MEN WITHOUT WOMEN
By Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Alfred A. Knopf/Hardcover/228 pages/ $31.16/Books Kinokuniya/3/5 stars
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Four years ago, writing website The Toast listed tips on how to tell if you are in a Haruki Murakami novel. This advice applies only to men, it noted wryly. "If you are a woman in a Murakami novel, you have probably already disappeared."
The esteemed Japanese author has now taken this woman-vanishing to new heights, making it the central thread of his new short- story collection, Men Without Women, an existential riff on Ernest Hemingway's 1927 machismo-riddled collection of the same name.
For that matter, these seven melancholic stories appear to have taken every trope Murakami has amassed across his considerable canon and deployed them with a vengeance.
Beatles references? Check. Whiskey bar that plays old jazz records? Check. Stray cats with an oddly comforting presence? Check. Women disappearing? Check.
These women are usually cheating, dead or both. The disappearances are inexplicable, but matter of fact. "One day, I lost sight of her," says one narrator. "I happened to glance away for a moment, and when I turned back, she had disappeared."
Murakami is not actually interested in the phenomenon of the missing women, but rather in the holes they leave behind in men's lives.
These men are sunken in the ennui typical of the Murakami hero. One lovesick man even goes so far as to starve himself to death after his lover leaves him.
They inhabit urban Japan, but are steeped in a malaise so rich and strange, they might as well be full fathom five in the caverns of the sea.
Certainly, they seem to favour the aquatic metaphor. "I feel like I'm half transparent," writes one in a letter. "As if you could see right through to my internal organs, like a freshly caught squid." Another imagines himself as a lamprey, waiting on a rock for a passing trout he can latch onto. No trout shows up.
Nobody reads Murakami to understand the feminine psyche and, indeed, the women of the stories are unknowable ciphers defined by esoteric traits.
One, a housekeeper dubbed Scheherazade, likes to tell stories after sex about how she broke into other people's houses as a teenager. Another has a body pockmarked with cigarette burn scars.
The collection is not without its delightful moments, chief among them a story in which Gregor Samsa, formerly the insect of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, finds himself back in human form and falls in love with a hunchbacked locksmith.
But more often than not, it discombobulates with lines such as "Women are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie", this from the lovesick anorexic. Another narrator, who has just heard over the phone that his ex-lover has killed herself, muses: "Maybe M told her husband how beautiful my penis is."
The story I would like to read is about the alternate universe where Murakami's women have ended up. What do they get up to, these women without men? Is it too much to hope they get their own jazz bar? I hope it also has cats.
If you like this, read: Fox Fire Girl by O Thiam Chin (Epigram Books, 2017, $26.64, Books Kinokuniya), in which two men try to secure the affections of an elusive girl from Ipoh.