The typical protagonist of Haruki Murakami’s novels is an unemployed or self-employed loner who spends most of his time at home cooking pasta and listening to jazz, wondering about the woman who has just left him. Unexpected loss disrupts his equilibrium and launches him on a quest for the stuff he is made of. He never, of course, finds a definite answer. While the quest usually involves tinkering about in the fuzzy borders that separate waking life from dream—where often the appearance of an eccentric, sexy, and sexually unavailable woman with paranormal abilities becomes crucial to the plot—the stories take place in thoroughly mundane locations (hotels, office buildings, bars, houses, libraries) that have secret access to the realm of fantasy. Always, Murakami’s prose is like a stainless-steel kitchen top: clean and solid.

Probing beneath surface normalcy is something Murakami has explored in nonfiction as well (he has also translated American literature into Japanese, notably, Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, and J.D. Salinger). In Underground: the Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche (1998), originally published in two volumes, Murakami interviews both victims and members of the cult that perpetrated the 1995 attack. While Murakami speaks directly only in his preface and conclusion, Underground reveals the most pervasive theme of his fiction: that behind the façade of reality there is an inexhaustible well of repressed desire that, if unacknowledged, will destroy the “normal” world of the subject.

The interviews in the first volume of Underground capture the average Japanese worker: middle-class men and women, with stable jobs and families, whose lives are colored largely by changes in routine; getting a seat in the subway or getting gassed on the way to work register in the same tone. Their voices bespeak a thoroughly regulated society of production and consumption that is rarely questioned. The second volume, by contrast, uncovers the glitches in the system. While those interviewed are not the actual perpetrators of the attack, they are members of the cult responsible for it. They are outcasts, people who never believed in the promises of the booming Japanese postwar economy. They sought in religion escape from a grinding lifestyle and found themselves cast into the margins of society.

Murakami views the gas attack not as an isolated act but as illuminating momentous truths about Japanese society. After all, he observes, the attack occurred underground, revealing what was not apparent on the surface. “Many parts of the social system in which we belong and function,” Murakami declares in Underground, “do indeed aim at repressing the attainment of individual autonomy, or, as the Japanese adage goes: ‘The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.’” For Murakami those in both groups interviewed made only life-denying choices. Office workers so entranced by the bourgeois narrative—raise a stable family, own some property, work a regular job, die peacefully—forgot they were giving up their lifeblood to maintain the system; cult members also forgot their individual hopes and, crucially, their power to dissent.

Murakami’s fictional heroes are the nails who refuse to be hammered down. They stake their identity on a spirit of rebellion and the pursuit of freedom. It is not a coincidence that almost all of Murakami’s novels are written in the first person. Murakami himself seems quite conscious—and proud, too—of his refusal to follow the corporate creed that guides the lives of average Japanese workers. Soon after completing his undergraduate studies and getting married, Murakami opened up a jazz bar called Peter Cat. The unprecedented commercial success of his fifth novel, Norwegian Wood (2000), allowed him to write full-time, travel, and teach abroad.

Murakami’s novels are characterized by tolerable ambiguity and imaginative abundance. His characters inhabit both reality and fantasy: the boundaries are permeable. As characters flow easily from one space to another, they discover that the underworld is always present, already part of the seemingly normal world. Uncanny doubles, coincidences, and parallelisms are Murakami’s preferred vehicles for revealing repressed truths about individual people, the social forces that shape their lives, and the history of their country.

In alternating chapters, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World (1991) tells parallel stories of a high-tech information decoder whose mission is to protect a mad scientist‘s research, and a nameless man trapped in an eerie place called the Town. The decoder (narrating his own story) is a mix of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade, and other shady private detectives of American noir. The difference between him and his hard-boiled cousins is the nature of his mission. The scientist’s research involves implementing a device through which operators can code and decode information by transferring it from one hemisphere of their brain to the other. The decoder discovers that he was used as the scientist’s guinea pig at the precise moment he realizes that the experiment is a fiasco. If the narrator cannot reverse the procedure, he knows he will cease to exist as a conscious human being. As journalist Matt Thomson remarks about the character, “the man is a detective, but the crime has somehow happened within himself.”

The decoder’s metaphysical quest to save his own consciousness finds its counterpart in the story of the nameless being. This character, who also acts as narrator, inhabits a distant town called just so, the Town, enclosed by a wall called, indeed, the Wall. There, he meets characters such as the Gatekeeper, the Colonel, the Librarian, all bizarre doubles of people who inhabit the decoder’s hard-boiled reality. With a serene tone and a stock of beautifully sober flourishes that counteract the cyberpunk atmosphere of Hard-Boiled Wonderland, this narrator tells an allegorical tale about his efforts to recuperate his core self in a place where characters insist that “to relinquish your self carries no shame.”

The very structure of the novel and the irreconcilable tones used by each narrator mirror the essential split between consciousness (Hard-boiled Wonderland) and unconsciousness (End of the World). For Murakami, it seems, the rift cannot be mended. Loss is the essential make-up of the self. At the same time, the author pushes the notion that one’s borders are porous and that brokenness can be fixed, at least a little. Though radically different, the stories blend. Images from one world migrate to the other. The same specific details occasionally appear in both stories. These tenuous connections are most often imperceptible to the narrators, but not to the reader; for Murakami the self cannot know itself entirely.

Murakami expands this web of resonances throughout his work. In South of the Border, West of the Sun (2000) Hajime narrates the story of his monotonous, yet successful life. The jazz bars he owns are popular, his wife a loving woman. Hajime’s unease about his easy ride through life begins the moment Shimamoto, a childhood girlfriend, shows up one rainy night. They begin to see each other sporadically at his bar, usually on rainy nights. After each encounter, Hajime doubts the reality of her presence, thinking it might be a mere illusion. But the lipstick-stained cigarette butts he later sees suggest otherwise. They seem to confirm that she entered his world. Still, her mysterious demeanor, her silence about her life, and her penchant for disappearing for months without notice and then reappearing suddenly, add to the unreality.

After the chaste affair threatens to undo Hajime’s comfortable life, he and Shimamoto go together to a cabin in Hakone, just outside Tokyo. They make love, and he promises to leave his wife and children behind. But in the morning, Shimamoto is gone. Besides “a slight depression in the pillow” there is no “trace that she had ever been there.” Progressively, Hajime realizes that there’s no concrete evidence of her existence. As the memory of their encounters wears off, Hajime learns that “something inside [him] was severed, and disappeared. Silently. Forever.” In the meantime, his marriage disintegrates. At the end of the novel, when he confesses to his wife, we can hear every other Murakami protagonist: “No matter where I go, I still end up me. What’s missing never changes. The scenery may change, but I’m still the same old incomplete person. The same missing elements torture me with a hunger I can never satisfy. I guess that lack itself is as close as I’ll come to defining myself.”

At the core of every Murakami novel, desire—perpetual loss—is the only permanent fixture of identity. But for Murakami, loss is not just personal. As scholar Yoshio Iwamoto explains, Japanese critics have dismissed Murakami’s novels for their faddishness and lack of “deep-seated sociopolitico-historical awareness.” His excessive references to Western pop culture and literature, Americanisms, and outlandish figurative language (“We were met by the sound of a loud slap, as if a huge cut of roast beef had been flung against a stone wall”), as well as the soaring commercial success of his novels, fueled the suspicions of critics who labeled Murakami a mere producer of bestsellers. But they, I believe, miss just how intertwined the political and the personal are in Murakami’s novels. Individuality, as the interviews recorded in Underground show, is not something Japanese people are comfortable with. In a 1997 interview with critic Laura Miller, Murakami says: “I haven’t belonged to any company or any system. It isn’t easy to live like this in Japan. You are estimated by which company or which system you belong to. That is very important to us. In that sense, I’ve been an outsider all the time.” Referring to the Japanese workers he interviewed, he wonders:

Honestly, I don’t know why they are working so hard. Some of them got up at 5:30 in the morning to commute to the center of Tokyo. It takes more than two hours by train, all of it packed like this [hunches]. You can’t even read a book. But they are doing that for 30 or 40 years. That’s incredible to me. They come home at 10 p.m. and their kids are sleeping. The only day they see their children is Sunday. It’s horrible. But they don’t complain. So I asked them why not and they said it’s no use. It’s what all the people are doing, so there’s no reason to complain.

Japanese collective behavior, Murakami suggests, is ruled by a form of obedience whose logic gives rise merely to hard work and silence. He systematically denounces a way of life that diseases the mind, stifles ecstasy, and blunts the imagination. As antidotes, Murakami sprinkles his stories with a healthy number of fantastic characters, steamy sex scenes, and conscientiously prepared home meals. Murakami’s screwball characters are his most memorable—the Sheep Man, May Kasahara, and Nakata are some of my favorites—but even his objects possess a stunning sensuality that lingers on the mind. For instance:

I noticed a yellow ribbon she had discarded. It was peeking out from under a crumpled sheet of writing paper and a few pieces of junk mail. Its bright, glossy yellow was what had caught my eye. It was the kind of ribbon used to wrap presents, the bow tied in the shape of a flower (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle).

Inside the urn were white ashes. Very carefully, so that none would spill out, she poured the ashes onto her left palm. There was barely enough to cover her hand. Ash left after cremation, I figured. It was a quiet windless afternoon, and the ash didn’t stir. (South of the Border, West of the Sun).

I take a small, old gold lighter—I like the design and the feel of it—and a folding knife with a really sharp blade. Made to skin deer, it has a five-inch blade and a nice heft. (Kafka on the Shore).

Murakami’s protagonists, with all their personal quirks and carnality, invariably challenge the prevailing economic and political order. In A Wild Sheep Chase (1989), a novel blending the political with the utterly fantastic, the nameless lead character and narrator throws away his comfortable job in an advertising firm in search of a paranormal sheep that inhabits the body of a powerful man/corporation called The Boss, a being who “sits squarely on top of a trilateral power base of politicians, information services, and the stock market.” The sheep also alludes to one of the darkest episodes of Japanese military and political history. As a character in the novel explains, sheep were imported in the early-20th century in preparation for war with the Soviets and an imperialist occupation of Manchuria; the wool was to provide raw material for soldiers’ uniforms. As the novel’s protagonist searches for the master sheep, he realizes its true meaning and thus tries to destroy the animal, and, less metaphorically, the empire built on its wooly back.

Despite its pastoral setting, A Wild Sheep Chase is, as critic Francie Lin argues, a moving “lament about the mechanizing forces of post-war Japan. A persistent, low-level sadness runs throughout the novel, most of it linked to the atomization of old ideals by an antiseptic modern order.” This lament continues, albeit in a more bitter and violent vein, in the sequel to A Wild Sheep Chase.

Dance Dance Dance (1994) is a harsh attack against capitalism. The novel starts when the narrator of A Wild Sheep Chase decides to look for his old lover, Kiki. He imagines she is calling him, sobbing for him, and decides it is best to return to the place where the sheep adventure began three years before. Now the narrator is working as a freelance writer, cooking up articles for anonymous magazines, “shoveling snow,” he says, “you know, cultural snow” when he gives up his work for this seemingly random quest. But in place of the shabby three-story Dolphin Hotel, he finds the towering L’Hôtel Dauphin, a concrete sign of advanced capitalism. The pervasive tone of the novel, aside from constant disgust, is one of impotence and resignation. The narrator cannot do much to counter the logic of an economy that corrodes, corrupts, and kills; a lot of people die in this novel. As the narrator says, rebellion has been absorbed by the system:

Although I didn’t think so at the time, things were a lot simpler in 1969. All you had to do to express yourself was throw rocks at riot police. But with today’s sophistication, who’s in a position to throw rocks? Who’s going to brave what tear gas? C’mon, that’s the way it is. Everything is rigged, tied into that massive capital web, and beyond this web there’s another web. Nobody’s going anywhere. You throw a rock and it’ll come back at you.

A sense of fatality and inevitability is perhaps best expressed by the character Gotanda, a famous TV actor whom the narrator befriends. Gotanda appears charismatic, successful, and rich; he drives a Maserati, wears a Rolex, and lives in a chic neighborhood. In truth he is choked with debt and passion for a woman who destroys his dignity. Unable to renounce the grinding cycle of retail and emotional consumption, Gotanda ends up killing two prostitutes and then himself. Meanwhile, the narrator is trapped in an apparently aimless quest. Only when the protracted plot is resolved do we realize that the narrator’s sole accomplishment is the story itself. At the end of the novel, he says, “I wondered if, maybe, it was time to give up the shoveling habit. Do some writing for myself for a change. Without the deadlines. Something for myself. Not a novel or anything. But something for myself.”

The idea of storytelling as a form of redemption inhabits Murakami’s 1997 novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, at all levels. Toru Okada, like the narrators of other novels by Murakami, enjoys cooking and is a music connoisseur who’s a bit bored with his life. Just when he is discovering the pleasures of free time, his cat Noboru Wataya and his wife Kumiko disappear. The moment Toru begins to search for them, everything turns on its head: a seer named Malta Kano and her sister Creta come to him with odd messages about the fate of his cat, while his neighbor, a young misfit named May Kasahara, leads him to a dried-up well where he enters a surreal realm of death and desire. Toru’s odd friends also include Lieutenant Mamiya, a veteran of the infamous Nomonhan Battle; Nutmeg, a medium who used to live in the puppet state of Manchukuo before World War II; and the real Noboru Wataya, his wife’s brother and a highly influential public figure who threatens to take over Japanese politics as he violently interferes in Toru’s marriage. Through a monumental cast of characters, Murakami speaks directly to Japanese responsibility for the occupation of Manchuria before World War II and the Japanese-Soviet War.

Before this novel, Murakami concerned himself with his protagonists’ stories. But here other voices invade the text, suddenly destabilizing the main narrative. While Toru and his quest make up the narrative backbone of the novel, he is also a recipient of other people’s stories. He has to listen. As the novel progresses, all the characters except Toru himself seem to release their emotional burdens in the act of telling the story. Creta Kano relates her sad history of mental and emotional defilement; Lieutenant Mamiya tells him personally, and then through a series of letters, his experience as a soldier on the Asian continent; Nutmeg confides the details of her husband’s violent death, and May Kasahara writes him letters that eventually reveal that she killed her boyfriend in a motorcycle accident. Everyone is in a constant state of bereavement, and Toru receives the weight of their grief. His is an exercise in empathy that gives way to a more profound sense of understanding, even with regard to his own loss. Through Toru, Murakami gives shape to an ethics based on empathetic understanding of the other.

The purpose of stories, as Murakami says in his interview with Laura Miller, is to “put your feet in someone else’s shoes” and “to look at the world through other people’s eyes.” In his most recent two novels, Kafka on the Shore (2005) and After Dark (2007), Murakami takes up the call for stories that invite empathetic understanding of others through generous understanding of the self. Both novels are about kids who do not fit in and are extremely hard on themselves. But they learn to give themselves a chance when they open up to other people.

Kafka on the Shore signals a dramatic change in Murakami’s fiction. Half of this novel is narrated by a 15-year-old kid, Kafka, who is running away from his father, an unloving bastard who condemns his son with an Oedipal prophesy. Kafka’s seemingly random escape appears to be less than random when he strikes up with a woman who could very well be his mother. Kafka’s fateful voyage is replicated by an old, dumb man named Nakata, who finds himself on an equally fate-driven journey. Nakata’s story is told by an unidentified third-person narrator who happens to have access to documents that would explain the strange conditions under which Nakata lost his mind (and half of his shadow, too). During World War II, a teacher takes a group of children to the forest where, after viewing a flying object resembling an American airplane, the group falls unconscious. Only Nakata is unable to regain full consciousness and is left in a permanent state of idiocy. This experience gives him the ability to talk to cats and connect with an otherworldly dimension where an evil force in the shape of Johnny Walker (yes, the proud tout of the famous whiskey) threatens to pry open the gates of the collective unconscious for some unidentified advantage.

From the beginning of the novel, Kafka’s imaginary friend, The Boy Named Crow, urges him to become the strongest kid in the world. But as the novel progresses, Kafka’s fantasy of self-reliance crumbles as he finds himself in a tight spot: his father is found murdered and Kafka is a suspect. To survive Kafka must rely on other people, particularly, Sakura, a girl Kafka insists on treating as his sister, and Oshima, a noble transvestite who teaches Kafka the dangers of extreme isolation. Slowly, the boy takes down the barricades he had built to protect himself. When the Oedipal prophesy is fulfilled—Kafka sleeps with Miss Saeki, a woman he thinks is his mother, and with Sakura, a girl he imagines is his sister—the walls protecting Kafka’s heart collapse. Though he has exposed himself to pain, Kafka also learns by the end of the novel that without pain there can be no healing and no forgiveness.

In After Dark, Mari, a lonely 19-year-old girl, spends the night in a neon-lit Denny’s restaurant where she sits and reads a book. In this novel, Murakami again moves away from the first-person narrative. Here, a disembodied third-person camera-like narrator tells the story of the wakefully smart Mari and her sister Eri, who, like a Kawabata beauty, has been sleeping uninterruptedly for months. At Denny’s a sleepless Mari meets Takahashi, a young trombone player, and his friend Kaoru, a former female wrestler who manages the love hotel where a beaten-up Chinese prostitute waits for help. Turns out Mari can speak Mandarin.

Talking to the young battered woman, Mari discovers a strange connection. She says to Takahashi, “The minute I saw her, I felt—really strongly—that I wanted to be her friend. I’ve hardly ever felt that way about anybody. Hardly ever? Never would be more like it. I didn’t spend much time with her, and we hardly talked at all, but I feel as if she’s living inside me now. Like she’s a part of me.” At the same time, a friendship between Mari and Takahashi begins to take shape. Through their final dialogue, Murakami sums up, ever so tactfully, Mari’s awakening curiosity toward others, a curiosity that translates into reconciliation with her self.

After her conversation with Takahashi, Mari returns home to her sister’s room. Wanting her to wake up, Mari hugs her sister and then falls asleep. The narrator registers some hope, a “momentary physical signal,” a soft trembling of Eri’s lips that “might be the barest hint of a minuscule quickening.”

After Dark, a short and tight novel, ends, like most of Murakami’s novels, in ambiguity. His fiction is born of the unresolved contradictions other narratives try to smooth away. In the conclusion of Underground, Murakami asks:

Haven’t you offered up some part of your Self to someone (or something), and taken a ‘narrative’ in return? Haven’t we entrusted some part of our personality to some greater System or Order? And if so, has not that System at some stage demanded from us some kind of ‘insanity’? Is the narrative you possess really and truly your own? Are your dreams really your own dreams?

In their alternate worlds Murakami’s heroes expose themselves to confusion, even pain, that is never quite successfully resolved. Still, in risking being different, they (Toru, Kafka, Hajime, Mari, and the nameless narrators of A Wild Sheep Chase, and Hard-Boiled Wonderland) seem to gain an understanding of others that translates, however imperfectly, into the capacity to imagine, and to dream.