The Booky Man: Murakami Fiction is the Weirdest

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Way weird. So weird you have to hold the arm of the chair when you read. Or feel for a seatbelt. Or just pinch yourself.

That weird.

Okay, I know what you’re going to say. We’ve dealt with those Latin Americans we’ve been reading for years, the magical realists. How about the kinds of stories they write, when butterflies burst out of open mouths and when beanstalks pop up in fields overnight—poof, like that—and then the pods split open and—my goodness, look—we see tiny little green heads that sing La Bamba in thirty-part harmony?

You want weird? How about, you say, a book like Hopscotch, by Julio Cortazar, written so that the fiction reads like the picture on a box of Morton salt? You know that famous Morton logo. There’s a young girl. She merrily holds an umbrella against what just might be a true sign of the end times, a rainfall of salt.

The young girl carries under her arm a box of—guess what? Morton salt … and on that box under that girl’s arm there’s another young girl with another umbrella, and she’s holding still another box of Morton salt and so on forever and ever. Merry girls hold boxes of Morton salt and umbrellas to infinity.

The stories of Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentinian Homer, feel like that salt box too, like dreams within dreams inside of dreams, big dream fish eating little dream fish that are eating even littler ones, and on and on down to fish molecules, fish atoms.

But, listen—Japanese fiction is weirder than that. And the wonderful weirdest of all is Haruki Murakami.

Murakami is famous for his accessible-but-shapeshifting little parables that come up from the pages all wobbly and beautiful and unformed, like bubbles from a bubble pipe. Iridescent, they gradually take shape, perfect shape, and float around in your mind. Then they pop and leave a little spray on the insides of your skull…and you wonder what in the name of Kanji, the Japanese god of literature, have you just read?

Murakami—whose novel Norwegian Wood is being adapted to film by Anh Hung Tran with a soundtrack from Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood—became widely known in the West, celebrated and notorious, after Kafka on the Shore in 2002. It’s a long, odd, pop-art dreamwork, and worth your reading time…if you want to know the world’s weirdest fiction.

Or check out the 2006 volume of 24 short stories called Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. For my yen, it illustrates better than any other text I’ve read translated from the land of the samurai, the curious edge-of-nightmare, waking-dream quality that typifies the cutting-edge of much Japanese writing today.

You don’t have a chance if you bring normal logic to Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. Think of yourself stepping onto the part of those old medieval maps labeled Terra Incognito. Stories are short vignettes, some nearly plotless. They do not meet the demands of traditional western Aristotelian critical consideration. Instead, they ask that you summon something subconscious, something buried under logic, that stirs and wakens as these stories offer themselves, like sacrifices, to it.

One story, called “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story” concerns a man who wakes one morning to find…well, a poor aunt growing from his body. Yes, a poor aunt’s body growing right out of his own body.

If it sounds like Kafka, who seems more and more to be a pillar of dark fire to our modern writers, that’s as it should. Kafka’s most famous character, Gregor Samsa, woke from uneasy dreams in “The Metamorphosis” to find he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous insect. Something like a roach. But at least he didn’t have a poor aunt growing out of his side.

In “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes,” a man’s prize recipe must be judged by nightmarish murderous birds. We eat an old lady in “The Man-Eating Cats.” And, speaking of eating, a protagonist treats himself to a fine meal of spaghetti in “The Year of Spaghetti.” Only, just as the title suggests, it’s a meal of spaghetti every day for 365 days.

Murakami’s critical acceptance in the West has a great deal to do with the magical realists, especially Borges, whom the Japanese writer admits is a hero. There’s also Kafka, and Gogol, and even good old late Kurt Vonnegut, who was home, home on the strange quite a bit during his inventive career. Just like all these masters of metaphor, Murakami slips through the silver membrane between life and dream as effortlessly as Alice through her looking glass.

I’ll recycle here a line from a review of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman that I wrote in August 2006 for Paste. It was the truest thing I could say then about the work of Murakami…and it’s the truest thing still.

“Think of the meanings in Murakami fiction as koi, those beautiful ornamental Japanese fish. They wait, completely still, at the bottom of a black pool. When it is time to be seen, up they rise, gold and gorgeous and showy for one patient reader, cream and black and mysterious for the next.”

This will be your most rewarding approach to Murakami. Check your logic at the door, enter a pop-art world, full of references contemporary and ancient alike. Keep your eyes peeled…but know you’re dreaming with eyes wide open.

You’ll leave the fiction with your head aching, confused. But in an hour, or a day, or a week, out of the depths will float the great “aha.” You’ll get it…whatever “it” is for you.

Sense will come, and the beauty, always the beauty. The beauty of dreams. Dreams with bubbles in them. And koi. And just about anything else you can’t possibly imagine.