I recently emailed a few thoughts on Haruki Murakami’s to the reading group at The Book Lady Bookstore in Savannah, Georgia as they prepared to discuss The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. The edited text of my email is below. Thanks to The Book Lady herself, Joni Saxon-Giusti, for asking me to talk about one of my favorite writers.
I think it’s Murakimi’s greatest point of genius that can also make his work difficult to access. His characters act the same way whether they’re exploring magical wells or boiling a pot of spaghetti.
As readers and movie-goers and television watchers, we’re conditioned to expect certain things from our characters. If a ghost emerges from a shadowy corner in the mansion our protagonist recently inherited from an estranged uncle, we expect our hero to run screaming from the house. When Godzilla rises from the ocean depths, we expect the people of Tokyo to flee through the streets. When the wizard performs a feat of magic, we expect onlookers to dismiss it as nothing more than illusion. Murakami’s characters don’t scream, they don’t flee, they don’t doubt. They accept. They take as literal their experiences. Within the context of the book, their experiences, however weird, are quotidian. This is everyday life inside Murakami’s universe.
The scholar Tzvetan Todorov offers this definition of the fantastic: “The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event…” This refers to how a muggle would react if they happened to see Harry Potter perform a spell. But if Murakami had written Harry Potter instead of J.K. Rowling, muggles wouldn’t react at all. Instead of being surprised at every new piece of magic he learns, Harry would simply shrug and go make pasta.
Murakami undermines our expectations. He gives equal weight to the supernatural and the mundane. He creates a unique internal logic for his stories, but he never tries to convince the reader to accept that logic. Either a reader accepts it, or they stop reading.
Is it genius? I would say absolutely yes. But I would also say that just because something is genius doesn’t mean you have to like it.
One final comment: There’s value in reading things that challenge the ways we think, the ways we view the world. We tend to seek out confirmation bias in our reading, and Murakami undermines that, because I don’t think anyone has the life experience to be biased in his direction. Conversely, that little nagging voice in our head that tells us to stop reading something is often the voice of cognitive dissonance. In general, we don’t like brand new things. We like new variations on the things we already find familiar. For me, reading Murakami was one of the first steps I took in overcoming these basic human biases. So even if Murakami doesn’t end up being your author of choice, seek out a book that’s a little harder for you to get into. Don’t just fall back on writing that you can easily identify with and categorize. And then ask yourself: Why does this make me uncomfortable? The answer might be surprising.