I've gotten to be rather miserly with Murakami. I've gotten to that point where I've read almost everything by him, so I try and stretch out what little remains so that I still have something else to look forward to. After I'm fully caught up, I'll be in the same position with him that I'm in with Neal Stephenson, where I need to wait for years and years until they put out something new for me. Murakami actually does have a new novel out, but I've learned that it won't be translated into English until September 2011 (argh!), so I have a long ways to wait.
"South of the Border, West of the Sun" appears to be second-tier Murakami. I don't mean that in terms of its value, just its profile: you almost never see that title discussed, unless it's part of a pretty comprehensive list of Murakami works. I haven't run across anyone who declares this book to be their favorite work from him. I can sort of understand this situation, since the book doesn't have the kind of outrageous, attention-grabbing scenes that you find in masterpieces like Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World or Kafka on the Shore. It does have a great heart, and the quietly powerful skill of Murakami.
It's hard to compare this novel to other novels that he's written, but it actually feels similar to a lot of his short fiction. He's written plenty of books that don't involve green monsters or bakery assaults, books which are more tuned towards the quiet lives of people and their relationships, or lack of relationships. SotBWotS fits within this category. There are a few haunting touches that lead to a slightly destabilized world, but on the whole it's far more realistic than most of his novels.
Continuing with the short story analogy, this book feels kind of like the longer view of one of those tales. The narrator describes his life, from childhood through his late 30's, and all the important events that occurred and people he met. Many of those individual relationships could have driven a short piece of fiction on their own, but here you don't encounter anything in isolation. You can see how a childhood friendship and a teenaged infatuation later impacted an adult love. Perhaps most impressively, you can see the everpresent Murakami rootlessness, but it only lasts for the man's 20's. Later he meets new people, falls in love, starts a family, and actually cares about what he does for a living. Overall there's a far stronger impression of dynamism here, as opposed to static views of immutable situations.
Geez, I think I just made three programming references in that last sentence. Apologies.
Oh, and there's sex. Lots and lots of sex. For what it's worth, it's much more conventional than most Murakami sex scenes.
The "supernatural" elements in this book are so few that I can easily enumerate them all here. First, Hajime meets a man who gives him an envelope stuffed full of cash. A decade later, that envelope disappears. Second, Shimamoto has a habit of disappearing for long stretches of time, most dramatically when she leaves an isolated cabin without a vehicle. And... I think that's about it. I did enjoy these flourishes, though here they are definitely an accent and not the main purpose.
All together, SotBWotS is a great read for people who enjoy Murakami's writing style. I wouldn't recommend it to people encountering Murakami for the first time, or to those who are mainly attracted by his plots, since this doesn't have much in common with them. Still, it's clearly the same person writing it, and that person is one of the best authors around. Speaking for myself, I'll take everything I can get.