“Vocation” is a word I associate with the trades—a consequence, I think, of attending American public schools in the 1980s. There, “vocation” was deployed as a euphemism for skilled labor. The implication, as I understood it, was that to be a mechanic, a plumber, an electrician, was a calling, perhaps divine. The work that was my fate—noodling about in front of a computer—was decidedly less sanctified.
I thought about this distinction—between work as a sacred endeavor and just another job—as I began Haruki Murakami’s new book, Novelist as a Vocation. Does the job of novelist require some special quality, an invitation from God, or is it like most work, a set of skills that can be learned? But as I read the book, I realized that the title is a bit of a feint. This omnibus collection of essays—some first published in a Japanese literary magazine, others written for this volume—is less a how-to than a how-I-did-it. Novelist as a Vocation isn’t an inquiry into the craft so much as a half-hearted autobiographical reflection by one of its notable practitioners.
Having published 14 novels and five collections of stories in his 40-plus-year career, Murakami surely knows that whatever fiction requires of an artist can’t be distilled into steps like a recipe. But Novelist as a Vocation is elusive for another reason, too: Much like Murakami’s fiction, it’s a work more interested in questions than in answers. The novelist’s protagonists are often people adrift, destabilized by something that never quite comes into focus—sometimes a psychic trauma, sometimes a paranormal force. Murakami’s impulse is to document these lives without worrying too much about explaining them. Novelist as a Vocation, in this way, is like so many of his novels, and it hinges on a trick at which Murakami is well practiced: the promise of revelation that turns out to be a disappearing act.
Murakami is among the most prolific of contemporary novelists, and his books have traversed many styles and themes. His early novels were postmodern potboilers, detective stories with a philosophical bent, like 1982’s A Wild Sheep Chase and its 1988 sequel, Dance Dance Dance. His 1987 novel Norwegian Wood was a comparatively straightforward and wistful tale of young love that made him a star in Japan. With The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, he seemed to reach artistic maturity. It begins as a novel of quest (albeit an absurd one: the search for a missing cat) but deepens emotionally and ranges widely; it’s a hefty and unlikely page-turner.
While Murakami eventually moves on from stories about private investigators, most of his body of work involves mystery in some fashion. These plots are rarely resolved as they are in an Agatha Christie. Murakami is interested in tales of doggedly normal people experiencing something extraordinary that they accept they’ll never quite understand.In the novel 1Q84, a woman caught in traffic clambers down from an overpass in order to keep an appointment; this seems to knock her into a reality parallel to her own. The character takes this in stride: “At some point in time, the world I knew either vanished or withdrew, and another world came to take its place.” She jokes that this is a science-fiction premise, then carries on with the business of being a character in a novel.
Murakami’s elliptical imagination has always been one of his greatest assets. As we learn in Novelist as a Vocation, it’s also perhaps less a matter of invention than the result of how he has tended to perceive the ups and downs of his own life. In one of the book’s essays, Murakami relates a story of when he was young and broke. He and his wife had opened a jazz club in western Tokyo and found themselves unable to make a loan payment, when fate intervened: “We stumbled upon a crumpled wad of bills lying in the street. Whether it was synchronicity or some kind of sign, I don’t know, but strange to say, it was exactly the amount we needed.”
This tale may well be true, but that doesn’t matter much. I’d say this sort of anecdote reveals a true novelist—someone who finds the narrative in life’s morass. The impulse toward story is a key to nearly all of Murakami’s oeuvre, from the noir-inflected early novels to the searching quasi-mysticism of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, one of his strongest books. Strange things happen, so why bother trying to make sense of them? Murakami’s readers know you can’t logically comprehend his fictional worlds with their alternate realities, shadowy cabals, and supernatural flourishes. The pleasure is to be found in accepting the stories’ strange logic and maybe recognizing therein something of our own shared reality.
Though it often tries to avoid the genre, Novelist as a Vocation will be read by some as a book on the craft of writing, especially by writers who aspire to be like Murakami. That’s a risky proposition, as Murakami is among the more sui generis of contemporary writers. His readers might recognize his signature touches—affectless narration, illogical plot turns, strangely dispassionate sexual encounters, all brought to life via a suite of signifiers with an unarticulated personal meaning, such as the many references to music, baseball, cats, cooking, and so on—but they belong to Murakami. (That said, the English novelist David Mitchell’s Number9Dream comes thrillingly close to Murakami, maybe the most successful work of literary fan fiction ever published.)
But there is another reason to not read Novelist as a Vocation as a craft book: Writing fiction can’t be reduced to steps, and even if one rejects the notion of it as a divine calling, I agree with Murakami that “there is something else that is needed”—something unnameable and impossible to find in a how-to. Perhaps for this reason, Murakami is more interested in why he writes than how others might do so. In the chapter “So What Should I Write About?,” he tells us how he arrived at his particular style:
I wrote as if I were performing a piece of music. Jazz was my main inspiration. As you know, the most important aspect of a jazz performance is rhythm. You have to sustain a solid rhythm from start to finish—when you fail, people stop listening. The next most important element is the chords, or harmony if you like…. There are so many kinds. Though everyone is using a piano with the same eighty-eight keys, the sound varies to an amazing degree depending on who’s playing. This says something important about novel writing as well. The possibilities are limitless—or virtually limitless—even if we use the same limited material.
In another essay in the book, Murakami explains how he conveys this sense of limitless possibility. For one thing, he tells us, he works without an outline—“not knowing how it will unfold or end, letting things take their course and improvising as I go along. This is by far the most fun way to write.” Thinking about Murakami’s novels as improvisations around a theme is clarifying; so too is thinking about the writer as motivated, above all else, to keep the reader “listening.”
I’d be wary about following this advice, but these disclosures illuminate the task of reading Murakami, if not how to write like him. Take The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle: A man goes in search of a missing cat, meets an enigmatic young girl, descends into an empty well to think, receives an empty box as a gift, goes off on a quest that defies logic and easy summary. Maybe what looks like grand design is nothing more than fancy; maybe readers don’t need to reconcile all of a novel’s components (I didn’t even mention the long subplot about wartime atrocity). In the end, the question for the reader of a Murakami novel is the same as for the reader of any book: What does it all mean? It’s impossible to answer, even if the attempt to do so is the very point of art.
Murakami is strange company. In Novelist as a Vocation, he at times approaches wisdom: “The world may appear a mundane place, but in fact it is filled with a variety of enigmatic and mysterious ores,” he writes at one point. “Novelists are people who happen to have the knack of discovering and refining that raw material.” But then he retreats from anything tangible for his readers to hold on to and escapes into the abstractions of aphorism: “Even more wonderful: the process costs virtually nothing. If you are blessed with a good pair of eyes, you too can mine the ore you choose to your heart’s content!”
Murakami’s style (as rendered in English, anyway) has always been a bit cool and distant. This works well in his novels but does not serve him when the subject he chooses to write about is himself. He’s unable to reach candor and writes about the self as though it’s just another unsolvable mystery. When telling us how Murakami became Murakami, he explains that it was simply a matter of how he spent his time. Each day his goal remained the same: to produce about 1,600 words. “That’s not how an artist should go about his art, some may say. It sounds more like working in a factory. And I concur—that’s not how artists work. But why must a novelist be an artist? Who made that rule? No one, right? So why not write in whatever way is most natural to you?”
For Murakami, art is not always about art, though it is about discipline. This commitment to productivity is an essential part of the novelist’s job. More is required, of course—but when it comes to defining that “more,” Murakami becomes even more elliptical and elusive: “Essentially, I believe people don’t write novels because someone asks them to. They write because they have a personal desire to write. And it’s this strong inner motivation that drives them to write, and to endure all their own struggles as they do.”
As one comes to the end of Novelist as a Vocation, one realizes that Murakami is not all that interested in interrogating what has driven him to write and gives no real insight into whatever struggles he has faced as an artist. Perhaps he’s being humble, perhaps he’s being private, or perhaps he cannot quite acknowledge that a novel—whatever that is—is more than just an accretion of words at the rate of 1,600 per day.
As a result, some of Novelist as a Vocation can feel pretty silly. There is something absurd in Murakami avowing, “I love the activity of writing novels. Which is why I’m really grateful to be able to make a living doing just that, why I feel it’s a blessing I’ve been able to live this kind of life.” The author barely explores the ways in which he feels blessed, doesn’t even elucidate the kind of life he’s led. He has no particular responsibility to, but it feels to me like a missed opportunity.
Murakami has honed so defined a style and set of preoccupations that Novelist as a Vocation reads almost as his novels do: A well-meaning, average Joe sort of wanders from reality into something else—here, the business of writing fiction. There’s some repetition, some surprising discursions (my favorite was on Anthony Trollope), and then the book concludes. If you love Murakami, you will delight in the task of working out what it all means. If you do not, you may spend most of your time suspecting that, in the end, perhaps it means nothing at all.