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men without women

10 august 2018

I read, in fact collect, all of Haruki Murakami's books. I almost picked up Men without Women on my way to an airport in 2017, when it came out, but realized I'd probably finish it before I even got the rest of the way to that airport, so I put it back down. That set me a year behind in reading Murakami, though as it turned out only three of the seven stories in the volume were new to me.

"Drive My Car" has a classic plot: an older man realizes that his late wife had been seeing a younger man, and befriends the lover, with unpredictable results. The twist on this rather Romantic story comes from how it's told: by the older man to his young female chauffeur.

The second and third stories in the volume are both told by a narrator named Tanimura, a sort of surrogate for the author. (Which doesn't necessarily mean that either is based on a true story, of course.) As Tanimura says, some folks feel that writers have "a legitimate right (or duty) to hear people's confessions" (91). In "Yesterday," Tanimura listens to confessions from two sides of a frustrated relationship. His friend Kitaru, who has energy for all sorts of odd projects like learning regional dialects fluently, cannot apply himself to passing a college entrance exam – and worse, cannot apply himself to his relationship with his gorgeous childhood girlfriend Erika. For her part, Erika tells Tanimura, she feels a vague, unbroachable barrier between herself and Kitaru. Will they ever get together?

Tanimura conveys the story of a plastic surgeon named Tokai in "An Independent Organ." Tokai has reached his 50s as a kind of perpetual playboy, though a decent enough guy (so many of Murakami's characters turn out to be regular average people, despite their bizarre fates). Tokai juggles many lovers with the help of his loyal secretary Goto. But he finally falls inextricably in love with one of them. "An Independent Organ" is a striking and original story, though I got a bad taste in my mouth at the introduction of its title theme, the idea that "women are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie" (111). This notion, bubbling up out of mid-20th-century pulp, seems gratuitously misogynist. (Why "women?" Are men so honest?) Murakami isn't old enough to go in for this kind of nonsense. I'm not sure anyone was ever old enough to get a pass on it.

Stories four, five, and six – "Scheherazade," "Kino," and "Samsa in Love" – I'd read when they first appeared in The New Yorker (as with "Yesterday," too). Though like many a copyright page, the one in the Knopf edition of Men without Women is terse, and doesn't mention that "Scheherazade" was previously published. This omission gave me a sense of déjà vu at first, which added to the eeriness of the tale. "Scheherazade" is a substantial, and substantially weird story, woven from the tales about her obsessive past that a woman tells her lover. The man who hears them is a captive audience, for unexplained reasons, and the whole story an impressive depiction of verbal intimacy.

"Kino" is the volume's masterpiece, I think. It's about a guy who runs a small bar where he plays jazz records – part of Murakami's own resumé, I believe. Patrons at the place begin to affect Kino oddly. He starts seeing snakes surrounding the building. When a placid but unnerving patron suggests that Kino take a long vacation, he acquiesces without thinking twice, and things only get worse from there. I read "Kino" as a parable of depression: once you think that everything is against you, there seems no way out of the spiral. It's a story that provides focused suspense without easy (or any) resolutions.

"Samsa in Love" is a crazy little tour de force. It may help if you know Franz Kafka's story "The Metamorphosis," or it may make matters worse. The final piece, "Men without Women," is a kind of prose poem about the title condition, a sort of epitaph for male hetero desire.

Overall, Men without Women is a slight addition to Murakami's body of work, but worth getting for "Scheherazade" and "Kino." I look forward to a new Murakami novel this fall, and am determined to keep up this time.

Murakami Haruki. Men without Women. [Onna no inai Otokotachi, 2014.] Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen. New York: Knopf [Penguin Random House], 2017. PL 856 .U673A2