Why I (Now) Avoid Reading Haruki Murakami

The person who got me into Murakami was my ex-boyfriend from a few years ago. When we met for our first date, I found him at a Borders bookstore in Fort Lee, the one on Lemoine Avenue that has been closing for the last two and a half years and is finally going to shut down completely. He was sitting in the authors K-O aisle, reading Sputnik Sweetheart on the floor.

Four months later, I picked up my first Murakami book—Norwegian Wood. It was early June, and I was parked outside of this middle school kid’s house because I was his after-school tutor. The kid wasn’t home, and it was raining and I had this book with me so I didn’t mind waiting three hours in the car. I liked the novel, but what I really liked was the actual setting (stuck in a car on a rainy spring afternoon) and circumstances (feelings of liberation during my final high school semester) I was in while reading it. I associated my first Murakami experience with those feelings, which made me continue with this contemporary Japanese literature excursion, though it was not Japanese literature in general—just very specifically Murakami, who a lot of my Japanese friends actually dislike. After I finished the book that same afternoon, my boyfriend called and we had a nice chat about it. Then we made plans for the weekend and hung up. I was in a really good mood that day.

The next book I read by Murakami I was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. I was living in Alphabet City at the time (early fall), reading and napping when I wasn’t at Hunter as a freshman or working at Baden Baden in K-town as a server from 4 PM to 3 AM. Honestly, the ending to this book made me so angry that I cried. I had read 600 pages only to come to some completely irrelevant ending that did not bring all the mounting strangeness to any resolution or conclusion, and some parts weren’t even that interesting. The book, though, had not been the only thing to provoke crying. I suppose the real reason was the exhaustion that had been accumulating from academic pressure, work pressure, and my boyfriend, who was at times both negligent and demanding. I just needed a little push to set off the tears and Murakami’s book did the job. But that wasn’t enough to turn me off of Murakami completely.

The next Murakami book I read was Sputnik Sweetheart. This was my boyfriend’s favorite book. I liked Sputnik Sweetheart because right around the time I’d finished reading it, my Lebanese-American friend told me a very peculiar story: he went to Lebanon to attend his cousin’s wedding and saw this girl, a family friend. Over the next three weeks, he did everything he could just to be in the same room as her while never working up the nerve to actually speak to her. On the last day of his trip, he found out that she was engaged, but had told his cousin that she had been watching him the entire time, too, waiting for him to come and say something to her. She had felt a connection just as strongly as he did, but neither ever spoke to each other, and now she was going to get married in Lebanon and live there while he was returning to New York.

Side note: This same friend suffered from acute acrophobia. He had an intense fear of flying and took a lot of drugs to keep himself calm during flight. His phobia was so bad that when he saw a bridge that ran over a creek that was literally a foot above water, he broke out into a sweat and refused to cross over. He preferred to wade through it. After this encounter in Lebanon, he said he did not need any sedatives during his return flight to New York. He said that his acrophobia had disappeared completely but he couldn’t for the life of him explain why. Just as he finished telling me and my co-workers this story, my boyfriend walked into the bar and joined us. I said to him, “Tony here had a Sputnik Sweetheart moment in Lebanon,” and he understood what I meant. It was nice to be able to put things that way and not have to explain myself. I enthusiastically continued my Murakami exploration.

The next book I read was Kafka on the Shore. It took me a long time to read because I was losing the ability to focus. I was also fighting a lot with my boyfriend. He hated seeing me read when I was over because he felt like it took time away from him, and since time was so precious and rare in his line of work (medicine), watching me read annoyed him a lot. Of all the books I’d read by Murakami, I found this book to be the easiest read and most memorable. But my boyfriend said that he hated it, that it was Murakami’s lamest effort yet. He said that Murakami wasn’t putting in the effort anymore because he was getting too cocky. Honestly, I felt the same way about how my boyfriend was treating our relationship at the time, but I was too young and blindly committed to leave. I continued to stick around and moved on to Murakami’s next book.

I purchased Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman—a short story collection—in November, just in time for my boyfriend’s birthday. We went to dinner at Blue Ribbon in Park Slope, ate three hundred dollars worth of food, and fought in the cab on our way back to the apartment over the difference between smoked and regular salmon. I remember a couple of stories from that book, which I had picked up and read whenever I was alone at his apartment, waiting for him to come home from class or work. There are two that stick out for me: the one about a kid with a bad ear, and the other called “Tony Takitani.” Years later, I saw a film adaptation of that story by Japanese director Jun Ichikawa. Both the film and story are terrific; they examine the effects of human solitude.

I also associate this book with an incredible shock and the MTA strike; after putting down >Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, I went to my boyfriend’s bookshelf and found a moleskin filled with unsent letters to his ex-girlfriend as well as a line about how he was no longer going to see me because he still loved and missed her. They were written over the previous summer while I was vacationing with him in Korea. I immediately left the apartment, flagged down a cab and car-pooled back to my apartment with a crazy white lady who kept trying to have a conversation with me about the weather and the MTA strike while I was busy crying. It was December, and my anthropology final exam was canceled due to the strike. The cab ride from Flatbush Avenue to Avenue A cost me twenty dollars. That same night, my boyfriend suggested that we meet at the Brooklyn Bridge. When we did, we were surrounded by a crowd of commuters. We talked about our relationship but never came to any satisfying resolution. A few days later, the strike was over, and we continued to take the train to each other’s apartments while saying and doing hurtful things to each other for another year.

The next and last book I read by Murakami is After the Quake. I read it in February, two months after my boyfriend and I broke up, and over a year after I’d read Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. I read the whole thing in bed. The only thing I remember from that book is a giant frog fighting a giant worm. They both end up dead.

Over the two-year relationship with my Murakami-fan boyfriend, I was constantly reading books that ran on themes of human isolation and mentally unstable young women, whose conditions often manifested themselves in some sort of sexual incapacity. My relationship was unhealthy in many ways, but reading those books during times of mental duress wasn’t the best thing for my mind, either. I often related to the characters by feeling equally hollowed out, depressed and psychotic myself, but obviously not because of societal problems that occur in a Japanese system. Rather, it had to do with being in a troubled relationship, and the bad feelings were amplified by reading books about the depressed, the maniacal and the clinically insane. It led me to a severe disconnect from reality and into a state of mental isolation.

During my recent weeklong trip to Korea, I met with a friend (an English professor and fluent speaker of Japanese who has never read a book by Murakami) and we had a huge Sunday brunch at my favorite Tibetan restaurant in Myeong-dong. We ate about 60 USD worth of food and talked about Seth MacFarlane. I said that he looks like a very lonely man, and my friend agreed. Then I said, “But then again, everybody’s lonely,” to which my friend also agreed. “So then I guess my observation on MacFarlane isn’t really all that deep or insightful since everybody struggles with loneliness.” My friend laughed and agreed.

Four years since my last Murakami book, I now see his books being read everywhere by everyone. His books have become a household item like a fork or spatula; they are on bookshelves of every home I visit. I can’t help but cringe at the sight of his books having become so common. People are drawn to Murakami’s writing because he focuses on loneliness and isolation and how an unfulfilled desire for connection and love drives people to various forms of psychosis. Loneliness is a common feeling, and equal to our desire to feel unique. It’s really an indulgent human emotion (I do think it’s an emotion), and there’s nothing outstanding or courageous about it. Loneliness is common, as is craving love and connection, as are relationships, as is Murakami. I think that human isolation and loneliness are plain facts. At this point, writing and reading about them again and again to emphasize their existence seem like a trite effort.

Two summers ago, I sold all my Murakami books at the Strand bookstore and got a dollar in return for each. While I was there, I did browse the M section (force of habit), and I did flip open After Dark, but closed it after the first page and walked away. Thing is, I was over that period in my life. As Murakami writes in that story about a man and his ex-girlfriend who reunite after many years later just to have sex only to end up not going through with it because that door had closed, I realized that the door back to Murakami and all the feelings I had during the time I was reading him had shut, too. TC mark

More From Thought Catalog

  • http://somuchtocome.blogspot.com Aja

    I hated The Wind Up Bird Chronicle as well. It left me extremely unfulfilled!

  • http://tattoosnob.com Julene

    I recently tried to read 'The Elephant Vanishes'. I say “tried” because the first few stories made me suspect this wasn't an author whose work I could enjoy as a whole, and the following few I could relate to but didn't actually *enjoy*. So glad to know that I'm not really missing out on anything.

  • http://thetangential.com Becky Lang

    At first I thought this was going to make me mad because I really love Haruki Murakami and had a period where I could read nothing but Murakami. But I really liked this. Also, some of your initial reads were ones I wasn't crazy about. “Sputnik Sweetheart” and “Norwegian Wood” didn't do it for me. “After Dark” is probably worth your time, but you should really read “The Elephant Vanishes,” a collection of short stories. “Barn Burning” is the best.

  • MM

    gosh…

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh

    Gonna read Haruki Murakami now!

  • http://twitter.com/maffygarcia Maffy Garcia

    I favor 'Norwegian Wood' among the few Murakami books I've read and wanted to read 'Sputnik Sweetheart' for a long time. Alas, there is no available copy in sight. I think I'm currently on my Murakami phase (but for a long time now). I hated 'Kafka', though. I knew there was some sort of theme with his works. Sometimes I'd be too lost in the plot and find the characters just rambling on and on and basically being egotistical. I think I'm having second thought about expanding my Murakami collection, now that you've enlightened some stuff out for me.

  • YelenaG

    People have different reading tastes, no doubt about it. What is the point to write about why she stopped reading HM books – I am not sure? Maybe, she could never understand the writer or truly connect to the stories. His books are not for everybody, like with any other author. To me – he is brilliant – both, as a writer and as a person

  • xtos

    Going into this article I wanted to dislike it but I think it's because of poor choice of the text blurb chosen for the preview. This was a nice article but the blurb doesn't do it justice. You explore something which I think is a very worthwhile subject to write about (i.e., the relationship someone can develop with a certain body of work and the amplified emotional attachments they develop with it based on what was going on in their lives at the time) but I went into this thinking it was going to be some insipid read about how you used to love this author but now *everybody* is reading him and you were into him way before that.

    Anyway I really enjoyed this, and I don't know whether it's down to the author or the editor to choose the preview text. Hope to see more of your writing here!

  • Hannah

    You make a good point about his books thematically, but your reason for not wanting to read Murakami seems a bit….how shall I put this…silly. Because you couldn't stand that you were lonely despite having a relationship you disliked reading a book that mirrored those feelings? Seems kind of like a silly reason for saying you avoid to now read Murakami – it's basically saying you want to avoid confronting those feelings you had about your ex-boyfriend. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  • Jordan

    A TC piece about SOMETHING. Good job Grace :) My first book was Kafka on recommendation from a friend. Its really memorable and a 'fun' read, the whimsicality of it keeps you turning pages, but yeah I definitely felt let down by the end. It's one of those things where you ask yourself “is this just not that great or am I not 'getting it?'”

    I think part of the problem is that all the weird 'stuff' that happens in his book isn't some dream sequence, with some real world explanation, it just IS, which is not something you come across often I don't think… There's no good grounded answer to why someone can talk to cats, but they can.

    I'm willing to give it another shot or two though.

  • http://twitter.com/godworm Nicholas Cox

    Don't believe a word of this—Murakami is a genius. If your sensibilities are too delicate to handle the unresolved strangeness of *The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle* I would suggest *Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World*.

  • MIZOGUCHI_FAN

    Seems like you were looking to Murakami to solve some of your personal problems, which may be why you feel that are over his writings.
    The best literature I've read, and art I've seen, has made me ask some important questions and provided some much needed perspective, but could never be expected to provide any specific advice. Be aware of where your prejudices may lie, and don't take it out on him, just try to improve on your own work by realizing why his work fell off with you.

    Being opinionated about what you like/dislike is really important, especially as a writer, but try to be open to the fact that good literature evolves with us as we revisit it again and again.. Maybe by the time you are in your mid-thirties, you will feel like making some perfectly al-dente spaghetti, and the phone will ring…. :)

  • Lauren

    Its such a coincidence that thoughtcatalog happened to make an article about Murakami as I am just pages away from finishing Norwegian Wood today! It isn't my favourite book, but it has certainly kept me hooked, and the characters are very likeable. I think I agree that the themes in the book can sometimes feel like they reflect whats going on in your life while you read it as I have felt that a lot with other books I've read.

  • Bt

    This is a thoughtful article. Try to alternate transitional statements so each paragraph connects, then we won't always be reading “the next book I read was…”

  • ricky schitltiiz

    dear hannah, nicolas, and others who don't get this article:

    yo
    its not like she's hating on ur precious dear lord murakami
    shes just saying its not for her
    i liked the article

    and
    can any of you honestly say there wasnt a movie, song, artist, book, place WHATEVEr that you've avoided b/c it had bad memories attached to it?

    learn to read…. after all, that's why they call it THOUGHT catalog

  • http://www.indieshuffle.com Hannah

    You make a good point about his books thematically, but your reason for not wanting to read Murakami seems a bit….how shall I put this…superficial. Because you couldn’t stand that you were lonely despite having a relationship you disliked reading a book that mirrored those feelings? Seems kind of like a silly reason for saying you avoid to now read Murakami – it’s basically saying you want to avoid confronting those feelings you had about your ex-boyfriend. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  • http://profiles.google.com/ladyhazard Lena Bruncaj

    I saw this post quoted and wanted to read the context and it sounds to me that your feelings on Murakami's works are strictly personal. That is, your current distaste for him is justified but it isn't universal. This is one of the reasons why I tend to avoid reading the same author too much–I don't want to feel as though I'm being held captive in the world they have created.

  • Felicity

    I decided to keep reading Murakami after reading South of the Border West of the Sun. I had already read Wind Up Bird and Hard Boiled Wonderland. However, for some reason South of the Border West of the Sun effected me the most. I was only 15 at the time I started reading Murakami and I ended up ending my relationship with my boyfriend and my best friend after I read it because I felt I couldn't trust/handle strong attachments to people anymore. Only a few days after I apologized to both of them I found out they had started hooking up together and eventually became boyfriend and girlfriend themselves. I was devastated and that contributed to my ideas about being lonely and that people will leave you forever. I agree with you about Kafka on the Shore. I never finished it because I couldn't focus. I'm taking a break from Murakami right now as well, there are a lot of books I still haven't read. I just can't handle the mind fuck. I'm in such a sensitive time in my life (sobriety) that I'm afraid if I start to get those feelings of we are all just lonely and desperate for a connection with another person that I could lose it.

  • http://twitter.com/ellie_rex danielle garza

    To each their own! This was very well-written. Thank you.

  • EPA

    Grace — very nice article. As you began your journey with Murakami mid-way with Norwegian Wood, might I suggest (in a true Murakami sense) to go backwards from the beginning and read some of his early works like Sheep, Hard-boiled, and Dance? I dare say you might find a little less loneliness (even though the characters are still loners) and a lot more playfulness. A fitting, post-heavy relationship fling with a younger Murakami.

  • autumnghosts

    I think this was brilliantly written. I myself share a love/ hate relationship with Murakami's works. I have so much love for his themes – loneliness and solitude and whatnot – because they seem to be so connected to my life. I don't think there's another writer out there that could phrase loneliness like Murakami did. He is so subtle with his words; choosing them to be indirect rather than all direct and in your face. His books are the kind that you have to ponder about. And I think that is a mark of a good read – it makes you reflect and think.

    With that being said, sometimes I totally don't get Murakami at all. Some of his books are so eccentric and perplexing that they leave me with this void punched in the middle of my heart. It's as though he walked me through a labyrinth but decided to desert me halfway. And I have to find my way back myself. Nonetheless, I am more inclined to love Murakami. His little idiosyncrasies inject variety into my reading life.

    And Grace, I really did liked your article. I liked how you related different phases of your life to the books you were reading at that time. It was so deftly written (:

  • Haley

    This was a great article. The first Murakami book I read was After The Quake, and halfway through it the subway bombings in Madrid happened and I spent three terrible days trying to get ahold of my best friend. The emotional connection to the book was pretty intense, and since reading more of his works I often feel let down.

    I kept that book, but none of the others.

  • BBMBR

    “Loneliness is a common feeling, and equal to our desire to feel unique. It’s really an indulgent human emotion (I do think it’s an emotion)…”

    What is this theory that loneliness is an indulgent emotion? I don't follow. There are people who truly don't have others who care about them in any way. That is where loneliness comes from: receiving no emotional support or feedback.

    In terms of romantic relationships, take this example: I have no girlfriend. I have not for years. I want one, I just haven't met a girl I have connected with. I don't know why. There is not one girl who truly cares about me (to the extent that a serious girlfriend or wife cares about their mate), and I have no prospect of a girlfriend. A tenable void exists in my life. How is feeling lonely in this scenario indulgent? I can't just go tell a girl to love me and have this void suddenly filled.

    Also what is that first sentence? I don't understand it.

  • Waicool

    let's recap, i read all of murakami's books, now i don't read him anymore and s[ite people who do. i am a lonely soul.

  • savagegirl

    Maybe it's something with me, but my friend loaned me “The Elephant Vanishes” about five years ago and started a love affair not only with Murakami-Ihave read all of his books at least once including “Underground” about the subway gas attacks in Tokyo, but not including his memoir about running that I just found in a library I had been 'resting'. I also went on to read all of Banana Yoshimoto's books,all of the Akira Yoshimura I could find. The most important part of all this reading really, was the history and culture of the last couple of hundred years. That's what gave me the context to put some of these stories into to make better sense of them. You must also have a dark but playful sense of humor. Now, I am a prolific reader. This is not all I've read in this time, not an obsession. Books and author and topics were just added and crossed off the list. All of us experience some kind of lonliness, but to set the record straight, I'm happily attached-we have been together for fifteen years and actually still like each other- and nearly every friendship I make is permanent. I wished a happy birthday this morning to my girl I've been hanging with for thirty years. So I can't be too maladjusted…I just think it's really good lit, and that the idiosyncratic nature often makes the work stronger.

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