Haruki Murakami’s books are weird. I don’t mean that as an insult, just a fact – as anyone who has read his novels, nonfiction, or short stories knows, his books always have a touch of magical realism to it, taking place in the real world, but not quite.
It’s almost pointless to recommend Murakami given his immense commercial success. The release of a new novel by him is reminiscent of Harry Potter mania. He’s also had considerable critical success, often floated as a contender for the Nobel Prize.
But instead of recommending Murakami to you, I thought I’d offer a weirdness scale for his novels. This isn’t a ranking based on their quality, but purely how much magical realism pervades the works, some of which go beyond magical realism and become outright surreal.
So without further ado, here’s your guide to how weird Murakami’s novels are and hopefully you can use this to decide where you want to begin:
Level 0 – Not weird at all
Norwegian Wood – Called the Catcher in the Rye of Japan, this love story has all the trademarks of Murakami’s classic stories minus any otherworldly elements
Hear the Wind Sing – His very first novel (though hardly even a novella in length), it’s been a while since I read this one, but I don’t recall anything supernatural about it or strange…well, other than the fact that one character is called The Rat.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – His most recent novel, there’s a very small bit of weirdness near the end, but other than that, this is one of his most straightforward books.
Level 1 – A little weird
A Wild Sheep Chase – A sequel of sorts to Hear the Wind Sing and his second novel Pinball 1973 (which I haven’t read), this story also features The Rat but adds a Sheep Man, which is exactly what it sounds like. The Sheep Man is the most blatantly odd character, but there are a few other unusual people along the way, not to mention the outright bizarre ending. Incidentally, this was really his first novel of a proper length.
Dance, Dance, Dance – While not officially part of the aforementioned trilogy, this novel follows the same narrator and includes about the same level of weirdness, including a hotel floor that leads to another dimension…or something? It’s hard to be specific about these sorts of elements, as they’re never explained. This might sound frustrating, but it’s actually one of the charms of his novels for me – they feel like dreams, Kafka-esque at times minus the crushing sense of futility.
South of the Border, West of the Sun – One of the lesser discussed Murakami novels, this is a solid story that would have been lowered to Level 0 were it not for some inexplicable disappearances of people and objects and some shadowy government types that may or may not have been real.
Level 2 – Getting weirder
Sputnik Sweetheart – This book starts out extremely normal, almost on the level of Norwegian Wood, but then abruptly shifts about midway, with the narrator seeing things that could only happen in a Murakami novel.
After Dark – Like the previous novel, this one starts out normal and in fact has a whole subplot involving a jazz musician that has nothing strange about it at all. But there’s another plotline involving a girl who won’t wake up and a figure in a TV that may be involved in keeping the character in this comatose state.
Level 3 – Wait, what?
1Q84 – Half of this entire novel takes place in an alternate reality that is almost normal, minus a few minor details, like the fact that in 1Q84-world, there are two moons. Like I said, just minor details. Also, there’s an impressively strange book written by an even stranger child, a dark cult with a leader as sinister as he is mysterious, assassins both good and bad, and a floating chrysalis that at one point contains a human being. Oh, and there’s a brief interlude about a town populated only by cats. It’s a pretty good story, but I was frankly surprised by how popular it was in the U.S.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Tied for my favorite Murakami story and probably his best, pretty much everything in this story is imbued with a sense of mystery and the supernatural, although it ironically contains one of the most realistic and harrowing passages from any of his stories – a story about the Manchurian War that is the most affecting thing by Murakami I’ve ever read. There are a lot of memorable things about this novel (you’ll certainly never look at wells the same way again), but this particular part, that’ll stay with you a long, long time.
Kafka on the Shore – This is my other favorite Murakami story. Now, every Murakami story has a cat or two, but this one includes talking cats (well, one character can communicate with them – the same character who has an oddly-shaped shadow due to part of his soul possibly being affected/damaged/stolen during a flash of light that afflicted a number of children out on a school trip. You know how it is). Oh, and speaking of cats, there’s a cat-killer who has the same name and appearance as Johnnie Walker from the liquor brand that plans to make a flute out of cats’ souls. Let’s see, then there’s a ton of stuff involving dreams (which may or may not be dreams), and I think frogs rain down from the sky at some point? Something definitely rains down other than rain. In any case, this is a great, great novel that I highly recommend and consider Murakami’s second-weirdest. The top prize, though, goes to…
Level 4 – Only Murakami could have written this
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – I mean, just look at that title – of course this is going to be a strange story. It’s actually two parallel plots, one taking place in a sci-fi future and the other in a dreamlike reality that is simply peak Murakami (it even includes golden sheep and a forest with a portal that plays a role in later uniting the two narrative threads). This isn’t my favorite Murakami novel but it is possibly the most memorable and vivid. I’d recommend it if only because, like all of Kafka’s stories, they show just how rich stories can be when the imagination is free to create worlds that defy simple categories like fantasy or reality and instead become something both between and beyond either one.
And now, all you have to do is ask yourself how weird you want your first encounter with Murakami to be. But whatever the answer is, I assure you, you’ll be glad very glad you got to know this important and unique author.
So go read them all. Now.