The challenge in reviewing a new book by Haruki Murakami is that one has a sense of writing for a group of people who already know about his work—Murakami-fanatics, if you will—and they have preconceived notions. They’re reading the review for tidbits, excerpts, news. Like writing a review of a new Star Trek movie, you’re writing to those who want to find out how this newest installment adds to the overall, larger story.
In the eyes of this reviewer, Murakami’s new short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, holds up well next to the stunning The Elephant Vanishes and the tight, controlled after the quake. Spanning twenty five years of Murakami’s writing, it also offers a diversity of writing skill—there’s the confident, controlled Murakami that we know from his latest novels, but there’s also the early, unrestrained Murakami, one whose attempts at the off-kilter narratives that he would later manipulate so skillfully go awry. (See “A ‘Poor-Aunt’ Story” for an example of the latter and “The Kidney-Shaped Stone that Moves Every Day” for one of the former.) There’s a pleasure to be had in seeing a skilled writer’s early works. As with Vladimir Nabokov’s “Russian Spoken Here,” an effort like “A ‘Poor-Aunt’ Story” has intimations of the place where the path begins—the path that, many novels later, extends far into the shadows of the wilderness.
At times it seems like more than one Murakami is writing these stories. It’s as if the reader has been given a notebook full of pictures of one person, and each picture shows the person trying on a different outfit; but even more than that, the person is trying on different faces, different expressions, different demeanors. Different selves.
In Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami also takes a few stabs at Realism, some more successful than others. “A Perfect Day for Kangaroos,” contains so little plot that one is left wondering if it’s a story at all. “Hunting Knife” tells of a late-night meeting between two tourists, one of whom connects with the other by sharing a large, ornamental knife. Nothing outwardly bizarre happens—no talking cats, no dancing dwarves. What does happen is that two people who seem to have nothing in common connect with each other while steeped in twilight and warmth and unanswered questions. The incidents may be of an un-Murakami ordinariness, but narrator still has trouble carving those incidents into manageably sized answers.
The last five stories in this collection were published originally in Japan in their own book, Tokyo Kitanshu (which translates to “Strange Tales from Tokyo.”) As pointed out in a Guardian review of the book, Murakami has in recent years become comfortable enough as a writer to slow down his narrative. Whereas some of the earlier shorts tended to careen around—wonderfully—from one point to the next, the more recent ones take time to focus in on certain details, staying with them for a moment or two. For instance, the excellent “Hanalei Bay” mopes through the aftermath of a mother’s loss of her son to a surfing accident. The everyday events described here could be in anyone’s day; little details bubble up, implying a great deal of emotion below the surface. Perhaps as a more mature writer, Murakami doesn’t need to have that emotion blow up and out toward the end—his narrator just goes on, as she must.
“The Kidney-Shaped Stone that Moves Every Day” is, to this reviewer, flawless Murakami; a young writer, feeling saddled with his father’s declaration that he only has three chances in life to find a woman that truly matters, enters a relationship with a woman who challenges and inspires his writing, only to then disappear. “The Kidney-Shaped Stone” has just the right combination of elements—realism, of a touch of the unusual, and a stock Murakami character—to be a crown jewel in this—or any—short story collection. It only bodes well for those readers awaiting the next novel (reportedly After Dark, to be released sometime next year) to have a strong piece like this written so recently. With this fine collection, readers will have plenty of trips to take down Murakami’s path in the meantime.
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