A Window Onto the World: Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words

In Murakami’s novels, we confront talking cats, slow-witted savants, teenage runaways, rain-smeared windows, jazz and Beatles songs, and the harrowing depths of dark wells.  A popular novelist, frequently nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature, we have reason to ask: How does Murakami’s writing connect to readers?  Why are we so incredibly fascinated with his representation of the world–or fictional possible worlds?  In other words, how does he do it?

Perhaps as Kafka, Dostoevsky, Salinger, and Gogol did it.  But can we simply label his writing as surreal?  Would that be right or appropriate?  I hesitate to answer yes.

Murakami’s world is realistic but also surreal–curiously otherwordly.  It’s here and somewhere else–present and absent–a far away “hard-boiled wonderland,” a fantastic realm without borders or boundaries.  This is where Murakami’s fiction picks up.  His surroundings are familiar but unfamiliar–ordinary but extraordinary. It’s too obvious to remark that there are always two faces of a coin–multifaceted personalities or multiple unconscious threads that he unwinds from a spool of ideas.  His message is at once potent and simple, but also dreamy and subliminal.  Thus, the message is uncertain and ambiguous, hard to pin down.

His message–if Murkami has a message–is that realism is dull and unimaginative.  It lacks longitudinal appeal in spite of its narrative potential and popular demand.  It gets tiresome. After awhile, we yearn to escape daily bourgeois routines–the mundane hob knobbery of our lives.  We’d trade our cubicles for a damp well, which can become a mental laboratory, a far-reaching place.  We’d invite the wise perspective of cats and the mystical innocence of daft prophets.   Realism doesn’t allow readers space for creative play (as Freud used the term)–it limits the dialogicism of voices–the multi-layered transaction between the writer and reader.

How does Murakami do it?  Here’s an excerpt from an interview that may provide us with insights:

Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.

Practically everything I know about writing, then, I learned from music. It may sound paradoxical to say so, but if I had not been so obsessed with music, I might not have become a novelist. Even now, almost 30 years later, I continue to learn a great deal about writing from good music. My style is as deeply influenced by Charlie Parker’s repeated freewheeling riffs, say, as by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s elegantly flowing prose. And I still take the quality of continual self-renewal in Miles Davis’s music as a literary model.

One of my all-time favorite jazz pianists is Thelonious Monk. Once, when someone asked him how he managed to get a certain special sound out of the piano, Monk pointed to the keyboard and said: “It can’t be any new note. When you look at the keyboard, all the notes are there already. But if you mean a note enough, it will sound different. You got to pick the notes you really mean!”

I often recall these words when I am writing, and I think to myself, “It’s true. There aren’t any new words. Our job is to give new meanings and special overtones to absolutely ordinary words.” I find the thought reassuring. It means that vast, unknown stretches still lie before us, fertile territories just waiting for us to cultivate them.

As we discover the resonant music of words, let’s consider an interesting documentary on Murakami … and thereby cultivate vast “fertile territories.”

 

 

 

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