Author Haruki Murakami is a Beatle-loving, Beatle-scale-famous fixture in contemporary fiction. It’s a rare home I walk into that doesn’t have a worn copy of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on a bookcase gathering dust (but still facing out).
Murakami’s best known for his specific brand of magical realism rooted in a recognizable world: Characters slip into extremely similar alternate dimensions or find themselves mildly altered by supernatural forces. But I’m more drawn to his nonfiction (Underground, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running), so I’m happy to report that the author’s new short-story collection Men Without Women contains a terrific waltz between the surreal and the ordinary.
At one end of the spectrum, there’s “Samsa in Love,” in which Murakami tells a complete reversal of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. At the other extreme, there’s the titular “Men Without Women,” with first-person narration that seems to resemble Murakami’s own, and relays the narrator’s jumble of thoughts following a phone call in the night informing him of a former girlfriend’s suicide.
It should say something about Murakami that I am no longer surprised when his dick shows up in his writing. “I was a healthy 14-year-old boy, so much so that all it took was a warm west wind for my cock to snap to attention,” Murakami writes in “Men Without Women,” recalling his former girlfriend handing him an eraser at that age. It’s incredible to me that a person could get a boner from an act of generosity, but I love it and I identify with it. I like reading about Murakami’s dick. There are a lot of erections in this collection.
But there’s also a downside to that level of honesty. One shows up in “An Independent Organ,” a more surreal story about an unmarried plastic surgeon who maintains a series of affairs with married women (for sensitive Murakami characters, this is unlikely to end well). In the story, the character of Mr. Tokai claims that “Women are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie.” Now I’m shocked. Is this locker-room talk? Does even Beatle-famous, international bestseller Haruki Murakami think “women in general” have a gift for lies? It’s so vague it could never be true. But I don’t think its being true is as important to the story as the two friends’ shared insecurities about women. And if this collection is going to be honest about dicks, it follows that it will also speak honestly about men’s fears.
At the end of Men Without Women, I was drawn to an uncomfortable idea: All this talk of dicks and insecurities had me really missing men, almost nostalgic for them. Murakami has once again gotten at something that is shared: He chose to name his collection Men Without Women, but from my perspective the feeling is mutual.
Men Without Women
by Haruki Murakami
(Penguin Random House)