Haruki Murakami’s Lonely Men

It’s rare, though not impossible, to connect emotionally with one of Haruki Murakami’s characters. They are transparent nonentities, serving to focus and magnify. Think of Aomame from 1Q84, who floats through a slightly shifted alternate world, observing but largely apart from it. The nameless narrator of Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World cooly scrutinizes a bizarre world inside his own mind. Like Emerson’s transparent eyeball, they serve as a lens for the peculiarities that surround them: They’re impressionable and neutral at the same time.

These viewpoint characters are usually men, because for Murakami, and for the audience he imagines—that is, for the audience that most male writers imagine—male characters are the most transparent. This isn’t a criticism of Murakami so much as an observation of the literary culture we’re all working with: Femaleness is seen as an additional ingredient, something extra and inessential to the real condition of humanity. The clearest lens is male.

So it’s unsurprising that, of the seven short stories in Murakami’s new collection, all are fronted by men. It’s slightly more surprising—cheeky, even—that the collection is called Men Without Women. Is it a reference to the Hemingway collection of the same name? Is it daring the diversity-minded reader to object to the lack of female voices by making that absence part of its identity? The protagonists seem to define themselves in opposition to the women around them: An actor in need of a chauffeur expounds at length on why he doesn’t like women drivers; a plastic surgeon becomes so obsessed with his ideal woman that he wastes away. The collection takes its name from the final story, in which the narrator, having learned of the death of a former girlfriend, defines the phrase: “It’s quite easy to become Men Without Women. You love a woman deeply, and then she goes off somewhere. That’s all it takes.”

But what does “without” mean, exactly? The narrator of “Men Without Women,” the one whose ex-girlfriend is dead, learns the news while lying in bed next to his wife. Yet he goes on to define his experience as a man without women for the next dozen or so pages. The men in Men Without Women are in fact surrounded by women. Wives, girlfriends, friends, coworkers, mothers: Women are their atmosphere. A more accurate title might be Men With Loneliness. It’s not really about the women; it’s about the without-ness, using male characters as a lens to examine lack. In these seven stories, Murakami’s heroes look at the negative space of the other people (usually, though not always, women) in their lives—and find that what’s there disappears faster than it can be understood.

Men Without Women is best when it engages directly with its heroes’ alienation, their estrangement not only from women but from themselves. In “Scheherezade,” a man who is homebound for obscure reasons is visited regularly by a woman who provides him with groceries, sex, and personal revelations; the main character is both physically and emotionally cut off from the world, and his caretaker matches him loneliness for loneliness. She tells him stories about her solitary teenage crimes and her past life as a lamprey—a jawless, vampire-like fish. “Samsa in Love” reverses “The Metamorphosis” to bring us a re-transformed Gregor, disoriented and trying to learn again what it means to be human. And “Kino,” by far the strongest, is the story of a man who worries that his stoicism has made him vulnerable to malign magical snakes who want to make a home in his heart.

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