Book Review: Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami

Haruki Murakami is an international literary superstar. Every book he writes quickly climbs bestseller lists and sells hundreds of thousands if not millions of copies. Since I’m not in the financial position of being able to afford to buy books these days, I had to wait on the local library reserve list for months before it was my turn to get one of the over forty copies of this book in the system. It turns out it’s a small, slim volume and I could read it in a couple of days, even while concurrently working full time researching and writing articles.

As the title suggests, the stories are all about various men and their broken relationships with women. There are seven of them all together. The first several are standard mainstream stories, but told in a peculiar three-act style. The first part consists of a sort of info-dump describing the main character, his personality, and his life. The second part, usually told as a conversation between a narrator and the main character or a secondary character, recounts the dramatic crux of the story in an indirect way, sometimes by simply talking about what happened to the main character in retrospect. The third part consists of the conclusion, which is either another info-dump or conversation, in which the narrator, alone or with the main or a secondary character, wraps things up. The stories have very little action and don’t come to definite resolutions. They are more like slices of life in which the reader glimpses the lives in question and then is left alone to figure out their significance.

For me, the stories get very interesting in the latter part of the book. The best, in my opinion, is called “Kino.” It’s about a man who gets divorced and decides to open a bar on a backstreet in a small town. It’s a quiet place and he’s content there for a time, but then some strange characters start showing up – in particular an enigmatic man who always orders the same drinks and reads books while he sips them. This story takes a decidedly dark turn when this man tells the bartender that something is wrong and he has to leave town and travel. The story ends with the bartender in a faraway city, alone in a hotel room, being stalked by some sort of spirit. Although the ending is inconclusive, there is a noir ambiance to it, a hint of magic realism, and a suggestion that something in the bartender’s psyche rather than real flesh and blood humans are haunting him.

Another well-told tale is a riff on the Franz Kafka classic “The Metamorphosis.” In Kafka’s tale, a man named Gregor Samsa wakes up in his room to discover he has been transformed into a giant insect. In Murakami’s story, “Samsa in Love,” Gregor Samsa wakes up to find out he has been transformed back into a human. He does not remember his life as an insect, but he has an inordinate fear of birds. He is all alone in the house and cannot remember who else lives there or anything else about his past except his name. When a locksmith, a hunchbacked woman, arrives to fix a lock, she explains that some tragedy has hit the town and people are fleeing. As she goes about repairing the door, Samsa falls for her and begs her to return. It’s a sweet, sweet story – a sort of fan fiction. Curiously enough, I have just been researching and writing about the literary phenomenon of fan fiction for a book review that I’ll publish in the future, and the Clarion West Science Fiction Writing Workshop is soon doing a one-day special workshop on the subject. It’s not always an amateur pursuit – some of the best writers have done it, as evidenced by Murakami, and even won awards for it.

One thing I notice when I read Murakami’s recent novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and also this book, is that his characters are very polite – far more polite than characters in American novels. Obviously that’s a cultural thing. I also think that inevitably his works lose some of their nuances in translation. I have mixed feelings about this collection. It starts slowly and only comes alive in the last third of the book. I also can’t help but think that an unknown writer would have a tough time marketing such stories to American magazines and anthologies. That’s not a reflection on their value, but rather on the condition of the U.S. literary scene. Editors and readers are impatient; they don’t want to wait for a story to gradually unfold but expect physical or emotional explosions on the first page. We could learn something from some of the classic short story writers who allowed their tales to unfold at their own natural paces, and from the readers who had the patience to go along on the journey.

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