“If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden,” muses Haruki Murakami in the materials accompanying my copy of Men Without Women. He must, then, be something of a glutton for punishment, having immersed himself in metaphorical forestry for the decade and change since his last short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, allowed the World Fantasy Award-winning author to tend to his wending trellises.
Compared to the twenty-four works of fiction featured in that last, Men Without Women is a strikingly slim volume, compiling only seven stories, six of which Murakami’s legion of English-language fans may well have read already. And whilst I wish I could tell you their haunting quality makes up for their wanting quantity, so many of said struck me as uneventful retreads that I can only recommend this collection with a planter of caveats.
That being said, if you come to Murakami for the cats and the cars, the deep obeisance to The Beatles and the bars choked with smoke, then come! Men Without Women has all that jazz—and oh so many miserable men and mysterious women.
The day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand. No premonitions or foreboding, no knocks or clearing of throats. Turn a corner and you know you’re already there. But by then there’s no going back. Once you round that bend, that is the only world you can possibly inhabit. In that world you are called ‘Men Without Women.’ Always a relentlessly frigid plural.
Only Men Without Women can comprehend how painful, how heartbreaking it is to become one.
That’s as may be, but if this collection is about anything, it’s about communicating that pain, that heartbreak, to the reader. It’s felt in the first story, “Drive My Car,” by a stage actor called Kafuku, who hires a chauffeur after the death of his wife, ostensibly to fill the void she’s left in his life. Initially, our narrator and his driver Misaki share only silence, but before long Kafuku is opening his guarded heart to her, explaining how he wishes he had been able to confront his wife about her various affairs.
The metaphor of Misaki’s calm driving makes the focus of the tale plain. See, Kafuku can’t for the life of him catch the precise moment she shifts gears. “It was all too smooth, too mysterious. He could only make out a slight gradation in the engine’s hum. It was like the wings of a flying insect, now drawing closer, now fading away.”
Transition, too, is the driving force of “Yesterday.” Tanimura is a high school graduate who starts a new life in Tokyo to “try out the possibilities of a new me. Jettisoning the Kansai dialect was a practical (as well as symbolic) method of accomplishing this.” His choice comes into question, however, when he meets a man who affects the exact accent the narrator of “Yesterday” has worked so hard to wipe out. Then—curious and curiouser—that man asks Tanimura to go on a date with his long-distance lover, because if she must date other men, better, Kitaru avers, than she dates decent ones.
Another of Murakami’s relentlessly frigid plurals starts the next story with rather than without women, but falls victim to this psychic sickness all the same. “An Independent Organ” is intended to paint “a clear portrait of Dr. Tokai,” a fiftysomething plastic surgeon embroiled in so many affairs with unavailable ladies that his personal assistant has to keep track of them on a timetable. Inevitably, Dr. Tokai falls for one of their number, but when the besom breaks his heart, he can only conclude that “women are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie.” Needless to say, we do not agree, not least because the narrator of “An Independent Organ” actively undermines Dr. Tokai as his misadventure progresses.
There’s quite a bit of this in Men Without Women: a tale being told on the one hand, all while another quite different fiction is insinuated. It’s when these competing pictures come together—when the mundane morphs into something practically magical—that things get interesting. Beforehand, alas, most of these stories are inescapably bland: repetitive and rambling accounts of the unremarkable that round the same sorts of scenarios and characters again and again, only to end utterly abruptly just as Murakami finally makes his presence felt.
There’s no better example of that than “Scheherazade,” which is not just the name of Men Without Women’s fourth story but also the nickname its narrator, a shut-in, gives to the woman who does his shopping and, for some reason, sleeps with him after almost every delivery. After the sex, she tells Habara stories of her own, and these stories, rather than Habara’s, are at the fore of this fiction—yet “Scheherazade” ends almost mid-sentence, just as the storyteller at its core is about to wrap up her narrative.
“Kino” is both the main character of the next short and the name of the bar he buys with his share of the savings he and his wife split down the middle after he catches her in the act with another man. Kino’s bar-tending business is slow going at first, but then a grey cat slips in, and a man starts to visit. Of course there’s more to this man than meets the eye—and more to the cat, at that—but Murakami is more interested in depicting the tedious scene Kino glimpses through a window into an anonymous office:
From morning till evening, he watched people working there. Here and there the blinds were drawn and he could only catch fragmentary glimpses of what went on, and he had no idea what kind of business it was. Men in ties would pop in and out, while women tapped away at computer keyboards, answered the phone, filed documents. Not exactly the sort of scene to draw one’s interest.
Yet it seems exactly the sort of scene that fascinates Murakami. “It seemed his intention was to leave me stuck somewhere in the middle, dangling between knowledge and ignorance. But why? To get me thinking about something? Like what?”
An inversion of Kafka’s Metamorphosis about a beetle who wakes up one day as a man, “Samsa in Love” is Men Without Women‘s most outwardly speculative story, but as I wrote in this edition of the Short Fiction Spotlight: “What tends to make Murakami’s work resonate is the incremental accretion of meaning over the course of his bizarre narratives, and though there is room in the short story form for this building sense of significance, at times “Samsa in Love” can be seen to meander almost meaninglessly,” squandering its opportunity to strike a chord in the process.
Men Without Women’s final, self-titled story is the shortest of the seven: a monologue of sorts about a married man who receives a phone call one evening to inform him of the suicide of a previous sweetheart—the third of his exes to have ended their lives in this startling fashion. In the course of considering all that he’s lost, the nameless narrator of “Men Without Women” laments the same lack of focus that cripples this collection:
I’m not exactly sure what I’m trying to say here. Maybe I’m trying to write about essence, rather than the truth. But writing about an essence that isn’t true is like trying to rendezvous with someone on the dark side of the moon. It’s dim and devoid of landmarks. And way too big.
Way too big for a little book like this, that is. Though it has its Murakami moments—a few fragrant flowers struggling to push through the kudzu, if you’ll permit me to fiddle with the author’s own imagery—Men Without Women feels to this reader like a garden in desperate need of weeding.
Men Without Women is available from Knopf Doubleday.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.