Disappearing Act: The Working Life of Haruki Murakami

May 4, 2023
Dimitris Passas

NOTE: This article is a republication- Source: The Nation (by Rumaan Alam).

"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.

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