In the introduction to the English edition of his new short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Haruki Murakami writes: “I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy. If writing novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is more like planting a garden.” Yet if the individual stories are flowers in a garden, what is the collection, the mass of all these carefully planted terrains?
And, moreover, isn’t it difficult to get short stories to coalesce into a garden? A short story collection is a strange literary form, after all. What the reader notices are the individual stories—the roses, the tulips, the marigolds—but what she hopes to remember is something more, the gestalt. In a good collection, the proximity of one story to the others becomes the mortar that holds the tesserae of this mosaic together.
Murakami has successfully gotten a collection of short stories to coalesce before. His last book of short stories to be published in English was the slim, thematically connected after the quake, consisting of just six stories connected to the 1995 Kobe Earthquake. Despite their thematic unity, these stories cover a range of styles and emotions, from the fantastic (“Superfrog Saves Tokyo”) to realist love (“Honey Pie”).
Murakami’s new collection, Blind Willow Sleeping Woman, is completely different. It is a big book: twenty-five stories written over the course of twenty-five years, from 1980 to 2005. Throughout his career, Murakami has struck certain themes again and again (see the Murakami Dictionary for some examples), and many of them are here. Readers of Murakami can expect to find the hopeless love, the alienation, the weird events that seem to grow out of the characters’ psychological holes.
Yet the stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman also bring out certain themes that are less visible when viewing Murakami’s work as a whole. Although we have new looks at the familiar interplay of chance and coincidence (especially in the moving “Chance Traveler”), and love, loss, and failed self-discovery (notably, the aching “Airplane: Or, How He Talked to Himself as If Reciting Poetry,” the title story, and “A Folklore for My Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism”), we also have several stories that address the act of writing and the role of the writer, particularly “A ‘Poor Aunt’ Story,” “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes,” and “The Kidney-Shaped Stone that Moves Every Day.” While the first two tales are quick glosses on the process of writing and the literary world, respectively, the last story (written many years after the other two) is a more nuanced look at creation and vocation.
Perhaps the most interesting theme in this collection—covered here more than in other works—is reminiscent of Henry James’s “The Beast in the Jungle.” In that story, a man knows for his whole life that some terrible catastrophe will befall to him, but only at the end does he understand that the terrible thing is that he let this “curse” prevent him from doing anything. In “The Kidney-Shaped Stone that Moves Every Day” Junpei (the hero of after the quake’s “Honey Pie”) is told by his father that in his life he will meet only three women “that have real meaning.” Junpei comes to see it as a curse: he does not want to “squander” any of his chances getting involved with a woman who means something but he cannot have, so he stays aloof, saving those opportunities for the future. “A Folklore for My Generation” is set up as the true story of a classmate who thought that if he could only connect (and have sex) with his high school girlfriend, he could “discover who I was, the self I’d only had vague glimpses of.” Years later, the narrator reflects that his classmate’s experience epitomizes the post-war generation: it is “something that actually happened to him. Something that happened to all of us.” They all had that one chance to discover who they were, but lost it.
Indeed, for a writer who has written so much about youth and young adult anomie, some of the best stories in this collection are about growing older. “Chance Traveler,” “Hanalei Bay,” and “A Folklore for My Generation” all reflect back on that youth, but also look forward.
Yet in reading Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman one notices perhaps too much the similarity between stories. Readers of The New Yorker, Granta, or Harper’s Magazine will recognize many of these stories as originally appearing in those periodicals. But they may seem unfamiliar, like a friend who acts one way on her own and differently when in a group; for better or for worse, the stories in this collection are changed by their proximity to one another.
And this is what sets the new collection apart from after the quake: although the stories in quake were thematically linked, they were each unexpected. But with Blind Willow, the stories, written in different styles and at different times, seem to be less impressive as a whole than they may have been individually. Many of these stories will be interesting to Murakami devotees who want to further parse their favorite author’s development, but reading so many in a row, especially the early ones, can be numbing.
Nevertheless, some of the stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman are well worth anyone’s time. Which ones are they? The answer to that is complicated. It speaks to the two sides of Murakami the writer, and depends on what draws you to Murakami.
Murakami’s novels can be divided into roughly two camps: the quest stories, epitomized by The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and A Wild Sheep Chase and the love stories like Norwegian Wood. Similarly, the short stories collected in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman can more or less be divided up into the stories translated by Jay Rubin and those translated by Philip Gabriel.
It’s no accident that Rubin translated the stories he did. In an online forum on the Random House Webpage, Rubin describes how he and another earlier translator never liked the same Murakami stories:
To me, they [the fantastic stories were] were the best stories, and Alfred [Birnbaum] was missing the boat. The ones that he liked I usually didn’t like. We almost never asked for the same stories. It was downright strange.
A similar dichotomy is at work in this collection. The stories translated by Rubin (“Dabchick”, “Nausea 1979,” “Birthday Girl”) tend to be strange, fantastical tales isolated from a greater whole. On the other hand, in Gabriel’s stories the emotions are drawn out, tragedy and coincidence subsumed by the characters’ needs. While the division is not absolute, it seems that, just as Rubin and Gabriel were each drawn to different stories, many readers will be drawn to one translator’s stories, one side of Murakami’s writing.
Although I enjoyed several of the stories that Rubin tackled, (especially “Hanalei Bay” and “Tony Takatani”) the majority of the fantastical tales feel at best clever, at worst gimmicky and aggravating. (“Dabchick” is a prime example of the latter.)
By contrast, the stories translated by Gabriel stand out as the reason I read Murakami. This more emotional Murakami, in which chance and fantastic events play second fiddle to the pain and thoughts of the characters, is the Murakami I find most inspired, most interesting.
Perhaps this is because in most of the stories Gabriel translated, what one notices most is the emotional weight of what has been left unsaid. In “Airplane,” a young woman tells the man she is having an affair with that “people’s hearts are like deep wells. Nobody knows what’s at the bottom. All you can do is imagine by what comes floating to the surface.” But it is clear that the greatest mystery to each of them is not the other, but their own unimaginable selves. The man reflects that life is “hard and smooth, and far away,” yet later he will look back at this moment as a time when he knew one sure thing about who he was.
A subtle interplay between tragedy and comedy (wryly refusing either) is Blind Woman, Sleeping Willow at its best. If individual short stories are a garden, the collection is a messier business, it’s meaning balanced on this unstated seesaw of tragedy and comedy. And so, while this collection at times feels bloated and unruly, that is all forgivable because it is a quintessential Murakami work. You probably will not like everything, but if you like Murakami—at least one half of him—you must read it.
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