Haruki Murakami’s introduction to the English edition of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman begins with this: “To put it in the simplest terms, 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. The two processes complement each other, creating a complete landscape that I treasure.” In the States, Murakami is probably best known for The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and, to a lesser degree, his most recent “big book,” Kafka on the Shore. Elsewhere, his short stories are equally, if not more so, the reason for his widespread popularity.
Like many readers, I came across him first through The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; a used copy on the cheap at Longfellow was too good to pass up, and of course I’ve never looked at wells the same way. The strength of that sent me right back to the bookstore for his collection The Elephant Vanishes, and “The Second Bakery Attack” was where I realized I was going to need to follow Murakami pretty much anywhere his stories wanted me to go. I did, and have found that all of Murakami’s short story collections are excellent for different reasons: The Elephant Vanishes, with its perfect girls and insomnia and “Nowhere in the world can you do this”; after the quake, with its six takes on the 1995 Kobe earthquake; and the new Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman , collecting stories from all over the past twenty-five years. Each of his short story collections has its own beauty, and challenges, and yet is accessible enough to read anywhere, anytime.
I picked the following stories for a number of good reason—they’re representative of Murakami’s work as a whole, they’re particularly well-known (or lesser-known), they’re personal favorites. They’re the ones I push on my friends. In an overflowing garden, they’re the eight foot tall sunflowers, blocking out the light, glowing, and when you stand next to them they are just as tall and imposing as any tree in the forest.
THE ELEPHANT VANISHES
The Second Bakery Attack. A man and a woman have nothing to eat in their house; this reminds the man of his teenage years when he and some friends went to rob a bakery and the owner pulled a fast one on them—he said they could have whatever they could carry, no strings, if they’d just sit and listen to Wagner.
The man and woman are hungry in ways other than the physical but are unable to identify it, and the wife grabs on to the bakery attack idea as their path back to comfort, to normalcy, to each other.
Time oozed through the dark like a lead weight in a fish’s gut. I read the print on the aluminum beer cans. I stared at my watch. I looked at the refrigerator door. I turned the pages of yesterday’s paper. I used the edge of a postcard to scrape together the cookie crumbs on the tabletop.
“I’ve never been this hungry in my whole life,” she said. “I wonder if it has anything to do with being married.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Or maybe not.”
This is one of the first short stories I read by Murakami. A nice, bizarre premise, some dead-on descriptions of hunger and married life, and the unique feeling that comes over a man when he sees his wife display all the bakery attack skills of a seasoned pro. One of the best.
The Kangaroo Communique. Murakami twists this story on you a number of times, undoing your expectations of where it was going, of what is happening. I hesitate to write anything about it here—if you’ve not read it already, it’s worth getting to it without knowing anything about it. You get humor, you get discomfort, you get writing from unexpected places. You’ve just finished “The Second Bakery Attack”; might as well keep going. It’s worth it.
On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning. Here we have a story that starts as though it’s the story of your average coffee shop writer. But then it’s sifted to remove all of the pretense, the time wasting, the posing, the complete lack of productivity. It’s writing in a coffee shop because of the romance of the idea of it; however, it’s really only maybe 50% looking like a writer, looking like you’re writing with your notebook and your pen (pencils and a pencil sharpener if you are really looking to overcome some other deficit). The rest? Hoping you’ll see that 100% perfect girl.
That’s how this story starts out—like the light of God has chosen this moment to shine down on that guy in the coffee shop, blessing him enough to take what he’s got and write this story. It starts with a guy—not a man, or a boy, but a guy, with all the connotations of that word—lamenting to a friend about this girl he saw, walking down the road, and he tries to imagine what he should have said to her. It comes across as this off-the-cuff piece that Murakami just started writing, bored and not really having any “Tony Takitani”-type ideas, and suddenly it turns into this really great piece. The story he concocts is just about the perfect example of “I should have said this,” a moment we’ve all experience where we’re too off-guard to say anything insightful or devastatingly cutting, but later, when we’re reflecting, we come up with the should-have-said.
It’s a great story. Lots of ways to take it in: you can read it in the collection “The Elephant Vanishes”; you can hear it in the newly released audiobook version of that collection or you can hear it read by actor Matt Malloy (who does a nice job) in the episode of “This American Life” called “Crush.” It’s also out there in a rare graphic novel form.
AFTER THE QUAKE
Honey Pie. Another story that explores the relationship between an introvert, his extroverted friend that takes him under his wing (as in “New York Mining Disaster” and Norwegian Wood, among others) and a girl. The girl ends up playing a pivotal role, though not in a man-battling-man for her affection type of plot. The narrator does not want to rock the boat here—they have their friendship, the three of them, and he stands back to let fate decide whether or not she will end up with him. So many of Murakami’s narrators face that sort of placid paralysis around making changes in their lives, benignly accepting that things are out of their hands and then feeling the hurt when things progress apart from them.
BLIND WILLOW, SLEEPING WOMAN
New York Mining Disaster. This story is an interesting one. An earlier version had the order of things a little bit differently; this version is far better. “A friend of mine has a habit of going to the zoo whenever there’s a typhoon” is a fine example of a really great opening line—short and punchy, draws you right into the story. The narrator’s friend is a recurring character in Murakami’s work: the friend of the narrator that is, in an unusual, sometimes bizarre way, wiser/cooler/hipper, and yet also flawed in some deep way that the narrator both has his eyes open to and also finds a way to dismiss, or overlook, or explain away. The quirk in this one: a new girlfriend every six months, exactly. The narrator goes on to discuss his “Year of Funerals,” describing how five friends die over the course of a year. “A man’s death at twenty-eight is as sad as the winter rain.” The narrator goes on to discuss death in its many incarnations and meanings with the friend (over beer, in case you thought the characters were going academic on you). They attend a New Year’s Eve party, and then the end of the story is laid right in front of you and stabs you in the gut. It’s difficult to say more about the meaning of the story without giving away the punch at the end, but this is a good one. No stylistic acrobatics here, or stones that move, or talking monkeys, but neither all that straightforward. Life is what happens to you when you’re doing other things.
Dabchick. Not for the first-time Murakami reader, unless you don’t mind a completely absurd ending. A man going into an underground chamber (of course) for a job interview is confronted by a man in a towel, fresh out of the shower, who won’t let him go any further unless he provides the password. The interviewee knows nothing about this, of course, but is determined to get into that interview. A dabchick is a small bird that fits in your hand. Or not.
The Year of Spaghetti. “tomato sauce bubbling up in the saucepan my one great hope in life”
I went to a cooking specialty store and bought a kitchen timer and a huge aluminum pot, big enough to bathe a German shepherd in, then went around to all the supermarkets that catered to foreigners, gathering an assortment of odd-sounding spices. I picked up a pasta cookbook at the bookstore, and bought tomatoes by the dozen. I purchased every brand of spaghetti I could lay my hands on, simmered every sauce known to man. Fine particles of garlic, onion, and olive oil swirled in the air, forming a harmonious cloud that penetrated every corner of my tiny apartment, permeating the floor and the ceiling and the walls, my clothes, my books, my records, my tennis racquet, my bundles of old letters. It was a fragrance one might have smelled on ancient Roman aqueducts.
Spaghetti makes guest appearances in many of Murakami’s tales (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle seems as though it starts in the same kitchen that’s being described here, for example) but this is the story where it is put front and center. The paragraph quoted there is more than an evocative look at someone sinking themselves deep into a pursuit—it sets the tone, it’s an exclamation of loneliness. Spaghetti sauce the one great hope? This seems from the start like a guy sinking himself into something to block out something else.
The narrator gets a late afternoon call from the ex-girlfriend of a friend, looking for their shared acquaintance. He evades her: “I was through with getting caught up in other people’s messes. I’d already dug a hole in the backyard and buried everything that needed to be buried in it. Nobody could ever dig it up again.” The plot moves forward incrementally from there, and then peters out, but—as usual—that’s beside the
point. It’s a story of different kinds of loneliness, and it’s as simple as can be.
Tony Takitani. Of course. An obvious choice? Perhaps one of his better known stories, as it’s appeared in The New Yorker and All-Story, as well as having its own individual release, an upcoming release in the Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman collection, and a film adaptation. Simply put, required reading. Less simply put, a melancholy look at independence, loneliness, love found and lost. Belongs in short fiction collections everywhere. How the films works and does not work is interesting, too.
The Kidney-Shaped Stone that Moves Every Day. One of my favorite Murakami stories. Every once in a while, you see bits and pieces of yourself in a story or a character. This, from near the beginning of the story:
When Junpei was eighteen, he left home and went to college in Tokyo, where over time he became involved with several women, one of whom had “real meaning” for him. Before he could express his feelings, however (by nature, it took him longer than most people to express his feelings), she married his best friend, and soon after that became a mother. For the time being, therefore, she had to be eliminated from the list of possibilities that life had to offer Junpei. He had to harden his heart and sweep her from his mind, as a result of which the number of women remaining who would have real meaning in his life—if he accepted his father’s theory—was reduced to two.
Whenever Junpei met a new woman, he would ask himself, Is this a woman who has real meaning for me? And the question would create a dilemma. For even as he continued to hope (as who does not?) that he would meet someone who had real meaning for him, he was afraid of playing his few remaining cards too early.
The setup is that his father told him, in a conversation made hazy by memory, that a man will meet three women in his lifetime that will have real meaning for him – three, and only three, and “you will be wasting your time if a woman is the wrong one for you. I want you to remember that.” If the same thing could be said about stories, this one makes the cut for me – the above quoted paragraphs are then followed with:
Whenever, after he had been with a new woman for some months, he began to notice something about her character or behavior, however trivial, that displeased him or touched a nerve, somewhere in a recess of his heart he would feel a twinge of relief. As a result, it became a pattern for him to carry on tepid, indecisive relationships with one woman after another. Each of these relationships dissolved on its own. The breakups never involved any discord or shouting matches, because he never became involved with women who seemed as if they might be difficult to get rid of. Before he knew it, he had developed a kind of nose for convenient partners.
A story that starts off with a situation so similar to an important part of my own life has a steep mountain to climb if it isn’t going to fall flat. Murakami, of course, delivers—the story veers away from my own, and is excellent. It’s hard for me, clearly, to be objective about it, as it strikes right at my subjective opinion and takes hold. What follows this great beginning is a fantastic maze of a narrative, rendered simply in straightforward writing that gets at what it means to choose one life over another and how one can escape and yet never escape their past.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Haruki Murakami’s Supernatural War Ever since World War II ended, American novelists have used China, Italy, the Philippines, Dunkirk, Dresden, and many other battlegrounds to represent everything from the effect of racism on American society to the strength of the American family. Katie Wadell argues that Haruki Murakami introduces us to an altogether different...
- Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami 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...
- Haruki Murakami’s Meaningful Metaphors Haruki Murakami's plots feel like modern-day fairy tales. Scott Esposito considers how Murakami's plots come to resemble and evoke the inner minds of his characters....
- Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami 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...
- Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman2, 3 * Birthday Girl1, 10 19 New York Mining Disaster3, 7 33 * Airplane: Or, How He Talked to Himself as If Reciting Poetry1 45 * The Mirror2 55 * A Folklore for My Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism2 61 * Hunting Knife3 81 *...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Matthew Tiffany