I must admit that I winced just a little when I took in the title of Haruki Murakami’s most recent release, Men Without Women. I have read all of Murakami’s fiction to date, and to my mind his male characters, for the most part, are average, passive, weak-willed, Men Without Womenapathetic, and decidedly boring. In his celebrated novel Norwegian Wood, Murakami has Reiko Ishida, the woman in the mountain asylum, say: “I’m much better at bringing out the best in others than in myself . . . I’m the scratchy stuff on the side of the matchbox. But that’s fine with me . . . Better to be a first-class matchbox than a second-class match.”  I always thought it was a great quote, but far more appropriate for that book’s male central character, Toru Watanabe, than for her.  For while the male protagonists are often forgettable, Murakami’s art shines in his creation of the strong, colorful female characters that populate his fiction, such as the teenage May Kasahara in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, the eccentric Sumire of Sputnik Swetheart, and most prominently the indomitable Aomame (“Green Peas”) of his masterpiece, 1Q84.

Fortunately, there are plenty of such strong females in Men Without Women, a collection of previously released and original short stories that first appeared in Japan in 2014, and published in translation (by Phillip Gabriel and Ted Goosen) in the United States on May 9, 2017—which may or may not be coincidental to the 1927 publication by Ernest Hemingway of his identically titled collection, ninety years prior. As in Murakami’s After the Quake, from 2003, the title serves as a loose theme for the stories it contains. In this case, there are seven, four of which appeared before in various other publications. Although all the central characters are male, many of these men serve as little more than supernumeraries, while the women in their respective orbits stand out as the vital, dramatic key players.

That is certainly true in the previously published “Drive My Car,” which like Norwegian Wood recycles a Beatles’ tune for literary effect. The man without a woman here is Kafuku, a widowed actor beset with sadness and bad eyesight who distrusts female drivers, but nevertheless hires as his chauffeur Misaki, a somewhat less-than-attractive, chain-smoker who has little to say but is a great listener.  And Kafuku, it turns out, has a lot to say, eventually relating an odd tale of how, after his wife’s death, he deliberately cultivated a friendship with a man he knew had secretly been her lover.  As time goes by, over the course of otherwise unremarkable daily commutes, the laconic Misaki grows into an insightful interlocutor, and serves as unlikely muse to help Kafuku come to terms with his late wife, and—most critically—himself.

A similarly introspective tale is one of the new stories written for this collection, “An Independent Organ,” which, like “Drive My Car,” is a kind of a story about a story. In a tragedy replete with stark metaphor, the utterly romantically agnostic heart—that independent organ—of a certain Dr. Tokai gets broken upon the wheel of unrequited love. The reader never meets the woman that he is without; she is but a wistful echo of Dr. Tokai’s terminal suffering. Both the title and the essence of the tale seem to smack of Edgar Allen Poe.

A Beatles’ song is again the title for the previously released “Yesterday,” about a guy named Kitaru with a repressed sexuality who urges his best friend to date his own girlfriend, Erika Kuritani. It is not a strong story, but in Erika, Murakami has crafted a superb object of desire. Her description of a recurring dream of a moon made of ice that melts away—and her prevailing terror that in the next dream the moon may not reappear—sets the reader longing for Erika to return in a future role, even if there is little remorse when Kitaru drops off the page.

Those who crave Murakami’s brand of magical realism will be delighted with two previously published stories. The first is “Kino,” a creepy tale with familiar elements from classic Murakami fiction, including an abrupt, failed marriage, a cat that seems much more than a cat, and a jazz bar frequented by mysterious guests. As in 1Q84, the eponymous Kino seems to be standing on the fragile edge of two intersecting worlds, beset by serpents, having random sex with a woman scarred by her sadomasochistic boyfriend, and subject to various menacing encounters that have him seek shelter in a locked room, where much like Kafuku and Dr. Takai, be finds a badly bruised heart. The other is “Samsa in Love,” a wicked alternate reality of isolation starring none other than Gregor Samsa, the anguished protagonist of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Since Kafka on the Shore remains my all-time favorite Murakami novel, I got a special kick out of the device employed here. I even imagined Tim Burton turning it into an animated film à la Corpse Bride! I also wondered how many readers would fail to identify Samsa as the literary icon retooled in homage to the master.

Another fine story is the title piece of this collection, “Men Without Women,” in which a man awakens to an unexpected middle-of-the-night phone call from the husband of his long-ago ex-lover, announcing without explanation her recent suicide. The centrality of the story has nothing, really, to do with the main character or the hapless husband, but rather the memories that form a kind of ghost of the woman he only refers to as “M.” She—M—is the woman the men are truly, and as well inexplicably, profoundly without.

My favorite story is a re-read for me: the first time I read the brilliantly crafted “Scheherazade” was when it appeared in The New Yorker several years ago, in translation from the original collection in Japanese, and I have frequently recommended it as an opportunity for the uninitiated to encounter Murakami in top form.  Habara is the central protagonist, on house arrest of some sort for an offense never articulated, visited twice weekly by an otherwise plain, middle-aged housekeeper whom he dubs “Scheherazade,” because after she indulges him in frequently perfunctory sexual encounters, she relates marvelous, sequential stories that enthrall Habara. It is her visits—and much more than the sex, her stories—that serve as powerful antidote to Habara’s sense of isolation. When Scheherazade was a school girl, she tells Habara, she developed an obsessive, unconsummated crush on a boy that she addressed by breaking into his home when he was not there, stealing something incidental of his and leaving in place something intimate of her own. Scheherazade has an exceptional belief that she was a lamprey in another life, and when she was in the boy’s room, alone, she transformed metaphorically into that lamprey, “… suckers stuck to a rock underwater and my body waving back and forth overhead, like the weeds around me.” [p124] This a story well-worth reading again and again.

It has been reported that Murakami never writes short stories and novels at the same time; it is always one kind or another, but never both.  I was left underwhelmed by his last novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, so it is my hope that this collection means he is setting his short fiction aside in favor of another grand work like 1Q84.  Of course, whatever he turns out, I can guarantee that I will read it! It might be said that Murakami is for literature what the Grateful Dead is for music: you either love it or you hate it. I happen to favor both, but literature, like music, is highly subjective. If you have not done so, give it a try, but be warned: if you fall for it, you may find yourself compelled to read all of it.  Men Without Women is as good a place to start as any.

[NOTE: For the uninitiated, a free taste of Murakami—his his outstanding 2014 short story “Scheherazade” from Men Without Women—is available online at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/13/scheherazade-3]

[NOTE: Murakami’s latest novel, Killing Commendatore,  was released in Japan in February, 2017. There will no doubt be a long wait for the English translation.]

[NOTE: This blog has featured reviews of several other works of Murakami fiction, including:

South of the Border, West of the Sun: https://regarp.com/2015/12/26/review-of-south-of-the-border-west-of-the-sun-by-haruki-murakami/

Hear the Wind Sing & Pinball 1973 https://regarp.com/2015/11/26/review-of-hear-the-wind-sing-and-pinball-1973-by-haruki-murakami/

After the Quake https://regarp.com/2015/09/09/review-of-after-the-quake-by-haruki-murakami/

Sputnik Sweetheart https://regarp.com/2015/05/30/review-of-sputnik-sweetheart-by-haruki-murakami/

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman https://regarp.com/2015/05/17/review-of-blind-willow-sleeping-woman-by-haruki-murakami/]