The Strange Library
Published December 2, 2014
96 pages (paperback)
My introduction to Japanese literature in translation occurred during my last year in college. For fun, I took a class entitled “Sex, Love, and Deception” (or something like that), which involved reading a lot of (mostly creepy) Japanese books. The works we read spanned centuries–ranging from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, which was completed in the early 11th century, to contemporary fiction like Junichiro Tanizaki’s phenomenal The Key, which remains a favorite of mine to this day.
It was also in this class that I first ventured into the bizarre world of Haruki Murakami’s fiction, reading Norwegian Wood. (If you haven’t read any of Murakami’s stuff, his short fiction is frequently published in The New Yorker, and you can get a taste of it online here. His most recent short story, “Kino,” about a man who opens a hole-in-the-wall bar in the Aoyama neighborhood of Tokyo and his strange regular customer, was just published on February 23.). There are lots of common themes in Murakami’s writing, loneliness chief among them. But, while his writing is sometimes tragic, it doesn’t come across as completely depressing. His books often have a dreamlike cast and surrealistic bent. They’re weird in the best possible way.
Weirdness, of course, leads to strong opinions. So, it’s no surprise that Murakami has an avid, cult-like fan base. His Facebook page boasts over 1,000,000 likes. There’s an unofficial fan blog on Tumblr that is chock-full of Murakami pictures, quotations, news, and other content. There are over 2,500 in Goodreads’ Haruki Murakami Fans Group. There’s even an annual gathering of die-hard Murakami fans at a Hokkaido sheep farm. Fans post list after list after list of books you should read “if you really really like Haruki Murakami’s books.” I’ve never been stopped at the library by a stranger to discuss my choice of reading material before . . . but when I was walking out of the library carrying this book, a Murakami fan stopped me to ask whether I had read his newest short story in The New Yorker. These fans are no joke.
But I can’t blame them. It’s hard not to like his stuff. And his latest book, The Strange Library, reminds me why I like his writing so much.
The Strange LIbrary begins with a kid returning some books at his local public library. While he’s there, he wants to check out a book or two about tax collection during the Ottoman Empire. He is sent to Room 107, a mysterious section of the basement he never knew existed. He opens the door to the room and finds a librarian:
A little old man sat behind a little old desk in the middle of the room. Tiny black spots dotted his face like a swarm of flies. The old man was bald and wore glasses with thick lenses. His baldness looked incomplete; he had frizzy white hairs plastered against both sides of his head. It looked like a mountain after a big forest fire.
The man retrieves three books on Ottoman tax collection from the stacks, but they are marked with “For Internal Use Only” stickers. He tells the kid that he will have to stay in the library and read them in the Reading Room. Reluctantly, the kid agrees (despite the fact that he knows his mother will worry if he is gone too long).
The old man escorts the kid to the Reading Room through a series of maze-like corridors:
My mind was in turmoil. It was too weird—how could our city library have such an enormous labyrinth in its basement. I mean, public libraries like this one were always short of money, so building even the tiniest of labyrinths had to be beyond their means.
Finally, they are greeted behind a locked door by a nice man dressed in a costume made entirely of real sheepskin, who guides them the rest of the way to the Reading Room. In a shocking turn of events, the Reading Room is not what the kid expected.
This is classic Murakami. That is to say, it is weird (and a little creepy) in the best possible way. It reads like the telling of an incredibly bizarre, fascinating, and detailed dream (you can inexplicably read Turkish, you understand the beautiful girl who speaks only with her hands, there’s a man in a sheep costume who seems totally normal). Each character has a distinctive, funny, realistic voice. The ending is sad and unexpected (and loneliness rears its ugly head). This novella exemplifies everything people love about Murakami.
But the book itself defies characterization. It’s the length of a longish short story (96 pages of large print). The cover flaps unfold (top and bottom) to reveal the first page of text beneath (in a nice touch, the spine boasts the markings “FOR INTERNAL USE ONLY”).
Almost every spread consists of a trippy illustration (by Chip Kidd) on one side (usually very clearly but abstractly related to the text) with corresponding text on the other side.
If you haven’t read any of Murakami’s books, this is a great place to start. It is his typical fare, made even more surreal with colorful, quirky illustrations. And you can devour it easily in one quick sitting. It’s fun and weird and sad and utterly unique.
- An Amazon Best Book of the Month for December 2014
Who should read it: Fans of Haruki Murakami (if, by chance, you haven’t already read it); people who like surrealism; people who have very odd, vivid dreams.
Want to read along with me? A review of this book is coming soon:
- How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran (Moran is an award-winning British critic and the best-selling author of How to Be a Woman)