In the title story for his new collection, “Men Without Women,” Haruki Murakami has his unnamed, middle-aged narrator receive a phone call at 3 in the morning informing him that his ex-girlfriend M. has committed suicide.
The call surprises the narrator for several reasons. First, M. is the third woman that he dated who killed herself. He ponders this fact: “Why these women, all still young, had taken their lives, or felt compelled to take their lives, was beyond my comprehension. I hoped it wasn’t because of me.” He drops the matter of his possible complicity as quickly as he raises it. Instead, he fixates on the motivations of the caller, M.’s husband: “he didn’t explain a single thing to me. … It seemed his intention was to leave me stuck somewhere in the middle, dangling between knowledge and ignorance. But why? To get me thinking about something?”
Such a line of questioning forms the boilerplate for all of Murakami’s fiction. Each story or novel derives from an unsolvable mystery. For Murakami, the process of thinking is what matters, and in this collection of seven stories Murakami wants us to consider the paradoxical interrelatedness of love and loneliness, specifically, how certain men become “Men Without Women.”
Although the narrator in the title story has a wife, he describes himself as the “second-loneliest man on earth,” having found himself in this tragic state after he and M. parted ways decades earlier. As he puts it, “It’s quite easy to become Men Without Women. You love a woman deeply, and then she goes off somewhere. That’s all it takes.”
The widowed husband’s phone call brings about a painful intensification of the narrator’s endless remembering and longing. He develops the habit of walking along a path in a park that leads him to the statue of a unicorn. He sits down on a bench and starts musing about the husband, the “loneliest man on the planet.” In the whimsical figure of the unicorn with its phallic-like horn he sees a universal symbol of all lonely men. Time and again in these seven stories, Murakami displays his singular genius in moments like this one, when he manages to find a concrete image for human emotion.
Perhaps the most striking instance of this visual equivalency occurs in “Yesterday,” one of two stories in the collection that derive their titles from a Beatles song.
In this story, a man recalls an incident from 16 years earlier that involved himself and his good friend Kitaru, a kind of aimless ne’er-do-well who couldn’t do what was necessary to pass the entrance exams for college. For reasons not altogether clear, Kitaru asks the narrator to take his girlfriend out on a date, which the reluctant narrator agrees to do after much persuasion.
The date proves to be a casual undertaking, except for a key moment in the conversation during dinner when the girlfriend tells the narrator about a recurring dream that seems to embody all her fears about her relationship with Kitaru. In the dream, she and Kitaru gaze out of a ship’s porthole at a moon made of “pure, transparent ice” with the “bottom half of it sunk in the sea.” Her fear is that one night the moon will simply disappear. Her foreboding proves to be justified since Kitaru does indeed disappear a few weeks later.
In his reflections about the past, the moon made of ice becomes a symbol of loneliness for the narrator: “when I look back at myself at age twenty what I remember most is being alone and lonely.” Essentially, he has adopted the girlfriend’s recurring dream as a frame for understanding who he was then. Such is the nature of Murakami’s brand of surrealist fiction, which always feels twice-told, recast, archetypal. As the narrator says, “Dreams are the kinds of things you can … borrow and lend out.”
The dreams that Murakami shares with his readers resonate better in his novels, the big narratives like “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” which veer off in surprising directions where reality bleeds into the supernatural. The stories in this collection find their power within the confines of common but momentous disturbances that linger on in memory.
Like dreams, memories can be borrowed and shared, as we observe in the other Beatles-inspired story, “Drive My Car.” Here, a middle-aged protagonist who is aptly named Kafuku visualizes his deceased wife as a “small, locked safe lying at the bottom of an ocean,” since he can’t fathom her reasons for having an affair with an unremarkable man. Kafuku can only begin to find a measure of relief from his questioning, self-doubt, and yearnings after the young woman he hires to be his chauffeur lends an ear to his tormented concerns.
Murakami suggests that every man is a Kafaku, a sufferer who takes aimless drives to ponder past loves or who gazes at moons made of ice with nostalgic aches of longing and loneliness and regret. Simply put, one cannot forget what one has lived, a sentiment best expressed by philosopher Emil Cioran: “Knowledge is the plague of life, and consciousness, an open wound in its heart.”
It then comes as no surprise that the one figure of hope in the collection is the innocent protagonist in the story “Samsa in Love,” a revamped version of Kafka’s antihero who awakens one morning to discover that he has returned to his human form with his memory erased and with a limited understanding of human behavior, an existential tabula rasa that Murakami seems to believe might be the only way that we can move beyond the past and free ourselves of the nightmare of history that Stephen Dedalus wanted to escape. That said, Murakami’s Gregor Samsa is reborn at a pointed and brutal moment in the 20th century, the Russian invasion of Prague. Be that as it may, he falls for a young woman who is both a hunchback and a locksmith. In his honest and forthright embracing of her physical shortcomings we find a model for how we too might unlock a hitherto unknown human self who can truly love.
Jeffery Renard Allen is professor of creative writing at the University of Virginia and author of the novels “Rails Under My Back” and “Song of the Shank,” the latter shortlisted for the PEN/Faulkner Award. His story collection “Holding Pattern” won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence.
Knopf: 240 pp., $25.95