Don’t be barmy, read Murakami

After Dark

Vintage, 9780099506249, £7.99

Wow! I’m coming late to Murakami after all the literary bods have picked over his emerging oeuvre, but now I can see why such a fuss has been made about him. Lovely intense and thoughtful writing mixing reality, super-reality and magical-reality in a gentle, layered and open-ended story. Brought to mind echoes of dimly remembered William Gibson novels but this Murakami is certainly not sci-fi or even cy-fi. Now to dig some more out of the library.

Norwegian Wood

Vintage, 9780099448822, £8.99

Oh, yessssssss. Yes, yes and yes again. This is brilliant writing. Spare and lean in descriptive and dialogue terms but depicting deeply drawn characters. Who are not characters, they are people who I came to care about, to know and to know that I didn’t know. An undramatic yet unsettling plot, an intensity of perception that transfers from author to characters to readers, a way of writing that is distinctive but unshowy: these all add up to one of the best novels I’ve read in years. Now to track down his other books.

Kafka on the Shore

Vintage, 9780739455418, £8.99

Once again brilliance outshining brilliance. Deep, dense, intense, horribly scary, super-realist and magic-realist. Tangibly frightening and frighteningly tangible. Lush, lonesome and lubricious. Filled with talking cats and murdered cats and chords from another space or time or dimension or dislocated maw. Beethoven and Haydn, Schubert and Prince all pierced with a gaze as black as a corvid’s eye.

A Wild Sheep Chase

Vintage, 9780099448778, £8.99

A short Murakami – only 300pp, and seriously weird, involving a sheep which can enter a human being and take over their mind to execute a programme for world domination. Loads of strange and peculiar happenings, which are not explained – just left for you to puzzle out, connect, reject or dream about. Fascinating and so finely written, all the textures and layers simmer together like a host of dancing butterflies fashioned from rice paper. Murakami makes Japan seem way more bizarre and interesting than any of their reality TV shows.

Dance Dance Dance

Vintage, 9780099448761, £8.99

Well, there’s serendipity for you. I picked this up straight after ‘A Wild Sheep Chase’ without any idea that it was the sequel. Once again, this is a novel of crystal brilliance. Not perfect, not up to the sublimity of ‘Norwegian Wood’, but still compelling, overwhelming, intriguing and intensely complex. Every corner of Murakami’s world seems to be filled with alternative realities. Spaces appear and disappear, as do people; there are interstices where the tangible and the supernal slide, glide and collide into and out of the consciousness of the narrator. This is a disturbing novel filled with an energy that is both frenetic and laid back. While it kept me thrilled and thinking the slippery sense of liminal legerdemain stole the breath from the otherwise fully-fleshed characters and the ending, while commendably not neat left me with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. Or was it unease? If so perhaps that is the perfect reason why I should read it again.

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

Vintage, 9780099448792, £8.99

Good, excellent, better than most fiction. But not one of Murakami’s best, not up in the league of ‘Norwegian Wood’ or ‘Kafka by the Shore’. In fact, rather overlong and lacking a bit of oomph. But still intriguing, unsettling and sinuous, weaving between reality, dreams and a state that could be in-between and could be somewhere else entirely. Man leaves job, loses cat, loses wife and gains a whole new state of being revolving around, possibly, a malevolent brother-in-law, as he embarks on a quest inside himself to bring his wife back home.

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Vintage, 9780099448785, £8.99

Oh, yes. HM on top form. The world is very different now. Alternate realities bubble through alternate chapters of what seem to be two freestanding novels but which coalesce and dovetail beautifully to create one marvellously intricate, satisfying, disturbing and questioning whole. A remade world in which all function is covered in surmise and nothing is but what is not. Gorgeously rich writing filled with needle-pricks of intensity that stimulate a fresh vision of the strange reality of the mind. As good as ‘Norwegian Wood’? Close, very close.

The Elephant Vanishes

Vintage, 9780099448754, £8.99

Initially I was disappointed with this book because I want every Murakami to be a fresh delight and the opening story was almost identical to the beginning of ‘The Wind up Bird’. But then I realised that many of these stories were the working pieces that set him going with some of his novels, which gave them added interest – seeing a story develop, mutate and generate. Once again, we are in the familiarly unfamiliar territory of Murakami’s not quite this world Japan. Once again, reality slides around the page and slips off the surface of the unconscious taking you into places that you may or may not have wanted to perceive or acknowledge. Once again, the characters are carefully enfleshed through their thoughts and you feel for them, root for them and join with them. Once again, I am entertained, invigorated and left wanting more.

Sputnik Sweetheart

Vintage, 9780099448471, £8.99

A beautiful novel hiding under the light of a disingenuous blurb which emphasises certain sexual elements – lesbian awakening, affairs with older women – when really these are delicately drawn catalysts for a much more unusual, affecting and unsettling story. Murakami has created one of the most evocative and powerful portraits of the utter, utter loneliness of being I have ever read. In his usual way, playing with the edges of reality and possibility, he has fashioned a disturbingly enchanted world that feels perfectly feasible and perfectly unsettling. Unsettling because in an intense and lasting way he has unpicked and laid bare the deep, amorphous sadness, the ennui of existence and the overwhelming sense of being completely alone in a concrete cold world, that stalks me every day.

1Q84 (Book One)

Vintage, 9780099549062, £8.99

Oh the sheer, indulgent pleasure of knowing that I have only read one third of this trilogy and that there are nearly 900 more pages to go. This really is Murakami at his most elegant best with not a wasted word, great characters – complex but believable – and a tale of realities that are delicately heightened and counterpoised by anti-realities or other-realities. Alternate chapters tell two stories which you sense are closely interwoven, although there is the possibility that one story is a fiction written by the author inhabiting the other. There is the world and a world which is not the world but which is very similar to it with a few twists – such as two moons and a change of uniform for the Japanese police. There are exquisitely naturalistic descriptions of the mundane business of living and naturalistically exquisite descriptions of the non-real. Magic realism is too clumsy a label for Murakami, instead he makes a shifted reality become plausible and the impossible tangible. Lush and lovely, sexy and gentle if Books Two and Three match this in power, purity and imagination then I am in for the greatest literary treat of my year so far.

 1Q84 (Book Two)

Haruki Murakami

Vintage, 9780099549062, £8.99

Puzzled. The story continues from Book One, the main characters working their way through a series of unnervingly implausibly plausible events and travelling dual paths that might or might not converge and the writing is as lush and coolly sensual as before yet my engagement is weakened. I was interested but not gripped. Did I have to put the book down so often through boredom or because there was so much to think about? Perhaps I have reached Murakami overload. Or maybe the law of diminishing returns has kicked in as it does with so many trilogies. Which is not to say that it was not good – it was, very, especially some of the descriptions of the non-real events. Murakami does have this amazing way of making the non-real tangible yet there was something missing in this volume, something that stopped the exquisite writing from lifting into life. So, it is with slight unease that I begin Book Three – will the Murakami magic work for me again?

1Q84 (Book Three)

Haruki Murakami

Vintage, 9780099549055, £7.99

Phew. Beautiful. Beautifully layered, beautifully plotted, beautifully written and with an ending that is redemptive, not-quite-closed and satisfying. Satisfyingly pleasing in that it contains a certain amount of happiness and a happy amount of uncertainty.

The first two thirds took me over a week to read. I couldn’t cope with more than two chapters per reading session. Partly this was my own troubled state of mind. The un-nerving of reality in the novel exacerbated certain disturbances in my own relational equilibrium. There was a bleakness about the book, an impending dread, a force of dark inevitability that cut me open and left me feeling raw and chilled and upset. The two main characters, who had not met for over twenty years, seemed fated never to coalesce, although it seemed quite possible that they might collide with horrendous consequences. A third character, a misshapen add-on in the former two volumes, becomes the third line in a triangle, seemingly drawing the plot to a point, a peak, a jagged cliff from which there might be no survival.

Then I raced through the final third of book three in a morning, breathless and with heart palpitating at the potential the plot still held to swing in a myriad different directions, some dark, some lighter. The ending was more-or-less all that I could have hoped for, what I wished for. But it didn’t have to be that way. Many things were not fully explained. Many events, some characters were not explained at all. The enigmatic, time-shifting, reality-shifting was left to find its own order in my mind. If I could work it out and be happy in Murakami’s world(s) then fine – if not, well, that was fine also, if disorientating .

Whether it was simply my heightened cognisance of Murakami’s themes and drivers or whether he was inserting a new strand I’m not sure, but this novel included a great deal more, shall we say, God-consciousness, or spirituality, than I’ve previously detected. In the past I would have said that he was a novelist who acted as a divine creator, inspiring not just characters and other organisms into breathe, but also whole extremely plausible worlds. Here themes latent in the early two volumes of this trilogy were raised to the fore and the divine itself seemed to stand behind the author and beyond his total creative comprehension. The antagonists in this story, the baddies, if you will, were a religious organisation and the Little People, the unseen hands behind the action, may well have been of angelic stock – whether fallen or heaven sent was left ambiguous. One of the characters is partially defined by a prayer that she repeats throughout the books. She eventually comes to a recognition of the possibility of God despite the horror of an upbringing of in a strict, isolationist and apocalyptic Christian sect. Then there is the whole issue of her issue – her conceiving a child without her own sexual activity – a not quite parthenogenesis – and the resulting escape with her newly found partner, a flight into Egypt away from the dubious attentions of the antagonists.

Messianic musings may only be a minor theme in Murakami’s world of the two moons, but the ending, the escape the two lead characters escape back into a reality with a single moon (which is not necessarily the mono-lunar reality we started in), deliciously ratifies a presiding spirit of love lost and found, love against the odds, love that spans decades, that lives in hope, that crosses barriers of the unknown, that turns simple childish gestures into matters of great significance and which almost literally moves the spheres. In some ways this is surprisingly conventional for Murakami, yet it is deeply satisfying and closes the books with an elegiac and elemental sense that an epic conflict has been fought out in the worlds of Orwell’s Big Brother and with divine nudging the individual has triumphed.

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