The Murakami Code: A theory of Murakami’s ability to wow

Those who read and love Murakami know that there is just something about his storytelling that is just unsurpassed. For over 5 years, I’ve been reading, enjoying, changing through his stories. As a writer, I’ve looked up to Murakami and tried to hone in on how he does it.

How does Murakami write stories that are so personal as to be disturbing and absolutely realistic even when moving into the absurd, while at the same time being so universal as to make the reader question every aspect their life and life choices.

Well, I think I’ve figured it out.

Word of warning: If you enjoy Murakami as a reader only and don’t want his storytelling pulled apart, stop reading this post. This is a pseudo-literary look at his writing into what I think it is that makes his writing so unique and so enveloping.

If you’ve ever tried to explain a Murakami book to a friend in one sentence, or a whole damn conversation, you’ll notice it’s damn near impossible. Wind-up Bird Chronicle starts with Okada cooking pasta and talking to his wife. Not a typical page turner, yet it is. 1Q84 jumps from storyline to storyline enough to make you mad, but you have to keep reading, and little happens for much of the 3 long books. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki opens with nothing happening and jumps timelines so often and so confusingly as to test your patience.

So what is it that keeps you interested? And what is it that screws with your psyche?

The simple answer: Haruki Murakami breaks the rules of writing.

It’s a trifecta of rule breaking that brings his stories to life.

First, Murakami uses passive voice when he writes in 3rd person. One of the first writing tips you always hear is “don’t use passive voice.” This is SO wrong.

Many critics said he shouldn’t write 3rd person, it doesn’t suit his writing well. I think that’s bullocks. The way Murakami uses passive voice is on par with that of Salinger. He uses it strategically to do two things: bring you in and feel one with the main character while also making the character seem the passive actor when they THINK they are a passive actor themselves. When done right, as done here, you too feel passive and uncomfortable.

Second, Murakami opens his stories with interesting and seemingly unimportant info dumps that turn out to be the crux of the character’s second guessing their lives. Another crap piece of writing advice is “Never info dump at the start. Drop the reader into the action.” This too is bullocks. Badly done info dumps are just info dumps. But when done masterful, they play a different role.

Murakami doesn’t give you full names or explain the color of clothes characters are wearing or other unnecessary info. Instead, Murakami drops the reader in seemingly innocuous scenes where seemingly nothing is going on. Then, he peppers in seemingly inconsequential info about side characters and past incidents. But before the end of chapter 1 that ‘inconsequential’ info disappears into the background as the main character loses friends or what they thought was theirs. The character loses the very thing that was peppered in and disappears.

What does this do? This has the effect of creating the sensation of unconscious loss in the reader as well as the character. Rather than starting the story in action and giving you a reason for giving a damn later, Murakami gives you the reason for giving a damn without you knowing it and then SLAPS you with the action so that everyone feels the loss equally. This loss makes you keep reading.

Third, use of “negatives” in the narrative. A critique I get often is that “you can’t use too many negatives. Tell the reader what IS. Not what is NOT. By using negatives, you paint no picture for the reader.” When using negatives for negatives’ sake, you don’t paint a picture for the reader. What do I mean by negatives? Saying something was not red or not new instead of saying it was green or it was old. You paint no picture for the reader.

Murakami does something else. He paints an actual un-picture. Each time he uses a negative, it’s on purpose. And he does it in giant clusters. He paints an un-picture leaving a sense of emptiness in the reader and pointing out the loss the main character has up against. The first few chapters of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is a great example of this.

This is the Murakami Code: the trifecta of passive voice, negatives, and “no immediate action.” This creates an overwhelming sensation of loss and disassociation with the reader as to set you up open up. It sets you up allow anything to fill that gap…even if it means walking into the absurd and insane. It allows Murakami to use magical realism in ways no other author does, by starting in reality and sliding you in so slowly but so mercilessly that you don’t know what hit you until you’ve already given in to the crazy creatures and absurdity of the storyline.


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