I never expect to understand entirely everything in a Murakami work of fiction: The little people in 1Q84 — Who are they? Where do they come from? Is there really a whole other alternate existence occurring under another moon? I was not surprised in the story “Kino” when first the neighborhood cat disappears, and then legions of snakes begin to arrive. So when a customer named Kamita gives the bar owner unusual, prophetic advice, it only makes sense to follow it: “Here’s what you do. Go far away, and don’t stay in one place for long. And every Monday and Thursday make sure to send a postcard. Then I’ll know you are O.K.” The narrator, Kino, leaves town as instructed, but he does not follow instructions perfectly. “Do not write your own name or any message whatsoever,” Kamito had cautioned him. “This is very important, so don’t forget.” Yet Kino cannot restrain himself and knowingly signs the last postcard he sends; of course, he suffers the consequences. At the end of the story, Kino is touched by a warm hand reaching out to him, but “all the while the rain did not let up, drenching the world in a cold chill.” No explanation satisfies, which somehow is fine, because the emotional core of Murakami’s fiction always reads as familiar and honest.
In “Yesterday,” titled after the Beatles’s song, a 20-year-old man asks his best friend to date his girlfriend. The young couple has been in love since childhood, but they have not had sex and only barely have kissed. The man’s girlfriend, Erika Kuritano, has the same dream over and over again about a full moon that she views through the porthole of a ship, a moon made of pure transparent ice. It looks like the moon, her boyfriend tells her, but it is really only eight inches thick: “So when the sun comes out in the morning it all melts […] It’s a beautiful dream. Always the same moon […] But every time I wake up I feel unbearably sad. That moon made of ice is nowhere to be found.” This pretty college student likes to play tennis and go to parties, so her aching sadness seems surprising. Not long after her dream, the boyfriend, Kitaru, disappears and never returns — much like the way another friend, the Rat, disappears in the early Murakami novel, A Wild Sheep Chase. Kitura, however, does not turn into a sheep man. He only goes to the United States. The narrator falls in love with his friend’s girlfriend, but he does not date her. Sixteen years later, they run into each other at an expensive black-tie event in a hotel. The narrator, not surprisingly, like so many of Murakami’s narrators, is a writer. They recognize each other right away. Erika is still single, but the narrator is married, and they do not have an affair. When the story ends, the narrator is no longer with a woman. He hears the song “Yesterday” on the radio driving home and remembers what it was like to be 20: “I watched the moon alone, unable to share its cold beauty with anyone.”
The stories in Men Without Women are unremittingly sad, and a cold chill permeates the collection. The protagonists receive phone calls informing them of the death of their lovers. In the title story, a man learns that his childhood sweetheart has committed suicide. He receives this information in the middle of the night from an unexpected phone call — his dead girlfriend’s husband. Furthermore, this girlfriend is not his first to kill herself, leaving the narrator to ponder what has gone wrong in his life.
In the first story of the collection, “Drive My Car,” the narrator, Kafuku, hires an odd young women, unattractive and taciturn, to chauffeur him to appointments in the city in his car. Kafuku is an actor. His wife has recently died of cancer, and he has been in more than one minor drunk-driving accidents, so he needs to arrive at the theater each night without incident. In the course of the story, Kafuku strikes up a dialogue with his driver. This man does not have many friends. In fact, his only recent friend had been the lover of his dead wife. The actor had sought this man out, trying to understand what his wife had been looking for when cheating on him. The actor never tells his new friend that he knows about the affair. While Kafuku grows to appreciate his friend’s company, he ends their friendship as suddenly as he begins it. The men in these stories are bereft — their lovers have died or have left them behind — returning readers to the collection’s title. In “An Independent Organ,” for example, an eligible bachelor, a fiftysomething successful plastic surgeon who never commits, falls hard for a younger woman who is married and has a small child. Not long after she leaves him, he is discovered dead. The doctor did not commit suicide, per se. He simply grew thinner and weaker, without any medical explanation: “It was like he’d been buried in the ground, and should have been turned into a mummy […] He’d lost his soul and it wasn’t coming back.”
As a long-time reader of Murakami’s novels and short stories, I could not help but think that this bachelor is an example of what happens when Murakami’s narrators grow up. They either lose their souls or hold on to them desperately, nonetheless remaining alone. Although they may try, they cannot even count on the companionship of the neighborhood cats, who come and go as they please, as cats will do.
A striking moment of the parallels between younger Murakami narrators and the older, melancholic men in this new collection occurs when the older plastic surgeon in “An Independent Organ” befriends a younger man who he meets at his health club. The younger man explains:
My starting point was being a simple person with nothing, starting life as if stripped bare. Through chance, I happened to start writing and, luckily, was able to make a living at it. So I don’t need to come up with some dramatic scenario like being thrown into Auschwitz, I told him, to realize that I’m just a human being with no special qualities or skills.
The writer’s life in a Murakami fiction is never glamorous. These writers never achieve the acclaim of their creator; they are creating content and do not value their talent, which is the hallmark of the essential Murakami protagonist, a man who is also a writer, and who never presents himself as anything especially extraordinary. Yet each and every Murakami narrator who says that he is ordinary is, in fact, extraordinary. The women who go to bed with these men, they know it too.
What is most notable in reading the stories of Men Without Women is how elusive Murakami claims happiness to be. I would give so very much for the protagonists of Dance Dance Dance and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to survive their extraordinary adventures and find fulfillment. These ordinary but extraordinary men of Murakami’s opus seem like they should have nice homes, a local pool to swim in, a cat to pet, jazz on the turntable, whiskey at a neighborhood bar, and a partner to whom they come home, but if all of that normative privilege seems like too much to ask, it is.
Instead, Murakami seems to be making a rather simple, if severe, point: life is hard. As he gets older, his male protagonists grow older with him; they never stop wanting or trying or hoping. Sad as the stories in Men Without Women are, they are beautiful and strange, tinged with hope, hope that even the dead are at peace, under the same moon, listening to the music that they love.
Marcy Dermansky is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The Red Car, Bad Marie, and Twins.