Haruki Murakami’s latest jazz-inflected journey into the psyche of modern-day Japan hits shelves (and flies off them) today. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage follows a railroad engineer whose lonely life in Tokyo is still shaded by his high-school friends’ mysterious decision, post-graduation, to cut him out of their close-knit group. When Tsukuru meets a woman who senses the absence at his core, she asks him to go on a journey into his past, to find out why his friends punished him and perhaps end his “years of pilgrimage” down an isolated path.
Though less overtly magical than his earlier works, the book has all the familiar touchstones of Murakami-land: simple meals, plainspoken women, swimming pools, surreal dreams that bleed over into life. To longtime readers, it’s a place that feels both familiar and enduringly strange. If you’ve yet to enter the author’s surreal Japan of cats and jazz and perfectly cooked pasta and girls with beautiful ears, take this quiz to find out where you should start (or for fans, which book you should reread next):
1. What kind of book are you in the mood for?
a. A noir
b. A story that takes me down a rabbit hole
c. A coming-of-age tale
d. An unrequited love story
e. An adult drama with a twist
f. One that pits an ordinary protagonist against extraordinary circumstances
3. What simple meal most appeals to you?
a. Whiskey and peanuts
c. Salmon and watercress sandwich
d. Miso soup and pickles
e. Steak and a glass of red wine
f. Omelet and a beer
4. What vacation locale do you wish you were in right now?
a. A peaceful library
b. A busy city
c. A private beach
d. A quiet island
e. The town where I grew up
f. A vacation cabin in the forest
5. Who are you most likely to search for on Google?
a. My boss (they’re a little shady)
b. My significant other (sometimes I wonder…)
c. My family members (not that I think they’re hiding anything)
d. My ex (…no particular reason)
e. My grade-school friends (just wondering where they ended up)
f. My college friends (I’d love to get in touch)
6. So…what’s your problem?
a. I’ve been feeling a bit divided, like my right hand doesn’t know what my left is doing.
b. My love life. I wish I could see inside my significant other’s head.
c. I think too. damn. much. What even is going on half the time?
d. My love life. I’m single and I keep getting friendzoned.
e. Regrets. I can’t stop dwelling on the past.
f. Strange things keep happening to me. I’m like a lightning rod for weird.
If you chose mostly A’s, you should read…Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
This book tells two tales in alternating chapters. Like any good noir hero, the data processor of the first, hard-boiled story quickly learns that he doesn’t need to go looking for trouble, it’ll find him. But this is Murakami, so his worries aren’t just pretty girls and men with guns: there’s a mad scientist living in the creature-haunted Tokyo sewers, an underground information war in which our hero has become a pawn, and…a unicorn skull. More skulls show up in the second tale, which takes place in a mysterious walled village at the end of the world. There, a man who can’t recall his past life takes a job reading the dreams inside one-horned animal skulls, and is tended to by a warm but evasive woman. By the time the stories intersect, you will have decided to name your first child “Murakami.”
If you chose mostly B’s, you should read…The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
This surreal journey starts with one of the most intriguing opening scenes in fiction—I defy you to read it and not want to keep going. First our unnamed narrator’s cat goes missing, then his wife follows. A series of strange characters enter his drifting life, including a malicious teenager and an evil politician, and he soon finds himself neck deep in conspiracy and mounting weirdness. Wind-Up Bird is a doorstop novel that has served many readers as a Murakami gateway, and served them well.
If you chose mostly C’s, you should read…Kafka on the Shore
In another dual narrative, teenaged Kafka runs away from the stifling home of his malevolent artist father in the hopes of finding his long-lost mother and sister. He washes up in a small-town library, where he befriends a librarian with a dark past and encounters characters including a sadistic cat catcher who calls himself Johnnie Walker. The book’s other leg concerns elderly eccentric Satoru Nakata, a man who talks (charmingly) to cats. He’s the damaged survivor of a very Murakami-ish incident, in which 16 schoolchildren abruptly lost consciousness on a class trip. There’s lots more tangling these two threads together, including political unrest, ghosts—of a sort—and a creepy Oedipal prophecy, but you need to read it yourself to believe how much he can stuff into one novel.
If you chose mostly D’s, you should read…Sputnik Sweetheart
Narrator K tries to lose himself in other women after his unrequited crush, Sumire, falls head over heels for her employer, glamorous older woman Miu. But when Sumire goes missing from a tiny Greek island, K follows her there, and learns the strange events of the days leading up to her disappearance. The narrative is largely given over to his fascination with Sumire, a charismatic character whose obsession with Kerouac and boyish toughness mask a deep romanticism, and whose ebullient grasp of life helps keep his feet on the ground. The book is gorgeously structured and crackles addictively with pop-culture references, supernatural happenings, and lyrical, tossed-off observations on relationships and love.
If you chose mostly E’s, you should read…Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Seize the (release) day! Murakami’s latest is a primer on the things readers have loved about his books for decades: the cool clarity of his language, the simple phrasings that don’t quite eclipse the deeper themes at play. And when you’re done, I recommend following it with an early-work chaser: the equally meditative Norwegian Wood is a great companion book.
If you chose mostly F’s, you should read…A Wild Sheep Chase
Adrift after a divorce, our nameless hero is given sudden purpose when the emissary of a powerful businessman shows up at his small ad agency with a bizarre ultimatum: locate the sheep pictured in a recent ad he mocked up, or lose everything. Though our hero doesn’t admit it, there is a story behind the sheep photo, involving a reclusive friend from his college days, so the search for the eerie animal is also a search for his old friend. With a resourceful girlfriend in tow, he leaves Tokyo for lonelier stretches of Japan, where he meets serendipitous coincidences, supernatural creatures, and beautifully rendered solitude in a cabin that feels like it’s on the lip of the world. Perhaps the leanest, most perfect distillation of Murakami’s essence (and it’s got several companion novels, including stellar sequel Dance Dance Dance).
So…which Murakami novel will you be reading next?