Updated: Dec 15, 2020
In my early 20s I picked up a copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles on a recommendation from a friend. I tore through the book and soon began to methodically read through everything Murakami ever published (even going so far as tracking down then-hard-to-find copies of his first two novels, which hadn't been published in the US, on Ebay). From there on out, anytime Murakami published something new, I would immediately purchase and read the book.
In the years since, my enthusiasm for Murakami has waned a little. I'm not sure if I just haven't enjoyed some of his recent works quite as much, or if I've changed and his work no longer speaks to me as much as it used to. Still, anytime Murakami comes out with a new book, I dutifully buy it and read it (albeit not as quickly), hoping for that same spark I felt in my twenties. A few months ago, I went and purchased Murakami's latest offering, a short story collection entitled (I believe as an homage to Hemingway?) Men Without Women. Having just finished the collection, and with Murakami's latest novel, Killing Commendatore, coming out in little over a month, I thought it would be fun to look back at Murakami's oeuvre (including thirteen novels, four short story collections, two nonfiction book and whatever the hell The Strange Library was) and rank his books according to my own, very subjective tastes.
Creating this list was really tough for me and even now I hesitate at some of my rankings. Nonetheless, here is my own subjective ranking, from worst to best, of Murakami's work...
20. After Dark
My least favorite Murakami book, After Dark is a short, eery novel taking place in Tokyo during a single night across several characters. The sentences and writing style are recognizably Murakami, but the book lacks the emotional heart of his best work. Strangely, whereas it has been extremely en vogue the last twenty years or so to have books alternate between multiple points of view, Murakami has always thrived with his novels having a single, or at most double, point of view. In some ways, this book felt like a failed experiment.
19. The Strange Library
An odd little book about a boy getting trapped in a library. An interesting book design in collaboration with long-time Murakami designer Chip Kidd, but otherwise a forgettable pastiche of some of the weirder elements of Murakami's better works. Overall, pretty forgettable.
18. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
Colorless Tsukuru was kind of like the comeback album of a great rock band that's been laying low and making experimental acoustic albums for the last decade. When you first hear those rollicking power chords you feel a little bit of that old magic again and you say to yourself, "they're back." The reality though is that, as Thomas Wolfe said, "you can't go home again." It wasn't the power chords alone that made the magic after all; they were merely a conduit for something much more complicated, rooted in time and place. In the end, artists--be they rock musicians or novelists--can only move forward .
After several somewhat experimental books, often with multiple POVs, Murakami, in Colorless Tsukuru, gave us a narrator that could have easily been from many of his earlier works. Murakami's "return to form" admittedly made this a quick read that I got through in two days, but ultimately, like that comeback album, seemed only like an empty shadow of some former glory.
17. Men Without Women
Men Without Women is not a bad book--and certainly there are several stories here that would fit in well with some of his earlier (and I'd claim better) story collections. The real reason I have this book ranked so low is more that it lacks the memorable gems that mark his best collections. Still, if you're looking for a fresh dose of Murakami stories, this book could do the trick. Just don't expect these stories to stay with you the way some of his best do. My favorite story was probably the penultimate one of the book, "Samsa in Love": a love story and sort of inversion of Kafka's Metamorphosis in which someone wakes up having transformed into Kafka's protagonist.
16. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
This memoir, whose title is a play off Raymond Carver's amazing short story collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (fun fact: Murakami was one of Carver's Japanese translators), is about Murakami's long-standing affair with distance running. Here the writer recounts how he transformed himself from a non-runner into an avid marathoner and details the connections between his running and his writing. As a writer myself, the parallels Murakami makes between the discipline needed for running and the discipline needed for writing were insightful and thought provoking. That said, this book is probably only required reading for Murakami completists or avid runners.
This was probably the Murakami book I most eagerly anticipated. Unfortunately, it also ended up being the Murakami book I was most disappointed by.
Maybe a year before the book was released I attended a talk by Murakami at the New Yorker Festival where he teased that he was working on a "big" book with elements of horror in it. I was stoked, and in the intervening months I kept checking for a release date. When the book was released in Japan (significantly before the English version), I gobbled up what additional info I could find. From what I could glean, this book sounded like it had everything I could want from a Murakami book: alternating narratives, a parallel universe, a love story... I sincerely hoped this would be Murakami's magnum opus.
Alas, it was not to be.
I pre-ordered the book online and surprisingly received it a day before the official release date. The book design for the US hardcover (shout out to Chip Kidd!) was truly amazing with a partially translucent dust jacket interplaying with the image on the binding underneath. The plot of the book opens promisingly enough as well, as we're introduced to Aomame, a woman who we soon realize is some kind of expert assassin. Not too much later, we're also introduced to Tengo, a writer and math teacher who looks not unlike many of our favorite Murakami protagonists... Stuff happens... Fast forward to about a third of the way through the book... Things start to draaaaaaag...
Ultimately, 1Q84 reads like a book in desperate need of an editor. Whereas normally I'd finish Murakami books in a matter of a few days, with 1Q84, I ended up altogether giving up on two separate occasions, before mercifully finishing perhaps a year after the book was released. Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of good things about 1Q84, but we probably could have gotten through all those good things in about a third of the book's 900+ pages.
14. Pinball, 1973
Pinball, 1973 was Murakami's second novel, which along with his first (Hear the Wind Sing), waited several decades before being available in the US. Though this book reads as a standalone, it's technically the second book in the tetralogy made up of Hear the Wind Sing, this book, A Wild Sheep Chase, and Dance, Dance, Dance. At the height of my Murakami fandom (and before this and Hear the Wind Sing were published stateside), I sought out English-translated versions that had been released in Japan for ESL learners. Both books are slim and hardly count as more than novellas, but you see the beginning of Murakami's trademark voice begin to emerge. I can't say that this book left a long lasting impression, but it was a quick and enjoyable read nonetheless.
13. + 12. South of the Border, West of the Sun/ Sputnik Sweetheart
In my mind, I've always grouped these two books together as two of Murakami's "smaller" novels. Neither is as massive or ambitious as say Windup or Kafka (or 1Q84 for that matter), neither has major elements of the supernatural, and both are love stories of sorts with strong veins of nostalgia running through them. While this mental grouping may not be completely fair to these books' individual merits, it's how I think of them nonetheless. Both are totally worthy reads, but don't make it into Murakami's pantheon.
11. Kafka on the Shore
Kafka on the Shore may be one Murakami's most polarizing books in that some fans feel it's his best whereas others strongly dislike it and claim that it marks the beginning of Murakami moving in a different direction with his writing. For instance, a quick glance on Amazon reveals some fans reveling in the "dreamlike magical realism" whereas others complained that the book was too "weird" and "disconnected to normal human life." (NOTE: in full transparency, the fans definitely still outweigh the detractors pretty significantly).
As for me, I would say, that they're both right.
Certainly the book is weird (Johnny Walker and Colonel Sanders both make significant appearances in the book as characters), and I can't tell you that I fully "understood" it in a literal sense. However, Murakami still managed to pull off the somewhat miraculous feat of getting me to voraciously read something that didn't entirely make sense (and like it!). Not quite in the top ten, but still a recommended read.
10. Hear the Wind Sing
Hear the Wind Sing was the first novel Murakami wrote and published, though, as with Pinball, 1973, it's probably more of a "novella." The story was, that one day at a baseball game Murakami decided he was going to write a book. Hear the Wind Sing was the result.
I always know that there's something really great about a book when I try to imitate that thing in my own writing. With Hear the Wind Sing, that something was the magnificent opening, which perfectly set the tone for the rest of the book (I'll spare you the shitty short story I wrote in mimicry of this opening):
"There's no such thing as a perfect piece of writing. Just as there's no such thing as perfect despair." So said a writer I bumped into back when I was a university student. It wasn't until much later that I could grasp his full meaning, but I still found consolation in his words--that there's no such thing as perfect writing.
While the plot of the novel is relatively forgettable, as a coming-of-age story, the book perfectly captures the feeling of being young and sets the stage for much of Murakami's work to come.
9. A Wild Sheep Chase
If Windup Bird is the pinnacle of Murakami being Murakami--in terms of narrative voice, plot structure and themes--than A Wild Sheep Chase, published over a decade before Windup, is the place where we first see Murakami hitting all his signature elements for the first time. Whereas Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are mostly realistic, with A Wild Sheep Chase, we start to see the fantastical elements introduced for the first time. In my opinion, Murakami improves on these elements over time, but A Wild Sheep Chase is still a "wildly" fun read nonetheless.
Along with What I Talk About..., Underground is one of Murakami's two nonfiction offerings, and is an account of the Tokyo Gas Attacks by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which took place in 1995. I vaguely remember hearing about the attacks when they occured, but I knew very little of the details of the attack, the perpetrators, or the aftermath. Reading this book in the early 2000s, in a post-September 11th world where every trip to the airport or public gathering was met with an acute awareness of potential terrorism, gave this book an especial relevance to me. Even though this book is clearly very different from most other Murakami offerings, it stands on its own as a well-written and researched account of a fascinating moment in Japan's history.
7. Dance, Dance, Dance
Dance, Dance, Dance can mostly be read as a standalone novel even though it's actually the sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase (and, if you were a Japanese reader, technically the fourth book in a tetralogy, which began with Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, which were unpublished in the US, up until Wind/ Pinball was published in 2015). Like with A Wild Sheep Chase, and indeed many of Murakami's novels, we again find an unnamed male narrator, this time searching for his old girlfriend Kiki. Many Murakami fans tend to feel A Wild Sheep Chase is superior to Dance, but I felt Dance showed Murakami really nailing his signature voice and thought the plot had a little more page-turning narrative drive than its predecessor. Compulsively readable.
6. After the Quake
After the Quake was written following a massive 7.2 magnitude earthquake that struck Kobe in January 1995, killing thousands. Two months after the disaster, the Tokyo Gas Attacks took place, and so this thin collection of stories is thought of by some as a kind of companion volume to Underground, despite the two books being as different as any two by Murakami. I have three of the four short story collections (this one included) ranked in the top six for Murakami's best work, so it's clear that I hold him in high esteem as a short story writer. This particular one, while not having any individual stories among Murakami's very best, probably holds the distinction of being his most cohesive collection, with the book as a whole making up something more than the sum of its parts.
5. Norwegian Wood
Norwegian Wood, named after the Beatles song of the same name, was a sensational bestseller in Japan and is the book that made Murakami famous in his native country. A somewhat straightforward coming-of-age love story, Norwegian Wood is simultaneously quintessential Murakami while also being an outlier in his catalog. Missing is the weirdness and supernatural elements that mark so many of Murakami's books; however, the voice is as Murakami as it gets. I read this book when I was in a somewhat angsty, twenty-something stage of my own life, and this book hit the mark perfectly. I MIGHT have teared up at some points. Read this.
4. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
If After the Quake is Murakami's most cohesive story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman may be his least. Still, there are so many great stories here, that it still ranks as one of his best books. Particular gems include: the structurally brilliant "Birthday Girl," the elegiac "Firefly" (tonally reminiscent of many of Murakami's best novels), and "Tony Takitani."
3. The Windup Bird Chronicles
Murakami is frequently compared to David Lynch and Windup is no small part of the reason. Not unlike Twin Peaks, Windup launches out of the gate with propulsive narrative drive and introduces us to a wide cast of interestingly weird characters (a bizarrely morbid teenager, a psychic prostitute a mother/ son combo who go by Nutmeg and Cinammon, "Boris the Manskinner," etc.). The reader quickly finds themselves turning the pages as quickly as they can get through the narrative, hoping to see how everything comes together. However, also like with Twin Peaks (or say, Lost for that matter), the pieces don't all ultimately come together neatly and mysteries are left unsolved; instead, the reader must simply savor the journey, despite a somewhat unsatisfactory ending.
That said, I personally loved Twin Peaks and Lost, and although Windup is undoubtedly flawed, it remains on of my favorite 20 or 30 books of all time.
2. The Elephant Vanishes
If there was ever a perfect short story it's On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning. I remember the absolute gut punch I felt the first time I read it (and the second time I read it, third, fourth, etc.), and on the strength of that story alone, The Elephant Vanishes would likely be one of my five favorite Murakami books. However, On Seeing... isn't the only gem in this collection. The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women is the short story from which the much longer Wind-Up Bird Chronicles sprang and The Second Bakery Attack and Slow Boat to China both exemplify many of the elements of Murakami's writing that makes him so beloved. One of my all-time favorite short story collections.
1. Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Hardboiled Wonderland has a lot of vintage Murakami elements (especially the voice), but it's also his deepest foray into hardcore genre fiction. Without giving away too much, there are essentially two narratives: 1) the "hardboiled wonderland," which is a mix of noir detective fiction and cyberpunk (though this was written before anyone had coined that term), and 2) "the end of the world," which is basically straight-up fantasy. While there were a lot of books running through my head when I figured out the premise of my own novel, this one was undoubtedly a big contributor.
The actual reading experience I had with Hardboiled Wonderland was quite a bit different than with many other Murakami books. Murakami, like David Lynch with Twin Peaks or JJ Abrams with Lost, is great at setting up compelling mysteries that make his books instantly addictive. Like with those two TV series though, Murakami also sometimes struggles sticking his landings at the end. For me at least, Hardboiled Wonderland was the complete opposite. Whereas the book took me a little while to warm up to (it's just REALLY weird right from the get go), Murakami does an amazing job bringing the two disparate narratives together to give the reader a truly satisfying ending (which was the biggest thing lacking from some of his other great books like Windup Bird). Yes, this book might not be someone's cup of tea if they tend to shy away from genre stuff (and read Murakami instead because of his "literary-ness"), but for me, Hardboiled Wonderland represents the pinnacle of Murakami's achievements as a writer and stands as a truly original work of fiction.
Think my ranking was terrible? Have your own ranking? Let me know what you think in the comments!