'Artists are those who can evade the verbose," Haruki Murakami wrote in his last mesmerizing novel, "Kafka on the Shore," a metaphysical mystery that sucks the reader into an engagingly logical yet strange dream world. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami's first collection of short stories in more than a decade, again demonstrates his fabulous talent for transporting readers and making "the world fade away" with a few short strokes of his pen.
As in his novels, Murakami's central fascination is with the essential strangeness and unfathomability of life.
"For some reason, things that grabbed me were always things I didn't understand," comments the narrator of "A 'Poor Aunt' Story," a writer who literally gets saddled with a poor aunt on his back after unsuccessfully trying to write a story about a poor aunt.
"Everything in the world has its reasons for doing what it does," a mysterious woman tells her lover before disappearing from his life in "The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day." In "Chance Traveler," a story about odd coincidences, the narrator concludes that perhaps coincidences are more ubiquitous than we think but often escape our notice, "like fireworks in the daytime."
In story after story, seemingly ordinary people relay instantly engrossing histories – often through a writer named Murakami – that turn on coincidence or surreal elements and blur the line between dreams and reality. Murakami's recurrent obsessions – jazz, surfing, cats, and western status symbols – all figure centrally.
Cultural references, from spaghetti and J. Crew to Dickens and Armani, are exclusively Western, as if Japanese culture had been obliterated in World War II.
Stinging alienation is depicted in tales of ho-hum marriages that fail to stave off loneliness or prevent its members from drifting into adultery.
In "Man-Eating Cats," which later worked its way into Murakami's novel "Sputnik Sweetheart," a couple who meet through work flee to an obscure Greek island after their marriages implode when their affair is revealed. After shedding his former Tokyo life – including all contact with his 4-year-old son – the narrator feels as if his identity is vanishing and imagines himself consumed by the ravenous cats he's read about in Athens' English-language newspaper.
Many of the stories are infused with a sense of grievous loss and nostalgia-tinged memory. "The Seventh Man" is a more traditionally shaped narrative about a typhoon that claimed a close boyhood friend and nearly swept the narrator away as well, inducing a lifelong fear of water.
In the title story, the 25-year-old narrator returns to his hometown for the first time in five years and is stirred from his own somnolent state by the haunting memory of a Sleeping Beauty-like story he had been told years earlier about a woman put into a deep sleep by the pollen from a stand of mythical "blind" willows.
Murakami's characters are as alienated as any in Albert Camus, and as lost as any in J.D. Salinger, who is evoked especially in "Hunting Knife" and "A Perfect Day for Kangaroos."
In "Airplane: Or, How He Talked to Himself As If Reciting Poetry," a 27-year-old woman with a small child insists she is happily married, yet keeps crying to her perplexed 20-year-old lover, whom she claims talks to himself about flying. "I sometimes think that people's hearts are like deep wells," she says. "Nobody knows what's at the bottom. All you can do is imagine by what comes floating to the surface every once in awhile."
In "A Folklore For My Generation: a Prehistory of Late-Stage Capitalism," the narrator, Murakami, runs across an old classmate in Lucca, Italy. This former star relays the sad saga of his relationship with his high school sweetheart, the soul mate who broke his heart by insisting on remaining a virgin until marriage and then marrying another man.
Loneliness is also palpable in "Tony Takitani," about the son of a solitary jazz trombonist whose loss of first his shopping-addicted wife and then his father are underscored by the voluminous collections of clothes and LPs they leave behind.
Although the 25 stories in this collection are not arranged chronologically, those written after the flowering of Murakami's complex novels (such as "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle") show a more patient, sustained development.
What shines in all of them is Murakami's love for the open-ended mystery at the core of existence and his willingness to give himself up "to the flow" in order to capture some of the magic in the mundane.
• Heller McAlpin is a freelance writer in New York.