BEER, cats, spaghetti, jazz: We're in Murakami Country. Reading one of Haruki Murakami's novels, such as "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" or "Kafka on the Shore," can feel like immersion in a long and disturbing dream. A dream in which one of Raymond Carver's narrators has inadvertently hijacked a David Lynch film. A dream that leaves you with a head full of questions, foremost among them: How did he do that? Followed by: What exactly did he do?
If Murakami's novels are grand enigmas, his stories are bite-sized conundrums. The short form allows for freedom from novelistic responsibilities -- the writer can develop a notion as far as he wants and then get out. The great pleasure of the new story collection, "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman," is watching Murakami come at his obsessions from so many different angles. There's a panoply of strangeness between these covers: a monkey that steals names, a man with a "poor aunt" stuck to his back, the actual Girl from Ipanema, a kidney-shaped stone that moves around on its own -- the list goes on.
In the introduction, Murakami calls this his "first real short story collection" since 1991's "The Elephant Vanishes." (He considers 2002's "After the Quake" more of a "concept album" than a collection.) However, the stories in "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" are not all new -- they range over 25 years, starting in 1980.
From this bird's-eye view, Murakami's territory stands in high relief: In every story, something animistic, visceral or inexplicable penetrates the otherwise well-circumscribed lives of his characters. Cause and effect go out the window, as everything -- even the form of the short story itself -- struggles to cope with that which cannot be contained or explained.
In "New York Mining Disaster," the narrator muses on a year in which he attends a string of funerals. It's a conventional-enough narrative until the last section. An italicized passage describes miners trapped underground. Other than the title, nothing on a literal level links the final passage to what has come before. It hangs there at the end, an undigested bolus. The juxtaposition of story and image is evocative, but Murakami refuses to articulate any connections for the reader. Further experimentation appears in the form of six "short shorts" distributed throughout the collection. You get the sense, reading these, that he is testing the limits of short fiction to see what is too tidy ("The Mirror," a congealed anecdote) and what is too loose (the baffling "Dabchick").
Murakami's protagonists are typically alienated loners who have dropped out of a society that has failed to address their needs. In "Nausea 1979" and "Airplane: Or, How He Talked to Himself as if Reciting Poetry," characters engage in extramarital affairs they think they can keep separate from everything else, but in both stories something inexplicable bubbles up (vomit and poetry, respectively) to disturb the surfaces of their lives. "Man-Eating Cats," later incorporated into the novel "Sputnik Sweetheart," concerns two lovers who flee to a Greek island. Cut off from Japan, with no way back to their old identities, they essentially disappear, each in their own way.
Infidelity is one thing, and blithe transgressors are easy marks for tragedy, but even the ostensibly proper relationships in such stories as "Crabs," "The Ice Man" and "Tony Takitani" are doomed for obscure reasons, revolving around one of Murakami's favorite preoccupations -- that other people are, at their cores, unknowable. "I sometimes think that people's hearts are like deep wells," says one of his characters. "Nobody knows what's at the bottom. All you can do is imagine by what comes floating to the surface every once in a while."
Perhaps the collection's most conventional story, "Tony Takitani" covers the life and marriage of one such deep well. Here there is no affair, no transgression, just the collective weight of history, inheritance and culture driving one man toward his isolated fate. It's a deeply affecting, mysterious tale, all the more so for being told straight. The final five stories, written in 2005, were collected in Japan as a single volume called "Five Strange Tales From Tokyo." These stories, if more erratic than their predecessors, are also more vibrant, moving away from love and its difficulties toward uncharted territory. This line from "Chance Traveler" could be Murakami's motto: "If you have to choose between something that has form and something that doesn't, go for the one without form." More than ever, he seems willing to follow his notions wherever they lead. Two of the pieces, "A Shinagawa Monkey" and "Where I'm Likely to Find It" are metaphysical detective stories, and the latter, along with "The Kidney-Shaped Stone that Moves Every Day," echoes animistic elements from his recent novel "Kafka on the Shore."
This collection shows Murakami at his dynamic, organic best. As a chronicler of contemporary alienation, a writer for the Radiohead age, he shows how taut and thin our routines have become, how ill-equipped we are to contend with the forces that threaten to disrupt us. In "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman," Murakami demonstrates brilliantly the perils of trying to squeeze life into prefabricated compartments. The repressed will always surface somehow. As the serial philanderer of "Nausea 1979" says: "As long as you don't have some kind of subconscious desire to expose what you've done, these things don't come out." In Murakami's world, as in ours, this is the epitome of hubris. *