The Rising Cult of Murakami

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It’s been a long year and a half for the English-speaking members of the cult of Haruki Murakami. His latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, was released in Japan in April 2013 and we’ve been waiting patiently for the English translation. We were forced to watch as it was released in Germany, Holland, and Spain topping the best seller list in each country while we sat twiddling our reading glasses. Finally, at midnight tonight, our years of pilgrimage end.

If you’re unfamiliar with Haruki Murakami, you’d be something of an anomaly. He is arguably the most popular living author on the planet. When his last book was released, the nearly 1000-page epic 1Q84, bookstores across many countries including Japan, England, and the United States stayed open into the morning with eager fans lining up around the block waiting to get their hands on a copy. For many bookstores this was the first time they’d had a midnight release since the final installment of the Harry Potter series in 2007.

In his own way, Murakami has become a global sensation. His novels have been translated into 50 languages, tours are given in different cities in Japan around places he’s mentioned in his books, and he’s developed a massive fan base in the historically difficult, post 1960s 18-39 age range. The anticipation for his new novel has many bookstores in the English-speaking world keeping their doors open late again and even Patti Smith is getting excited, writing the cover story of this past week’s New York Times Sunday Book Review.

Pinning down the reason for Murakami’s popularity isn’t easy. Critics for years have claimed it’s the mix of pop-culture references and his western influenced writing style, blended with the isolation and detachment of a post World War II Japan. But explanations like that always felt hollow to me. There is something within Murakami’s work that resonates on a much deeper level with a lot of people around the world that goes beyond cultural and class borders, something internal.

I’ve passed his books off on dozens of friends over the years as a social experiment to see why I and so many others are drawn to him, and others aren’t. They seemed to always fall into two categories. Not quite love and hate, but more love and meh. Either you fell hard and became committed; or it was a boring one night stand that couldn’t get you off. There was hardly ever an in-between.

As far as I can understand the pull of Murakami, it’s something like this – he speaks for a certain segment of society. Personally, I’ve never experienced an author whose writing sounds as if it was my own thoughts explained clearly in a way I couldn’t quite articulate them myself. His narrative voice is nearly continuous through all his novels; the plots and characters change, but the perspective doesn’t. He has the ability to explain the oddness of everything normally and show how everything normal is odd. For the people who connect with this worldview, Murakami is able to invoke intense sensations. Maybe it’s a yearning for something familiar yet vague, a fading memory or a distant thought; he explains the daily whimsical breezes of the mind.

It doesn’t surprise me when people don’t get it. It’s not that they’re dense or shallow, they’re just a different kind of person. Often I find myself sitting in bars or cafes arguing the merits of Murakami to some like-minded literary enthusiast who thinks his work is garbage. Fair be it for them to think that. But in the end, it doesn’t matter what either of us think. The importance of Murakami goes beyond fandom and disdain.

Either you fell hard and became committed; or it was a boring one night stand that couldn’t get you off. There was hardly ever an in-between.

We live in a paradoxical day and age where humans have reached the highest literacy rate in history, but a majority of people can’t concentrate on reading anything over 140 characters. Whether you like him or not, Haruki Murakami is the most important author on the planet. He is the great hope in the post-apocalyptic literary society we live in. There is no one who creates the same hysteria in contemporary adult literature, and hopefully he is ushering in the resurgence of reading. Seriously though, isn’t it goddamn great to see midnight line-ups, pre-orders and obsessive fans that aren’t clamoring for Justin Bieber? It’s all for a 65 year-old Japanese man who writes about parallel worlds, women with ears so beautiful they’re magic, and talking cats.

Murakami never intended to become a novelist. Just before finishing college in the early 70s, he opened a Jazz bar in Tokyo and spent his nights surrounded by music, cigarette smoke, and whisky. Then one day while attending a Japanese League baseball game, supposedly at the moment the bat of an American, Dave Hilton, connected with the ball to hit a double, Murakami had an idea; he could write a novel. He left the stadium, bought some paper and a pen, and began that night. Over the next few months he wrote what became Hear the Wind Sing and mailed the only copy of the manuscript to a local competition. He won first place.

Before the publication of his third novel, The Wild Sheep Chase, he closed the bar and dedicated himself to writing full-time. However, it was the publication of Norwegian Wood in 1987 that changed everything. It’s often referred to as The Catcher in the Rye of Japan and when released, sold millions of copies instantly making him an overnight celebrity in his home country.

As his books began to be translated into other languages, his devoted fans grew outside of Japan. In the late 90s and early 2000s, he went from cult hero, to literary global superstar but still managed to keep the essence of what makes him special. Of course some books are better than others, and opinions vary, but the cult just keeps growing and growing. However, the thing that really makes Murakami unique is his audience. Typically the highest grossing authors sell to either children and young adults, or people over 50 years old. Murakami’s audience has always been in the middle of these two groups. The TV and video games generation that supposedly doesn’t read.

According to R.R. Bowker LLC and the 2012 U.S. Book Consumer Demographics & Buying Behaviors guide; in 2011 the leading book sales demographic changed for the first time from the Baby Boomers to Generation Y – the men and women born between 1979-1989. This is the same year as Murakami’s American release of 1Q84. Undoubtably, this is not solely because of Murakami. Many authors have found ways to connect with the latest lost generation, but none more-so than Murakami.

I majored in Literature in college and consider myself well read. To be honest, when I first heard of Murakami years ago I never thought I’d become a fan. He seemed like the hip guy to read for people that didn’t actually read. But for the cult of Murakami, everyone has their own how I found him story. David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas, and other bestsellers, attributes much of his influence in becoming a writer to when he taught English in Hiroshima and encountered the work of Murakami. In an interview in 2005 he explained how he’d read Norwegian Wood in “one headlong rush, sitting in a coffee shop, unable to pay my bills, ride my bike and cycle home”. He continued, “Devotees of Haruki Murakami not only remember the books, but we remember where we were when we first read them.”

For me, fittingly, it involves a period after being affected by two women years ago. I’d just lived in Taiwan for a year and my girlfriend at the time always told me I had to read him. She said she’d never felt more connected to any character than Naoko in Norwegian Wood (however, once I read it, she was definitely more of a Midori). I left her and Taiwan to wander aimlessly for 6 months around Asia. Along the way I met a Japanese woman who became my traveling companion and not-quite-girlfriend. She often spoke of Murakami as well. After a few weeks, our roads diverged and we went our separate ways on the morning of my birthday. Feeling lonely, I bumped into a German friend I’d met weeks before who gave me a present: a pre-rolled joint of opium, which I saved. Days later I found Norwegian Wood in a book exchange box in Tad Lo, a quiet town in Southern Laos located next to a waterfall. I read the entire book in a day, lying in a hammock listening to water pass by my cabana. It left me feeling lost as if I was Toru, the protagonist and narrator who ends the novel with this;

“Where was I now? I had no idea. No idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again, I called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place.”

A place that was no place, a sentiment that I had never been able to articulate, but somewhere I seemed to find myself often. I smoked opium alone and starred at the stars, thinking about the book and the people who brought me there until I eventually fell asleep. That was the only time I’d ever smoked opium, but I’ve read Norwegian Wood six times.

Since then, I’ve read every novel Haruki Murakami has written, many multiple times too. I’m an admitted member of the cult, and now, hours from his latest release I’m waiting to see if Murakami can speak for me again; to explain my thoughts in a way that I’m unable to. For myself, and the rest of the colorless members – we’re ready to end our most recent pilgrimage. But unfortunately, once we finish this book, the years of pilgrimage begin again.

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