As the designated bookish one in my friend group, I give a lot of literature recommendations. (This fact probably doesn't come as a huge surprise, given my current occupation.) When someone asks me for ideas of what to read next, I always start by trying to get a sense of what they like — usually by asking, "Well, what do you like?" The most common answer by far is "Kind of weird but cool stuff ... like Haruki Murakami."
My friends’ Murakami fixation is perhaps unsurprising, given that he’s widely considered one of the world’s greatest living writers — for the past few years, he’s topped the Vegas odds to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. The eccentric author is even more popular in Japan, where he recently finished up a run as the world’s most bizarre advice columnist, during which he confessed to not caring about what happens after death as long as he gets to eat deep fried oysters and quoted Ray Charles to a brokenhearted young fellow.
That strange sensibility is a big part of Murakami’s popularity. His books are about loneliness and loss, yes, but they are also full of menacing criminals, communication via dreams, and slightly off versions of reality. The following 11 books contain more than enough weird and macabre happenings to keep you entertained between rereads of The Wind-Up Chronicle.
Geek Love By Katherine Dunn
Dunn's novel tells the tragic, twisted tale of the Binewskis, a family of carnival folk bred for freakishness: an aquaboy, a pair of siamese twins, a hunchback, and a seemingly normal baby. Dunn has a way with sensory details — her depiction of how the family matriarch lost her teeth still gives me nightmares.
The Isle Of Youth By Laura Van Den Berg
These stories about young women in uncomfortable situations lack the outright unreality of Murakami's alternate worlds and murderous corporate mascots, but they share his novels' tone of detached foreboding. In both worlds, one has the sense that things aren't quite right, without ever really being sure why.
Gun, with Occasional Music By Jonathan Lethem
Lethem's oft-forgotten first novel is a hugely enjoyable techno-noir about a private eye navigating a futuristic Oakland in which animals hold jobs, everyone's on drugs, and the cops are on the take. It's Murakami with the genre elements turned up to 11 — fabulously weird and weirdly smart.
Out By Natsuo Kirino
There's nothing particularly fantastical about Kirino's novel. It tells the story of four women forced into a criminal conspiracy after one of them murders her jerk of a husband. But this relentlessly dark look at women's place in Japanese culture offers a more grounded portrayal of many of Murakami's topics and themes, as well as standing on its own as a gripping thriller.
The Sacred Book Of The Werewolf By Victor Pelevin
You could reasonably describe The Sacred Book Of The Werewolf as a novel told by one of Murakami's psychic prostitutes. But to do so would be to shortchange Pelevin's remarkable narrator: a 2,000-year-old werefox who feeds on the fantasies of men and muses on Buddhist philosophy.
The Haunting Of Hill House By Shirley Jackson
You may not have any idea of who Shirley Jackson is, other than possibly the lady who wrote that creepy story about stoning people to death that your teacher made you read in seventh grade. But after decades of critical neglect, her work is finally seeing the kind of praise it deserves. Jackson is a master of the eerie and the disturbing, and in this novel, she gracefully toes the line between the supernatural and the psychological, leaving you terminally uncertain as to what's really going on the titular house.
Ficciones By Jorge Luis Borges
I first read Borges in Spanish, which I speak only passably. So the considerable strangeness of his stories was somewhat enhanced by my linguistic confusion. But having since revisited his tales in English, I can confidently report that the disorienting effect is deliberate. In these tales of libraries and labyrinths, Borges weaves the real and the imagined together seamlessly.
Cloud Atlas By David Mitchell
Mitchell is almost as as acclaimed as Murakami — at least in the English speaking world — and he shares certain preoccupations with the other writer, including Japanese history and mystical connections between individuals. But where Cloud Atlas really shines is in it's very un-Murakami-like expansiveness. Mitchell brings to life six different perspectives in six different genres, from the letters of a 19th-century pianist to a the sci-fi tale of a rebellious clone in a dystopian Korea.
Super Sad True Love Story By Gary Shtyengart
If you're more into Murakami's romances than his metaphysical meanderings, then Sheyngart's near-future novel is the book for you. The doomed trajectory of the relationship between nebbish, middle-aged Lenny Abramov and beautiful young Eunice Kim is obvious from the title. But Shteyngart manages to turn what could easily be a cliche tale of a shallow beauty taking advantage of a smitten sad sack into something far more complex and honest. The ending is the saddest, truest depiction of a breakup I can remember reading.
Paprika By Yasutaka Tsutsui
This novel is probably the weirdest on the list. It recounts the attempts of psychiatrist Atsuko Chiba to stop her jealous colleagues from using her research to invade people's dreams and infect them with schizophrenia. Tsutsui is well-known in Japan — Paprika was published there in 1993, and subsequently adapted into a popular film — but he deserves greater acclaim internationally.
The Passion By Jeanette Winterson
Winterson's sensibility is in some ways the opposite of Murakami's. She's passionate where he's detached, warm where he's cool, and effusive where he's reserved. Yet the two authors share a fascination with the ways our histories — personal and political — shape us. The Passion tells the story of one of Napoleon's foot soldiers and a woman whose husband gambled away her heart.
Image: Jaione Dagdrømmer/Flickr