By ROLAND KELTS
Haruki Murakami’s illustrated novella, “The Strange Library,” arrived in the mail last month looking like a Christmas card from a bipolar ex. Two cheery and colorful cartoon eyes adorn the card’s top half; beastly fangs in sepia tone snap down below. When I slid open the envelope-like front cover, its button seal bearing the numerals “107,” I expected to find menace, and I did. One dark-rimmed emerald green eye glared at me from the broad interior fold, embedded in hair and encircling a black pupil. On the smaller bottom flap was the upside-down half-moon mouth of a smiling child, skin pink and over-bright, canines pristine.
Two realities trading places, the threat of violence in an uneasy state of play: classic Murakami, of course. But also vintage Chip Kidd, the associate art director at Knopf who has been designing U.S. first editions of Murakami books since the author’s 1993 short-story collection, “The Elephant Vanishes.”
Kidd’s designs contain eyes and other facial features, circular motifs that seem to swirl through kinetic colors, and bold, arresting closeups. In a display case in his Upper East Side apartment, Kidd devotes a shelf to his “Murakami face trilogy”—the covers of the author’s three longest novels, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” “Kafka on the Shore,” and “1Q84,” boasting, in order, a painted mechanical bird’s eye, a head that looks like an inflated golf ball, and a photograph of a young woman’s face, parts of which are strategically concealed behind the book’s title and dust jacket.
Kidd designs books by James Ellroy, Cormac McCarthy, Oliver Sacks, and many other top-tier contemporary authors. He has also written and published two prose novels of his own, one graphic novel, and a book on the history of Batman in Japan. But his collaboration on “The Strange Library”— a fairy tale that reads at times like a grim blend of Kafka and Lewis Carroll, with a touch of whimsical erudition in the vein of “The Phantom Tollbooth” (the subtitle of the illustrated Japanese edition, published in 2005, is “a fantasy for adults”)—marks the first time he’s illustrated an entire book front-to-back.
“It was a book designer’s dream,” Kidd told me. “I was given totally free rein.” The instructions from Knopf’s editor-and-chief, Sonny Mehta, Kidd said, “was to just illustrate this thing, or figure out how it can be done.”
Kidd is no stranger to Japan’s vast library of graphic commercial and popular art. Raised in suburban Philadelphia in the late sixties and early seventies, he got hooked on now iconic Japanese animated and special-effects TV series like “Astro Boy,” “Ultraman,” and “Gigantor.”
It was an education in what he describes as the aesthetics of modern Japanese pop. “The compartmentalization: one large image living on the picture plane, with lots of other images scattered around,” he said. “You look at the big one first, then the little ones, and it forms a whole new idea.”
Kidd has visited Tokyo five times since 2001, drawn to the city’s multiple paradoxes—too many things, not enough space, elegant minimalism, and order in the world’s most populous metropolis. In Tokyo, he spends his free hours trawling the shops and stalls of the city’s antique book district, Jinbōchō, collecting scrapbooks, magazines, and other ephemera from the forties, fifties, and sixties, including advertisement flyers and matchbooks.
“I’ve got albums of vintage Japanese matchbooks which are just amazing,” he said. “I love the design sense. But also, the fact that I can’t read the language makes me appreciate the design formally in a different way, for how it looks rather than what it says.”
The result of Kidd’s obsessions is the retro psychedelia of “The Strange Library.” Every other page contains an illustration, often so arresting that you can’t stop staring (and there are many eyes staring right back at you). Some graphics sprawl across two-page spreads. The typeface is called Typewriter; the pages of text look like they’ve been scrolled through an Olivetti and bound to images from a shared past. In the young narrator’s opening description, his new leather shoes “clacked against the gray linoleum” as he enters the library; it is followed by a primitive, two-toned advertisement for patent-leather shoes—a luxury for many in postwar Japan.
The story is simple and wildly unpredictable: the unnamed boy seeks to check out some books at his local library. He is told to descend to the basement and knock on the door of room 107. There he meets a little old man who grows increasingly big and sinister—a brother of the sadistic schoolmaster in Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” The boy is imprisoned with three massive tomes, all about the Ottoman Empire, and told that he must memorize their contents in a month—or else the old man will devour his brains. He is stuck in the cell with a sheep-man (far more sheepish than the one in Murakami’s “The Wild Sheep Chase”), a beautiful, wispy young girl who may be a bird, and several spreads of gourmet food, fresh donuts, and honeyed tea that makes him feel quite warm inside. Around the corner of every frightening turn is something delightful. (The food, served punctually by the girl, “looks scrumptious. Grilled Spanish mackerel with sour cream, white asparagus with sesame-seed dressing.”)
Kidd told me that he is drawn to the “hypnotic quality” of Murakami’s writing. “When you start reading it, it doesn’t seem all that complicated,” he said. “But the further you get into it, the more complex it becomes in this stealth kind of way, and you become really invested. I find this minimalist maximalist quality very engaging.”
Kidd’s visual accompaniment is a sheaf of blowups—insect motifs collide with origami paper and the face of a geisha; a spectral half-moon is completed by one half of a donut (the only graphic that didn’t come from his collection of Japanese ephemera; he purchased it from a food cart in front of the Knopf offices and “stuck it into a scanner.”) Kidd wasn’t trying to graphically tell the story. Instead, he said, his goal was to “graphically play around with form and content so it surprises you.”
The stealth complexity and the mechanics of Murakami’s storytelling are laid bare in “The Strange Library” ’s novella form, partly because its sentences are so spare and its plot so fast. The boy’s real fears have little to do with the phantasmagoric librarian, the walls of his library cell, or mnemonic torture. When he was younger, we learn, he was bitten by a big black dog on his way home from school. Since then, his mother has become a worrywart, and he fears causing her anxiety by getting home late. He also suspects—correctly, we discover—that she may be unwell.
Kidd and others believe the story may be an allegory for Murakami’s days as a college student at Waseda University, whose library features several basements and a rather Byzantine system for checking out books. (“I can’t say,” Murakami told me, “because I never went to the library at Waseda University.”)
There are now four illustrated editions of “The Strange Library.” In the original Japanese version, the Japanese artist Maki Sasaki’s illustrations are simple and bulbous, like children’s manga, faithfully representing each plot point’s actions and characters. The German edition, published last year, is rendered in heavy dark ink, neo-gothic and humorless. Harvill’s British edition, also published this month, is a scrapbook of charming stock images, culled from the Library of London, that echo fragments of the story.
Kidd’s bright, bold, Americanized mashup of Japanese ephemera takes some getting used to, especially for those familiar with the Japanese original. (A few friends who work in Japanese publishing shook their heads in dismay when I showed them Kidd’s edition.) But Murakami said that he appreciates Kidd’s tendency to take his designs in unexpected directions. “I’ve been working with Chip for twenty years already, but he continues to always surprise me with his designs,” the author told me before leaving Tokyo for Christmas in Hawaii. “Being surprised by his designs is one of the things that makes writing the books that much more fun.”
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the United States.” He divides his time between New York and Tokyo.