I recently read Murakami’s latest short story collection, Men Without Women. Like all of Murakami’s books, Men Without Women appeared in Japanese first. This one in 2014 and was released in English in 2017. They read in the same mesmerising, I-Novel style, traditional to Japanese writers, which is pretty much the first-person narrative. Exposing the dark side of the world in a realistic way.
I suppose the realism works well because of the morose subject matter of men who, in seven different stories, ended up out of their relationship with a woman they once loved. This realism is closer to Murakami’s Norwegian Wood than the magic realism of his other stories, which I think works well in the short story form.
The seven stories in this collection are:
- Drive My Car
- An Independent Organ
- Samsa in Love
- Men Without Women
Each of them telling a sad story of the different ways heartbreak and loneliness can affect someone. With quick, detailed observations of Japan (except Samsa in Love, which is set in Prague), there’s still Murakami’s subtle humour in strange locations.
The first of the collection, Drive My Car (one of two Beatles-titled stories), is a strong opening to the book. A theatre actor, Kafuku, hires a young woman, Misaki, as his personal driver. During these drives, he tells her his past and how his jealousy brought him to believe his wife had cheated on him before her death. I think the line by Miaski speaks volumes, ‘Isn’t it possible that your wife didn’t fall for him at all?’ Which then prompts Kafuku to think and doubt his own misery. Though with such a question that is impossible to answer now, it only lets his misery settle further.
My favourite story was Kino. This is the longest story out of the seven, so I was unsure at first, as I prefer some of the shorter ones. But Kino just kept on giving, page after page. This one brought with it Murakami’s unnatural world, the magic realism with Japanese-styled metaphors. Kino follows the main character, Kino, whose namesake bar is empty all the time except for a man Kino is afraid of because he reminds him of the Yakuza. The story goes back to how Kino ended up where he is now and what happened with his wife. Later, in the present time again, strange things begin to happen, such as non-stop rain and snakes circling the bar. When the man who Kino was afraid of tells him something, Kino must do it to solve the problem. The whole story sounds strange, but fascinating to read. Right up to the end, you see the metaphor and moral in it, which is very clever and powerful, more so than any of the other six Men Without Women stories.
“Being called the ‘Japanese Carver’ is a title that should stick, although as someone who has written his own different style in a way Carver didn’t.”
The stories are extremely powerful on the subject of humanity, emotional reactions, love, heartbreak and loneliness. Murakami does this in an artful, precise way that shows why his writing is very special. Being called the ‘Japanese Carver’ is a title that should stick, although as someone who has written his own different style in a way Carver didn’t.
Other than Men Without Women, I’ve read:
- Norwegian Wood
- The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
- After Dark
- Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage
- Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
- A Wild Sheep Chase
- IQ84 (parts I and II)
- What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (non-fiction)
Norwegian Wood was the first Murakami book I read. It was in uni and we’d done a book swap with each other to read more widely. My tutor pointed out Murakami to me and said I’d like him. I’d never heard of him. I hadn’t read anything by a Japanese author (except a few poems in uni). I loved it. It reminded me of a much more depressed and intelligent Catcher in the Rye.
Murakami has been compared to Raymond Carver, J.D. Salinger, Franz Kafka, Raymond Chandler, and Richard Brautigan.
Even when I found Hard-Boiled Wonderland to be a little more difficult, as it went more into the unreal, dream world, and hard to make sense of it, I still enjoyed the writing. I liked it when he mixed the realism with the unrealism so that both worlds subtlety worked well together like good food and beer. I think that’s why I like the stories in Men Without Women. But it was The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle that stuck with me the most. This book is one of the longer ones, but I find it incredibly fascinating.
The mundane scene at the start of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle shows the main character, Toru, cooking Spaghetti while listening to the radio, when the phone rings. Toru is unemployed, his wife is busy working, and the cat goes missing. The story is likes a journey going this way and that. It’s hilarious, terrifying and weird. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is written from a narrator who doesn’t know what he wants nor where he must go, which is the timeless ‘angry young man’ narrator of British and American fiction. It helped me with my own novel in the way one scene can lead to another.
“The understated realism and the overstated unreal.”
Compared to Hemingway, Murakami has a similar American-styled understated approach that focusses on telling a story. I think this is what is appealing about Murakami’s writing, that he’s not too wordy, not too arrogant in his prose, but tells a story in a simple way which is still inclusive of the Japanese-styled metaphor. This occurs both in his style of writing and in his stories: the understated realism and the overstated unreal.
However, with this unrealism, Murakami has been known to be Kafkaesque. The lonely man caught up in a confusing, labyrinthine world where everyone is out to get him. (It’s probably true Murakami was inspired by Kafka, since Samsa in Love is a pastiche of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). The alienation felt in his works, in both realism and unrealism, touch upon the individual darknesses we all feel. The strangeness, the dreams, the anxiety, the absurdity. All this put into stories that, on the surface, sometimes read as love stories, but now with a deeper, hurtful, yet real, understanding about life and this world.