed it at the time, but after reading his last few books, my opinion started to shift. Now, looking back at his work through a critical lens, much more of it seems disturbing than it did before. Certain problematic motifs seem to pop up again and again. 1. Relationships between older men and adolescent girls that border on inappropriate 2. Dreams of sexual violence that are somehow both real and unreal 3. A fixation on breasts. His latest novel, Killing Commendatore, suffers from all three and it would be a much stronger novel without any of them. It has that trademark weirdness, with the forces of good and evil ambiguously manifested as strange men in diners and pint-sized figures lifted from paintings, but even all of this glorious oddity barely holds your attention when the main character keeps prattling on about every woman’s breast size.
Similarly, 1Q84 had the potential to be Murakami’s masterpiece – something even greater than Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, but a couple of key points drove it right off the rails. One of those points was the introduction of a distracting 3rd narrator in the 3rd volume, but the other was the (spoiler alert) disturbing sexual interaction between two of the main characters (I won’t go into details). I could cite other examples of how Murakami’s sexual content weakens his work, but this review is already getting too long.
Before I wrap this up though, it’s worth mentioning one other thing. 4 of Murakami’s books link together in an unusual way. Hear the Wind Sing; Pinball, 1973; and A Wild Sheep Chase form what’s called the Trilogy of the Rat. Dance Dance Dance is a sort of sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase, but not technically part of the trilogy that precedes it. So, in a sense, if you’re going to read any of these, you might as well read all of them and do it in order. The first two were Murakami’s first attempts at novel writing and it shows. Even Murakami was reluctant to release them in English (which only happened recently). But, for all of their weaknesses, they’re still worth a look. On the other hand, Sheep Chase is basically Murakami at the top of his game. It’s the best of the four and if you’re in a hurry and don’t mind not knowing who this Rat character really is, then it stands on its own.
I feel like this whole thing has taken on a negative tone, which wasn’t my intention, so just to recap, I’d say that at least the top three books on this list are unmissable. Make time and eat them up. Beyond that, pick and choose according to your tastes. Next up in my author review series: Tom Robbins.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
A Wild Sheep Chase
Dance Dance Dance
Kafka on the Shore
Hear the Wind Sing
South of the Border, West of the Sun
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage