Author: Haruki Murakami, Jay Rubin (translator)
Type: Fiction, novel
I read it: December 2013
I turned 30 the month I read this book, so I had a bit of relating with the protagonist, Toru Okada. I also proposed to my now-fiance the night I finished the final page, so the ruminations on marriage and general life direction were keen. But mostly I liked the sinking feeling that comes with reading Murakami. Not sinking in a sick-to-your-stomach way, but more like sinking into a bed with layers of sheets and a thick comforter. Some kind of fuzz envelops you while reading. The ordinary becomes extraordinary, and vice versa. I remember from Kafka On the Shore that a primary strength of Murakami was his focus on physical descriptions, especially of mundane acts. It helps that as the book gets weird and a little unsettling, we read the details of Toru making a sandwich. This groundedness gives the author a long leash to unground things as he pleases. Everything is so tangible–until it’s not. The reading experience echoes the protagonist’s own: “It felt strange for me, as a real, live human being, to enter such a world.”
The main takeaway for me was the necessary balance between controlling your life when appropriate, while also learning to drift in its current. The character May Kasahara claims that Toru risks too much denial and turning away, instead of acceptance, and is punished “by the world you tried to get rid of, or by the self you tried to get rid of.” Toru ponders these things in a well or through others’ strange stories, and must make his own meaning. That is the other key idea, which I thought Murakami hinted at by inserting some nods and winks about the risk of trying to read too much clarity into a tale like this. For example:
- “The problem could be that I’m not explaining it very well, but I think it’s because they’re not listening very well.”
- Explanations were rejected as some kind of evil that could only destroy the films’ “reality.”
- Without explanation, she would reverse chronological order or suddenly introduce as a major character someone she had never mentioned before. … It was necessary to make careful deductions, though no amount of deduction could work in some cases.
Indeed, it seems a reader will be disappointed if he or she expects some clean-cut purposes and plot resolutions. After all, “no place has everything you need,” and neither does this book. You have to meet it halfway, and give instead of take. If so, it’s possible to align with Toru Okada at the end, when his head still swirls but he realizes: “I might not care to know the answers to these questions by then.” Maybe the questions are enough.