Like many of you, I no longer hold my breath for Murakami to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. For some reason, they don’t see the brilliance or the depth in his work. Every year I hope for it, and every year I am disappointed. I’ve read some pretty depressing articles that try to explain why he has yet to win the prize. While he is by no means a perfect writer, it does seem that everything he publishes turns to gold. We all read it, and if I’m honest, we all DEVOUR it. I don’t just devour his work, but the works that his novels allude to, outright name, or touch in anyway. How many of you are like me?
WHAT IS READING BEYOND MURAKAMI?
Reading beyond Murakami is a way to appreciate his works on a deeper level. These three novels are written on the shoulders of giants. The extra reading and ideas mentioned below will illuminate the stories you already know and probably love. Some of the works listed here are explicitly mentioned in the novels while others are alluded to. Some are never mentioned at all, but they will help readers understand some of the underlying themes running through the novels.
When thinking about the underlying message of a narrative, it’s best to keep in mind that writers rarely begin their stories knowing that they want to communicate some grand idea about love or loss or death, or in Murakami’s case, identity, memory, and truth. If writers reflect on their process, they emphasize discovery, adventure, and even curiosity to know what will happen to the characters. They are just as eager as we are to see them react to unexpected circumstances.
I say all this because analyzing the philosophies, thinkers, or influences of any given novel is not designed to take away from or overwhelm the meaning of the story. There is so much we learn from the characters of each of these books. The theoretical concepts explored in the extra readings I mention below, helps ground each story. Even though Murakami’s readers often find it difficult to identify with one of these stock protagonists in bizarre circumstances, these deeper concepts and themes do resonate with us because they tap into universal themes and metaphors. Reading beyond Murakami is important if we want to know why these books resonate so deeply.
There is a saying in biblical interpretation that you always use scripture to interpret scripture, and I would argue the same for Murakami. Use Murakami to interpret Murakami. Once you read one of his works, you are far more capable of reading and understanding his others. This is why I suggest people should read Murakami’s works in a certain order. Even so, once you read some of the influences of each story, you will start to understand and appreciate his other works on a deeper level.
**When I can, I hyperlink to the article or an online version of the reading. Otherwise, the link will take you to where you can buy the work on Amazon. While I give a VERY brief overview of the work, my goal here is to help you open your eyes to the way it relates to Murakami’s work. It is up to each of you to read and study the theoretical concepts in the original work to connect with the works of Murakami on a deeper level. Be sure to read the end of the blog post for a special offer on how to do that. Oh, and spoiler alert. Don’t read what I write about any of the novels you haven’t read yourself. Inevitably, I have to talk about the endings of some of the books.
I have no idea if these thinkers were on Murakami’s radar at all when he wrote this book. Much of their work was published before Murakami gave literary birth to Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, but who really knows? I wrote a 90 page thesis on the connection between these two works, but I will save you from most of the academic jargon and sum it up for you. Basically, these thinkers articulate an unconscious mind that is productive and machine-like. The clincher, though, and where they differ from Freud, and Lacan after him, is that they theorize that the product the unconscious mind makes is real.
Much of the plot of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World separates the two worlds (oscillating chapters, unique pronouns for each protagonist, and entirely different settings), but there is even more that brings the two worlds together leading up to the grand finale. Ultimately, what happens in the unconscious part of the Dreamreader’s mind directly influences the conscious mind as embodied by the Calcutec. This book, (and the 2010 film, Inception after it) represents the theories introduced by Deleuze and Guattari in really fascinating ways. Once you read these thinkers, you will see their ideas everywhere, especially in Murakami’s writings.
- Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
- The Structure of the Unconscious by Sigmund Freud
- The Mirror Stage by Jacque Lacan
- Course in General Linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure
- The Divided Self: An Existential Study in Sanity and Madness by R.D. Laing
Simulacra & Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
The first chapter of Baudrillard’s book articulates this concept called hyperreality. This is really fun to teach because it’s not that hard to grasp. Like most theories, once you understand it, you see it everywhere. Essentially, it deals with appearance and reality, so a little background knowledge on Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is helpful. The prisoners in the allegory see only shadows when staring at the wall. Those figures are all that is real, and the prisoners have no idea they are merely shadows pointing to substance. Essentially, the appearance was their reality. Said another way, the representation was their reality.
Okay, so hold that idea in your mind. What Baudrillard does is take the allegory one step farther. He conceives of this idea that the representation is more real than the real. Murakami, and The Matrix after him, follow this line of thought to look at the real world consequences of what takes place in the realm of the represented. Yes, it’s a realm… of a sort.
The tension builds as Toru Okada tries to understand it intellectually and emotionally, “I tried to convince myself that it was a hallucination caused by the combination of darkness and fatigue. But in the end, I had to recognize its truth.”
- Twilight of the Idols by Friedrich Nietzsche
- On Exactitude in Science by Jorge Luis Borges
- The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord
This drama is the greatest Greek tragedy of all time, and it really is foundational in understanding our culture because it is one of the most referenced stories of all time. While the plot is actually summed up in Kafka on the Shore, the original work is worth reading for the subtle nuances that directly relate to Murakami’s novel. The first, and I would argue one of the most powerful parallels, is what Oedipus says when the tragedy opens:
I would not have you speak through messengers,
And therefore I have come myself to hear you–
I, Oedipus, who bear the famous name.
Oedipus is on a journey to find answers. At times, Murakami spells out the similarities without requiring his reader to know the original work. In the first few pages of the novel, we learn Kafka, with his very own famous name, leaves home on a journey of his own, searching for answers. Before leaving, he takes one last look at his sister and gives an obvious nod to Greek tragedies:
“My sister’s looking off to the side so half her face is in shadow and her smile is neatly cut in half. It’s like one of those Greek tragedy masks in a textbook that’s half one idea and half the opposite. Light and dark. Hope and despair. Laughter and sadness. Trust and loneliness.”
Through exploring the texts that shape this novel, we begin to understand what John Updike means when he writes, “Murakami is a tender painter of negative space.”
- The Dissolution of the Oedipus Complex by Sigmund Freud
- Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges
- The Trial by Franz Kafka
In case you missed it, Murakami is schedule to publish a new nonfiction work on November 15. It’s called Absolutely on Music: Conversations. Haruki Murakami and his friend, Seiji Ozawa, the former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, sit down to talk about music and writing. If you recall from his memoir, Murakami owned a jazz bar in Tokyo when he began writing his first book. One might argue music is buried deeper in his soul than writing.
From what I understand, the conversations between Murakami and Ozawa took place over two years. I imagine they are entirely thoughtful, articulate, and refined. Naturally, Jay Rubin translates it into English for us. If you recall, he is the author of Murakami and the Music of Words, so he is already deeply familiar with the ins and outs of Murakami’s passion for music. Definitely check out Rubin’s work if you haven’t yet; he has some great insight into Murakami’s work. Is it weird I think about how Jay Rubin has to crawl inside Murakami’s head to translate his work? What an interesting place that might be. Translating is different from interpreting, right? You become the words, and in this case, the music.
You might want to mark your calendars for a highly anticipated collection of short stories due out in May of 2017: Men Without Women. There are seven stories in this collection. According to Amazon’s description, all of the men within these tales find themselves alone. The circumstances sound similar to so many of his protagonists we know and love. This theme of loneliness and isolation is one that touches almost every one of his stories. I’m anxious to see how it evolves and interested to see what we’ll learn about identity. Here is the book teaser on Amazon:
“Across seven tales, Haruki Murakami brings his powers of observation to bear on the lives of men who, in their own ways, find themselves alone. Here are vanishing cats and smoky bars, lonely hearts and mysterious women, baseball and the Beatles, woven together to tell stories that speak to us all.”
I preordered both of these and cannot wait to chat with you all about them. Nobel Prize or not, he deserves to be read by his biggest fans.
A NEW MURAKAMI COURSE
If some of the concepts outlined above seem a little hard to grasp, that’s because they are. I’m excited to announce that I’m designing a course, Reading Beyond Murakami, to take the Murakami fan even deeper into the novels we know and love.
Together we’ll appreciate the great thinkers and ideas that influence his stories. If you want to dig into hyperreality, linguistics, memory, metaphysics, psychology, and so much more, then this course is for you. You can join the waiting list and download my free eBook, A Haruki Murakami Reading Guide HERE.
Reading Beyond Murakami
A new course series starting in early 2017 takes readers, fans, and students of Haruki Murakami even deeper into his mind-bending worlds one novel at a time.
Enrollment is open for a limited time. Join our Murakami newsletter for all of the details.
When you join, you'll receive a copy of our free eBook, "A Haruki Murakami Reading Guide."