The Short Version: A missing cat leads to a strange encounter. A young couple decide to hold up a McDonald’s late one night. An elephant vanishes. A brother and sister come to terms with their adulthood. Whether realistic or fantastical, Haruki Murakami brings his deft skill to shorter tales of wonder.
The Review: Now here is a strange thing. Take just about any of these stories individually and you will be rewarded – but together? They feel individually greater than the sum but also there is a sense that they are all slightly diminished by being grouped together.
Perhaps diminished is not the right word.
Anyone familiar with Murakami (a statement that, over halfway through Murakami 2014, I think now at least modestly applies to me) will not be surprised by the tales on display here. Some of them are really weird, others have no weirdness at all and the collection, overall, presents a perfect cross-section of everything that falls between between the ‘extremes’ of Norwegian Wood and Hard Boiled Wonderland… We see him even experimenting with things that will come further down the line – I’m intrigued to know that “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday’s Women” gets reworked to be the opening chapter of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and you have to wonder if “The TV People” helped inspire 1Q84‘s Little People in some way. So, depending on which Murakami you’re in the mood for, there is something here for you. There is a sense, again, that this collection is an excellent point of reference for sort of all-things-Murakami.
So why, then, do I feel so ambivalent upon finishing the volume? I tried to follow my recently-landed-upon pattern of only reading one story at a time – taking a break from whatever else I was reading to catch a story on the train ride to work or something like that – but instead of feeling like these were each little treats I got to enjoy over several weeks, I found that it was a struggle to pick it up again many times. So I attempted to read several in one go… but that didn’t help me either. But I can’t find much wrong with any of these stories – so perhaps I just wasn’t in the right mood? I don’t know. It’s hard to know, I think.
There are, of course, wonderful things about the stories. Eagle-eyed observers will note that the main character of the first story is, hypothetically anyway, the main character of a later story (I won’t give away which; it’s fun to discover) as well – although maybe they aren’t quite the same after all. And Murakami’s imagination is lively: his scenarios, strange as they might be, are all very vivid and purposeful. The translations (split btwn Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin) are smooth and flowing. The stories themselves, if you came across them in The New Yorker or something, would be great. But their proximity to one another makes me wonder if the magic of Murakami actually lies in being able to immerse yourself in one of his tales and then take some time away. To dip in and out of his worlds with such speed as is required by a collection is… well, it’s unsettling. The world around you feels, in one way or another, slightly tweaked off-kilter. It’s a strange thing, to be sure, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it. I think Murakami might understand.
Rating: 3 out of 5. The individual stories are a delight, almost to a one, but together they… there’s just something about the collection that drained me, and not in a positive way. I had to really push to finish it – but, again, I don’t think that has anything to do with the individual stories themselves. Although it does make me really believe that Murakami is a long-form writer more than he is a short story writer. His worlds should be luxuriated in like a bath, not briefly dipped into like a stone skipping across the surface of a pond.