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October 3, 2006

Murakami collection makes everyday life fantastic

In 1978, at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium, Haruki Murakami went to a baseball game as a jazz bar owner and left a novelist. He didn’t have a vision or an apparition or a rebirth, just an abrupt and simple realization: with the crack of a bat, Murakami realized he could write a novel. Sometimes, strange and unusual things happen that can’t be explained. Nobody could say exactly why, at that moment, he decided to pursue writing after seven years of owning a jazz club, but it happened. Murakami’s life is a strange tale.

“…Everything I write, more or less, is a strange tale.”

Murakami is an outcast and his fiction reflects this. A rising star in Japanese literature, in 1987 Murakami hit it big with his novel Norwegian Wood, which sold over four million copies, and immediately he fled to America. Fame doesn’t suit Murakami well. Even 16 years later, he doesn’t attend conferences and doesn’t like interviews or public appearances. He is just a man in love with music and books. His characters are like this too, all young men, lonely, thoughtful, and, almost universally, jazz enthusiasts. Not all of them, but most. They are usually ordinary people placed into extraordinary situations. His stories take place in a seemingly normal world with a few modifications or rule changes—fish fall from the sky, people are “entered” by sheep, cats talk, you know, minor stuff—inhabited by people trying to live an everyday life.

When you read a Murakami novel, it is a true journey into the work, but his short stories are just a glimpse at one or two strange events. Maybe a funny feeling or a fleeting thought. Everyone remembers an odd coincidence, just on the border of unbelievable, something they couldn’t completely explain. Murakami captures those incidents, expands them, and puts them into words. In Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, the stories are the surreal occurrences that happen to people every once in a while, things most people forget.

“The reason I’ve turned up here is I thought it best to relate directly several so-called strange events….Actually, events of this kind happen quite often,” Murakami writes, using his own voice, at the beginning of “Chance Traveler.” “A series of coincidences took me somewhere I never expected to be.” This is what most of the stories feel like, a connect-the-dots of strange events and coincidences. They are all open to interpretation and very few provide answers to even the biggest questions they propose.

Most consider short story writing a difficult art because a good short story needs to be crisp and concise with a finite ending, very unlike the novel that can be baggy and loose-ended, but Murakami doesn’t follow these rules. Some of his stories do come to completion, but most end unresolved. This can be annoying and frustrating, but, as a reader, you have to realize that the beauty of his stories doesn’t come from plot resolution and linearity, but from mood. If you try to overanalyze them, the stories are ineffective.

The work is a compilation of 25 years of short stories, presented out of chronological order. Some of the stories ended up as novels that are now in print and others have been unpublished for over two decades, giving great depth and insight into Murakami’s progression as an author. The stories are sad and depressing, yet thoroughly hilarious at times. In many early reviews of Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami’s later stories in the collection received the majority of the praise, but I believe his earlier work, although inconsistent in quality, really set the mood of the book. “The Mirror,” “A Folklore for My Generation: A Pre-History of,” and “The Year of Spaghetti,” although three stories with many loose ends, maintain the tone that makes Murakami’s writing so special. Then there is “Dabchick,” the gem of the book in my opinion. Only eight pages long, “Dabchick” is not going to be everyone’s favorite story, but it probably should be. Almost told like an extremely long joke, Murakami sets up a wonderfully curious and clever protagonist in quite possibly his most absurd situation to date.

The book ends with a series of five stories written in 2005 that are some of Murakami’s best work. They are thought-provoking, plentiful, and alone are worth the price of the book. With great depth and beautiful language, Murakami presents a snapshot of his long career as an author in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, a career that has its place among the greatest of living authors.

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