Men Without Women,
By Haruki Murakami
Translated by Ted Goossen and Philip Gabriel
228 pages, $25.95
The Japanese philosopher, author and translator D. T. Suzuki toured American universities in the 1950s and gave us the gift of Zen. Haruki Murakami came to America in 1984 to see what we had done with Suzuki’s gift. Not much it turns out. The writers he admires, Raymond Chandler, Kurt Vonnegut, Raymond Carver and Richard Brautigan et al., have captured the superficiality of our existence but not the simplicity.
Murakami loved all things Western growing up in Japan. He worked in record stores selling Western recordings and owned a jazz club. Later he taught in American universities and lived in Europe.
The Japanese are traditionally protective of their culture. The fact that Murakami is more interested in Western culture than his own has alienated the older generation in Japan. But the Japanese youth love him, as do most readers in the West. Three of the stories in this book started in The New Yorker. Jonathan Franzen loves “his manic inventiveness.”
The title of this collection, "Men Without Women," is borrowed from one of Murakami’s idols, Ernest Hemingway. But it’s really about men estranged from women.
Ideas don’t exist in Murakami’s stories. The artists he admires — and he is shamelessly derivative — are anti-intellectual outsiders. In the place of ideas he gives us the sense of being disconnected from society and the secret, inner buzz borrowed from works ranging from jazz to Richard Brautigan. In William Carlos Williams’ phrase, “The pure products of America / go crazy.”
This disconnect also owes a lot to his reliance on translations. Though his stories take place in a kind of dreamlike Japan, they are really set in the haze of a language he barely understands. Here are a few examples:
“Drive My Car” as in “Baby You Can…”
The Beatles song serves a jumping off point. An aging actor no longer drives due to a blind spot. A woman the same age as his deceased daughter drives him to and from his performances. He’s tortured by the thought of the affairs his dead wife had. He makes friends with a man he thinks was one of her lovers. He’s also an actor. They pretend to share memories of her but the aging actor is setting a trap he never springs. Springing a trap would be too dramatic in a Murakami story. His driver/daughter figures out why the trap is left unsprung. We are all actors and we all have blind spots. The problem is we never totally go out of character, never return to the person we were. This becomes our blind spot. We lose our real selves and our traps go unsprung. We say our lines and drive home. But he never arrives anywhere. His car is his home and his theater and he will drive forever.
If you need to be told the provenance of this title, talk to your doctor. It’s the story of two friends and a young woman. One of the men makes up lyrics to “Yesterday” in an arcane dialect no one uses while sitting in a bathtub. The other is progressing nicely through the rigorous Japanese educational system. The singer should be studying for the entrance exam to college. That way he can reconnect with the beautiful woman who is the love of his life. She’s in college and he’s jealous of the men she might be dating. He fixes up his friend with the young woman so if she messes around, he will at least know with whom. They go on a date and nothing happens. Their lives fall apart and we don't know why. Just like the song.
Kino sells running shoes. He comes home early and finds a stranger in his bed. He leaves and opens a clean, well-lighted place. Hemingway shows up and scares off and possibly kills two young men who are being rude.
A man and woman come to the bar often. One day she comes alone. Kino sleeps with her. She shows him where she’s been tortured by burning cigarettes. The man and the women continue coming to the bar. Kino's divorce goes through. Ex comes to the bar to apologize. Ex gets him to admit she hurt him. The cat that frequents the bar disappears and snakes take its place.
The Hemingway character returns and tells Kino something’s wrong with the bar. He has to go away and work out the problem. You don’t argue with Hemingway. Kino goes even though he sees no problem. In a seedy hotel room, longing for his jazz records, he realizes what the problem is. When he repressed his feelings, the cat felt at home. When he became a sentient being, the cat left and snakes appeared. Someone knocks on his window but it’s on the eighth floor. Is it the Raven or his telltale heart? We just don’t know.
“Samsa In Love”
Gregor Samsa wakes up metamorphosed back into a man. The last thing his family did before they left was order a locksmith to fix the lock that Gregor#bug broke trying to turn the key with his mandibles. The woman fixes the lock. This light-hearted variation on a modern masterpiece misreads the story. The metamorphosis is at the end of the story not the beginning. Samsa was already a vermin in his family structure. The metamorphosis is at the end when Gregor changes into a beautiful butterfly, his sister. The locksmith is no butterfly.
In the 1960s Kurt Vonnegut’s unreliable and dispirited narrators thumbed their noses at serious writing and it was a breath of fresh air in a stale, existential room. But the unreliable and dispirited narrators have taken over. Murakami is piling on.
William L. Morris is a co-founder of the News Poetry Pages and a poet and critic now living and writing in Florida.