Haruki Murakami is a difficult writer to characterize. Broadly, his style falls under magical realism with an occasional absurdist streak. His writing is simple yet dense, filled with lush imagery, richly drawn characters, and a deep well of underlying emotion.
There’s often an ethereal, almost dream-like quality to his stories. They pull a reader into this extraordinary flow of a character’s internal life and all the emotional intricacies that entails. As a writer, Murakami is fascinated with big philosophical questions. His novels deal with themes like the nature of identity and the self, the meaning of happiness, the soul, and humanity’s constant struggle with the concept of society.
Although his works and his profoundly introspective style are influenced by his Japanese heritage, there is a universality to the stories he tells. It is the reason Murakami is an international bestselling author and basically a perennial Nobel contender. The quality of his work is of such a level that picking the “best” or “most quintessential” is really a matter of splitting hairs. However, you have to start somewhere and the novels below are as a good place as any.
Murakami’s latest is also, unsurprisingly, one of his best. Killing Commendatore centers around a painter holed up in the home of a famous artist. From there, Murakami takes readers on an eccentric adventure where ideas gain physical manifestations and Double Metaphors haunt the protagonist in a bizarre underworld. It’s an imaginative and wholly original examination of loneliness, love, and art as only Murakami could conceive.
Arguably Murakami’s most well-known novel, Norwegian Wood is also the one the propelled him onto the international stage. Since its publication in 1987, it has become a beloved classic and a perennial favorite. It was my introduction to Murakami. The novel is, at base, a romantic coming-of-age story with wistful longings, recollections, and sexual awakenings. It’s one of Murakami’s more grounded works and doesn’t represent the magical realism that marked his output both before and after.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is sort of like being pushed off into the deep end in terms of Murakami. Any description of the plot wouldn’t really do it justice. It’s a bizarre and enchanting fever dream that may be unlike anything you’ve read previously. In the broadest sense, it’s about a man in Tokyo who searches for his wife’s missing cat and ends up in a bizarre netherworld. It’s an inventive, beguiling, and original read.
In his most recent collection, Murakami explores the lives of seven men who, through various circumstances, find themselves alone. It is a rumination on middle age, love lost, and degrees of solitude. Men Without Women is tinged with Murakami’s wry, often subtle humor and extraordinary power of observation. If pressed, I would be tempted to call this an ideal introduction to Murakami.
This one is a deep dive into Murakami’s inimitable imagination and at 1,053 pages, it is also an undertaking. Set in an alternate 1984, it weaves various plot threads around a core of two soulmates who are inexorably drawn to one another. 1Q84 is one part dystopian fiction and one part love story, as well as an examination of the ways a single moment can ripple throughout an individuals life. It’s a daunting but profoundly rewarding reading experience.
Haruki Murakami with Seiji Ozawa
There’s nothing quite listening to two geniuses discussing a shared passion. And while we unfortunately couldn’t listen in to the conversations between Murakami and his friend Seiji Ozawa, the renowned former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, we can do the next best thing: read the transcripts. Over a period of two years, Murakami and Ozawa shared a number of discussions centering around their shared love of music. The result is a surprisingly fascinating and insightful glimpse into the minds of two masters of their craft: music and writing.
A Wild Sheep Chase is Murakami at his surrealistic best. The novel follows an advertising executive who, through a series of occurrences both bizarre and mundane, is thrust unwillingly into the search for a mutant sheep with a star on its back. It carries readers from Tokyo to the remote mountains of Northern Japan and into both the inner workings of the unnamed protagonist’s mind and a mythological land of the dead. It is deeply strange, but also brilliant and poignant.