Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

Posted on September 24, 2006


Originally published in Newsday:

In The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day, one of the stories in Haruki Murakami’s new collection, Junpei, a short-story writer, falls in love with an older woman named Kirie. She seems to reciprocate, but one day he calls her and her phone has been disconnected. Thus far, this is familiar short-story terrain: Man meets woman, man falls in love, woman disappears.

But in Murakami’s fiction, disappearances are when reality starts to bend. The last time Junpei saw Kirie, he described a story he was writing about a female doctor who finds a kidney-shaped stone in the mountains. She brings it back to her office and every night puts the stone on her desk, only to return the next morning to find it in a different location. The doctor doesn’t know why or how the stone moves, and as Junpei works to finish the story, his character’s fixation on the kidney-shaped stone resonates and blurs into his own feelings about Kirie’s disappearance.

Pairing the surreal and the emotional is a Murakami trademark, from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, in which Toru Okada, searching for his missing wife, ends up at the bottom of a dry well that can transport him to a hotel room in Tokyo; to the recent Kafka on the Shore, about the double quests of 15-year-old Kafka Tamura and the elderly Nakata, a holy fool who has the power to speak with cats. Like the elegant and surprising Kidney-Shaped Stone, these novels work a strange alchemy, blending the events of an altered reality with the opaque psychological states of their narrators.

Murakami, a cult figure in Japan and arguably the most popular contemporary Japanese writer in the West, is primarily known for his enigmatic yet accessible novels, nine of which have been translated into English. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, his first collection since 1993’s The Elephant Vanishes, brings together 24 stories written during two decades. The most compelling are the last five, written in just more than a month in 2005 and published in Japan as Five Strange Tales From Tokyo. In the collection’s introduction, Murakami describes writing stories as “jazz improvisation, with the story taking me where it wants to.” This metaphor aptly describes the Five Strange Tales, which are as masterful and transporting as Coltrane solos.

They rival Murakami’s best novels and are a potent rebuttal to those who argue against the quality of short stories written by novelists.

Unfortunately, the collection also contains stories to support that argument. While much of it sparks with Murakami’s gentle wit, peculiar obsessions (cats, stones, childhood sweethearts and jazz, to name a few) and deadpan juxtaposition of the surreal and mundane, perhaps a third of the stories could have been jettisoned. Those from the early 1980s — such as A Perfect Day for Kangaroos, Dabchick and The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes — are so straightforward they verge on banal.

A chronological order might have justified the inclusion of the weaker work: as an illustration of Murakami’s evolution as a writer, or a resource for fans and scholars to draw connections between the stories and the novels. The sea change between Murakami’s early short stories and his recent work is all the more striking because his novels do not display the same evolution. Aside from Norwegian Wood, a sweetly minimalist coming-of-age story, Murakami’s books all pop with mysterious characters and unlikely narrative events. They propel themselves forward with the sheer energy of the narrative quest for answers, a technique impossible in the crucible of a short story, where action is compressed and characterization must be inferred. Whereas his novels’ narrators expect resolution at the end of their journeys, what distinguishes Murakami’s most recent short fiction, both from his novels and his early stories, is its autonomy and quiet acceptance of a lack of answers.

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