Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

By Haruki Murakami

We’ve become accustomed to think of the short story as a sort of training ground for budding novelists. Typically, a young author’s career will begin with a volume of short stories that collects their first published work, showcasing their apprenticeship in the craft of fiction before they graduate to the larger readership (and bigger advances) of the novel. Of course there are “pure” short story writers, like Alice Munro, but they are the exception to this hierarchy of forms.

That it is a hierarchy is clearly indicated by Haruki Murakami in his Introduction to this collection of 24 stories. He explains how his practice has been to write short stories as a break from the greater challenge of working on a novel. Writing stories is easier, doesn’t take as long, and doesn’t require the “total physical and mental commitment you have to make for the year or two it takes to compose a novel.” With short stories you can improvise more, and not worry so much about failure. Murakami likens them to an “experimental laboratory” of fiction, trying out ideas and techniques that will help make writing his novels easier.

Calling them experimental also suggests something about the kind of fiction Murakami writes – stories that weave a dream-like, surreal tapestry of metafiction and magic realism. Beneath all of the fancy footwork, however, there is a basic Murakami spiritual geography that is consistent. There are two worlds: The everyday, rational world of our jobs and our relationships, and an “underworld” associated with the unconscious and death, symbolized here, as throughout all of Murakami’s other work, by things that people just disappear into or that swallow them up, like wells and the sea. These vanishings introduce Murakami’s main theme, which is loss. A childhood playmate is snatched away by a giant wave. A woman’s surfer son is killed by a shark. Another woman has her name stolen by a talking monkey and can’t remember it until she gets it back. A dedicated husband goes missing on his way to work. A shopaholic wife is hit by a truck. Lovers are gone in the morning, with or without a note left on the pillow, and no forwarding address.

A lot of people, young people in particular, die in these stories. But their death is just a transportation to the Other Side, leaving the stories to dribble away into mere cleverness, affectless dialogue, and pop spirituality – a literary, and less malevolent, cousin to the current glut of postmodern Japanese ghost stories. Condensed into a collection of short stories the “magic” elements begin to seem repetitive, gimmicky, and trite (though these are all words that could be used to describe Murakami’s last novel, Kafka on the Shore, as well).

The stories collected here were written at various times over the past 25 years, with some of them being later rewritten and incorporated into novels. So it really does constitute an experimental laboratory or sketchbook. And the fact is, Murakami is not a great short story writer. He needs more room to work with, both to fully develop his low-key psychological portraits and to better place his increasingly obvious surreal effects. Compared to his best books, the novels The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Sputnik Sweetheart, these stories seem like only first drafts and doodles. One hopes we will get more of the good stuff after this break.

Review first published online December 6, 2006.


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