You should choose your idols carefully. At the last count I have about ten. Most are dead. All are remarkable. Some, such as Truman Capote were incredible writers but somewhat debatable human beings. Others like Dylan are so very iconic it’s impossible to pull them down from the pedestal upon which I have placed them and attempt to emulate any aspect of their creative process. And then there is the Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami.
My first Murakami book, intensely recommended by just about every bookish person I knew in Portland, was The Wind Up Bird Chronicles. It blew my mind and much like many of Murakami’s best-drawn characters, I clearly remember finishing the novel and immediately thereafter, finding the world a slightly different and kind of slanted sort of place. I had, honestly, never read anything like Murakami before. I didn’t understand parts of the novel and other parts of it affected me in ways I could not explain or ignore. Murakami, much like early Paul Auster has an incredible knack of making the hairs on the back of his reader’s neck stand up without giving him or her any concrete excuse for such a visceral response. He fuses detailed, oftentimes pedantic reality, with a spattering of fantastical and cerebral incidents which draw you so deep into the story it’s almost impossible to explain what you’re experiencing. Trying to describe a Murakami novel to someone who hasn’t read him, you will inevitably end up making it sound much duller, much more ordinary than the actual reading experience. Murakami is a magic realist par excellence and yet he is also, in some ways a very traditional, almost old-fashioned writer.
Much of Raymond Carver’s writing has been translated into Japanese by Murakami and perhaps in his lifelong devotion to the American short story writer, one can find small traces of his own peculiar style. Murakami’s writing is cool, logical, often stripped bare of emotion or literary flourishes much like Carver’s. He describes situations and characters analytically, no matter how fantastic they may be, and this can be a disconcerting experience for a reader used to the elaborate and occasionally bloated writing usually associated with fantasy. His sex scenes can come across as rather explicit as they are clinically described, often more biological than emotionally focused, and just as precise as his descriptions of food, geography and clothing. Murakami’s writing voice does not waiver nor change whether writing miracles and unbelievable realities or describing the noodles his protagonist is preparing for dinner. I have always envied his ability to maintain his authorial reserve throughout his novels. The talking cats, imaginary creatures and other dimensions are all the more chilling because the author coolly addresses their existence with the same unwavering voice he uses for the more mundane aspects of life. There’s a disturbing believability about Murakami’s fantasy. As such, it has always felt more prophetic than metaphorical.
There is also something determined and plodding about Murakami’s writing which I have always admired. It came as no surprise that his wonderful non-fiction book about running, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, compared the marathon running experience with its need for focus and perseverance, to the novel writing process. Murakami himself writes, “writing novels to me, is basically a kind of manual labour. Writing itself is mental labour, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labour.” This is something I have often felt, particularly as I hit the half way hump when writing a novel. Every time I approach the manuscript I have to summon up the resolve to keep going and pursue the final full stop. Murakami writes big novels. I’ve just finished the third volume of 1Q84. It’s excellent but at 1250 odd pages is also a significant commitment. As a writer who dabbles in the fantastical I’ve always struggled to maintain my energy and enthusiasm for the magical parts of my story across 100,000 words or more. After a certain point my imagination feels a little tired and realism begins seem like the easier option. Murakami is one of my idols, and deservingly so, simply because he does not make a fuss about writing. Quietly and persistently he continues to write incredible novels, sustaining the imaginative impact from page 1 right through to page 1250. His canon of work is incredibly intimidating and yet, unlike some of my more lofty idols, Murakami’s discipline and attention to craft, lays a frame work for other writers which, if not entirely achievable, is at least extremely inspiring.