Monday, September 5, 2011

What Makes Murakami Addicting?

I was in a weird mood the other night, and so didn't want to continue reading You Don't Love Me Yet (Lethem's excellent rock and art and love novel), so, in anticipation of IQ84, I blew the dust off of Murakami's The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and lost myself in the first two chapters. I mean, seriously lost myself: I stayed up way too late because I got lost in that Murakami groove.

This morning, I pondered: what is it about his writing that is so mesmerizing? I mean, it's not like his prose is anything unique; on the contrary, some of the descriptions are so bland that they verge on cliche. For instance:
"An old, brown, withered Christmas tree stood in the corner of one garden. Another had become the dumping ground for every toy known to man, the apparent leavings of several childhoods. There were tricycles and toss rings and plastic swords and rubber dolls and tortoise dolls and little baseball bats. One garden had a basketball hoop, and another had fine lawn chairs surrounding a ceramic table." p.13
There are portions of his novels that just go on and on like this. In fact, to me his uninspiring novels (I'm looking at you, Dance Dance Dance) border on boring for this very reason. What I think it is is that this familiarity of prose (can't think of a better way to put it) really puts you in the mindset of his typical protagonist, a "boring" male in his 30s who is a bit of a stranger to himself, into routines, etc. This sucks you into a certain ordered mindset, and the bizarre events start occurring - and they do! - the juxtaposition is that much more jarring. You see this in great effect in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, where the "normal" chapters are interspersed with the "fantasy" chapters and while they tell completely different stories, the manner of telling is exactly the same.

This is a long way of saying that to me, it's really the plot of his novels that is so engaging. Bizarre occurrences and complete normality live side by side with no real explanation and after a while just start to make sense in a strange way. Think "Johnny Walker" and "Colonel Sanders" in Kafka on the Shore and how they fit into the novel. Critics writing about Murakami bandy about labels like "dream-like" and "magical realism" (which always makes me think of "Latin" authors (think Gabriel García Márquez) but I think what Murakami is trying to do is different - it's more subtle, subconscious, and ironic. And I just can't get enough of it!

In just the first chapter of TWUBC, the narrator is called multiple times by someone who wants to talk dirty to him and exclaims that "Ten minutes... is all we need to understand each other." He makes spaghetti and listens to Rossini and tells us about his lost cat and boring job. He falls asleep in the yard of a 16-year old girl who puts him to sleep by whispering about "the lump of death... something round and squishy, like a softball, with a hard little core of dead nerves. I want to take it out of a dead person and cut it open and look inside. I always wonder what it's like." p. 20

This type of writing combines the boring and cliche with the bizarre and unlikely, and presents it all equivalently. Most of his writing is ambiguous, as if the author himself wasn't entirely sure what it all means. To foax like me, who loves to try and fill in the blanks, it's a heady brew.

 Does this make sense to you? What draws you to Murakami? What keeps you coming back for more? What's your favorite book of his? (For the record, mine alternates between TWUBCand Kafta on the Shore.)

Update: Edited to correct spelling mistakes. Blogger's new interface doesn't really work well with Chrome's spellchecker.


  1. I haven't read any Murakami for a few years (that is to say, not since Kafka on the Shore). So it is hard to pinpoint what I like or don't like about his writing. I'll try to pay attention when reading 1Q84!

    Certainly, I've personally never found his writing boring or cliche, though I can understand why some people might. It doesn't contain a lot of verbal pyrotechnics. Given that his prose styling is not the high point for you, I wonder if you enjoy his "realistic" novels? In particular, have you read Norwegian Wood; or, South of the Border, West of the Sun?

    The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle remains my favorite of his books, though.

  2. I haven't read SotB, WotS, but Norwegian Wood didn't do anything for me, and I was even high as a goat on painkillers at the time too (when i had that wicked throat infection 4 years ago). I put Sputnik Sweetheart in this camp as well.

    It looks like i'm going to read WUBC in its entirety again, because i'm already ~200 pages into it. I do have to say that his prose in that book is better than i remember it being, although it still strikes me as being rather bland and more memorable for the ideas it's touting. I seem to appreciate two major camps of prose writing: minimalists who are notable not only for what they write but also what they don't write (think Hemingway and Carver), and authors with a distinctive voice that put words together in a unique way (I personally think of Pynchon, but it's really any author who succeeds at bringing elements of poetry into his writing.) For those whose writing that doesn't fall into either camp, their work to me rises and falls on the quality of their ideas and/or entertainment. To pick some examples off the top of my head: Stephen King isn't a great writer per se, but he's an excellent entertainer. Margaret Atwood's prose won't necessarily knock your socks off, but her ideas are fascinating.