"Men Without Women: Stories" by Haruki Murakami; Knopf (240 pages, $25.95)
"Men Without Women," a new collection of seven stories by Haruki Murakami, could best be summed up by the title of the second one: "Yesterday."
As one might expect from an author whose breakout novel is named "Norwegian Wood," this story's title refers to the aching Beatles song pining for a receding past. Or, in this new collection, a time before these stories' male protagonists lost the women they'd most loved.
In "Drive My Car," an aging actor mourns the deceased wife to whom he'd been devoted and faithful, despite the four affairs she'd had and never disclosed.
In "An Independent Organ," a physician playboy who'd prided himself on avoiding "sticky emotional conflicts" falls madly in love at age 52 – only to then lose his beloved and confront his long-unexamined and largely unlived existence.
In "Kino," a husband catches his wife in bed with another man and then tamps down the hurt he feels, even if that means shrinking his heart and turning his back on the living.
In "Yesterday" itself, a man who has loved the same woman since they were both children ultimately sacrifices their potential future as a couple; rather than face the feared unknowns lying before them, he clings to an idealized image of their past.
In the title story, a narrating man invents such an idealized past, imagining that he'd actually met the woman he's long since lost when they were both just 14. Seeing her in his mind's eye as "a young girl" while they make love, he holds her so hard that she tells him it hurts.
That narrator's portrait of a woman as a young girl recalls the similarly arrested development afflicting Tengo – male protagonist in Murakami's massive "1Q84" – in which Tengo's memories of his long-lost beloved at age 10 initially thwart his efforts to move forward as an adult.
The men in this collection are similarly stuck, deliberately impersonating different selves rather than facing up to who they've become and how they live now.
The actor in "Drive My Car" relishes the roles he plays on stage as an escape from himself. Men in other stories, here, will turn their back on life by fleeing to America or starving themselves to death (symptomatic of the passive behavior exhibited by many Murakami males).
Another, "basically a cautious person," remakes his life as a meticulous routine. Still another lives in hiding – removed from phone, internet and television while trying to forget the world around him.
In the most playful of these stories – a homage to Franz Kafka's "Metamorphosis" – Gregor Samsa doesn't adjust to life with six legs, but instead awakens as a onetime bug who discovers he's somehow become human, leaving him uncomfortably vulnerable and exposed in a way he'd never felt when sporting an exoskeleton.
Having undergone that metamorphosis, Gregor falls in love, making him glad to be human – even if that means coping with emotional ups and downs he hadn't experienced as an insect.
Moody and melancholic as this collection's stories can be, some of them offer comparable hope that these men without women might emerge from their long and isolating loneliness, acknowledging the hurt, pain and even rage they feel rather than folding in on themselves and ceasing to fully live.
As was true for Tengo, the past in such stories can become a catalyst for transformation; rather than continuing to serve as a nostalgic cul-de-sac, it offers a utopian promise of a better future. A song and story like "Yesterday" need not signal a retreat from the present; rewriting Paul McCartney's lyrics, a character in that story notes that "yesterday is two days before tomorrow."
That recognition of time's passage necessarily includes an acceptance of loss; "from the instant you meet" a new woman, one narrator muses, "you start thinking about losing her." Every love ends in rupture or death. But as these wise stories suggest, that's no reason to avoid living.