I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again just for the sake of posterity: Murakami and I do not agree on the fundamentals of writing. He creates yamato-e paintings. Giving you the tangible as he deems necessary as well as a handful of other observations about his personal infatuations (e.g. cats, jazz, and Japanese food). The rest of the world outside of these things might as well be covered in clouds, blank canvas surrounding the page. Which works for him, as one of Murakami’s greatest interests is human isolation and the ways it can control us, turn us on ourselves in strange ways. Only in isolation can surreality surface without risking the slip into laughable absurdity.
When asked by one of his translators about the meaning of a certain symbol or phrase within the book he was working on, Murakami’s response was something akin to, “you’re thinking about it too much.”
As a single novel, I can get that. I can shift my brain and enjoy the strangeness for what it is. I did that easily in Kafka on the Shore. I even managed it with Hardboiled Wonderland, but when that is literally one of the only modes you engage in for twenty years with an additional armful of repetitive creative crutches, I get annoyed.
His short story collection Men without Women, offers very little in the way of change. I get the sense that a lot of these stories came around his last novel The Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki as they are mostly less concerned with the surreal and dream-like topics that we are the most familiar with, and instead hedges towards the realm of the personal. He contemplates the nature of love, it’s fragility, and the struggle to find meaning when the thing societal fairytales told us could make us happy, be made perfect, is proven not only wrong, but as arrogant and deluded a prospect as one could possibly imagine in the totality of human want.
Or perhaps as Murakami told his editor I am overthinking it and it’s really all just a Freudian obsession with penises and their function in an increasingly emasculated culture where conflict resolution means running away with either your ears plugged with repressed emotions or simply lying to yourself every day for the rest of your life.
Regardless of my opinions, Murakami remains and likely will forever be the man he has been for the last two decades. If you like him, you’ll at least enjoy this. This collection is not brilliant, but it is Murakami. Besides the try-hard pseudo-poetic titular story at the end of the book, the stories work in the way all his short stories work: he writes and writes until pathos reaches a certain height and then he walks away. A fine enough way to write a short story, but one that presents diminishing returns stacked so many time on top of each other.
The reason I keeping coming back to Murakami is because he has this Japaneseness in the way he writes that captures me by the heart and drags me back into the smells and feelings of when I lived there all those years ago. This collection failed to do that. It lacked that special essence that, to this day, I cannot define or capture in anything but the whole of this prose. I’m sure because it dealt with people more than place.
And people are people anywhere you go.
“It wasn’t a person who first discovered what a comfortable place Kino was but a stray cat. A young gray female with a long, lovely tail. The cat favored a sunken display case in a corner of the bar and liked to curl up there to sleep. Kino didn’t pay much attention to the cat, figuring it wanted to be left alone. Once a day, he fed it and changed its water, but nothing beyond that. And he constructed a small pet door so that it could go in and out of the bar whenever it liked.” – Haruki Murakami, Men Without Women