When I was about sixteen, I was seduced a review laden with glowing praise for the short story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. There was a passage that held my breath: a description of a story where a man made enormous pots of spaghetti, for, no one really. I had thought, what an achingly lovely way to portray loneliness. I had never heard of Haruki Murakami before, but I had to have this book. The next year, I spotted a reasonably-priced little paperback version in the local bookstore. And so it became mine.
Unfortunately, at seventeen I went through a pretentious period where I read literary fiction not for the sake of enjoyment, but to uncover all the symbolisms an author had put in place. At seventeen, the only feelings my self-imposed exercise produced were dejection and burnout. The Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman experience was no different. I had no idea what a beautiful ear was supposed to symbolize in “Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.” I was no closer in gleaning what the knife in “Hunting Knife” signified. I give up, I had thought in frustration after a hundred pages, these stories I just don’t understand. They’re too weird. And abnormal. And I’m too stupid to understand them. My symbolism-sleuthing days were officially over. I was made to feel even stupider when I found out that most readers adored Murakami. What was it that I was missing? I railed.
Recently, I had to read the Murakami short story “The Elephant Vanishes” for class. I found, to my surprise, that I really liked it. So it is with no small amount of trepidation that I picked up Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman again.
By the time I got to the second story “Birthday Girl,” I couldn’t stop smiling, I couldn’t stop thinking: this will probably be one of my favorite books of the year. Oh, however did I dislike these stories in the first place? Murakami writes so, so beautifully.
At seventeen, I went with the completely wrong approach for Murakami. For Murakami is not meant to be analyzed, he is meant to be savored. I’m being repetitive here, but his writing is so, so beautiful. It’s not beautiful in the sense that it is lyrical or melodic. The beauty of his writing is not easy to describe. It isn’t spare. I feel like his way of descriptions are just right; neither meager nor fussy. I suppose clean and elegant is a good way to explain his prose. I did wonder if some people would find Murakami’s style a bit stilted, since there’s a smidgen of formality in the prose and dialogue. If you do find Murakami lacking, let me know. I’d love to know why. Anyway, all I know was I found Murakami’s writing so wonderful that I wanted to grab other people and read passages from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman.
Now, for the plot. Or rather, plots. I’m having trouble trying to describe the plots. It’s a short story collection, after all. There are, though, some conflation between plots. Murakami, as you may know, loves the strange and the fantastical. But it’s all done in an accessible way. Yes, there are talking animals and vanishing people and Ice Men but most of the things that happen are more like coincidences. Yes, these coincidences are a bit off-kilter but they can happen in everyday existence. This is not an Alternate Universe. Most of the time, it’s just our world and its oddities.
Murakami’s protagonists are average men and women. Most of the time they are aware of their mediocrity. The protagonist of “A Shinagawa Monkey” thought:
Nothing approaching the dramatic had ever touched her. If her life were a movie, it would be one of those low-budget environmental documentaries guaranteed to put you to sleep. Washed-out scenery stretching out endlessly to the horizon. No changes of scene, no close-ups, nothing exciting, just a flatline experience with nothing whatsoever to draw you in (341).
Often they’re passive, often they’re nameless, sometimes they’re jerks. The protagonist of my absolute favorite story “Man-Eating Cats” explained away his adultery with:
It’s not like I’m in love […] It’s a special relationship, but completely different from what I have with you. Like night and day. You haven’t detected anything going on, right? That proves it’s not the kind of affair you’re imagining (119).
Oh dear, I sympathize far too easily with characters but all I could do with this guy was laugh derisively.
I suppose I should talk a bit about my favorite stories. I’ve mentioned “Man-Eating Cats” as my favorite, but I also really, really enjoyed “A Folklore for my Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism” and “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day.” But since I’ve rambled on too long, I’ll only talk about “Man-Eating Cats.” The man-eating cats in the story is from a newspaper article where an old woman died alone and her cats, after days of not being fed, started eating her corpse. I think this is a good illustration of Murakami’s standard style; they are indeed odd happenings, but it does make sense. The protagonist of the story and a woman named Izumi, both married, delve into an affair. Their spouses find out and leave them. Left with a sense of purposelessness in life, the protagonist and Izumi take all their savings and exile themselves to Greece. The relationship slowly decays and we don’t hold out much hope for them. It’s not necessarily an action-packed story but the atmosphere and descriptions are just perfect. This, out of all the stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, made me want to read out passages to other people.
I researched Murakami after reading Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman –proof of how much I enjoyed this book, and from what I gathered, Murakami works with mainly two styles: realist and magical realism. I myself prefer him when he’s being realistic. Which was why I could do without the stories about talking animals. I am especially not fond of “Dabchick.” It’s a personal preference though, not an indictment of Murakami as a writer. If I had to rate it, I’d give it four-and-a-half stars. I’ve knocked back half-a-star for stories I didn’t like. Overall, though, it was difficult finding stories that I didn’t like. I must have enjoyed twenty out of the twenty-four stories in this collection.
I don’t think Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is an especial favorite amongst Murakami fans. Yet I love it so much and if Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is one of Murakami’s lesser works, I’m excited to read what else he has to offer. I’ve already picked up Norwegian Wood last weekend, as I know that one is classic realist Murakami. I plan to read Norwegian Wood sometime in the new year but I also want recommendations. Since I love short stories so much, is his other collection The Elephant Vanishes worthwhile? Is The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle intimidating? How is he as a non-fiction writer in Underground? Any comments and recommendations is much appreciated.