Few authors deftly create characters as deeply human and mesmerizingly real as Haruki Murakami. Whether sketching biographies of quake victims in After the Quake, or capturing the derailment of a man's life in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, he is an undisputed master of his craft. In his latest collection of short stories, Men Without Women, Murakami transports us into the lives of lonely men suffering heartbreak and self-inflicted isolation. So genuine are these characters and their problems that we forget they are not long-lost uncles we have yet to meet.
While all eight stories are beautifully poignant, two are stand-outs. In "Scheherazade," Murakami paints an unpredictably tender relationship between a man under house arrest (readers assume) and his appointed caretaker. In "Kino," a Shinto spirit helps throw a recently divorced bar owner rewardingly off-kilter, reminding us to confront our emotional hobgoblins before they trap us in a lonely hotel room. (In other words: deal with your shit.)
"For Men Without Women, the world is a vast, poignant mix, very much the far side of the moon."
The plots all unfold quickly, leaving the reader wanting 150 more pages from each story. Ultimately, plot isn't the point. Murakami is at his most insightful when exploring a particularly torturous love affair or the awkward unraveling of youthful love run its course. In the final, eponymous short in the collection, for example, he recounts that all-too-familiar wistfulness when meeting "the one" at the wrong time:
"We were mistaken about the time when we should have met. Like forgetting when you're supposed to meet someone. You get the time of day and place right, but miscalculate the day."
In sharp contrast to Hemingway's collection of short stories by the same name, Murakami's perspective in Men Without Women is decidedly not macho. It is, however, unflinchingly and unavoidably masculine given the subject matter. The men he profiles drink Scotch and listen to old jazz records as they lick the wounds inflicted by cheating women. Of course, this is in between living playboy lifestyles: "I usually have multiple girlfriends...sometimes as many as four or five at a time," explains one character, who later starves himself to death when a lover scorns him for another. In one of the best lines in the book, Murakami ingeniously describes the melancholia these men suffer once separated from women:
"You are a pastel-colored Persian carpet, and loneliness is a Bordeaux wine stain that won't come out."
The lesson to these men is clear: wronged as you may feel, the women who were once in your lives do not control your actions now that they are gone. Starving yourself to death is no better a solution than driving your torrent of emotion down deep within yourself. Work through your emotions, forgive yourself and others, or else forever remain "Men Without Women," the epitome of sadness.
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