A young man forgets the name of a woman with whom he has been in love. She smoked lots of cigarettes, drank lots of coffee and read lots of books. “There,” he says. “That’s everything I know about her.”
A young woman recalls, dimly, that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and the Soviet cosmonauts made the news in the same year. For that reason she calls Kerouac a Sputnik. When informed that it’s the wrong word, she replies, “Beatnik—Sputnik. I can never remember those kinds of terms. It’s like the Kenmun Restoration or the Treaty of Rapallo. Ancient history.”
It’s 1984, that Orwellian year, and a young woman named Aomame—“green beans,” in Japanese—leaves a taxicab on a gridlocked Tokyo highway, drops into a rabbit hole and enters an alternate universe.
“Things are not what they seem.” So says the maker of those tales, Haruki Murakami, in the opening pages of the last story, the sprawling 2011 novel 1Q84. Indeed they are not, and having followed his work for years, sometimes I wonder if in his youth he found a soggy copy of Stars and Stripes in the street in occupied Japan, saw a “what’s wrong with this picture” puzzle, and divined then and there the aesthetic that has long defined his work, one of bewilderment, mutual misunderstanding, and hiccups on the continuum of space and time.
Add to that a mistrust of technology and authority. In the 1960s, a time that Murakami, who turns 65 today, seems to treasure above all others, such concerns in combination would have landed him a place on the roster of science-fiction writers. By the time Murakami arrived on the scene in the 1980s, with the exceedingly strange novel A Wild Sheep Chase, the initial temptation was to think of him as a kind of fantasist. Even today he works in this realm, if obliquely; late last October, a story of his in the New Yorker imagined a beetle taking form as Gregor Samsa, with all the rehumanizing possibilities that entails, though in a troubled time and a city “overflowing with foreign tanks and troops.”
Subsequent novels have deepened our view of Murakami—and made it that much more difficult to categorize him as anything other than a maker of literature, with perhaps the added qualification that he is a “literalist,” not much given to overt irony, and that his approach is often less anti-realistic than other-realistic, a hallmark of, yes, the best science fiction.
His admiration for the reality-bending possibilities of Franz Kafka has been a constant, as witness his 2002 novel Kafka on the Shore; he has also translated numerous American writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ursula LeGuin, Chris Van Allsburg and Raymond Carver, into Japanese. He has been an admired if not widely emulated writer, though there are good reasons for thinking David Mitchell’s time-traveling novel Cloud Atlas to be an homage of a kind. For many years running, a whispering campaign has surrounded his name for a Nobel Prize in literature, and his body of work certainly supports him as a serious candidate—and one of the most distinctive novelists of our time.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.