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Review: "Men Without Women" by Haruki Murakami

Men Without Women

By Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

228 pp. New York:

Alfred A. Knopf. $25.95

In his new book Men Without Women, Haruki Murakami tells the stories of seven heartbroken men to explore the condition of solitude—of being a Men Without Women, which the titular story insists is “always a relentlessly frigid plural.” The fidelity of the stories to this central theme is tight and precise, giving the collection an overall feel similar to one of the “days” in the Decameron—if, instead of the plague-ridden Italian countryside, the aching lovers roamed across Murakami’s melancholic Tokyo.

In Murakami’s treatment, solitude emerges as a chronic condition whose incurability stifles the possibility of action. The reader quickly learns that the universe in which these stories take place is not one in which it is possible to recover your lost beloved—and not because they have fallen down a dark, bottomless well. In Men Without Women, the causes of solitude are considerably more prosaic: death, adultery, the natural progression of time. With no other recourse the protagonists in this collection forgo action in favor of simply telling their stories.

Indeed, one of the first things a reader will notice about this collection is how much of the action is related secondhand. There’s very little direct narration; instead, the protagonists relate their past sorrows in retrospect to whoever happens to be listening. Hence in “Drive My Car” the melancholic stage actor Kafuku tells the story of how he befriended the man who cuckolded him to his homely driver, Misaki. Similarly, in “Scheherazade,” Habara’s mysterious middle-aged housekeeper unravels the story of her amorous teenage burglary to him in parts. In “An Independent Organ,” the story of Dr. Tokai’s fatal tryst with a woman sixteen years younger is told through his writer friend Mr. Tanimura. And in “Yesterday,” the unconsummated relationship between the oddball Kitaru and his long term girlfriend Erika is recalled from the perspective of a young literature student at Waseda, who was himself caught in their dispassionate love triangle.

The sense of temporal and emotional distance evoked by these narrative strategies suggests that the primary preoccupations of this collection stem not from how heartbreak is experienced, but rather how it is re-lived. Indeed, the notion of passionate, physical love is completely absent from the collection: “In the face of such an amazing girl how could I even think of having a sordid hard-on?” asks the narrator of the titular story.

The retrospective impulse that pervades the collection is a clear throwback to Murakami’s s hit 1987 novel Norwegian Wood, which begins with the narrator Toru’s straightforward declaration that he is writing the novel only to better preserve his rapidly fading memories of past love. In Men Without Women, the preoccupation of memory takes on a bit of a neurotic bent, which is not surprising since emotional or physical anomalies lie at the center of so many of these stories. “I want to understand,” says Kafuku, the protagonist of “Drive My Car:” “There was something inside her, something important, that I must have missed…a small, locked safe lying at the bottom of the ocean.”

The parallel to Norwegian Wood runs deeper. Men Without Women forgoes the absurdist flavor of many of Murakami’s earlier short stories like “Superfrog Saves Tokyo” and “The Second Bakery Attack” in favor of a somber emotional realism that distinctively recalls the nostalgic tone of Norwegian Wood. Fans eager for more dark, bottomless wells and talking cats are sure to be disappointed (though there is a strange concept of animal reincarnation that recurs frequently). Unfortunately, however, the sum impression of these stories never quite reaches the emotional pitch achieved in Norwegian Wood. The excessive amount of chronic narration and backstory weigh down the stories’ momentum and give them a monotonic feel. Many of the images that the stories lean heavily on fall flat, and most of the stories themselves seem to end without going anywhere. Perhaps somewhat fittingly, Men Without Women leaves much to be desired.