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Murakami in the Details: What to Read After Men Without Women [in The Booklist Reader]

The wait is over: Haruki Murakami’s latest collection of short stories hit shelves last week and yes, indeed – Men Without Women is a definitive seven-part delight. But once you’ve finished, the waiting begins yet again, oh sigh, for Maestro Murakami’s next book.

In the meantime, we’ve prepared a mix-and-match pairing of these latest stories with some of Murakami’s older titles – a veritable treasure hunt of familiar motifs from cats to jazz, from whiskey to cigarettes, from baseball to the moon, and, of course, men without women.

The collection’s opening story, “Drive My Car,” has already stirred controversy: a line about a cigarette discarded from a car window (“He guessed that was what people did in Nakatonbetsu”) provoked international coverage, including in The Guardian and The Los Angeles Times. In early 2014, assembly leaders from the town of Nakatonbetsu demanded Murakami apologize for insulting their home. Murakami gamely complied, and even contemplated changing the location in his story. He didn’t. Three years later, with the story’s English debut, Nakatonbetsu town leaders just might be protesting once more.

In “Car,” a middle-aged actor hires a young woman as his driver – littering smoker now infamous in Nakatonbetsu – to whom he reveals how he befriended one of his wife’s lovers after her sudden death in a desperate effort to better understand who she had been. Pair it with another song-inspired title, South of the Border, West of the Sun (a nod to Nat King Cole’s “South of the Border”), which features a man who remains haunted by an elusive woman he’s loved but never quite fully known.


In “Yesterday,” a man recalls an odd friendship he had 16 years previously with a coffee-shop co-worker who used to sing his own nonsense version of “Yesterday” in the unique Kansai dialect of Japanese which the Tokyoite had taught himself. To find another character re-examining his relationships from 16 years previously, check out Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.


In “An Independent Organ,” a prominent plastic surgeon falls blindingly in love after decades of carefree bachelorhood with a married woman who fatally proves his theory that women “are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie.” Ouch. Love is most definitely a cruel killer, as well, in Norwegian Wood.


In “Sheherazade,” a man trapped indoors for reasons never revealed, relies on a middle-aged housewife who twice a week delivers groceries, sex, and stories, whose unpredictable loss he realizes would make him “saddest of all.” Trapped in our own worlds, we are the stories we tell each other and ourselves, especially those we share After Dark.


In “Kino,” a man quits his job, moves, and opens a bar after discovering his wife’s infidelity with his best friend. A certain bar, cats, and mysterious women can all be found in Pinball, 1973, the second volume of the Sheep tetralogy (comprised of Hear the Wind Sing; Pinball, 1973; and A Wild Sheep Chase, which make up the Rat trilogy, and Sheep’s sequel, Dance Dance Dance).


In “Samsa in Love,” Kafka’s metamorphosing Gregor Samsa wakes one morning as a human, wracked with pain and vulnerability caused by all the impracticalities of suddenly being naked, hungry, and all alone – until a hunchback locksmith arrives intent on fixing a broken lock. Metamorphoses also abound in A Wild Sheep Chase, the now-classic that first made Murakami a literary superstar.


In the titular “Men Without Women,” a man answers a 1 a.m. call made by the husband of an old girlfriend who’s committed suicide and re-imagines the past he “should” have shared with the dead woman. For more innocent young first love and rewriting texts, try 1Q84.


If Murakami is in the (repeating) details, then such details are what make his writing so identifiably unique. “Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can,” a character muses, “is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.” Sanity might be overrated, but Murakami is surely not.

Published: “Murakami in the Details: What to Read after MEN WITHOUT WOMEN,” The Booklist Reader, May 18, 2017