Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami

“That’s what it’s like to lose a woman. And at a certain time, losing one woman means losing all women. That’s how we become men without women.”

“No matter how empty it may be, this is still my heart.”

3/5 stars.
Hardcover, 240 pages.
July 3, 2017 to July 6, 2017.

Men get lonely too and are perhaps the worst at dealing with it. Who better to put that masculine pain into words than Murakami. This book contains seven unique stories about men who have lost or have been unable to attain that special lady in their lives. From cheating, divorce and death, this book is a tragic read with relatable emotions. As with all of Murakami’s works, you are taken down a rabbit hole to another world of emotions and feelings that we keep hidden away.

In the story titled, Samsa in Love, Gregor Samsa, the notorious character from Kafka’s work, wakes up to find that he is no longer and insect but rather a human and learns to find love. A creative and reverse take on the classic story.

My favourite character by far was the female driver in the story Drive My Car. A gentleman actor hires a driver to get him around. He prefers female-drivers and his latest hire is a tough and unreadable woman with whom he feels compelled to share his sadness, fears and secrets.

My favourite story, however, is The Independent Organ. Dr.Tokai is a successful and unmarried man. He has managed to live his life without becoming attached to a single woman and lives his life in an array of numerous affairs with women who interest him.  Above all, they had to be intellectually stimulating to him. If he thinks that the woman is becoming attached to him he respectfully ends the affair.  In the end, he falls for a woman who was very much like him with relationships. She was not exclusively his, which he did not know, and when he wants to express his love he learns that she has pursued another man instead of him. Devastated, the doctor starves himself to death. He deprived his life of meaningful love for so long that when he finally felt it he could not cope with the heartbreak. It is in this story that the most misogynist passage is found:

“Women are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie. This was Dr. Tokai’s personal opinion. It depends on the person, he said about the kind of lies they tell, what situation they tell them in, and how the lies are told. But at a certain point in their lives, all women tell lies, and they lie about important things. They lie about unimportant things, too, but they also don’t hesitate to lie about the most important things. And when they do, most women’s expressions and voices don’t change at all, since it’s not them lying, but this independent organ they’re equipped with that’s acting on its own. That’s why – except for a few special cases – they can still have a clear conscience and never lose sleep over anything they say.”

Rather than being offended by this passage, I saw it as the naive view that Dr.Tokai had of women. For all the time he spent with women, he did not know or understand anything about them or how his own choices and lies affected them. This passage is about him as he projects his faults onto women and it is this exact perception that validates his detachments.

This book is for everyone. As we have all felt lonely at one point in our lives. For those that love Murakami, this is a nice addition to the expanding Murakami collection of works. Even for those that are not fans or have not read Murakami yet, this collaboration of short stories is a tame introduction to his world and writing style.

Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 by Haruki Murakami

The first two books that Murakami ever had published. The start of his remarkable writing career.

There’s no such thing as perfect writing, just like there’s no such thing as perfect despair.”

3/5 stars.
Hardcover, 234 pages.
Read on February 15, 2017 to February 18, 2017.

I am going to review these two novels at the time same as they really are the same story. I imagine had these novels not been Murakami’s very first he would have put them together into one, though technically there are two more books in this loose series, though I have yet to read them.

In the first novel, Hear the Wind Sing, an unnamed male student is visiting home during the summer break. Like many youth, he spends his days at a local bar called J’s drinking and smoking. It is here that he likes to converse with his friend, the Rat, until the early hours of the morning. Rat appears tough and impermeable but there is a lingering tension about his latest love interest. The narrator becomes involved with a young woman who happens to be missing one of her fingers.

In the second novel, Pinball1973 the same unnamed protagonist, having finished school, has started up a successful translation company. His life is uneventful until he randomly meets a set of twins who abruptly move in with him, in which an intriguing affair begins. The protagonist has not seen the Rat in a long time and has not been to J’s bar as he becomes obsessed with tracking down a particular pinball machine that he use to play. Meanwhile, the Rat is spiraling into depression and on the brink of falling apart.

As with many Murakami novels, loneliness and isolation are the most prevalent themes. In Hear the Wind Sing, the two male character’s nightly chats are emphasizing their loneliness and search for love that alludes them with their sexual conquests. The nine fingered lover suffers from isolation after having an abortion. The narrator’s quest for the nostalgic pinball machine is a way for him to alleviate his loneliness and relive what he remembers of love, happiness and friendship. In Pinball, 1973, the narrator and the Rat do not meet, further stressing this theme.

It was clear that these were Murakami’s first books as his style is not yet fully developed, making both of the story’s less ubiquitous than his more popular novels. It was relieving to hear that even Murakami is not a fan of these first few novels. Murakami was actually opposed to having them translated into English even though he admits they played an important part in building his career as a writer.

As a Murakami fan, I am glad that I read these novels, as it has allowed me to see how his writing career and style developed. As a reader though, I did not take a lot of pleasure from either of them, especially Pinball, 1973Neither novel was very concise and while the themes were present the stories felt dull and lacking. The characters felt underdeveloped and I was left wanting to know more.

While I would still encourage Murakami fans to read these books, I would not however recommend either of these books for first time Murakami readers.  For first time Murakami readers I would recommend: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of PilgrimageThe Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Kafka on the Shore or Norwegian Wood

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”

What happens when people open their hearts?”
They get better.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 269 pages.
Read from February 7, 2017 to February 14, 2017.

Norwegian Wood is the novel that brought Murakami international fame and has become one of the books that he is best known for.  It set a standard for his future novels in terms of themes, overall feel, and characters.

Toru is a young man about to enter college in Tokyo.  However, he has had trouble dealing with the sudden and accidental death of his close high school friend. As a result, he is drawn to the beautiful Naoko, who was his best friend’s girlfriend.  Toru becomes devoted to Naoko as the two of them try to deal with the death of someone they each cared deeply about. While a dedicated student, Toru becomes invariably lonely and lost during his university studies. He walks with Naoko, even if it means not speaking a word, to help deal with this emptiness.

However Naoko is struggling much more with the realities of adult life than Toru and eventually withdraws from society to an outlying facility to help her deal with her own sadness and emptiness. Continuing to stay devoted to Naoko, he visits and writes her as often she will allow. However, as Naoko continues to retreat into her own world with little signs of improvement, Toru finds himself drawn to a smart, feisty and rebellious student name Midori. Toru is still unrelenting with his devotion to Naoko, yet he has to make a choice. Stay in a dream world with Naoko with the hope that she will love him, or move forward with Midori?

This book is about loneliness and grief. Every one of the characters in the novel has dealt with or is dealing with some form of loss and the book is the outcome of how each of them deal with it.  In typical Murakami style, the book is evocative and dreamlike, as Murakami soothes his reader’s senses with his visceral and philosophical approach to storytelling.

I am adding this book to the top five favourites of my Murakami pile.  The plot is simple and easy to follow. The feelings of each of the characters practically seep out of the pages making for a very enjoyable read. The only part I struggled with was with Toru’s specific intimate moment with Naoko. He clearly took advantage of her and he knew it, resulting in Naoko’s own downward spiral inwards. Naoko is in such rough state for most of the book that it is hard to deal with her fragility and what feels like, Toru’s betrayal. Despite, the unfolding events Toru does eventually determine that Naoko will never love him, despite him wish it, and as a small resting punishment he is left with those memories and lingering regrets of what would never be.

As much as I enjoy Murakami, I am coming to see that the pretense to the majority of his books is very similar. Here is the formula I have come up with for making a Murakami novel:

Male main character – Always a man, somewhere between 20 and 30 and he will experience some sort of existential crisis loosely based in reality.

Female characters – There are female side characters but they are always sexualized and often love interests. They are also often portrayed as weak, indecisive, needy, or mentally unstable. Though not all of the time, as there are few exceptions to this rule. For example, Aomame from 1Q84; she is remarkably resilient and strong. However, the plot of that story is shared equally with Tengo, who is a stereotypical Murakami male character, with whom Aomame is the love interest.

However having said that, all of the characters, even the main character, sometimes give the feeling of being gender neutral. This is perhaps how female readers can still relate to the main character without hating the portrayal of the women in Murakami’s stories.

Sex – There is a ton of it. The main character will have sex with one of these said female side characters, or perhaps more than one of them, with at least one of the acts being morally questionable. The act is often meant to show some deeper philosophical meaning in relation to the plot or the main character’s journey.

Food – There will be many, many paragraphs about cooking food.  It is alway something that is really healthy but sounds down right delicious. It is often followed with beer.

Cats – a Murakami story would not be complete without mentioning cats. Either the cat is part of the main story or they are at least a part of an evocative scene when the main character is reflecting on his said existential crisis.

To be a Murakami fan, this formula has to be one that you’re comfortable with or at least willing to accept to some extent. I mean, besides the majority of his novels providing thought-provoking content, there is always the sex scenes. And cats.

Returning to Norwegian Wood, this book is the start of the style that Murakami fans love, so it is a must-read.  Whether you are interested in his writing style or not, this book is also iconic, so if you don’t have it on your to-read list you better add it!