I should be responding to lovely emails from people I’ve never met. I should be writing a short story for the Esquire fall fiction contest. I should be writing something to get me through the next month, to submit to journals across the nation. But all I’m doing is sitting here, eating ice cream with strawberries and drinking milk. I’m thinking about Murakami and the novels I’ve read so far.
If I could recommend one Murakami novel I’d recommend “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” “Norwegian Wood” would be a close second, but it’s only the beginning of his mythology and his motifs. At the same time, “Norwegian Wood” has a concrete narrative, something “Wind-Up” decisively lacks.
I’m frustrated by his tendency to constantly reuse thematic material. The winding of the spring and the well motif are used in both “Norwegian Wood” and “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” In “Norwegian Wood,” both are underdeveloped, as if Murakami was experimenting with a new idea. In “Chronicle,” they are extrapolated to their full potential. The bird statue is used in both “Chronicle” and “A Wild Sheep Chase.”
All three novels feature loss, dreams, the difference between consciousness and unconsciousness, a search, women who are more interesting than the male narrator, an underachieving male narrator, women who leave or are lost, an escape from “civilized/normal society,” and lest I forget, jokes at the expense of the reader, mostly in the form of allusions and references to Western society which go over the head of the average reader. There are also fragmented narratives, sexual episodes described in graphic detail, nostalgic references, references to Japanese history, and examples of surrealism and magical realism.
If you want Murakami at his most developed, read “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” While it leaves many basic questions unanswered, it is the most complete compendium of his stylistic devices and motifs. Or maybe you could read him in chronological order to find out how the motifs develop, because that’s a very interesting way to read an author.
I wouldn’t recommend reading backwards from “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.” In fact, I would say read “Norwegian Wood” and then read “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” to see an expansion on the thematic material presented in “Norwegian Wood.”
Do not read Murakami as a representation of contemporary Japanese culture. There’s almost nothing Japanese about his work, besides the fact that most of it is set in Japan and Manchuria.