When I am really impressed with a fiction writer, I often endeavor to read all or most of their works. Alas, William Faulkner was too dense and too prolific for me to succeed, but if I live long enough I may crack that nut. I had better luck with Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Cormac McCarthy. I’m almost there with Haruki Murakami, who has quite the long catalog.
The problem with reviewing the same author of multiple works is that it is sometimes difficult to find new ground to cover. My latest Murakami read was After the Quake, a collection of six short stories – or are these long stories? – centered around the cataclysmic Kobe earthquake in 1995. Except they are not. The characters in these six stories, all narrated from the third person, do not actually experience the earthquake directly, but are made aware of it peripherally, primarily through television news. Still, the event clearly unsettles them all and it is a pronounced sense of resonating palpable unease that binds these tales into a coherent collection. Another natural adhesive is the fact that these stories were all written in 1999-2000, so we have a snapshot of the kind of writer Murakami was during this phase of his career as well as a logical rationale for including these in a single collection. That image is sharpened because we also know by the author’s own words that he never writes short stories and novels at the same time: he either works on one or the other.
Murakami has had a long writing career that dates back to 1979, which has seen a marked evolution in style and presentation while retaining some elements present at the creation, so to speak. After the Quake originally appeared in Japanese in 2000 (and in English translation in 2002), which for Murakami fans means the time between the novels Sputnik Sweetheart (1999) and Kafka on the Shore (2002). I have read two of his other short story collections – The Elephant Vanishes and Blind Willow, Sleeping Women – which together contain a medley of forty-one stories written over the long period of 1980-2005 that are neither arranged chronologically nor thematically. Like a carelessly arranged anthology album of a rock band that has been performing in various iterations since the 1960s, there is the potential for a kind of dissonance in this kind of jumble, even if the quality of the tracks are impressive. (Side note: no such dissonance in Hemingway or Faulkner, for instance, because their respective writing styles and thematic approach remained so similar over time.) Because After the Quake was written in the same era and orbit (however peripherally) around a central event, there is a logic that enhances the ability of the review process to effectively compare and contrast the contents. At the same time, it should be underscored, each of these stories can stand on its own and does not need to appear in a volume with the others in order to succeed.
“UFO in Kushiro,” opens the collection and makes reference to the earthquake more frequently and in more detail than the others. Here it serves as a tectonic shift (pun fully intended!) of sorts for Komura – one of those dull, passive Murakami male protagonists – whose wife walks out on him while he is at work five days after the earthquake with no notice, little explanation and an irrevocable determination to never return, in circumstances similar to that in the earlier novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Komura’s sudden divorce makes for a series of unlikely events to follow for him that include smuggling an unnamed object, cavorting with a couple of edgy young women, a funny story about a bear and a bell, sexual dysfunction and existentialism. Not bad for twenty pages of text! I cannot be certain what the story means, but I enjoyed it enough to read it twice through.
“Landscape with Flatiron,” perhaps the finest story in the collection, is also manifestly existential, involving a young woman’s platonic bond (but perhaps that could change …) with an older man who collects driftwood to build masterful fires on the beach that she is powerfully drawn to for emotional succor. This is an especially rich tale pregnant with metaphor that is enhanced by Murakami’s gift for crafting female characters who often are far more developed and complex than their male counterparts. “All God’s Children Can Dance” is a strange, disquieting tale of religion, the potential for incest, the prospect of virgin birth, an unusually large penis, and a man with a missing earlobe that has been bitten off by a dog – in a strange contrast to the author’s typical use of a woman’s ear as an object of sexual fetish. It is as if Japanese literary doppelgangers of Stephen King, Rod Serling, John Irving and Edgar Allen Poe got together for a weird collaboration. I’m not sure how I feel about the story, but it is by all means worth the read.
Of the remaining stories, I very much enjoyed both “Thailand” – which contains familiar Murakami elements of jazz music and a hint of magical realism – as well as the quirky love story “Honey Pie.” I was less impressed with “Super-Frog Saves Tokyo,” an attempt at magical whimsy that seemed to me to fall flat whether intended as an allegory, a comedy or a psychodrama. But perhaps I just missed something.
Whether you are a diehard Murakami fan or simply curious about an author who gets a lot of press in the literary world, I would recommend this slender volume for your reading pleasure.