Earlier this year, I wrote about references to the Beats in the work of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. It was just a list with a few explanations for context, but I ended it by suggesting that perhaps others might want to delve further.
Since then, I have read every Murakami book and everything I could find about him. There really isn’t anything else explicitly about the Beats but I gained enough to put together this short article.
I will state up front that these are merely connections I see between the two writers. Aside from the previously mentioned references to Kerouac and Ginsberg in Murakami’s novels, I can find no mention of him discussing them, nor citing them as influences. However, Murakami has always been cagey in that way.
Has Murakami Even Read Kerouac…?
Before looking at connections between the two writers and the possibility of Kerouac having influenced Murakami, it’s worth asking the obvious questions: Has Murakami even read Kerouac’s novels?
Whilst he has said nothing that I can find about Jack Kerouac, a reference to the Beat author’s work that can be found in Murakami’s novels strongly suggests that he has more than a passing knowledge.
In his short novel, Sputnik Sweetheart, Murakami mentions Kerouac several times. Much of this is superficial, with the Beat writer merely a cultural touchstone, but at one point he spends a full page discussing Kerouac’s writing. He doesn’t deal with On the Road or The Dharma Bums or any of the more famous work… Instead, he digs into Lonesome Traveller, quoting this section:
No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.
Although this is given as a favourite Kerouac quote of a young female character, Murakami himself would have agreed with Kerouac’s sentiment. He is an unashamedly solitary writer with a strong individualist streak. As a young man, Murakami even went on a Kerouacian journey around Japan, hitching and backpacking and spending time in the wilderness.
As a young man in the 1960s and ‘70s, Murakami was obsessed with reading books in English. He was no literary snob, either. He read anything and everything he could get his hands on, ploughing through books as fast as he could. His source was a bookshop in Kobe that sold to and bought from American sailors. Murakami (I assume jokingly) claims that it sold books by the pound.
He was fond of American literature of that era and the previous few decades, and had an affinity for the work of Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut. Given his literary tastes and the fact that we know he read Lonesome Traveller, then it stands to reason that he probably stumbled upon Kerouac’s more famous books around this point. In fact, it seems rather unlikely that he wouldn’t have read at least a few of them. Which raises the next question…
Was Kerouac an Influence on Murakami?
Murakami loathes interviews and avoids saying anything too personal in his own writing. He is also fiercely independent and dislikes being labelled or connected with other writers. When it comes to his literary influences, he readily cites F. Scott Fitzgerald, Raymond Carver, and Raymond Chandler as his favourites, as well as a handful of Japanese authors like Natsume Sōseki. However, he never really admits to the influence of these writers on his work… Murakami claims time and again that pretty much no one influenced him. He may have liked a certain author, but he always claims he is an individual and that his writing style came about through his own determination to be like no one else.
His claims, though, are unconvincing and often contradictory. He is a master of evasion and frequently gives misleading statements. Little is known about his private life and what he feeds the public varies from day to day. In his most recent book, Novelist as a Vocation, he freely admits just making up answers to certain annoying questions.
Given that we will never hear Murakami say, “Kerouac was a huge influence on me because…,” we must look a little further and make some presumptuous inferences. Below, I will provide four connections between Kerouac and Murakami that, if one were to believe Murakami was a Kerouac fan, might hint at some degree of influence.
Murakami Appears to be a Proponent of Spontaneous Prose
One of the consistent statements that Murakami has made about his writing style is that he is a massive proponent of spontaneous prose. In many interviews, he has made the claim that he does not plan out his novels in advance and usually only has a title, a theme, a name, or a few words in his head when he begins. Generally, he has the sense that he wants to write another book and, once he begins, he just starts writing.
He has often spoken of the “joy” and “excitement” of writing because he has no idea what will come next. He writes a fixed number of words per day and then stops, regardless of where he is in the writing process. The next day, he begins with the same enthusiasm as a reader, for he has no idea what will occur in the coming paragraphs. He believes that there is a certain level of consciousness (sometimes named “the second basement”) that he can enter and from there he draws upon an individual and shared human unconscious, returning with stories that resonate with readers around the world.
In Novelist as a Vocation, he goes into more detail and employs the word “spontaneous” numerous times as he describes this process. Naturally, this term makes one think of Kerouac and his spontaneous prose.
Basically, I think, novels should emerge in a spontaneous flow.
Elsewhere, he writes:
Perhaps pure impulse brings with it its own form and style in a natural, involuntary way.
This sounds rather familiar to those who have read Kerouac’s “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” and particularly this line:
Begin not from preconceived idea of what to say about image but from jewel center of interest in subject of image at moment of writing
Murakami’s belief that he is venturing into his own unconscious to pull out stories (monogatari) that he has not crafted but which are products of his unconscious and even some universal unconscious is similar to Kerouac’s assertion:
If possible write “without consciousness” in semi-trance (as Yeats’ later “trance writing”) allowing subconscious to admit in own uninhibited interesting necessary and so “modern” language what conscious art would censor, and write excitedly, swiftly, with writing-or-typing-cramps, in accordance (as from center to periphery) with laws of orgasm, Reich’s “beclouding of consciousness.”
Although Murakami appears to be more in search of plots, characters, and images and Kerouac is advising on finding the right words, there is undeniably some similarity here.
The two men took rather different approaches beyond that, with Murakami deliberately stopping after ten pages (no matter how much he wanted to continue writing) and Kerouac famously going on for days. Still, when Murakami talks about writing short stories, one cannot help but think of Kerouac:
I can turn one out in a few days in a single spontaneous flow.
Murakami’s writing process has led to a unique style that some call a form of Magical Realism. (Murakami denies this and calls his work his own form of realism.) There are various excellent texts that study Murakami’s so-called Magical Realist prose and these give different reasons for this intrusion of the apparently magical upon the real, with Murakami himself claiming that he simply writes what comes from his unconscious and that he has no idea what any of it means.
I don’t doubt that this is mostly true. I think Kerouac and Murakami both had a unique genius and wrote wonderfully imaginative works because they were pulling ideas from the depths of their minds rather than fitting a prescriptive formula. However, perhaps herein lies another connection… I would challenge the reader to revisit Doctor Sax and then read Murakami’s books – in particular, his less polished early ones or the dreamlike sections of his mid-career novels that see his characters’ dreams blend with what passes for reality. There is an evident similarity.
I have no idea if Murakami ever read Doctor Sax, but he certainly ended up writing some very Saxy novels.
Murakami Writes Prose Like a Jazz Musician
Perhaps the best-known fact about Kerouac’s writing style, at least among lay people, is that he aimed to write poetry and prose in the same way that a jazz musician creates music. In the aforementioned “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose,” he wrote about “blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image” and compared his writing to a “jazz musician drawing breath between outblown phrases.”
The same is true of Murakami. He has hinted at this a few times in the past, in interviews and speeches. In a video of a lecture given to American students (which sadly appears to have been deleted from YouTube), we can see him reading a short story aloud and insisting upon reading it in Japanese first because he feels so strongly that music is a part of his style. It was important to convey to them the musicality of his prose. Jay Rubin, his translator, claimed that:
Rhythm is perhaps the most important element of his prose. He enjoys the music of words, and he senses an affinity between his stylistic rhythms and the beat of jazz.
In Murakami’s latest book, he goes into detail about how he aims to infuse his writing with the rhythm of jazz music.
I wrote as if I was 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 […] Finally there is the matter of free improvisation. Once the rhythm and chord progression (or harmonic structure) have been established, the musician is able to weave notes freely into the composition.
I can’t play a musical instrument […] Yet I have the strong desire to perform music. From the beginning, therefore, my intention was to write as if I were playing an instrument. I still feel like that today. I sit tapping away at the keyboard searching for the right rhythm, the most suitable chords and tones. This is, and has always been, the most important element in my literature.
There is no mention of Kerouac here, but when one thinks of jazz music turned into writing, one cannot help but think of Jack Kerouac.
Did Murakami know of Kerouac’s jazz inspiration? He has an encyclopaedic knowledge of jazz and is extremely well-versed in twentieth-century American literature, so it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t. It’s not inconceivable that he was inspired by Kerouac’s application of jazz to American English and attempted to do this in Japanese.
Murakami Was a Student of the Streets
Again and again, Murakami tells us that he was an “ordinary” person with a boring but mildly privileged childhood. He went to university, but, like Kerouac, he dropped out. Academia was just not his thing. “People who absolutely love school,” he says, “probably won’t become novelists.” They both loved literature but preferred to read of their own volition, for their own pure joy, immersing themselves in books that appealed to them, not what they were assigned by their teachers.
Like Kerouac and the other Beat authors, Murakami was drawn away from his suburban life and his formal education, entering into the seedy underworld of his country’s biggest metropolis. Here, in the backstreets of Tokyo, soaking up the nightlife, Murakami gained the experiences he would later put into novels like After Dark. He was drawn to the seedy, the outlawed, the Beat…
It is a stretch to say that he did this because of reading Kerouac or any of the other Beat writers, but one can hardly fail to see the similarities between his venturing into the Tokyo underworld and Kerouac and his Beat pals exploring Times Square of the 1940s.
Murakami Is A Literary Jock
Ok, perhaps “jock” is an unfair word. But both Murakami and Kerouac are unusual for straddling that line between literary and athletic. Kerouac was a high-school and college football player and probably would have retained his athleticism had he not gone so hard into writing and drugs that he damaged his body beyond repair.
Murakami, on the other hand, got into exercise because he was a writer. After his first two novels, he decided to close the jazz bar that he owned and become a full-time novelist. However, he had and retains a belief that one must be physically strong in order to write novels. Citing a mind-body connection as well as the more obvious fact that writing all day can take a nasty toll on one’s health, he has argued again and again that it is necessary to become physically strong in order to write good books.
Whilst Kerouac moved away from sports and grew fat and frail, Murakami took up various types of exercise, including running, and maintains a strict routine that he credits with his literary success. Even in his seventies, he continues running marathons and has even written a book about running.
Despite Kerouac’s physical decline, he understood the value of exercise and at least attempted to stave off some of the damage he’d done to his body by standing on his head for several minutes. He claimed in The Dharma Bums that a hobo taught him this and that it completely cured his phlebitis and, in 1964, an interviewer observed him standing on his head and then raising and lowering his body ten times, evidently showing off his rippling abdominal muscles.
Of course, there is no reason to suggest that Murakami learned anything from Kerouac in this regard, unless perhaps he was influenced to go a different route. He claims in his latest book that his approach is more sustainable than the lifestyles of self-destructive authors like Ernest Hemingway. Was he aware of Kerouac’s physical demise? Could that have pushed him into his more balanced routine?
If we take the fact that Murakami has read Kerouac and is very familiar with the literature of that era, and then look at some of the similarities between the two men, it is reasonable to suggest that he has been influenced by the Beat author in some way. Certainly, there are bigger influences. His first few books are almost embarrassingly derivative of Brautigan and Vonnegut. Later, he attempts to mimic Fitzgerald and Salinger. Some of his novels – he has tacitly admitted – are efforts at aping Dostoevsky. Of all his literary influences, Kerouac is likely not high on the list, but I do believe he has had some small role in shaping Murakami’s writing.
 Dharma Bums, p.118. He repeated this claim to Helen Weaver, who included it in The Awakener.
 Conversations with Kerouac, p.46.