I Really Tried to Like Haruki Murakami

Where do I even start with this?

You could say that this is really a story about my own narcissism, at least to start. I’d maybe heard Murakami’s name in passing, and inevitably seen his paperbacks hocked in the windows of the Books-A-Millions, Waterstones & Borders (R.I.P.) I’d been frequenting for years.

But the first time I consciously encountered Haruki Murakami’s work came a few years ago when I was 19. A fellow amateur writer I was close to read a short story I’d written, enjoyed it and immediately brought up Murakami as a comparison for my writing style.

Did I like that my writing so easily drew comparisons to another author? The egomaniac in me said hell no – I’m a special butterfly with a perspective unlike anyone else. How dare you?

But of course the other 95% (90%?) of me knew that was ridiculous – it would be interesting to read a fully realized work by someone that writes, at least according to one person with a literary opinion I respect, similarly to how I do.

So I borrowed a copy of “Norwegian Wood” … that I don’t think I read even a single page of.

Fast forward 2 years to November 2020, and it’s just a couple days before I’m set to be forced to leave London. A 14-day hotel quarantine awaits in Sydney, so I decided to stock up on books to read.

Biographies/autobiographies of musicians are a staple of my reading so I picked up one about Billie Holiday. “Life: A User’s Manual”, a novel by Georges Perec – poor decision. I’d coincidentally been reading lots of Japanese novels in the last few months as well, so I grabbed “The Guest Cat” by Tikashi Hirade, and sitting next to it was… “Norwegian Wood”.

Why not?

A couple days later I arrived at my surprisingly spacious box in Sydney I’d call home for the next fortnight. I did my best to settle into a routine built around our scheduled meals, dutifully dropped off at the door with a knock and flurry of footsteps at the same time each day.

Wake up at 7. Work out as best I could with nothing but a resistance band and a small patch of carpet at my disposal.

Breakfast was dropped off at 8, which I’d quickly pull inside before finishing up my workout and getting in a quick shower. Eat, try to make the most of the time zone overlap I had with the UK, responding to messages/calls, and if I was lucky watch whatever game was on ESPN (such as Tom Brady’s 1st of several spankings at the hand of the Saints during his Bucs tenure).

Lunch at 12, usually including a TimTam which motivated me far more than it should’ve. Wrestle with the mountain of bureaucracy that comes with moving to another country until 3. ‘Free’ time to do whatever until dinner arrived at 7.

And after dinner, start to wind down with a book.

I decided to start with “Norwegian Wood”, which had accidentally become my most anticipated read since the last Percy Jackson book came out a decade before.

While I didn’t really see the parallels between the two of us as writers, I was enjoying the book. Murakami’s narration is relaxed, yet detailed. He exhaustively captures actions, mindsets and proclivities, rather than the exact shape of tables in the cafe his characters are getting coffee in. We have that in common – I like to focus on my characters a lot more than physical settings.

I like novels to have some fantastical or surreal element, but a well-developed set of characters who drive the story forward with actions you believe is far more important to my enjoyment of a book. “Norwegian Wood” certainly has that going for it.

Calling a book ‘an easy read’ is usually a backhanded compliment. Perhaps it’s better to describe Murakami’s style as ‘a comfortable read’ – it’s really easy to get pulled into his rhythm.

Overall, my time with “Norwegian Wood” was going well. Until I got about halfway through the novel.

If you’ve read “Norwegian Wood” you probably know what I’m talking about when I say there’s a character with a, um, problematic back-story we’re told at this point in the novel. And not in a ‘wow that wouldn’t fly today’ kind of way, in a ‘wow that still wouldn’t have been ok in the 60’s’ kind of way.

I won’t spoil anything specific, but I will say the nonchalant way the worst details of the story were ignored and other aspects of it were emphasized as wrong by Murakami put me off continuing with the book.

Confused, I took a shallow dive into the internet to see what people thought of this part of the book. To my surprise there was almost no mention of it, though the few that did actually bring it up were just as put off as I was.

I read “The Guest Cat”, but that only took a couple sittings and turned out to be pretty meh. I started “Life: A User’s Manual”, quickly getting bored with Perec incessantly trying to prove how smart he was. “Norwegian Wood” was sitting right there, bookmark resting almost directly in the middle of the pages.

I hate not finishing stories. Whether it’s a book, an album, a movie, a video game, even if I’m not enjoying the experience at all, I really struggle not to see a piece of media, art, whatever you want to call, through to the end. Some things take a while to get going. Others only show their merits when experienced in full. If I’m going to declare that I don’t like something, I think it’s only fair to give it a full shake.

There was the narcistic ‘why did someone think of me’ element at play, but I’d also heard plenty of rave reviews of “Norwegian Wood” in the years since that comparison was made, and even more in my attempt to validate my aversion to finishing the book.

And y’know I was gonna be locked in a room for another week.

I pushed on, hoping Murakami was presenting events in a certain way for the reader to make their own decisions on what was or wasn’t moral. Again, without spoiling, there’s no indication of any self-awareness in the writing.

All in all “Norwegian Wood”, subject matter notwithstanding, didn’t blow me away. It’s satisfyingly wrapped up, engagingly written as mentioned. Themes of love, grief & self-discovery are handled with more tact, but I don’t feel that the book has anything particularly poignant or moving to say.

Months passed, and I’d long been freed from quarantine. Now re-settled in Melbourne, just before we went back into full lockdown I was in a bookstore looking for a new book.

Now, regardless of how I felt about the author, if a book is titled “Hard-Boiled Wonderland & the End of the World” I have to read the blurb.

And damn it, it pulled me in. A dual narrative, one sci-fi noir, the other a soft fantasy all intertwined in some way? Not only was I intrigued as to how Murakami’s writing style would fit into genre writing, it sounded like the exact flavor of grounded unrealism I love.

So against my better judgement, I bought it. And then my boy Haruki spent way too much of the first ten pages fixating on a woman’s weight, taking his narrator through a little inner monologue about ‘chubby women’.

I didn’t touch it for months.

Imagine my surprise then when I move back to London, start my Creative Writing & Publishing MA at City, and continue to hear nothing but high praise for “Norwegian Wood” & Murakami over the 1st term. Especially considering our programme is almost entirely made up of women.

I’m far from someone who lets other people’s opinions shape my own without reasoning. But I must’ve been missing something? In 2021, in a city as progressive as London, on a Uni course in the English department how were people cool with this guy?

With an abundance of time on my hands during our break from Uni despite the fact everyone else was back into the swing of full-time work, I decided I was going to finish “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World” a couple weeks ago.

In the immortal, infamous, idiotic words of George W. Bush “Fool me once shame on you… and fool me can’t get fooled again.” Should’ve listened.

It was…fine? Fine at best, boring & flaccid at worst. The same relaxed, digressive narration which this time bled into the dialogue. Despite having “The End Of the World” in the title, meant to be taken as it sounds, everyone in the book is annoyingly nonchalant about basically everything, in almost every circumstance.

No one is given a proper name – they’re exclusively referred to by their profession, or in a couple cases by a nickname based on their appearance. For instance, the girl (yes girl, turns out she’s 17) from the first ten pages is predominantly referred to as… the chubby girl. And she’s regularly sexualized.

The only defense of this I can possibly present is that she’s a badass, used as a McGuffin character capable of doing basically anything the plot needs her to be able to do, and easily the best character in the book, not that that’s a particularly high bar.

Again though, even if you ignore the misogyny, I still didn’t find anything outstanding here. It’s an exploration of identity, consciousness, and what it means to be alive, that much like “Norwegian Wood” doesn’t really have anything interesting to say about any of those things.

The world building is purposefully vague and dare I say, half-boiled, clearly in an effort to keep parallels between our world and this slightly adjusted one clear. It leaves you wanting more though – either more unrealistic elements, or stronger points being made with those parallels to justify the wafer-thin sci-fi/fantasy aspects. Worst of all the bulk of the plot is explained in the single most info-dumpy chapter of a book I’ve ever read, to incredibly underwhelming, unentertaining effect.

So 4 years later where do I find myself with Haruki Murakami? In a phrase…

Not mad, just disappointed. And a little mad.

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