'Men Without Women' is Murakami at his whimsical best

Haruki Murakami's seventh short story collection is rife with familiar obsessions and yet still surprising.

Men Without Women: Stories By Haruki Murakami, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen Knopf 240 pp.

For Haruki Murakami aficionados, reading Men Without Women, Murakami's 20th book to be translated into English, is a whimsical delight. The seven stories in his fourth story collection present another captivating treasure hunt of familiar Murakami motifs – including cats, jazz, whiskey, certain cigarettes, the moon, baseball, never-named characters, and – of course – the many men without women.

Über-book designer/art director Chip Kidd again created the cover, as he has done for most of Murakami’s stateside titles. Two of Murakami’s regular translators (because he has them) smoothly render his prose: Philip Gabriel, who translated “Kafka on the Shore” and, most recently, “Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage,” and Ted Goossen, Murakami’s newest polyglot, who translated “The Strange Library” and re-translated “Hear the Wind Sing” and “Pinball, 1973,” the lesser-known prequels to Murakami’s signature “A Wild Sheep Chase.” Their seamless partnership is unmistakable. Who translates which story remains unknown until story’s end when a name is revealed.

Despite so much seeming to be the same, rather than familiarity breeding contempt, Murakami always manages to entertain, surprise, and satisfy. The first story, “Drive My Car,” already has controversy attached. A single line about a cigarette discarded from a car window – “He guessed that was what people did in Nakatonbetsu” – inspired international coverage, including in The Guardian and The Los Angeles Times. In early 2014, the town’s assembly leaders demanded an apology from Murakami for insulting their home. Murakami gamely complied, and even contemplated changing the location in his story. Three years later, however, with the story’s English debut, Nakatonbetsu town leaders just might be protesting once more.

“Drive My Car,” and the following story, “Yesterday,” both begin – at least by title – with another of Murakami’s well known obsessions, the Beatles. In the (controversial) former, a middle-aged actor hires a young woman as his driver – the littering smoker now infamous in Nakatonbetsu – to whom he reveals how he befriended one of his wife’s lovers after her sudden death. In the latter, a man recalls an odd friendship he had 16 years previously with a coffee-shop co-worker who used to sing his own nonsense version of “Yesterday” in the unique Kansai dialect of Japanese which the Tokyoite had taught himself.

The next two stories also seem paired (duality being another Murakami trait), highlighting the inability of men to ever truly possess the women in their lives. In “An Independent Organ,” a prominent plastic surgeon, falls blindingly in love after decades of carefree bachelorhood with a married woman who fatally proves his theory that “[w]omen are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie.” In “Sheherazade,” a man trapped indoors for reasons never revealed, relies on a middle-aged housewife who twice a week delivers groceries, sex, and stories, whose unpredictable loss he realizes would make him “saddest of all.”

Murakami turns to the surreal, with the next pair of stories which follow two men (without women) in limbo. Discovering his wife’s infidelity with his best friend, the titular “Kino” quits his job, moves, and opens a bar in what had been his retired aunt’s café. A returning customer, who repeatedly explains that his name includes the characters for "god" and "field," warns Kino to close the bar and travel far – and often. In “Samsa in Love,” Kafka’s metamorphosing Gregor Samsa wakes one morning as … a human, wracked with pain and vulnerability caused by all the impracticalities of suddenly being naked, hungry, all alone, until a hunchback locksmith arrives intent on fixing a broken lock.

The final single story bears the eponymous title, closing the collection with an ending, as in death. A man answers a 1 a.m. call made by the husband of an old girlfriend who’s committed suicide – the third of the man’s ex-girlfriends to do so: “it’s obvious – this is an extremely high fatality rate,” he notes without irony. He re-imagines a past he “should" have shared with the dead woman, meeting as innocent 14-year-olds over an eraser broken in half and proffered with a bursting smile in a biology class studying “ammonites and coelacanths.” Losing her, losing others like her, and “[s]uddenly one day you become Men Without Women … [and o]nly Men Without Women can comprehend how painful, how heartbreaking, it is to become one.”

If Murakami is in the (repeating) details, then such details are what make his writing so identifiably unique. “Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can,” a character muses, “is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.” Sanity might be overrated, but Murakami is surely not.

Terry Hong writes BookDragon, a book blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

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