Reading Murakami Haruki
I was first introduced to the fiction of Murakami Haruki as an undergraduate student in New Zealand. Since this time, I have thought a lot about the causes of Murakami’s popularity around the world. A lot is said about the Western influences in Murakami’s writing—the primarily American references to music and fiction that makes his fiction accessible to a wider audience. Yet surely Murakami’s appeal is about more than just this. It is not like other Japanese writers could mimic Murakami’s success by simply adding more Western references to their work, is it? While there are many contributing factors to Murakami’s popularity, one hint, I believe, is found in the writings of the famous American psychologist William James.
William James, brother to novelist Henry James, wrote in his classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience about what he saw as two dominant spiritual temperaments: the healthy-minded and the sick soul. Briefly explained, the healthy-minded individual is optimistic and resilient, while the sick soul, more attuned to the problem of suffering, requires some kind of second birth in order to go on living. Part of Murakami’s continued appeal, I would argue, is explained by his ability to appeal to both temperaments simultaneously and in a way that fits comfortably with the contemporary zeitgeist.
One common way of seeing Murakami is as a writer of urban-based, lifestyle novels. Characters cook meals, listen to music, and take pleasure in simple personal and consumer choices. This feature of Murakami’s writing can blend in the public imagination with Murakami’s own public persona: a happily married man with no children who finds pleasure in writing, exercise, music, and food. This is James’ healthy-minded temperament personified. Critics often turn this around to emphasise the apolitical and detached nature of Murakami’s writing, but there is undoubtedly also an irresistible appeal to the typical Murakami protagonist, someone who lives life on their own terms and who finds fulfilment in simple pleasures.
A second way of seeing Murakami is as a difficult writer (thematically if not stylistically) who plays with his readers while never offering them resolutions. This too can be placed in a negative light, with critics emphasising the ephemeral, game-playing nature of Murakami’s fiction, but denying it any deeper significance. Yet it might also be seen as an example of James’ sick soul temperament. In Murakami’s narratives characters travel down wells, journey to remote islands, or plough deep into archetypal forests, and there confront all of the great themes of human existence: morality, sexuality, death, and violence. Eventually, one also sees examples in his stories of the kinds of rebirths James writes about. There is an underlying mythic structure to this journey, but one equally in keeping with our postmodern times. Murakami’s fiction hits the right note for those who are longing for these deep inner journeys of the sick-soul but who are sceptical of the traditional mythical structures on offer.
Murakami, I predict, will continue to divide critics. For his loyal base of readers, however, his perfect blend of healthy-minded protagonists forced into sick-soul journeys will remain a recipe too irresistible to resist.