Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami
Although primarily a novelist, Haruki Murakami is also known for his short stories. “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman” is Murakami's third collection of short stories, a collection of 24 tales covering the length of his career as an author. For that reason, this collection tends to be a mixed bag. Some work, others do not. I have yet to read any of his novels so these short stories are my first exposure to his work. The stories run a wide gamut, though once you finish the last one the feeling of an underlying connection or thread linking it all lingers like an unscratched itch. Murakami is a masterful writer of prose, if a bit on the remote and cool side, and that remoteness, a sense of abstraction as if viewing the action at a remove, both increases the power of the prose and heightens the sheer weirdness that floats in and out of every story. The stories themselves can be, by turns, cryptic, mystical, ambiguous, and absurdist, often suffused with a fairy-tale atmosphere as if the reader had become a voyeur of the dreams of another. Sometimes, those very qualities work against the story because the reader is left with a pile of mismatched pieces and no idea how to interpret or fit them together. The elusiveness means the reader has to work at extracting meaning from some of the stories, which is not always a good thing.
A few of the stories are experimental in their surrealism. They have the feel of testing and trying. Issues of memory, regret, identity, jazz, coincidences, and other motifs run like little silver veins throughout the collection. A few of the stories seem to approach the same idea from different angles, giving new perspectives like shifting the lens on a camera. Sometimes the stories dazzle; other times they vanish into nothingness, like morning mists, leaving the reader uncertain what it all meant.
The stories that really work gives the collections its brilliance. My favorites include “Birthday Girl”, “Airplane: Or, How He Talked to Himself as If Reciting Poetry”, “The Mirror”, “Tony Takitani”, "Chance Traveler", and “A Shinagawa Monkey”. Of all the stories, "Birthday Girl", about a girl receiving a mysterious present on her twentieth birthday, is my favorite, closely followed by "Tony Takitani", concerning a man whose wife developed an obsession with clothes. Less successful though still excellent works include “Man-Eating Cats”, “The Ice Man”, "Where I'm Likely to Find It", and “Hanalei Bay”. “Hanalei Bay”, about a mother returning each year to the beach in Hawaii where her son died from a shark attack while surfing, had the makings of a great story that somehow mislaid itself midway through, becoming muddled. Some, like “Firefly” and “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” start great and end puzzling because the female characters do strange, out of character things that make no sense, even for a Murakami story. You find yourself going back, rereading passages wondering if you missed something only to realize you didn't. The effect is unsettling and unsatisfying, like watching a magic trick where the magician leaves the stage without pulling the rabbit out of the hat or opening the cabinet to reveal his smiling assistant. Magic realism may creep through every page, like a cat stalking a mouse, but never becomes the center of attention. Murakami reserves his focus for people and relationships. In a few cases, the relationships are sketched, presented as shadows on the wall, and abruptly swept away in a fashion that recalls Mozart's dismissal of Harry and the closure of the Magic Theater at the end of “Steppenwolf”.
This is not an easy collection, not one to be swallowed in one bite. That's why it took so long to write this review. Some of the stories had to mature, like wine in a bottle, until fully appreciated; the ones that didn't work, it became easier to see the flaws once the charm of the prose wore off. Not all stories suit all tastes. However, the collection is diverse enough that few readers will come away without finding at least one story that speaks to them. For someone who wishes to dip a toe in Murakami's work, this collection may be a good starting point. Once I've read the other books of his waiting on my bookshelf, I'll blog more about that later. For now, this collection earns my recommendation.