A few words on Haruki Murakami, whose 1Q84 is out today

October 26, 2011

There are times when criticism seems exactly like the buzz-killing some critics have held it to be — examine a butterfly’s wing too closely and you rob it of its ability to fly. Pin it down and stretch it out, you murder its soul.

That’s what it is like to talk about the work of Haruki Murakami. You can’t deconstruct it without tearing it apart. Then you sit there, surrounded by the greasy nuts and bolts, and find you can’t put it back together again, that some essential (if invisible) part has gone missing. Maybe it’s the 21 grams of stuff Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu was talking about in that movie a few years ago, the mystery dust that animates the matter and the sense, that makes hearts pump and black marks on paper jump and hum.

Murakami writes like a dream — literally. He has a knack for displacing his readers, for removing them to an interior and remote space where rules of the physical realm are made to be bent and twisted. His lowkey delivery coos to us. It is sly and assuring and presents the fantastic with such level grace that we don’t even consider spitting the bit. Murakami, the reader whisperer, like Borges or Donald Harington, eases us into his warm alternate worlds.

After we’re relaxed and receptive, he sometimes turns up the heat to potboiler levels, but by then we’re cooked through. Murakami consumes us, as surely as we consume his books.

There is a compulsion to rank from best to worst, from most familiar to least reassuring. It’s difficult, for Murakami’s books have all the qualities of dreams — including the tendency to evaporate in waking light. I’ve read them all, but the plots don’t stick so much as the sense that the author connects on a deeper level. The books are not-so-little poems. They jar our focus and allow us to hear tones we’ve never quite caught before. Murakami writes a lot about Western pop and jazz; his tastes and interests are catholic. He is a globalist, and the Japanese specifics of his plots seem almost playful, like a joke about the presumptive inscrutability of the Japanese mind. He’s a world hugger, this quiet tourist from Nippon, quietly smoking in the back of the tour group.

His demeanor camouflages the seriousness of his work. Murakami is a social critic, as well as a magician and sounder of souls. I could go on.

But it’s no fun to write about Murakami. It’s certainly less fun than reading him.


2 Comments

  • Comment by Torotopo — Nov 2,2011 at 5:35 pm

    Excuse late reply (I have an excuse), but I read my first Murakami (Kafka) this summer and haven’t recovered. (How great was Johnny Walker?) Recommendations for my next, since I trust the nosecone monkey’s taste?

  • Comment by Philip Martin — Nov 2,2011 at 5:38 pm

    I haven’t got to the new one yet (Karen’s hogging it) but I’d go back to the The Wind Up Bird Chronicle or Norwegian Wood. But I love his short stories too.

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