By Bill Kohlhaase
There’s a lot to puzzle over in Haruki Murakami’s new short story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman: a monkey is accused of identity theft; a man sees his own reflection where there is no mirror; another man is so cold he has frost on his fingers; a woman is consumed by cats; vicious crows serve as taste-testers at a snack cake company; a man vomits 40 straight days.
In a literary world overpopulated with magical realism, none of these things may strike readers as too far out of the ordinary. Murakami himself has used improbable but somehow believable events and objects with success, most notably in Kafka On the Shore. His trick is to give the magic a new wrinkle. Remember the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon where the moose reaches to pull a rabbit out of a hat and comes up with a lion? This is Murakami’s great talent as magician and storywriter—what he has up his sleeve is never quite what you expect.
Consider “The Ice Man.” A young woman meets the title character, appropriately, at a ski resort, where he forgoes the slopes to sit absorbed in a book “as far as possible from the fireplace.” He looks “perfectly normal” except that his fingers are “covered in frost that looked like it would never, ever melt.” Before the first page of the story goes by, you’re convinced that Murakami is setting us up with an image of someone cold and distant. But this is a bit of misdirection. The Ice Man turns out to be emotionally warm and sympathetic to the woman who becomes his bride, even as he is “as isolated and alone as an iceberg floating in the darkness.” We’re never sure if he is actually made of ice, or if his frozen demeanor serves only as metaphor.
The fantastic here is seldom that fantastic, and often is a function of psychology rather than the supernatural. In “The Mirror,” the narrator, taking his turn in a round of scary tales, distinguishes between ghost stories, stories of “paranormal abilities” and those that deal with a “crossing over” between life and death. He relates an experience in which he witnessed his own reflection in a non-existent mirror and realizes he loathed what he saw. His tale, as fantastic as it is, speaks more to what goes on in the mind than what goes on in some hidden dimension.
In fact, the most amazing things here are often firmly tied to reality. The more surreal the circumstances, the more real their consequences. Take that sewer-dwelling monkey who steals an identity bracelet, thus robbing a woman of her ability to remember her name. When the monkey starts talking, his victim is startled. When the monkey apologizes, she begins to empathize. Some stories go the opposite direction, rewarding the mundane with surreal consequences. In “Crabs,” a young couple on a perfect vacation find the perfect restaurant and dine on perfect crab dishes four days in a row. But that night, a strange nausea overcomes the young man with terrifying results.
Not all of the two-dozen tales here rely on the fantastic to make themselves felt. Yet each premise is unusual. In “A Folklore For My Generation” a man speaks of growing up in the 1960s, a time when “cause and effect were good buddies” and the sex was “wild, joyous, sad . . .” He tells of a friend whose teenage sweetheart would not give up her virginity. “You don’t get it at all,” she tells him, postponing sex for a larger act. She leaves him to marry someone else in order to rendezvous with him years later, this time adulterously. The friend is twice disappointed
There is often less happening in these 24 stories than meets the eye. Somewhere in the middle of the collection, a man on vacation awakes at night to see two suitcases at the foot of his bed, “crouched like stealthy animals.” “That’s right,” he remembers, “tomorrow we won’t be here anymore.” The line illuminates the two sides of Murakami’s method. Something is going to happen, and everything will change. Until then, we wait and wonder. Pulled from its context, it exists as memento mori, a reminder of our own mortality. In the meantime, there are other changes awaiting us, great and small, other deaths that will take things from us or deliver something we hadn’t expected. It’s not surprising that Murakami’s best writing often comes in the waiting, not in the happening.
Murakami’s story within stories gives his prose self-conscious airs, a feeling that is heightened by his self-indulgent introduction to the collection. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman reads like a restless night of sleep, filled with two kinds of dreams; those that haunt the waking hours, and those that disappear at daylight.
BLIND WILLOW, SLEEPING WOMAN BY HARUKI MURAKAMI; KNOPF, HARDBACK, 352 PAGES. $24.95.