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book review

In ‘Men Without Women,’ the men are all pilgrims following devastating loss

Haruki Murakami’s collection of stories, “Men Without Women,’’ is his first new work of fiction since his 2015 bestseller, “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,’’ and it is classic Murakami in its pervading preoccupations.

A partial list: loneliness; alienation; nostalgia for the aching joys and dizzy raptures of adolescence mingled with horror at the errors and missteps of one’s youth; men pining for alluring, enigmatic women they can’t have; the Beatles (two stories take their titles from Beatles’ songs); jazz clubs; uncanny animals. Many of the stories hover between realism and surreal dreamscape. And Murakami’s voice — cool, poised, witty, characterized by a peculiar blend of whimsy and poignancy, wit and profundity — hasn’t lost its power to unsettle even as it amuses.

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The men of “Men Without Women’’ are all pilgrims in their own way, reeling in the wake of shocking revelations and devastating loss, needing to construct new lives. In “Kino,” a cuckolded husband leaves his job and opens a bar in a new town, only to be troubled by strange visitations: shady customers, a mysterious regular with a shaved head, a swarm of snakes. In “An Independent Organ,” a writer grapples with the news that his friend, once a prominent plastic surgeon and carefree, confirmed bachelor, has starved to death after falling “desperately, hopelessly in love” with a woman who betrayed him. The unnamed narrator of the titular story reevaluates his life in the wake of a late night phone call announcing the recent suicide of his ex-girlfriend, the third of his exes to die by her own hand.

For the most part, these are men without women, but they are also largely men without friends, families, orientation, certainty, or happiness. Even the married men exist in their own private bubbles of disquiet and despair. Deep isolation pervades each story.

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And yet, improbable relationships, unlikely camaraderie, tenuous points of connection emerge in the strangest of places. In “Drive My Car,” Kafuku, a recently widowed actor, finds himself opening up to Watari, his young female driver. As he tells her about his adored late wife’s affairs, the death of their baby, and his attempt to seek revenge by befriending one of his wife’s lovers, he finds in Watari a surrogate daughter and she in him a surrogate father.

Even as he establishes a kind of relationship to another, however, Kafuku describes his detachment from himself. He knew of his wife’s affairs but never let it show, a charade made possible because he is a professional actor. Shedding his self in order to inhabit a role was his calling, but in this case it was a role performed without an audience.

Shifting identity in the face of loss, disorientation, disaster — these are actions common to most of Murakami’s protagonists. Indeed, “being someone other than yourself’’ is the virtual obsession of the collection’s characters. The narrator of “Yesterday” gives up his regional dialect when he goes to college in Tokyo in order “to become a totally different person”; he wants to forget all the embarrassing, painful experiences of his adolescence and start life anew in Tokyo. “Samsa in Love,” published in The New Yorker, begins with this declaration of unbidden and absolute change: “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa” — a nod to the masterwork by Kafka, another Murakami obsession. Gregor is born into a world he does not understand; he finds himself in a city “riddled with checkpoints,” its “streets crawling with soldiers and tanks,” in a body he cannot master, a house he does not recognize, and with a family he does not know.

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Eventually, what steadies his ontological disorientation is love for a hunchbacked girl who visits him. She becomes his compass, his lodestar, his ever-fixed mark. And, in a familiar alchemy, as with love, so with stories. In the collection’s strangest and most captivating tale, “Scheherazade,” a man who can’t go outside is visited by a woman who is paid to bring him groceries and, perhaps, to satisfy him sexually. “Each time they . . . [have] sex, she [tells him] . . . a strange and gripping story afterward.” Both Gregor and the housebound man seem saved by contingent human connection — the less predictable, the better.

Murakami says of the housebound man that “[w]hat his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while negating it entirely on the other.” The men of these stories are trying to have it both ways. It is not surprising therefore that they find themselves caught in the middle of nowhere. Murakami’s imagination is the luminous half-light of that common, contradictory country.

MEN WITHOUT WOMEN

By Haruki Murakami

Translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen

Knopf, 228 pp., $25.95

Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’’
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