Haruki Murakami is a master of the open-ended mystery. Whether in complex, dreamlike novels like “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and “Kafka on the Shore” or the more realistic short stories in his latest collection, “Men Without Women,” Murakami is drawn to the abiding strangeness and unfathomability of life. His meandering, mesmerizing tales of profound alienation are driven by puzzling circumstances that neither his characters nor readers can crack — recalling existentialist Gabriel Marcel’s assertion that “Life is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be experienced.”
Most of the perplexed middle-aged men in these seven plainspoken tales have lost the women in their lives — to other men or death. This lands them in a condition Murakami labels “Men Without Women” — always in “a relentlessly frigid plural.” These subdued, unemotional creatures of habit bear little resemblance to the bullfighters and prizefighters who populate Hemingway’s “Men Without Women,” published in 1927. Detached from their feelings and missing pieces of themselves, Murakami’s lonely souls struggle to understand what’s hit them. Unexpected connections with strangers shed light, though the illumination is often indirect or partial.
The title story — although too abstract to move us — provides a key to the book. A man is awakened at 1 in the morning by a jarring call from the husband of a former girlfriend, who tells him that she has committed suicide. He had not been in contact with the woman for years, and he ponders the motivation for the husband’s baffling, brief call. “It seemed his intention was to leave me stuck somewhere in the middle, dangling between knowledge and ignorance. But why? To get me thinking about something?”
This suspended state “dangling between knowledge and ignorance” is common territory for Murakami’s characters.
The thematically connected tales in “Men Without Women” are generally more developed, more realistic and more sentimental than the surreal stories in Murakami’s 2006 collection, “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman,” many of which blurred the line between dreams and reality. Jazz, cats and Western culture — Murakami’s recurrent obsessions — are still featured, albeit less prominently.
Two of the strongest stories borrow Beatles titles. In “Drive My Car,” a successful actor who has lost his wife to cancer hires a competent, young female driver when his license is suspended after a minor accident — involving, significantly, a blind spot in his vision. The woman is deft at shifting both automotive and conversational gears. After months of driving in silence, she reveals aspects of her unhappy childhood, and he opens up about his painful discovery of his wife’s multiple affairs and his frustration that he will never fully understand her, even after pursuing an odd relationship with the last of her lovers in the hope of finding some answers.
“Yesterday” is one of two stories in which a writer named Tanimura recalls people who made an impact on him years earlier. Kitaru was a rare friend during Tanimura’s lonely sophomore year in college. A brilliant eccentric who had failed the college entrance exams twice and alienated his girlfriend, Kitaru spent his time mastering a provincial Japanese dialect and making up weird alternate lyrics to the titular Beatles song. “It feels as though these things happened just yesterday,” Tanimura writes. “Music has that power to revive memories, sometimes so intensely that they hurt.” Would that the story had ended here, before Murakami’s schmaltzy, winceworthy coda: “For no one knows what kind of dreams tomorrow will bring.”
Several stories intriguingly involve men hiding against unexplained danger. In “Scheherazade,” a young man confined to a distant safe house looks forward to visits from his assigned “support liaison,” a housewife who delivers groceries and library books followed by impassive sex, which is in turn followed by mesmerizing stories — “performing each act as if completing an assignment.” We become as hooked on her tales as her captive audience — and as uneasy about his uncertain future.
The surreal “Samsa in Love,” Murakami’s humorous twist on Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” also involves an unlikely emotional connection set against a dark background. When his protagonist wakes “to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa,” Prague is in the midst of its own upsetting change — a military takeover — and Gregor’s family is apparently among those who have been rounded up. But the newly molted man finds walking, dressing and — most hilariously — physical arousal as “wrapped in mystery” as the foreign troops and tanks he hears about from the beguiling hunchbacked locksmith who arrives for a service call.
Amid the mysteries, Murakami sprinkles morals. “Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart,” declares the petite locksmith. Samsa goes further: “To unravel the riddles of the world with her. . . . Just thinking about her made him warm inside. . . . He was glad to be human.”
As the members of Murakami’s lonely hearts club band discover in these affecting stories, life, however baffling, is better shared.
Heller McAlpin reviews books regularly for The Washington Post, NPR and other publications.
By Haruki Murakami
Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel
Knopf. 228 pp. $25.95