Murakami’s fourth collection of short stories to be translated into English (following The Elephant Vanishes, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman and After the Quake, respectively) features stories that were published (albeit in ‘slightly different form’) in Freeman’s and The New Yorker between 2013 and 2015. Murakami has named the collection Men Without Women (we presume in homage to Hemingway, as Richard Ford did back in 1997 with Women Without Men), and each of the seven tales has a link, to varying degrees, to that founding principle.
So Kafuku, the narrator of ‘Drive My Car’, is a widower who recounts to his new (female) driver the story of his wife’s affairs (he knew about them. never mentioned it, met up with one of his wife’s lovers after her death, never letting the lover know he knew of the infidelity). ‘Yesterday’ centres on the friendship between two men, one of whom makes up his own lyrics to the Beatles’ song. These men are not without women, or at least one of the men – Kitaru – is not without a woman, he has a childhood sweetheart in fact, but feels it like a pressure and asks his friend to take her off his hands, at least for a date. This twinning of men recurs in ‘An Independent Organ’, two squash partners of not dissimilar predilections whose friendship is derailed when one of the men, a plastic surgeon named Tokai, falls in love, deeply and seriously, with a woman who doesn’t feel the same way about him. Affairs are also the subject of ‘Sheherazade’, in which the eponymous heroine, “a full-time housewife with two children in elementary school’, has a fling with Habara, a relationship that seems precipitous, likely to end at any moment, each inhabiting the space in which they have found themselves until something changes (with change likely, hovering on the periphery, nervously waiting to intrude). After they have sex, Sheherazade tells stories of her youth (ah Murakami and his Dickensian desire to explore youth), particularly a time when she broke into the house of a boy she liked. ‘Kino’ is perhaps the most Murakami-esque of all of the stories in Men Without Women (concerning as it does a bar haunted by snakes and epigrammatic allusions to a spiritual world that Kino himself never quite gets to the bottom of) but again, underpinning it all is that sense of disconnection, the not being known, the never being known, the not and never knowing others. The penultimate story in the book, ‘Samsa in Love’, is also the best (and not just the best Murakami short story here, it has a strong case to be the best Murakami we’ve read):
“He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.”
Basically Kafka’s Samsa awakes to find himself human again but with no recollection of his life preceding the moment the story begins (although he does worry about his lack of defence, the way a once carapaced insect might worry having lost his shell). A hunchback handywoman catches his eye and the beginning of a curious courtship ensues. It’s a delight. Which cannot be said about the short, final, eponymous story that concludes the book. We’ll say no more about it.
The main takeaway from Men Without Women, at least for this reader, was a sense of confidence. When you get to the stature of a Murakami, you are no longer worrying about whether your work will be accepted by a publisher, about whether this is the moment you fall off the train; this is what you do. Short story collections are the work of fledgling writers or established writers (writers still earning their stripes don’t tend to get the opportunity to mix it up in the same way). For established writers, short story collections allow a loosening of the collar, a more relaxed breath, a playfulness (nowhere is this more apparent than in the aforementioned ‘Samsa in Love’ although ‘Samsa in Love’ is not alone in its playfulness). Like TC Boyle or Stephen King, Murakami is a writer who can mix it up, novels and short story collections, knowing enough of his fans will lap up either or both to justify their existence. Men Without Women felt to this reader like Murakami at the top of his game.
Any Cop?: This will more than tide us over until we get our hands on Killing Commendatore, the next Murakami novel to hit these shores…