If his body of work is anything to go by, Haruki Murakami bears ambivalence toward a great many things: his homeland, the literary establishment, his generation, the stability of identity and the conventions of narrative structure, to name but a few. Even if he doesn’t really feel that way on a personal level, you’d be hard pressed not to get the impression after reading his new career-spanning short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, the form of which casts the author’s signature themes into sharp relief. For those who embrace Murakami’s -- and, to an extent, modern Japanese literature’s -- Spartan prose, on-and-off surrealism and oblique plotting, this book serves 24 pure helpings of the drug of choice.
The remaining majority of the literati may be left with bewilderment-furrowed brows, but Murakami has never written to capture the mainstream. After his novel Norwegian Wood (of which this collection’s “Firefly” was a prototype) spread epidemically, the mild novelist fled Japan to escape the vagaries of notoriety. The spurning of easy acceptance runs all the way through this collection, from Murakami’s very first venture into short story composition to a cluster written, very recently, in a flurry of near-obsessive inspiration. Some pieces are reasonably clear allegories, as when a baker’s disastrous attempt to feed his newly-invented cakes to a pack of inexplicably well-regarded tasting crows parallels the tension between a young Murakami’s unorthodox work and the existing Japanese literary scene. Others stonewall with their sheer peculiarity; one wonders who on Earth could immediately unpack the symbolism of a job interview that turns out to be conducted by a stressed-out miniature bird.
Working with a small fraction a novel’s word count, Murakami pitches his short works of fiction between slices of life and thought experiments. Like the author, the protagonists are sometimes, though not always, Japanese men born soon after the war, and they share a tendency to linger and observe their life even as it happens to them, drifting where they’re taken and reflecting upon the current moment as a distant memory. Generally, the tone and – even in translation – the language work together, to addictive effect. His writing conjures, as one character observes of his mysterious, tightrope-walking temporary lover, the presence of “some indefinable but persistent something.”
From a critical perspective, this frustrates. Murakami’s fiction oscillates so rapidly between arid truth and wild fantasy, between sharp insight and bizarre construction that pinning it down nears impossibility. Few writers of his generation have managed to articulate the mindset of the 1960s as elegantly as when he states that “everything was simple, and direct. Cause and effect were good buddies back then; thesis and reality hugged each other like it was the most natural thing in the world. And my guess is that the sixties were the last time that’ll ever happen.” Then again, few writers of his – or, indeed, any – generation can spin almost plausible tales of talking monkeys who scurry through cities, stealing peoples’ names.
Stephen King’s chief talent, it’s often said, is a knack for juxtaposing the mundane details of real life with vivid, harrowing descriptions of the horrific. Haruki Murakami’s talent, by the same token, is the ability to juxtapose what read like prosaic internal monologues against the shifting, dreamlike buildups they depict, with the occasional cultural – usually musical – reference inserted for grounding. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is the trophy case this skill has built, an exhibition of pure, concentrated Murakami. Though the uninitiated will likely prefer a gentler introduction along the lines of Norwegian Wood or the novel Sputnik Sweetheart, devotees will wish the book’s continuation on into infinity.