Review of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami,

ISBN 1400044618 (ISBN13: 9781400044610)

What is one to make of Murakami’s short stories?

His translator has stated that his reputation was made by his stories in Japan – apart from his super-successful novels. A brief survey of his total story output reveals that he is not interested in traditional story forms. Though many of his stories remain untranslated, we have so far received 4 volumes of them in English. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is probably my favorite of the lot.

It is a generous collection of 24 bizarre and unconventional tales ranging from subtle surrealism to dreamlike feasts of disorienting magical realism. It is difficult to be objective when it comes to these stories. Formally speaking, many of them violate basic rules of storytelling. Emotionally, they tend to be powerful, evocative and original. What is the purpose of a story if not to prompt strong reactions in the reader. Whether those reactions are good or bad depends on your tolerance for the unexplained, the ambiguous, and the subtle subversions the author employs.

“Man-eating cats” is features in his novel Sputnik Sweetheart. Murakami has a penchant for recasting his stories into novels. Similarly, he usually publishes novel excerpts in the New Yorker as standalone stories. He is able to do this because his legions of fans will devour any nonsense or grocery lists he decides to release to the public. The story in question, though, is magnificent in my opinion. Murakami delights in writing about foreign places – Greece, America, Mongolia and remote corners of Japan. He is no Thoreau, but he brings a unique voice to each locale, observing the environment with wit and addictive, approachable rhythm.

Also featured is the segment from Norwegian Wood, titled “Firefly.” Another breathtaking achievement and memorable moment from one of his greatest novels. Why does he reuse his material this way, you ask? Because he can.

Almost every tale is a winner in my memory, and I have revisited most of the stories in this collection several times. “The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day” is haunting. The complete lack of a satisfying ending often lends his stories a provocative vivacity, as if his characters’ lives continue along the trajectory he plotted far beyond where the artificially imposed stopping point leaves them.

“Hanalei Bay” strikes me as a realistic tale, possibly based off similar real events, but with a Murakami twist of course. “The Ice Man” was included in Vandermeer’s Weird Compendium, but I would not call it weird fiction. It is about the lapse of identity, a common motif in the author’s oeuvre, but extrapolated to the realm of speculative fiction. “The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes” is a simple encounter, recounted with stark straightforwardness, seemingly a fable of the Japanese literary establishment – but can one ever be sure what Murakami is doing in these cases? Since he claims to write without outlines, one can only assume he makes it up as he goes along. It is a testament to his imagination that he can be so often captivating in the same way that dreams are engrossing, even if they make no sense. “Crabs” is a memorable story, if inconsequential. “Chance Traveler” is classic Murakami. At times his style is right in line with Carver’s. As Carver’s translator, Murakami wears this influence on his sleeve. “A Poor Aunt Story” was less successful at engaging my interest, but it showcases daring experimentation. “Airplane: Or, How He Talked to Himself as If Reciting Poetry,” is a peculiar conversation, Murakami-style, which nonetheless intrigued and beguiled me. “New York Mining Disaster” was completely incomprehensible.

“The Mirror” and “Hunting Knife” were 2 of my favorite pieces from the collection. They operated off simple premises and are somewhat open-ended. Yet, their power and creativity are undeniable in my mind. It wasn’t until I reread “Hunting Knife” that this collection became one of my all time favorites. It is a one-of-a-kind, mind-bending story. “Tony Takitani” is yet another strong piece, which was made into a film. Pure, elegant, and meaningful.

With “A Perfect Day for Kangaroos,” Murakami turns on the charm. An uninitiated reader might wonder if Murakami deserves all the praise and condemnation. If you read this story and feel absolutely nothing you can bet Murakami’s work, as a whole, is not for you. You have to be alright with the liberties he takes. For me, I never had to try to like this author. It came perfectly naturally, and for better or worse, he remains one of my favorites.

There are a dozen other gems in this stellar collection. They are guaranteed to satisfy Murakami devotees and baffle his detractors. This is the good stuff. This is why I read fiction. These are challenging, but easy reading. They stick with you and represent the best examples of what has become Murakami’s distinct brand of madness.

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