Haruki Murakami – Men Without Women (Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen trans., Vintage, 2018)
I’m not exactly sure when I became one of the Men Without Women. I don’t recall a specific transformation. One arrives at it slowly. Barely notices it until, suddenly, it’s there. You’re one of them.
Murakami’s latest short story collection (published in Japan in 2014, the US in 2017, and now in the UK) concerns this strange breed in all of its many shapes. From Kafuku the solitary thespian, to Dr Tokai the bachelor with many fleeting partners, to the lovelorn, recently divorced Kino; all are men defined in some way by their lack of an other half. They are single, if not in terms of their relationships, at least in terms of their identity, their self-contained natures.
It is tempting to draw some easy moral from Murakami’s choice of subject matter. Urban living, as the great paradox dictates, isolates us from others. The internet too seems to have made love valueless through sheer overabundance. In oft-quoted statistics and polls, Japan leads the world in producing a “sexless” generation of young people who find dating a bore.
As the diversity of these stories shows, however, the idea that Men Without Women can be reduced to an anonymous mass of incel losers does an injustice to the variety of lives that are to be lived by unattached men. True, each story contains an undertone of sadness, but there is also hope and conviction.
Murakami’s writing is narrative-driven. This excuses the sometimes static language of the translations, as it is action and observation that bring his characters to life, not language itself. The eccentric Kitaru whose presence lies at the heart of the story “Yesterday”, for example, speaks, we are told, in a rough Kansai dialect; a dialect he has adopted after long study as he finds it more interesting than the popular Tokyo dialect in which he was raised. No attempt is made to provide an English language equivalent – it is the mere fact of his attempt that marks him out as an eccentric, pushing against the grain of linguistic standardization.
Kitaru has a girlfriend, but he feels too close to her emotionally to be interested in her physically. He sets her up with the protagonist of the story, Aki, whose more stereotypical and ritualized dating habits are the inspiration that Erika, the girlfriend, needs to finally leave Kitaru. Kitaru, as a Man Without Women, has his own life organized to best fit his personality. For Erika, a normal girl with conventional aspirations, the process of maturing depends upon her casting off the guy with the strong personality in favour of the flexible man who is willing to abide by social convention.
Social conventions lie at the core of each story. The Men Without Women are largely defined by a core stubbornness that keeps them from regular dating, or a happy marriage. The same stubbornness is seen at a distance in the corresponding world of Women Without Men. Kafuku’s chainsmoking driver who would rather sit in silence than make idle conversation. Scheherazade, the woman for whom sex is only foreplay compared to the thrill of telling stories about her former lovers. These women too are self-contained. Their universes too are solitary.
A notable thing about the collection is that, despite its focus, there are no men within it who are entirely without women as companions and lovers. The phenomenon Murukami is addressing is more complex. The Men Without Women and the Women Without Men are creatures defined by their intrinsic separateness even during moments of intimacy.
In some ways the people who Murukami is writing about are ideal adults. They have grown habitually independent, or non-dependent, free of reliance upon others. Dependency, by contrast, is a trait associated with emotional immaturity, with cloying sentimentality and with childishness. Yet, such is the paradox, the very independence of these characters also inevitably seems sad, lonely, and perhaps itself immature; indicative of an unwillingness to compromise and bend.
The final message is ultimately ambiguous. Murukami’s stories wander around a lot. Their structure is loose as if to accommodate his character’s obstinacy and unwillingness to follow a pre-ordained path. With the exception of “Samsa in Love” (a retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis that, although intriguing, is a poor fit with the rest of the stories), each tale is a slow unfolding of one or two characters. One is left with a sense of overall unity. Not just stories brought together, but a whole picture constructed of seven fragments.
This is my first time reading Murukami and I can understand why he is such a global phenomenon. The balance between the literary and the popular in his writing guarantees that you will read quickly and forget slowly. Much like the relationships of our solitary protagonists it will pass all too quickly, but the memories stick will with you long after.
– Joe Darlington