Criticizing Haruki Murakami is a bit like kicking a puppy or farting on someone’s birthday cake. People look at you with a mixture of horror and outright disgust: the kind of look they’d normally save for child molesters or those people who have loud arguments with themselves while riding the Yamanote line. It’s a look that says, “Go and crawl back under the stone you came out from.”
The problem’s rendered all the more acute by the fact that it’s basically impossible to talk about Japanese literature without Murakami cropping up. He’s like the Akira Kurosawa of the book world: the only Japanese name that you can guarantee everyone will know. And, more often than not, those who do know him adore him with a slavish and unswerving devotion.
Now, I’m not going to deny that Murakami can be good. Damn good, in fact: "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle" is a work of, if not genius, then at least a mighty fine writer.
But the more I read — and read about — him, the less convinced I become of the extent of his abilities. Everything points towards Murakami being a decent genre writer rather than a literary wunderkind: more Dan Brown than Dostoevsky. The same themes and imagery keep getting repeated (or should that be rehashed?) across multiple novels. His protagonists only convince when they’re patently extensions of the author himself. (There’s more to creating convincing female characters than having them fret about the size of their boobs, Haruki.) His much-hyped magic realism seems feeble in comparison to, say, the work of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez. And, crucially, Garcia-Marquez actually has something to say: Murakami offers a lot of vaguely metaphysical chit-chat, but nothing much deeper. At the end of the day, his entire philosophy can pretty much be boiled down to “we’re all only human” and “it’s a funny old world, isn’t it?”
None of these are fatal criticisms, of course, but I still struggle to see how he merits the level of praise he’s currently afforded.
This is no more apparent than with his latest book, "After Dark," due out in paperback this month. More a novella than a novel, it’s set over the course of a single night in Tokyo. The nominal heroine is Mari Asai, a serious, bespectacled 19-year-old who’s pulling an all-nighter at Denny’s while her older, prettier sister is at home, trapped in a seemingly endless slumber. As the night goes on, Mari will be half-heartedly courted by an amateur jazz musician and meet a battered Chinese prostitute and a kindly female wrestler turned love hotel manager. Meanwhile, her sister gets sucked inside the TV set in her room, and the salaryman who beat the prostitute goes back to the office to put in some overtime.
And... well, that’s about it. Though it’s got plenty of atmosphere and a nice sideline in brooding menace, "After Dark" turns out to be all head, no beer. Murakami is every bit as ambulatory when he’s only got 200-odd pages to fill as when he’s got 600, resulting in a narrative that peters out, frustratingly and inconclusively, before it’s gathered any momentum. Even the dialogue lacks the author’s usual sparkle, too often feeling leaden and over-obvious.
So how have the critical fraternity responded to this trifle? It’s “a streamlined, hushed ensemble piece” (The New York Times), “perhaps the closest Murakami has yet come to composing a pure tone-poem” (The Guardian), “a bittersweet novel that will satisfy the most demanding literary taste” (San Francisco Chronicle), and “an intensely lyrical expression of the tenebrous, strange, and poignant Murakami universe” (The Australian). Excuse me while I pretend to clear my throat and spit out a few choice epithets of my own.
The effect is not unlike the characters in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of "The Emperor’s New Clothes," enthusiastically praising what simply isn’t there. Everybody seems so convinced of Murakami’s genius that they assume everything he writes must automatically be worthwhile. It’s not half-formed: it’s enigmatic. It’s not recycled: it’s classic Murakami. How did a talented genre writer get elevated to the level of literary sacred cow?
I don’t normally put much stock in the user reviews on Amazon, but in this case they’re quite telling. On both the American and Japanese versions of the site, "After Dark" is rated lower than any of Murakami’s other books — including the two early novellas, "Hear the Wind Sing" and "Pinball 73," that have never been widely available in English translation because the author himself didn’t think they merited it. I don’t think he would have done himself a disservice had he exercised the same restraint again with his latest book. Murakami’s legion of acolytes might do well to admit that even their master is capable of delivering the odd stinker.
Okay, you can stop looking at me like that now.
This article originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).© Japan Today