Saturday, May 27, 2017

Review: Men Without Women: Stories

Men Without Women: Stories Men Without Women: Stories by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t describe myself as one of those crazy Murakami fans, someone who’s always reading (or recently finished reading) one of the big fat ones – 1Q84, Hardboiled Wonderland, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or Kafka By the Shore – but I think I act like one. I’ll read the lesser works and, enjoying them, find myself thinking about the others. I’ll tell myself I merely enjoyed (as opposed to admired) something of his, but then I’ll keep talking about them.

In other words, it’s time to give myself an auto-intervention: I am a Murakami-aphile. I had other things on the shelf, but I couldn’t bring myself to getting to this one while it was still hot off the press.

And my reaction here is my typical reaction to Murakami: it’s good, but it isn’t quite as good as his other stuff. In this case, I think that’s probably true, but I realize now that I always feel that way about Murakami because, up close it’s provocative and ambiguous. It takes distance, a distance in time mostly but also, weirdly, from the physical experience of reading the book, for its themes to resolve themselves.

In any case, there’s less ‘weirdness’ to start this collection than I expect from Murakami. With one exception (“Samsa in Love”), each of these stories features a man who is in love with a woman who’s more intimately involved with another man. That’s an intriguing motif to put so central – something the title clearly evokes – but it works.

These are all men who are not quite fully alive. (And that’s a common Murakami concern.) In the first, for instance, “Drive My Car,” an aging actor has a platonic affair with a young woman who becomes his driver when his vision deteriorates. Little happens in the still moving story, but he gradually comes to terms with his feelings about his dead wife and her affairs. He doesn’t end up understanding much more at the end, but he does begin to come to terms with his own willingness to be led by her.

The next three stories explore such similar concerns, that reading them feels a bit like looking through a kaleidoscope. The pattern rearranges itself, but the fundamental pieces are the same: a man who understands himself as “normal” (a word a dislike in anyone’s hands other than Murakami’s who uses it as a powerful shorthand), in love with a women who directs her energy elsewhere, trying to come to terms with an old hurt.

I wouldn’t characterize Murakami as a master of the short story form, but the insistence in his explorations makes these work.

Things get different with “Kino,” the story I would put forward as the strongest candidate for anthologization. This may not be the strongest overall – though I’d be hard pressed to say which one is – but it is the one that most fully echoes the themes of Murakami’s larger works. It’s the only one to explore the supernatural, and it does so by demonstrating that the action of the world-whose-physics-we-cannot-understand has an effect upon our experience of this world. I like it for many reasons, among them that it most clearly echoes the gangster themes from the Hemingway collection from which this takes its title.

I have often shared my copy of “The Strange Library” with people who want a quick taste of Murakami. That will likely stay my go-to recommendation, but “Kino” is now on my list, too. Murakami gains in power the longer his narrative, but this one gets to the meat of his method pretty quickly.

The story that seems to be getting the most attention, “Samsa in Love,” is the one real outlier here. It’s such a clever idea that I can’t help but enjoy it: a bug wakes up to find he has been transformed into a man named Gregor Samsa. It’s a reverse “Metamorphosis,” and it sets up a potentially wonderful exploration into what it means to be human.

Promising as the story is, though, and as much fun as it is in its opening pages, it ends before it fully engages its inquiry. It doesn’t fit thematically with the other work here, and it is almost uncomfortably “Western” where so much of Murakami’s best work spans Japan and the West. I suspect we’ll see this one reprinted in all sorts of places, and Murakami deserves the recognition; I just think “Kino” is more the representative ‘keeper’ of this bunch.

I picked this up as a start-of-summer celebration and a way of satisfying my jones for some new Murakami. I’m satisfied for now, but I also hope he’s working on yet another of the big, ambitious ones.

View all my reviews

No comments:

Post a Comment