What Is It About Haruki Murakami That Mesmerizes People?

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Haruki Murakami. Photo: Ole Jensen/Corbis via Getty Images

When it comes to Haruki Murakami, there’s a peculiar symmetry to the views of his admirers and his skeptics. Everyone agrees that he’s often funny, particularly in his dialogue, and that there’s an appealing surface weirdness to his books. “You’re kind of weird,” is the sort of thing his characters often say to each other, and it’s sort of funny every time. His heroes, so often pulled into detective plots without hanging a “FOR HIRE” sign in their windows, are reluctant Philip Marlowes, and who doesn’t love a detective? That they’re also emo-Marlowes may tilt your view of them depending on whether you prefer your mysteries hard- or soft-boiled. Sex in Murakami runs the gamut from the creepy to the gauzy to the gooey, but for his critics it’s rarely the sticking point. In the novels there will always be cats, mundane kitchen activities, dingy barrooms, pop and/or classical theme tunes set against a surreal, Manichaean danger zone into which the humble yet increasingly resourceful hero must plunge in search of what he’s missing, most likely to find something else. The hero will spend some time at the bottom of a well, or some other deep and lonely space. His mind and heart will be tugged between desire for an ethereal, spiritual woman (usually the one who’s gone missing) and attraction to a sassy, sexy, down-to-earth gal (who at first seems more like a sidekick on his vision quest but may turn out to be just what he needed all along).

Murakami has been spinning variations on these themes for nearly 40 years, and he’s been forthcoming in many interviews about his habit of recycling the same elements. (He also likes to talk about his writing by talking about his exercise regiment: “Writing a long novel is like survival training. Physical strength is as necessary as artistic sensitivity.”) Few tend to hold his repetitions against him. What splits his critics is whether they’ll tolerate his flights from logic and his willingness to create dreamworlds that resist coherence and seem to exist independently of any author-imposed rules. Murakami enthusiasts — among them Jonathan Franzen, Kathryn Schulz, and Rivka Galchen — recognize these qualities in his fiction, but are willing to indulge them as the price of admission to a rich universe on offer nowhere else. As Galchen put it in a 2014 Harper’s review of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, “The story and surface together sound both hokey and random, which points to the most perplexing part of Murakami: that his fictions are so consistently transporting.”

The hokeyness: Murakami skeptics — among them Tim Parks, Michiko Kakutani (at times), and me (though I was an addict before I turned skeptic) — link it to an adolescent mentality that persists even when his heroes are in middle age. Whether a matter of arrested development, regression, or the retention of a youthful romantic idealism, it’s always there, and if anything it’s been increasing in his novels since Kafka on the Shore (published in English in 2005) with its teenage hero; through 1Q84 (2011), whose writer hero and assassin heroine were on a fated intersecting course since the time they were two lonely 10-year-olds who held hands; and Colorless Tsukuru, about a 30-something engineer trying to figure out why his quartet of high-school friends had all of a sudden ditched him during college. Kakutani deemed that novel “as short on explanations as it is long on overwrought adolescent emotion”; Parks called it “the story of a woefully prolonged adolescence.” There’s always a bit of Chandler, Kafka, and Salinger mixed into Murakami’s fiction, and it’s tempting to say that the Salinger quotient has been growing too pronounced. But for all the dark elements at play in Murakami’s book — rape, murder, suicide, incest, mental illness, war trauma, etc. — Salinger’s vision of adolescence and arrested development in the Glass family stories is ultimately darker.

At this late stage — Murakami is 68 — critical reception has ceased to matter to Murakami’s international audience. In Japan his books are greeted with Harry Potter–like rabidity, and in the U.S. initial print runs are in the hundreds of thousands. Cribbing a remark John Irving once made to him in an interview, Murakami has compared his readers to heroin addicts, and that may be one reason why he’s consistently delivered an ever-purer-grade product. A Nobel Prize has long been thought to be looming, especially by British bookies. Few of his skeptics would deny that his early work, his self-declared project of importing Western tropes and styles to treat life in Japan and his reckoning with Japan’s history, put him in that hazily defined league. A cynic might say: After Dylan, all is permitted.

Murakami’s new book, Men Without Women, a collection of seven stories, is a slim volume, and these modest, hardly groundbreaking stories mostly play to the author’s strengths. Which is to say, with one exception, the stories are charming and funny, contain a few sparely deployed striking images, and take surrealist turns without spiraling into incoherence as his novels are apt to do. There are teenagers and there are middle-aged men who think of their 14-year-old selves as their core selves. There are missing cats. There are women who for the wounded heroes serve as, in Murakami’s term, “mediums” between the spiritual realm and reality. There are two stories that take their titles from Beatles songs. There is gratuitous use of Kafka. But the story form keeps the excesses in check. The heroin dealer has his dosages right.

As the title — borrowed from Hemingway’s second collection — indicates, this is a melancholy book. The opener concerns a widowed actor who tells his personal driver the story of his desire to take revenge on one of his dead wife’s lovers. The revenge plot turns into a form of talk therapy. The driver — a young woman who’s “not what you’d call cute,” according to the agent who hires her — fits the comic healing role, with the wife as the mystic absence, in the usual Murakami female dichotomy. The result is a wholesome therapeutic bond and a story that draws its odd power from the deflation of a revenge plot. Elsewhere there’s a 30-something housewife who serves a shut-in — a prisoner, it seems — as his “support liaison,” sleeps with him during her visits to drop off groceries, and as pillow talk tells him stories from her life, including one about stalking a teenage crush. One of the subtle effects of these stories is their way of having men see other men through women’s eyes and vice versa.

Men Without Women is not without the sort of dopey but endearing metaphors that Murakami is famous for. A womanizing plastic surgeon who falls in love for the first time (abandonment will cause him to waste away like a concentration-camp inmate) says his heart is entwined with his beloved’s “like we’re two boats tied together with a rope. Even if you want to cut the rope there’s no knife sharp enough to do it.” A man whose wife has cheated on him remembers the events that led to the revelation as a “mixed up jigsaw puzzle in his mind”; heartbreakingly, when he takes a new lover, he finds cigarette burns on her back “like a swarm of worms.” The story that misfires, “Samsa in Love,” reverses Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” by having its hero wake up one morning as Gregor Samsa, unaware of what sort of being he was before. A hunchbacked woman arrives to do locksmith work on his house and he’s aroused by her because as she walks up the stairs, she resembles an insect. If Murakami goes to Sweden this winter, that’s not the one that punched his ticket.

What Is It About Haruki Murakami That Mesmerizes People?