Haruki Murakami is one of those writers who’s tipped each year as a Nobel contender; widely acclaimed as a genius, his distinctive magical-realist style is both deceptively simple and dense, delving into the interior lives of his characters in a very literal fashion. He’s a writer whose work seems to speak personally to everyone who reads it, because the lush imagery and universal themes of loss and nostalgic regret are easily and powerfully imagined as coded references to our own secret existence. In that sense, Murakami’s a literary magician.
While every Murakami novel is great, and some might shy away from ranking the work of such a complex artist, we fear nothing and have many opinions. Here’s our ranking of the not-so-best Murakami books to the best Murakami books.
This review may contain spoilers.
Murakami goes full fable in this novella, telling the story of a young boy imprisoned in the bowels of a library and forced, among other things, to memorize the books he’d requested. Things get darker and stranger as the boy learns his head will be cut off and his knowledge-soaked brain consumed once he’s done memorizing the books, but unlike other Murakami works there’s no anchor of an adult, real world to offset the oddness. It’s all oddness, and hints of a deeper story behind the boy’s fate aren’t explicit enough to elevate the story to Murakami’s usual level. While we stick by our belief that every Murakami book is worth reading, if you absolutely had to skip one, this might be it.
This story of personal journeys and evolution made explicit is told by an unnamed schoolteacher who becomes interested in his friend, aspiring novelist Sumire. It’s 1957, and the Russian satellite Sputnik blinks overhead. Soon after Sumire becomes obsessed with an older married woman and jets off with her to a Greek island, the narrator receives a call telling him Sumire has disappeared. His arrival on the island and subsequent investigation leads to many incredible sequences but few answers, ultimately suggesting that Sumire’s personal journey has resulted in her literally crossing over into a new plane. But there are fewer answers here than in most Murakami books.
While Murakami books as a rule tend to be better than the last novel you read, whatever it was, this one delves into purposeful frustration, focusing on the simple fact that while we all share space on this world, interacting and affecting each other’s lives, we’re fundamentally isolated. Murakami starts off with a young musician inviting himself to join agirl at her booth in an all-night diner, then follows them as they become involved in a web of other people’s lives. It’s well done and filled with wonderful moments, yet the weight of its core theme—loneliness as a fundamental human state—hangy heavy.
South of the Border, West of the Sun
This muted, elegiac novel tells the story of lonely only child Hajime, who has an intense but sexless friendship with Shimamoto, a girl crippled by polio. When their families move away, they lose touch, and Hajime goes on to build a thoroughly conventional and successful life—money, wife, children. Then Shimamoto suddenly reappears, and their connection springs back to life so powerfully Hajime gladly leaves his settled life behind in order to join her on a mysterious journey. They have a brief, incendiary affair—and then Shimamoto vanishes again, and Hajime is left to return to a life he thought he’d escaped. The themes are powerful, and the book lands some gut-wrenching concepts, despite its loose conversational style.
Absolutely on Music
Eavesdropping on a conversation between Murakami and Seiji Ozawa, former conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is exactly as enjoyable and interesting as you might imagine (spoiler alert: very). These two smart, articulate, and passionate artists ramble over musical topics in surprising and unexpected thrusts, and if you found yourself sitting behind them at a coffee shop you’d likely sit for an extra hour or two, mesmerized. As a book, it’s interesting if slight, and best suited to those with some level of musical knowledge. But as a window into a level of intellectual discourse most of us can only aspire to, it’s a read for everyone.
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Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973
Murakami’s first and second novels are so closely connected they might be considered one long novel (and have been published together in a single edition). These early efforts display a confident, mature writing style that is immediately recognizable as Murakami. Beautifully written, terribly sad, and delving into issues of loss and loneliness combined with that powerless sense of suddenly realizing your life has gone wrong when it’s too late to fix it, these are two very good novels that showcase the master’s themes from page one.
This work of nonfiction detailing the sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway is compelling, powerful, and masterfully crafted—and it’s also the least “Murakami” book he’s ever written. The author trimmed back his surrealist style in order to take on this horrific real-world event, making for a fantastic work of history and journalism.
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Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Murakami once again dialed back the magical realism for this novel, telling the story of a man whose four best friends from childhood suddenly and inexplicably cut him off when he was in his second year of university. For the next sixteen years, Tsukuru Tazaki is haunted by this cruel mystery, feeling destined to be alone, until his girlfriend pushes him to finally confront the past and find some answers. His quest for those answers takes place both within and without, as he travels around playing detective in his own life, the occasional flourish of magical realism confined to his dreams and imaginings. It’s a fine story, and emotionally affecting, if slim.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Your mileage will vary with this one (that just happened). On the one hand, it’s a complete departure in every way from Murakami’s style and usual topics, being an edited assemblage of his essays on running, his diary entries, and some fresh anecdotes from his running life. On the other, you can see many of the seeds that wind up in Murakami’s fiction here, making it an occasionally revelatory read for fans—and some of the biographical detail concerning his transition into writing is fascinating. For serious runners, there’s plenty in here that will be compelling, but if you’ve never strapped on a marathon bib you might find the narrow focus a bit slow going.
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
While many of the images and ideas in these stories are amazing, they often withhold an easy and definitive explanation of events, which works for some readers more than others. Story after story presents the bizarre and fanciful—a mirror that shows a reflection that is somehow “off,” only to reveal the mirror doesn’t exist at all, or a man making love who imagines strings leading to alternate realities. The effect is haunting and transient, and the book displays an undercurrent of limitation that shows this sense of frustration is purposefully wrought.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
A double-barreled novel that exists half in this world, half in another, exploring themes of consciousness and its relation to our subconscious minds, this is the book that makes many readers fall completely in love with Murakami…or not. It’s told in two converging narratives, one in which a Calcutec in a near-future Japan uses his subconscious mind as an encryption key, and one where an unnamed narrator is entering a place known only as The Town, a settlement surrounded by an impenetrable wall in which no one is allowed to have a shadow—or a mind. Slowly, the two narratives converge, and whether you find it obsession-worthy (and many do) will depend on how much you love Murakami’s beautiful style, ambitious ideas, and the sheer strangeness factor.
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
Lucid dreams, mind control, and an impossible labyrinth of a hotel—this isn’t a book for the faint of heart. Although it starts off with a deceptively simple (and very Murakami-like) story of a missing cat and a timid husband named Toru, Murakami goes all in on the magical side of magical realism here, telling the story of Toru’s wife, kidnapped by his brother-in-law and imprisoned in a hotel made of infinite hallways, kept there by the brother’s ability to dominate minds. Toru summons the courage to rescue his wife and battles the evil brother in a series of dreamscapes, anchored by Toru’s narration, so skillfully done it’s easy to overlook.
People usually recommend Norwegian Wood to Murakami newbies because it’s his least fantastical story, almost entirely rooted in a solid, recognizable reality. The story of a middle-aged man who hears a snippet of the titular Beatles song in an airport and begins thinking back on his youth and the intense romantic and sexual relationships he had combines many classic Murakami themes into a beautiful and affecting story—but if it’s your first Murakami novel, you may have done yourself a disservice. You should arrive at Norwegian Wood somewhere in the middle of your Murakami reading, as a breather, a change of pace, and a palate cleanser. The lack of signature magical thinking simply means it’s not as Murakami as the others. It’s not surprising that Murakami made a conscious effort to shed the magical realism that marked his earlier books—and it isn’t surprising that he immediately course corrected afterward.
Men Without Women
Murakami’s most recent collection is a triumph of craft in which he takes the deprecated wilds of male middle age and blazes fresh, wholly unexpected trails through them. Seven men in different circumstances struggle with relationships new and old. What’s remarkable about these stories, aside from the skill involved in their creation, is how Murakami makes these men routinely pathetic; they waste away, they fail the women they love, they realize their own inadequacies and judge themselves harshly. Taken together, they’re like a dreamy, beautiful midlife crisis, the work of a master well aware of his own mortality and limitations and seeking illumination—illumination you can share.
The Elephant Vanishes
This collection of stories bursts with the sort of off-center energy that makes people either love or hate Murakami’s longer works. The seventeen stories zig and zag around reality. The title story involves an elephant that shrinks until it vanishes while its handler grows monstrous, another story involves a man’s home invaded by tiny “TV people” who take over his entire existence, while another story depicts a desperate couple resorting to violence in order to solve their late-night fast food cravings. Reading this collection is like getting on a roller coaster without a safety cage and trying to hang on—the ideas come fast and furious, incredible things are tossed at you without apology or explanation, and when you stagger off the ride at the end you realize you just had an experience that will stay with you forever.
This book was a sensation when it published, establishing Murakami as an icon. Set in an alternate 1984, the story, at its core, explores the idea that a single decision or action can change an individual’s future. It involves a fringe religious cult, a personal trainer named Aomame who hunts and assassinates men who abuse women, a mathematical genius named Tengo who writes ad copy, and the parallel worlds in which they find themselves. The novel deals in doubles, exploring the conflict between the rigid rules of religion and the often fluid impulses of our inner selves. Although it’s dense and complex, at its core it’s a surprisingly light love story, as Aomame and Tengo realize they shared a single moment long ago that has marked them ever since, and is so powerful it’s drawing their two worlds together.
A Wild Sheep Chase
Is there a literal sheep in this book? There sure is. A story about a man who takes on a soulless corporate empire with infinite money and power shouldn’t be this fun, but the sheer joy Murakami seems to take in telling it shines through. Ostensibly a mystery in which an advertising executive is ordered to locate a very special sheep based on a photograph—or else—it riffs on the hardboiled detective genre. And while it starts out as a high-stakes romp, by the end it deepens into a beautiful, deeply sad story of trauma and lost things. It’s a breathtaking achievement, demonstrating the precise control Murakami has over tone and ideas, even in translation.
After the Quake
Murakami moved back to Japan after the devastating Kobe Earthquake, and the six stories that resulted from this experience rank among his best fiction of any length. He took hold of the sense of emptiness and nihilism trailing an epic disaster and incorporated it into stories that explore it while somehow curving toward optimism and hope instead of despair. The stories are less complex than his novels, but the sense of a malleable reality remains, as characters use storytelling and hallucinogenic experiences to stumble upon truths simultaneously universal and intimate. While these stories may not be the most “Murakami” ever composed, they are easily some of the most powerful works he’s ever produced.
Kafka on the Shore
Murakami’s second most famous novel tells two stories that intersect in non-obvious ways. In one, a teen boy who calls himself Kafka runs away from home and hides in a private library, reading books and being hunted for a murder he may or may not have committed. In another, an old man becomes a professional cat locater, and embarks on his first long-distance journey from home in search of a specific cat. Murakami digs deep into spirituality and religion here, and what’s truly wonderful is the moment you realize that the old man’s story is actually filling in blanks in Kafka’s story—that these aren’t separate stories at all. Brilliant? Brilliant.
Dance Dance Dance
One thing we can all agree on: if Dance, Dance, Dance isn’t in your Murakami top three, your Murakami List is canceled. A sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase that centers on the search for a character who disappears toward the end of that earlier novel, it weaves together two mysteries—one spiritual, one depressingly and grossly physical—and themes of late-stage capitalism. It includes mysterious women, a hotel of strange origins, a long-lost friend, good food, jazz, and some of the most chilling and surprising scenes in the author’s canon. Read Sheep Chase first, then dive into this unforgettable, metaphysical wonderland of a tale.