What does one make of Murakami.Is he a surrealist, post-modernist, writer of modern Japan, detective/sci-fi metaphysical writer or a writer of the vacuum/emptiness that exists in us and the alienation we feel . He is all of them and he is none of them too. If what I have said is confusing to someone, then maybe Murakami is not for them. Just go for the ride. You either hate him as a fake, charlatan or love him, there is no middle ground with him.I personally enjoy his work, contemplate on what he is trying to say and make some inferences, that's all. If one expects a clear story, well defined characters, a moment of epiphany, or at the least a resolution to the story you are going to be disappointed. Murakami is a enigma who can be enjoyed or hated as per your orientation, but trying to decipher him or his novel fully, well good luck to the person.
The characters in his novel don't actually vary much and as such it is almost a template. In most of his works, the main protagonist is a mid 30's man, single/divorced with no current job sometimes(not out of any laziness or lack of talent) and one who has an is stuck in ennui. He is one who does not get flustered by even the most surreal things happening to him, he views them almost as an outsider like in some kind of mild stupor. He is also capable to action when required, but is one who prefers to go with the flow and being reactive rather than proactive. There is in most cases a woman, who, though is not a femme-fatale is mysterious enough. It is when she enters the man's life the story kicks off. His last 2 works (as translated in English), 'Kafka On the Shore' and 'After Dark' buck this trend and are a welcome change.
There is no specific story as such in his works, characters come and go, but at the undercurrent there is a serious core that is running throughout all this. 'Kafka On The Shore' has the thread of two characters who are travelling and are destined to meet and the other thread of the person's search for his mother. These are interleaved with other characters and situations. 'Norwegian wood' has the the late 60's as the background (for it's significance to youth), and also the restlessness of the young where they feel they make lack something even if outwardly they seem to have everything. At a base level of reading his works may seem vacuous, full of style but no substance, but I have never felt it to be so.
The concept of real/unreal have no real meaning in his works. Parallel timelines/universes, talking cats are as common in his works as the daily chore of laundry, making spaghettis etc. In a similar way, genres are also straddled effortlessly, he is a great genre bender.Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of
the World has detective elements with the surreal as does 'Dance Dance Dance', whereas Norwegian woods straddles the metaphysical and the real. 'The Wind Up Bird Chronicle' also looks at Japan's history in the second world war and as such is the novel where a social issue is taken up on a generic scale, along with touching upon urban alienation.
Alienation is one concept that is recurrent throughout his works. The main protagonist in 'The Wind Up Bird Chronicle', thinks about his wife after he comes to know she has left him. He realizes that he does not even know some basic things like the color she likes etc. They have been married for some years now, have not had any great fights, but still they has been something lacking which he has not got, till she has left him. They are symptomatic of couples who drift apart without knowing about it at all and one fine day when they realize it they are surprised, though they have been staring at the truth for a long time. Likewise, the character who commits suicide in 'Norwegian wood', he had good grades, a steady girlfriend, was socially comfortable, had a great future and yet commits suicide.
The canvas/backdrop of his works are beautifully mentioned, though it could also be the translators gift. Whether it is the description of the Mongolian province where hellish events happen or the gloomy, dark, barely lit bar that is the backdrop for most of 'After Dark', his descriptions are evocative. Music and food too are referred constantly, in fact, in 'The Wind Up Bird Chronicle', the main character is referred to as cooking several times. You get the feeling to taste the recipes mentioned by Murakami. But regards to music, his tastes which are eclectic ranging from Chopin to other jazz/blues musicians, those are over my head. This musical notes extend to his prose too.
To me, his most accomplished work is 'Kafa on the shore'. The almost whimsical nature of his earlier works and the somewhat rambling tone of 'The Wind Up Bird Chronicle' have been pared down and we get a much tighter work, though not losing any of his earlier works charm.
I would not go further than this as an introduction to Murakami. I would recommend Murakami highly, just go for it and read him. If you are still skeptical, start off with 'After Dark' which is the smallest of his novels or his short stories. It may be roller coaster, which you love or hate, but hey you may not forget that one experience, even if you do not come back to it again.
1. Some of the characters and story-lines, especially his earlier works are somewhat interrelated, so it would be better if they are read in the required order to get some context.
2. Translation Issues: There have been multiple translators, of which 'Jay Rubin' is said to be the best.