There's something about Haruki Murakami that's both grabbing and distancing. A perpetual Nobel Prize contender, the beloved 68-year-old author's books are equally brilliant and bingeworthy, international bestsellers that turn pages while garnering prestigious awards. I experienced this firsthand at my first real job at a New York literary agency in 2005, when rumblings across the secretarial desks spread the news like an earthquake: Murakami was coming to the office to meet with his agent. When I saw him walk by, confident and loose in his runner's body, wearing a suit and fire-engine red sneakers, I wanted to chase after him. He is one of the few contemporary writers who inspire pilgrimages (to the site of the jazz bar he once owned in Shibuya, Tokyo, to suspected locations of his stories) and superfans ("Readers wait for his work the way past generations lined up at record stores for new albums by the Beatles or Bob Dylan," wrote Patti Smith in the New York Times). It would be too simple, though, to attribute this only to his masterful writing. Like an unsolvable case, there's almost always something missing, incomplete, ephemeral about his work that compels us, like many of his characters, to know more.
His newest collection, Men Without Women, continues this trend, though its title is a bit of a tease. It can be read as variations on a theme. And the stories are indeed all, in one way or another, about disappearing women. In the moody opener, "Drive My Car," the main character Kafuku hires a taciturn female driver, despite protesting that women drivers make him nervous. But much like a therapist, her silence teases out his secrets, the still-fresh pain of his wife's affairs and her precipitous death.
In the fractured fairy tale "Kino," a man buys a mysterious house from a never-seen aunt, who may or may not have assigned a spirit to watch over him. The deceptively simple title story, "Men Without Women," begins with a phone call: A woman has committed suicide. But as fun as this thematic riffing is, the book resists such easy classification.
The stories of Men Without Women describe characters in ontological crises whose sense of identity or meaning come from relationships with women, or from the absence of those women. In "Drive My Car," Kafuku befriends, or pretends to befriend, a man he believes was sleeping with his wife just before she died. Kafuku is a successful actor, and he puts on a convincing show of getting to know his rival, hoping to find a weakness he can exploit. Instead, he can't stop thinking of the man's hands on his wife's naked body, and like a good method actor, the performance brings his own pain and confusion to the surface: "Here's what hurts the most. I didn't truly understand her—or at least some crucial part of her. And it may well end that way now that she's dead and gone. Like a small, locked safe lying at the bottom of the ocean." As with all of Murakami's characters, however, these flashes of self-reflection draw us into a relationship only to remind us that we can never know them. Kafuku, for example, is a performer; what passes as candor from him might easily be canned.
In "An Independent Organ," the narrator is a writer who admits to futzing with the truth, and the bizarre death of the doctor he narrates is also the story of an "artificial man." Dr. Tokai is a successful plastic surgeon and womanizer who falls in love for the first time, only to discover that, as he puts it, women have an "independent organ" that allows them to lie. This characterization grates, as do the repeated mentions to the "girls" hiding inside grown women. But the thinness of the female characters also implicates the "artificial" men who narrate their lives.
This push and pull, an invitation of intimacy that at the same time suggests such intimacy is impossible, creates an electric tension in these stories that is also evident on the sentence level. The mundane gives way suddenly, like an ice floe cracking under our feet, only to reconstitute itself a moment later and swallow up that brief glimpse of what lies below. Take this example from "Kino":
The woman took his hand and guided it to the scars, making him touch each one in turn. There were scars on her breasts, and beside her vagina. She guided his hand as he traced those dark, hard marks, as if he were using a pencil to connect the dots. The marks seemed to form a shape that reminded him of something, but in the end led nowhere. They had sex on the tatami floor.
And this from "Samsa in Love," a riff on Kafka's classic narrator in "The Metamorphosis":
The pungent fragrance recalled something to him. It did not come directly, however; it arrived in stages. It was a strange feeling, as if he were recollecting the present from the future. As if time had somehow been split in two, so that memory and experience revolved within a closed cycle, each following the other. He poured a liberal amount of cream into his coffee, stirred it with his finger, and drank.
The tempo is nearly comical in the way the sentences snap us back to the current moment. Murakami employs this contrast between the mundane and mysterious to create a sense of the uncanny, something at once mysterious and homey. What's truly remarkable throughout these stories and much of Murakami's work is how these memories can be transferrable from character to character and to us, the readers. Of course, this could be said in some way about all great works of literature—good prose writing, after all, conveys the thoughts and feelings of its author to its audience—but in Murakami's work, this effect is made explicit: Often we encounter stories within stories, relayed dreams that blur the lines between memories and imaginings. In "Yesterday," the main character hears a girl tell him about her dream—a dream of her sitting with her boyfriend watching an ice-moon half submerged in the sea. The character adopts her memory as his own and, in turn, so does the reader. The novelist Richard Powers has written that Murakami creates a shared consciousness with his readers in much the way mirror neurons respond to another hand picking up a cup of coffee as though moving our own limbs. "In the looping, shared circuitry of mirror neurons," Powers writes that we can find a roadmap to "communal, subterranean truths, the truths that Murakami's mirrorscape of symbols brings into existence as we read him."
It is this sense of shared consciousness, this promise of intimacy that is also the promise of finding home, that creates devotees of Murakami's readers (far more than his rock-star literary status). Ultimately, looking for answers in Murakami's work can seem like a fool's errand. A better way, perhaps, is to embrace it as you would a benevolent guest: someone whose arrival changes us and whose eventual disappearance leaves us to understand that relationship only by its absence.
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Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami is available in bookstores and online from Knopf.