Judging by his work, 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 just a few. Even if he doesn’t actually feel that way on a personal level, you’d be hard pressed not to get the impression, especially after reading a career-spanning short story collection like Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. 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 amounts to 24 pure helpings of their drug of choice.
The remaining majority of readers may be left with bewilderment and furrowed brows, but Murakami has never written to capture the mainstream. After his novel Norwegian Wood spread like an epidemic, he fled Japan in order to avoid the vagaries of notoriety. This spurning of easy acceptance runs deep in this latest collection of his work – from his very first venture into short story composition to a cluster penned very recently in a fit of near-obsessive inspiration. Some of the included pieces are relatively clear allegories for his literary notoriety, 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 seem to stonewall with their sheer peculiarity – one wonders who on Earth could immediately unpack the symbolism of one character’s job interview that turns out to be conducted by a stressed-out miniature bird.
Murakami pitches his short works of fiction as somewhere between slices of life and thought experiments. Like the author, the protagonists of his stories are sometimes – though not always – Japanese men born shortly after World War II, and they share a tendency to linger upon even the current moment as if it were a distant memory. Most of the time, the tone and language of the stories work together to create a strongly addictive effect. His writing conjures – as one character observes of his mysterious, tightrope-walking lover – the presence of “some indefinable but persistent something.”
From a critical point of view, this is frustrating indeed. Murakami’s fiction oscillates so rapidly between arid truth and wild fantasy, between sharp insight and bizarre construction, that pinning it down is nearly impossible. 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 ’60s were the last time that’ll ever happen.” Then again, few writers of his – or any – generation can spin almost-plausible tales of talking monkeys who scurry through cities, stealing peoples’ names.
It’s often said that Stephen King’s chief talent is a knack for juxtaposing the mundane details of real life with vivid, harrowing descriptions of the horrific. By the same token, Haruki Murakami’s talent is the ability to juxtapose sentences that read like prosaic internal monologues against the shifting, dreamlike buildups they depict, with the occasional cultural reference inserted for grounding. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is the trophy case that this skill has built, an exhibition of pure, concentrated Murakami. Though the uninitiated will likely prefer a gentler introduction to the author along the lines of Norwegian Wood or Sputnik Sweetheart, devotees will wish the book would continue on into infinity.