Review of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

A fascinating look at characters and the brutalities of war and violence that seep into our lives. 

Murakami’s characters aren’t necessarily deep, but they feel like real people. The women are mediums, he claims, allowing the male protagonist to experience new concepts. They take some getting used to.
The whole book is memorable, and seems like the condensation of all of Murakami’s signature ideas: cats, violence, pasta, random sexual encounters, wells… His style is well-polished and Rubin’s translation is of the highest quality. Though once I found out that a lot had been removed from the novel I wanted all the more to read it in the original. Rubin claims he translated all of the best parts of the novel in his book Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words – still, I don’t see his reasoning for cutting things out. The novel is composed of disconnected segments with only tenuous relations to one another. Murakami’s masterpiece should be given it’s due. I hope once enough time has passed another translation will come out. As much as I admire Rubin, I think he may be trying to make one of his favorite authors safer for American audiences. I could be wrong, but Murakami’s MO is weirdness. He is Raymond Carver fed through the meat grinder with pop-culture and dream-logic.
I’ve read Wind-up Bird twice and might read it again. It really affords me an opportunity to escape from the mundane world. I even enjoyed reading interviews with Murakami – because this book always comes up. It’s the sort of work that invites discussion. He’s really on a whole different level with this one. There are already so many reviews out there, but in the end you’ll have to decide for yourself if you’re completely taken by his bold literary surprises or turned off by his jazz-like improvisations.
You get snatches of humor in this book as well to lighten the tone. The personality really shines through. As a writer with journalistic tendencies, he knows how to cater to the gut-level desires of his seething hoards of frothing-at-the-mouth fans.

Review of Dance Dance Dance by Haruki Murakami

I have trouble motivating myself to write about the works of Haruki Murakami. The fact of the matter is, I have read all of his work in English, I love it, I know it has flaws, and I don’t care.

He has a legion of followers, rivaling Neil Gaiman, but I believe, at least in my eyes, his literature has lasting value, and literary merit in its own right. His work poses as pulp, lite magical realism, but it touches something deep. It is at times incongruous, dreamlike and silly, but it is always readable.

H. M. is an unexplainable phenomenon. Imagine a batter that gets called in out of nowhere late in the game, during the last inning. No one has ever heard of him before. He is about two feet tall, a hundred pounds overweight and has one eye. The whole crowd laughs him off in the stands. The pitcher shrugs. The game is already in the bag, he thinks. Then this little batter stands at the plate, wears this incredibly serious look on his face, and waits. The pitcher tosses him a defiant pitch and the guy knocks it out of the park. The ball heads straight for the Jumbotron, pierces it like a comet, and shatters it with a huge explosion. Then the batter snaps the bat over his knee and strolls around the plates without a care in the world.

This strained analogy reminds me the career of Haruki Murakami. In his own words he has dug down deep into himself and written about what he found there. What an interesting guy, I keep finding myself saying. What makes his scenes feel so real, so memorable? What gives his characters such wacky charm? Why do I not care that what I am reading hardly makes sense? I think some of the answer lies in the author’s inability to hide his personality in his writing. His heart is revealed often, and it communicates messages most people can relate to.

I think Dance Dance Dance is a good book, but if it were rewritten by someone else, in any other voice but the inimitable Murakami’s it would have been, simply, bad. Like Rodrigo Fresan, Murakami does not put on a show when he writes. It is unfiltered, unplanned, jazzy improvisation. But what he writes is still a spectacular show. In all of his interviews, he comes off as someone who cares little about public opinion. Nonetheless the populace has largely been on his side. How is it possible for him to be so unpretentious? He either does not provide an explanation for his works or genuinely doesn’t know how he writes them. Philip K. Dick blamed an alternate consciousness invading his own for the insane ideas he had, at least toward the end of his life. Murakami seems to believe there is an abyss of dreams within us, which he needs merely to siphon off in order to produce literature.

Only after thirty years has the Japanese literary society begun to take him seriously. In more time, probably, his goofy body of work may attain the status of “classic.” Does it deserve that status? Who can really say? If he wins the Nobel Prize, perhaps. This impending event is a source of constant annoyance to him, like every time the possibility is mentioned, he throws a temper tantrum and withdraws from the public eye.

If there is one sense I get from reading this and other books by him, it is that he is largely solitary. Sometimes, Murakami describes people like animals, pacing their cages, interacting and coupling like insensate entities. Other times they are communicating spirits, intertwining in physical and mental synchronization.

As a translator of Carver, you can see subtle and not-so-subtle influences. Murakami has resisted the pull of influence from his homeland endlessly, only to dawdle overlong in American easy-reads, and stake a claim for himself as a competent, and even brilliant translator into Japanese. In his introductions, novels and statements, he has admitted to having read Faulkner, Dickens, Salinger, John Irving, Dag Solstad, Agota Kristof, Kafka, Carver, Chandler, Ross MacDonald, Chekhov, Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, Brautigan, Stephen King, Kerouac, and then he skimmed the Japanese classics when he was bored one day.

He has embodied some antiestablishment principles in regards to the Japanese literary climate, and since the beginning, always done his own thing, an outsider who draws a crowd. Someone who might gain some respect from and be compared to other writers like Banana Yoshimoto, but if you start talking about Tanizaki or even Ryu Murakami, you are talking about a different thing – that is, actual literature.

Which brings me to the book Dance Dance Dance, which I have obviously avoided mentioning. The politics spouted off by the characters is straightforward anti-Consumerism, and not exactly central to the plot. There are so many tangents and asides by the narrator that it is a miracle the novel stays relevant to its own narrator. The plot is a cooked up caper involving confusing characters acting out random conflicts and interests, all the while charming the pants off you, the reader, with their witty, blasé, selfish attitudes. The prose glows with sappy, effortless nostalgia. Murakami is a genius with an average IQ. I think he has admitted to being ‘average’ in more than one interview, but his ability to zero in on people is remarkable. They take on full-blooded life, even when they are caricatures. The bottom line is, this book is a convincing distraction, with a lot of satisfying moments. While the real meat of themes and subtleties are forsaken for mysterious, ominous presences, unexplained emotional outbursts, and truly affecting, beautiful atmosphere.

You can love and hate this book at the same time. It is the second book by the author I read. The first was Wind-Up Bird. This book, more than the first, cemented my love for his writing style. I have read it twice. The second time I was examining it, mainly to see if it was actually as good as I thought. It has undeniable mesmeric power, at least to me. It would be easy to point out things that just don’t work in the novelistic sense, but they work for Murakami’s skewed, dislocated reality.

By this time, Murakami was feeling the pressures of, what was to him, celebrity status, and it caused him to speak out against celebs, to lampoon them in a way, and like all of his opinions, he is completely transparent about it. Everywhere there is the same existentialist dread you should get comfortable with, the discombobulation and the “obsession with music to the point of insanity” as Seiji Ozawa remarked.

Does it really matter if elements of the plot are advanced by a man wearing a sheep costume? What about fetishization of ears? Random portals popping up leading to localized, video game like debug rooms? This is an ecstatic work of fiction. A breathtaking accomplishment in absurdist folly, a hairy dog joke carried to the heights of Mount Everest, and then whispered into a whistling cave never plumbed by the tread of Man.

If you are anything like me, you will finish this book thinking: “where can I find me more of this stuff?”

Review of Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

Beginning a series of reviews I will do for Murakami, though I’m arriving late to the party, what with the plethora of reviews out there.

I’ve been a fan since high school and through college. His short stories have a very different feel than his novels in my opinion. With his stories, it is best to “feel” them, rather than to analyze them. Often, they are puzzling, eccentric, funny, and almost always enjoyable in some fashion. His 4 collections of stories in English so far, this being the latest, are all more than worth the read. You could argue that After the Quake, with its deep and unsettling themes, might be the best collection, but it is the shortest and most unified. Blind Willow and Elephant also deserve their own reviews, where I might touch on theme, motif, and other facets to be found in his writing. At bottom, most attempts at interpretation of his work will be deeply personal. That is, people either love it or hate it. Most critics don’t know what to make of his vast popularity.

Murakami’s obsession with Kafka and The Beatles is evident in this slim volume, which bears the same English name as one of Hemingway’s short story collections (intentionally?) You get a decent amount of variety in this one, though I wish it had been much longer. It is a well-dressed selection of his recent work, nearly all of which I had read in the New Yorker online prior to this book’s publication. If you don’t know, Murakami consistently publishes stories in The New Yorker before releasing a book of them. Don’t ask me why he does this. I imagine a lot of money is changing hands in the process.

The recent stories, post-Killing Commendatore have not been up to par if you ask me. I am predicting he will release a music-centric collection in the future, since the sneak peaks are steering steadily in that direction. His entire oeuvre is music-focused in one way or another. It pervades his whole spirit and creative mind. His prose rhythm is also jazzy, rhythmic and pretty addictive. Yet, the few instances where he elevates his storytelling to sublime heights are the moments I look for in his writing, where so much of it speaks of everyday, ennui-laced, nostalgic people and mundane, melodramatic conflicts. He slides into the weird inevitably, into Lynchian territory, without a word or excuse. But this collection focusses more on the real. In the end I was not fully satisfied with it, only because he has pulled these tricks before, in some cases with more success. My favorite story was “Drive My Car,” though that is likely to change. Every time I reread one of the collections I discover new likes, dislikes and uncertainties. My rabid enthusiasm has been subsiding with each subsequent publication after 1Q84, which I am afraid to reread or review, for fear of what it will do to my tarnishing view of his greater works.

Murakami has a way of being effortlessly thought-provoking, even when he’s pulling your chain.

Review of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami,

ISBN 1400044618 (ISBN13: 9781400044610)

What is one to make of Murakami’s short stories?

His translator has stated that his reputation was made by his stories in Japan – apart from his super-successful novels. A brief survey of his total story output reveals that he is not interested in traditional story forms. Though many of his stories remain untranslated, we have so far received 4 volumes of them in English. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is probably my favorite of the lot.

It is a generous collection of 24 bizarre and unconventional tales ranging from subtle surrealism to dreamlike feasts of disorienting magical realism. It is difficult to be objective when it comes to these stories. Formally speaking, many of them violate basic rules of storytelling. Emotionally, they tend to be powerful, evocative and original. What is the purpose of a story if not to prompt strong reactions in the reader. Whether those reactions are good or bad depends on your tolerance for the unexplained, the ambiguous, and the subtle subversions the author employs.

“Man-eating cats” is features in his novel Sputnik Sweetheart. Murakami has a penchant for recasting his stories into novels. Similarly, he usually publishes novel excerpts in the New Yorker as standalone stories. He is able to do this because his legions of fans will devour any nonsense or grocery lists he decides to release to the public. The story in question, though, is magnificent in my opinion. Murakami delights in writing about foreign places – Greece, America, Mongolia and remote corners of Japan. He is no Thoreau, but he brings a unique voice to each locale, observing the environment with wit and addictive, approachable rhythm.

Also featured is the segment from Norwegian Wood, titled “Firefly.” Another breathtaking achievement and memorable moment from one of his greatest novels. Why does he reuse his material this way, you ask? Because he can.

Almost every tale is a winner in my memory, and I have revisited most of the stories in this collection several times. “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” is haunting. The complete lack of a satisfying ending often lends his stories a provocative vivacity, as if his characters’ lives continue along the trajectory he plotted far beyond where the artificially imposed stopping point leaves them.

“Hanalei Bay” strikes me as a realistic tale, possibly based off similar real events, but with a Murakami twist of course. “The Ice Man” was included in Vandermeer’s Weird Compendium, but I would not call it weird fiction. It is about the lapse of identity, a common motif in the author’s oeuvre, but extrapolated to the realm of speculative fiction. “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” is a simple encounter, recounted with stark straightforwardness, seemingly a fable of the Japanese literary establishment – but can one ever be sure what Murakami is doing in these cases? Since he claims to write without outlines, one can only assume he makes it up as he goes along. It is a testament to his imagination that he can be so often captivating in the same way that dreams are engrossing, even if they make no sense. “Crabs” is a memorable story, if inconsequential. “Chance Traveler” is classic Murakami. At times his style is right in line with Carver’s. As Carver’s translator, Murakami wears this influence on his sleeve. “A Poor Aunt Story” was less successful at engaging my interest, but it showcases daring experimentation. “Airplane: Or, How He Talked to Himself as If Reciting Poetry,” is a peculiar conversation, Murakami-style, which nonetheless intrigued and beguiled me. “New York Mining Disaster” was completely incomprehensible.

“The Mirror” and “Hunting Knife” were 2 of my favorite pieces from the collection. They operated off simple premises and are somewhat open-ended. Yet, their power and creativity are undeniable in my mind. It wasn’t until I reread “Hunting Knife” that this collection became one of my all time favorites. It is a one-of-a-kind, mind-bending story. “Tony Takitani” is yet another strong piece, which was made into a film. Pure, elegant, and meaningful.

With “A Perfect Day for Kangaroos,” Murakami turns on the charm. An uninitiated reader might wonder if Murakami deserves all the praise and condemnation. If you read this story and feel absolutely nothing you can bet Murakami’s work, as a whole, is not for you. You have to be alright with the liberties he takes. For me, I never had to try to like this author. It came perfectly naturally, and for better or worse, he remains one of my favorites.

There are a dozen other gems in this stellar collection. They are guaranteed to satisfy Murakami devotees and baffle his detractors. This is the good stuff. This is why I read fiction. These are challenging, but easy reading. They stick with you and represent the best examples of what has become Murakami’s distinct brand of madness.