Book Review

Murakami’s Men Without Women and Constructions of Loneliness

Haruki Murakami is a critically acclaimed Japanese fiction writer, whose works have been translate and adapted into fifty languages. He has been awarded the World Fantasy Award, the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award, the Franz Kafka Prize and the Jerusalem Prize. Men Without Women is his most recent publication, but some of his other notable fiction include A Wild Sheep Chase (1982), Norwegian Wood (1987), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994–95), Kafka on the Shore (2002), and 1Q84 (2009–10) (All publications are linked if you would like to check them out!). While he is immensely popular worldwide, his work has been criticized in his native Japan, and been denounced as distinctly “un-Japanese”, primarily due to the influences of Western writers such as Vonnegut and Kafka. Nonetheless, Murakami is widely regarded as “one of the world’s greatest living novelists” (The Guardian, Poole), and his style of crafting immensely melancholic, mysterious and even a touch surrealist works make him one of the literary world’s most prolific and talented writers.

Men Without Women is a collection of seven short stories, each of which focusing on the story of a different man, whose life has been affected differently by the loss or absence of a woman: the collection includes, in order, Drive My Car, Yesterday, An Independent Organ, Scheherazade, Kino, Samsa in Love, and Men Without Women. Drive My Car tells the story of Kafuku, a middle aged actor whose wife has just died, who requires a chauffeur to take him to and from his rehearsals, which he finds in the shape of Misaki, a withdrawn and skilled driver of twenty-four. With her (or next to her) he ponders the circumstances of his wife’s death, and her reasons for being unfaithful throughout their marriage. Yesterday is a recollection of Tanimura’s, now grown up, as he reflects back on his friendship he had with a strange man named Kitaru during college years, and Kitaru’s strained relationship with his long term girlfriend, Erika, which Tanimura becomes entangled in. An Independent Organ is once again a recollection of Tanimura’s, as he reflects on a friendship he had with a wealthy, promiscuous doctor he used to play squash with: he recalls how when the doctor fell in love for the first time in his life, his affections weren’t returned, causing him to waste away and die. Scheherazade tells the story of Habara, a man confined to his house, and his nurse, whom he dubs Scheherazade. She visits him, buys him his essentials, has sex with him, and best of all, tells her stories of her childhood.  Kino recounts the tale of Kino, a man who realizes his wife is cheating on him with his best friend, and then decides to open a bar, where strange (and decidedly Murakami-esque) things begin to happen. Samsa in Love is the classic tale of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis retold, but with a bit of a twist. Men Without Women is the closing narrative, and tells of an unnamed narrator who receives a call in the middle of the night, informing him that one of his previous lovers has committed suicide; the period that ensues is a kind of hazy stupor, that period of “Men Without Women”, as the narrator struggles to come to terms with the death of a beloved woman in his life. Each story thinks in turn about the lives of these men in absence of women they love, or have loved.

Overall, all the stories in this collection are truly fantastic, though if you want to read only a few, I thought that Scheherazade, Kino, and Samsa in Love rose above and beyond. Scheherazade is vague, and yet precise; what ultimately seems to be of most circumstance in this story is the underlying  truths of humanity that manifest themselves within the nurse’s stories, turning tales of lampreys and breaking and entering into well-worn sentiments about the universality of human emotion, that we call all empathize with.  Kino is classically Murakami, and plays unrelentingly with perceptions of reality, keeping us in the dark for the entirety of the story on purpose. I found this to be the most artfully constructed story, and I especially loved the ending, which I thought was the most vague and yet most satisfying ending out of all of the stories, as the narrator is forced to face his own emotions head on after a life time of avoiding and denying them. Samsa In Love is a risk, in theory: when I first saw the title of the work, I immediately thought that adapting other writers work, especially someone like Kafka, is a bit of a leap in the dark, and inherently runs the risk of appearing sub par in the comparison it invites. But Murakami’s darkly hilarious twist on the classic short story completely exceeded my initial expectations, and I think it’s one of the best adaptations of a classic work I’ve read in a long time.

Murakami’s style of merging the everyday, mundane truth of existence with the most deeply striking and profoundly true sentiments is a talent that carries the stories throughout the work, above all else. His sentences are crafted, not written: each is placed methodically for a reason, and strikes you at the most particular point in your heart, despite his tendency towards the vague and unclear. Most interestingly, then, is Murakami’s ability to think about such profound notions of loss in such short works, a feat not easily accomplished. Loss, or as in manifests itself more broadly in ideas of death, unfaithfulness, and loss of love in these tales, is not easy to write about without portraying a certain sappiness, or excess of emotion that tends to detract from overarching story lines in novels, letting alone the compression it must also take on in the short story. Murakami’s ability to condense human emotion down to its bare essentials, stripping it down to the form in which it exists as pure universal truth is truly impressive, and is what ultimately leaves these works not entirely depressed and downtrodden, but hopeful. Our ability to empathize with these different men, even in their moments of pure, unadulterated solitude, attest to the fact that they are not alone: the potential for human compassion lives on, and so will these men (and women). Murakami succeeds in maintaining common narratives of loss throughout the entire collection, at once employing fresh characters, and renewing our empathy and emotions seven-fold over.

If you are interested in delving into Murakami’s work for the first time, I would highly recommend that you start with Men Without Women: each work can be read in singularity and takes under half an hour to complete, so you can pick and choose which stories catch you eye as you please (although keep in mind the arrangement in consciously arranged). If you are looking for a novel by Murakami, I would highly recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

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