What, if anything, does `normal' mean?

Review Short stories

September 03, 2006|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,Special to The Sun

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: 25 Stories

Haruki Murakami

Alfred A. Knopf / 352 pages / $25.00

In this extraordinary new story collection by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore), reality is ever in danger of breaking loose of its moorings. People are sucked up into a void or drown in an unforgiving wave. Characters descend into wells. People are pursued by dark shadows. Man-eating cats, or morally indifferent cats, stalk the landscape. No matter the mayhem, there are never "reasons, causes." A "poor aunt" is suddenly affixed to a character's back. She is there, no explanation forthcoming.

The brilliant "Tony Takitani," which has been made into a film in Japan, reveals that Murakami is aware of how history, to which people pay no attention, shapes their psyches. Tony's jazz-musician father, who consorted with Japanese war criminals in China and allowed an American soldier to name his son, visits a "habitual solitude" on Tony that will endure as long as life itself. A woman marries an "Ice Man" with a "silent, transparent look that gleamed like an icicle on a winter's morning" and pays the price. Events bear inevitable consequences.

Sometimes Murakami's first-person narrators are born in 1949, the year of the author's birth. In "Chance Traveler," Murakami begins by announcing his own appearance: "The `I' here, you should know, means me, Haruki Murakami, the author of the story." So the author wipes away assumptions of realism. Ghosts appear, as in "Hanalei Bay," where a one-legged Japanese surfer appears, but not to his grieving mother.

What is real is human suffering, and any device that conveys that pain is welcome. In "A Shinagawa Monkey," a talking, omniscient monkey steals a woman's high school name tag, resulting in her becoming unable to remember her own name at odd moments. Captured, the monkey reveals to Mizuki certain truths she has suppressed: that her mother and sister never loved her; that she herself has "never been able to deeply, unconditionally love anybody else" and doesn't "truly love" her husband.

There is no author more adept than Murakami at capturing the void of life lived under what he calls "late-stage capitalism." His characters nearly always are well-educated. They read books. But they can find no relief from emptiness, loneliness and a lack of purpose and convictions. Inevitably, they work at mind-numbing jobs for nondescript companies. Coincidence befuddles them: In "Chance Traveler" a man and woman, separately, are reading Dickens' Bleak House. This woman and the man's sister both are threatened by breast cancer.

Moral paralysis is accompanied by physical incapacity. In the title story the narrator suddenly finds he cannot stand up to board a bus. Change is elusive. No matter how they try, Murakami's people "can never be anything but themselves." Nor can they know each other. "I sometimes think that people's hearts are like deep wells. Nobody knows what's at the bottom," a married woman tells her lover in "Airplane: Or, How He Talked to Himself as if Reciting Poetry."

Japanese place names predominate - Shinagawa and Ichigaya, Shinjuku, Setagaya and Roppongi - but the food Murakami's characters eat is never Japanese; see "The Year of Spaghetti." The music is more often than not American jazz. These people are as likely to read Ed McBain as Kenzaburo Oe. They dress in Ralph Lauren, Armani and New Balance.

This world of damaged, lonely people transcends national borders. Yet there are times when we know that we are in Japan. A civil servant named Sakurada, with its suggestion of cherry blossoms, of the essence of being Japanese, sadistically wants to condemn the poor Shinagawa monkey to death for his essentially harmless transgressions. Other characters are Japanese in their unthinking devotion to duty ("I made up my mind to do my duty, no matter what"), in their passivity, and in their never believing that their lives can be anything other than what they are.

Meanwhile the unconscious mind lurks, ready to pounce on the visible world. In "The Mirror," a man suddenly in a mirror sees "another me," a figure that "loathed me. Inside it was a hatred like an iceberg floating in a dark sea. The kind of hatred that no one could ever assuage." He hadn't seen a ghost, he knows. He had seen "myself."

Murakami glances back at the '60s in "A Folklore for My Generation: A Prehistory of Late-Stage Capitalism" and notices the last time "cause and effect were good buddies." His humor is subtle and unpredictable, as when two Japanese friends meet in Italy and talk about how the trains in Italy never run on time. Sometimes the humor is in the language: A male kangaroo at the zoo looks "like a composer whose talent has run dry." The political world appears in an American military base that sends noisy olive-green helicopters over a peaceful beach resort ("Hunting Knife"). A character wears a "Vietnam-era army surplus poncho."

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