Love, loss and loneliness are sharply felt in Haruki Murakami’s ‘Men Without Women’

Haruki Murakami
Haruki Murakami AP

Haruki Murakami’s books have sold untold millions worldwide. They’ve been translated into over 50 languages, and they’ve won a slew of literary awards.

In his native Japan, his work is anticipated with a frenzy that most closely parallels zeitgeist releases like the “Harry Potter” or “Twilight” series — lines wrap around the block at bookstores, entire print runs sell out in days.

All of this mania stands in stark contrast to Murakami’s superbly quiet writing, exemplified in his new short story collection, “Men Without Women.” Contrary to the machismo and bullfighting of the Ernest Hemingway book from which the title comes, these are simple, modern tales of love, loss and loneliness written with male protagonists.

Stories range from “Drive My Car,” about a reasonably successful stage actor whose new driver brings back decade-old memories of his deceased wife and her infidelities, to “An Independent Organ,” a portrait of a longtime Casanova and the devastation caused by falling in love for the first time at age 52, to “Kino,” the story of a man who leaves his wife and career to open a humble bar that attracts sordid and mysterious patrons.

Each marvelously introspective piece is populated by taciturn characters with profound emotional lives.

That’s not to say that these stories are in any way dull. Murakami has a way of taking personal narratives and charging them with suspense. His stories maintain the perfect rate of revelation, balancing surprise and the reader’s thirst for knowledge without ever being patronizing or secretive.

The works assembled in “Men Without Women” are like mille-feuille pastries, folding in layers of meaning, symbolism and metaphor like butter and sweet dough.

Stories are often guided by a central image — for example, a lamprey or an icy moon or a concentration camp — that appears and reappears with newfound significance. On top of abstract ruminations about love, Murakami adds the sensual textures of jazz, a light rain or Scotch whisky. In addition to the wistful thread that unites the collection, he peppers narratives with the quirky, wry humor his fans have come to love.

For example, the critical narrator of “An Independent Organ” quips, “As with most people who are well raised, well educated, and financially secure, Dr. Tokai only thought of himself.”

Readers may also expect the magical realism that Murakami has become known for.

While elements of the surreal or absurd occasionally surface, on the whole “Men Without Women” doesn’t throw many curveballs. The most notable exception is the story “Samsa in Love,” which reimagines Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” in reverse: an insect awakens to find he has transformed into Gregor Samsa, and he must adapt to the absurdities of the human body and the human heart.

Ultimately though, none of these dreamlike turns feels out of place or excessive.

Murakami doesn’t leave much room for critique. The pop culture references might grow old for some readers, but that’s an unapologetic characteristic of the author’s style. Others may object to some of Murakami’s characters, but that’s a sign of a complex narrative.

When it comes down to it, a short story is brief enough to be perfectible — and “Men Without Women” showcases that. Perhaps the collection’s most serious defect its comparatively bland cover.

The final story, which lends its name to the book, finds its narrator wrestling with an enigmatic, crushing phone call. A former girlfriend’s husband, whom he has never met and whose existence he wasn’t aware of, calls him in the middle of the night to say the woman they both love has recently committed suicide — and then hangs up.

The unnamed narrator wrestles with the abrupt return of this woman into his life and the immediate, acute loss. At one point he says, “I’m not exactly sure what I’m trying to say here. Maybe I’m trying to write about essence, rather than the truth. But writing about an essence that isn’t true is like trying to rendezvous with someone on the dark side of the moon. It’s dim and devoid of landmarks.”

Perhaps each of these stories is a landmark on some vast, obscure topography. Perhaps each is an attempt to establish some truth, or make ambiguity more comfortable, or understand the attraction and absence that define love. Whatever the case, “Men Without Women” is an intimate, captivating and poignant read.

Kevin Kotur is an intern from the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s creative writing MFA program.

“Men Without Women” by Haruki Murakami (240 pages; Alfred A. Knopf; $25.95)