Hypnagogic Hip: The Work of Haruki Murakami

As Haruki Murakami, aka Japan's greatest living author, travels west to Edinburgh International Book Festival, The Skinny takes a look at this reticent genius whose work often sits in that surreal landscape between dreams and reality

Feature by Ross McIndoe | 11 Aug 2014

In both his life and his writing, Haruki Murakami has always defied convention, playing to his own rhythm at every turn. In 1974, fresh from university and to the shock and chagrin of his friends and family, he invested all he had in a jazz bar named The Peter Cat. He and his wife worked furiously over the next few years to make the bar a success and, against the odds, the young couple's gamble soon paid off and they found themselves running one of the hottest joints in Tokyo. Then, in 1978, 30 years old and taking a rare break from his hectic work schedule to laze on the grass and take in a baseball game, the notion that he should write a novel struck from straight out of the clear blue. He had never written before, had no evidence to suggest it was something he could do and everyone attested that he would be insane to strike out in this bizarre new direction with his business doing so well. In spite of all this, he remained convinced that this was the thing that he should do, so he did. And so began the career of one of the most widely read and critically acclaimed novelists alive today.

His determination to do things his way has held true throughout his writing career, too. After his 1985 novel Norwegian Wood became an overnight sensation in Japan, he decided that the spotlight was not for him and quietly slipped off to wander Europe before settling in the US. So successful was his flight from fame that he returned to his homeland in the 90s with a name renowned across the land yet a face recognisable to almost no-one.

His time in the States also served to amplify the fascination with American culture which shines through almost all of his writing; though his works are set almost exclusively within Japan, the worlds he depicts are permeated with American brand names, pop culture references and song titles. East and West merge seamlessly together in his prose, crafting globalised tales for a globalised time. In the surreal, dreamlike world of Murakami, ideas, times and spaces spill into one another in hypnotising fashion.

His refusal to be confined by any one culture or tradition has played a major role in the astounding level of global success he has enjoyed, scooping up awards and selling out editions in nations across the world. But his mass popularity is no doubt also largely a result of the simple and almost unparalleled coolness of his writing; even in moments of high drama and great strangeness, whether discussing the world, humanity and the meaning of it all or describing the process of preparing pasta, his prose never deviates from the calm, collected manner of a story told slowly in a quiet bar.

Just last year he was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature and his latest novel Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage sold over a million copies in its first week on sale in Japan. Its critical reception has been no less rapturous, setting up this August as a momentous month for those with literary inclinations: his newest novel hits British shores on the 12th and the man himself won't be far behind, with two appearances scheduled at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. While his status as a writer soars higher than ever, his personal profile has remained conspicuously low as he continues to avoid the limelight as avidly as ever. That his events sold out in less than a day is hardly surprising then: the chance to see behind the curtain and get a glimpse at the man who stands as one of the most elusive and significant writers of the moment is no small thing.

Three Classic Murakami titles to Consider

A Wild Sheep Chase

With any author it's always interesting to go back to where it all began and check out the first steps in their literary career. Looking back to a familiar author's beginnings, you mostly find rough diamonds; the techniques and tics are all there along with that signature something that will soon burst forward into their true literary form, but for now it's all a little gawky and misshapen. Their voice doesn't carry quite right, the parts can't congeal into a single, solid whole. In the case of A Wild Sheep Chase, the trappings are present – a smooth, simple style; strange happenings and a vaguely autobiographical protagonist. The central ideas are the same as those that recur throughout Murakami's later works: a fear of faceless, authoritative organisations with great power and a deeply modern struggle for identity. Yet though the ideas are the same, it doesn't have the reach of the works which follow and seems mostly content just to bewilder and amuse: the weirdness is laid on in a more comical style and often – as in an awful lot of ardently postmodern works – seems a lot like weird for the sake of weird. Still, A Wild Sheep Chase retains both Murakami's easy style and that strange enchanting quality that makes his novels so easy to pick up and so much harder to put down.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

For his home country's literati, this was the moment Murakami truly arrived. Though he'd sold millions, amassed a devoted following and struck powerfully with the nation's younger generations, Japan's higher-browed literary establishment still saw him as a kind of of young pretender, a literary pop star. Taking no political stance and showing no social concern, Murakami's works were dismissed as populist, light and not to be taken seriously. Their fascination with American pop culture and their colloquial style were seen as vapid substitutes for real substance, their groovy nihilism dismissed as little more than adolescent apathy. All this changed with 1994's The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. In the tradition of authors writing their 'big book' to assert their place in the canon, Murakami produced a towering novel with a massive span, delving into his nation's history in order to deal with its present, bringing to light that which had been long buried. With tales inside tales leading back to the Second World War, the novel shines a light on a portion of Japan's history that, even fifty years later, it was still working hard to leave hidden in the shadows. Taking on a subject of such gravity and with such purpose, Murakami's credentials as a 'serious writer' could no longer be questioned. Written in his signature otherworldly style, colliding the harsh realities of the past with the surrealities of his own hypnotic imagination, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle made for a mesmerising rebuttal to his detractors and a powerful assertion of his importance as an author.

After Dark

In Murakami's 2004 novella After Dark, each chapter begins with a clock-face to chart the deepening darkness of a single night, starting with the final train pulling out and ending with the next morning's first pulling in. For the time in between, everyone still around is left to linger in the liminal zone between days, drifting about at the hazy hour when the city changes and nothing is quite as it is in daylight. This setting is the perfect match for Murakami's hypnagogic style and creates a place where the boundary between real and unreal softens and everything seems slightly uncanny. Such an in-between time is the natural home of in-between people: After Dark's cast is made up of those without a place, outsiders isolated from the world around them and detached from even themselves. They are around and alone in the middle of the night, struggling with the same feelings of alienation and the same thirst for human connection. Burdened by the seeming impossibility of achieving it in a world abuzz all hours with neon signs and television screens, coated completely in plastic veneers and empty slogans. This struggle to connect with one another and find meaning in the modern world lies at the heart of much of Murakami's writing, but it's in this little book that he is able to focus on it most intensely. With its hallucinatory midnight setting, it's also the book in which he brings these ideas to life in their most eerily enchanting form.

Haruki Murakami will be appearing at Edinburgh International Book Festival on 23 and 24 Aug http://edbookfest.co.uk