Men Without Women by Murakami Haruki

 

Men Without Women
by Murakami Haruki
translated by Philip Gabriel
Harvill Secker (2017)
ISBN-13: 978-1911215370

Review by Chris Corker

Sharing its name with an Ernest Hemmingway short story compilation released in 1927, Murakami’s Men without Women, like its titular predecessor, deals not only with isolated masculinity, but also with the delicately balanced equilibrium of heterosexual relationships. What is signified in the title is not only physical absence of women in men’s lives but also the difficulty of these opposites to live harmoniously due to societal pressures. What at first glance appears to be another straightforward battle of the sexes, however, soon evolves into something far more sweeping in scope.

The difference between Hemmingway and Murakami’s collections is the way they deal with their respective gender roles. In Hemmingway’s famous ‘Hills like White Elephants’, contained within his Men Without Women, a couple reflect on their decision to have an abortion. The gender roles here are clearly defined, the man practical but lacking in empathy, the woman more empathetic but without that functional mode of thought. In Murakami’s Men Without Women, however, the case is best described as inverted. It is the women who take the position of power, who are also prone to infidelity and quick to throw away sentiment. Meanwhile, the men are left to pine and agonise, creating romantic illusions to keep themselves content. The antiquated gender roles have been reversed. This effect, while successful in ostensibly creating a sense of evolution, feels false in reality. Simply switching one rigid stereotype with another is a thinly-veiled ruse that often forces the characters into two-dimensionality. This is perhaps the biggest failing in an otherwise very strong collection, one which leaves the reader with much food for thought.

Male loneliness is not new ground for Murakami, whose characters often find themselves deserted by their female partners. In both Wind Up Bird Chronicle and Dance Dance Dance the protagonists’ partners leave abruptly and without explanation. The stranded males are forced afterwards to seek companionship in oddballs, teenage girls and sometimes even talking animals. Based in Tokyo, it’s likely that Murakami is influenced by his surroundings. In no other city in the world is loneliness so apparent, and in no other city in the world have shrewd businesses so adeptly catered for the demand for companionship. From hostess bars to maid cafes, to companion pillows and the newly announced Gatebox, an alarm clock-cum-digital girlfriend which sends loving text messages while its owner/boyfriend is at work. In a city with one of the highest population densities in the world, citizens are crammed so tightly together, but they have never been so far apart. It is arguably that Murakami’s portrayal of loneliness, which everyone has experienced at some time and in some form, is one of the key factors in his popularity. In Men Without Women he gives it one of its most potently heart-rending illustrations.

The beginning of the book welcomes the reader into the comfort of familiarity. The first two stories take the form of Beatles song titles, an enduring theme of the Japanese author. ‘Drive My Car’ features a protagonist who, after losing his wife and turning to drink, has his licence suspended and is unable to drive. When he hires a masculine female driver and they form a close bond, he reveals the secrets of his dead wife’s affair. This evolution of the protagonist from one who drives women (his wife) to one who is driven by a woman is one of the more pronounced examples of gender role reversal. In ‘Yesterday’, a man recounts his friend from his youth in Tokyo, a smart and good-looking young student with little enthusiasm for taking the university entrance exams. On a whim the friend decides to intensively study and then completely mimic the Kansai Japanese dialect, much to the horror of his Tokyo-based parents and preppy girlfriend.

While the awkwardness of male-female relationships features heavily in these two stories, a more prominent theme begins to take shape. While in ‘Drive My Car’ the protagonist makes references to having to play a part in his everyday life just to survive (‘It’s gotten so hard that I have a hard time drawing a clear line between the two. That’s what serious acting is all about’ (p. 25), the protagonist in ‘Yesterday’ wants nothing more than to shun preconceived ideas about how he should live his life. This is a theme that continues throughout the book, the characters, regardless of their gender, often finding it difficult to piece together the juxtaposed parts of themselves, one half what they are, one half what they are supposed to be. ‘Because’, says the protagonist at the beginning of ‘Yesterday‘, ‘in the final analysis, the language we speak constitutes who we are as people’ (p. 46). By the end of the story, however, this sentiment seems hollow and the protagonist contradicts himself in supporting his friend’s decision.

‘Samsa in Love’ and ‘Scheherazade’ present isolation in its literal and devastating form, the protagonist being totally cut off from the world. While in ‘Samsa in Love’ this isolation is wrapped in intrigue and never fully revealed, ‘Scheherazade’ deals with the real-life Japanese phenomenon of hikkikomori, best translated as shut-ins; people who isolate themselves from society in the most straightforward way by never leaving their apartments. Scheherazade, so dubbed by the protagonist, is a care worker who, like Princess Scheherazade of A Thousand and One Nights, entertains the protagonist with tantalising tales to draw him out of himself. And, of course, this rehabilitation also includes sex. Lots of it. This is a Murakami story after all, and would therefore be incomplete without some ailment being cured through intercourse with a kindly, charming older woman.

‘An Independent Organ’ addresses ageing, but is also replete with the themes of the collection as a whole, namely those of society’s pressure to conform and the reversal of gender roles. Dr Tokai, advancing towards his sixties, is happily living the bachelor lifestyle when he develops an unrequited love for a younger woman. His pining for her is very much in the style of stereotypical feminine behaviour, and indeed when his condition is discussed by two concerned parties his apparent anorexia is described as a condition that afflicts ‘almost always young women’. As with the rest of the collection, however, Dr Tokai’s love sickness is indicative of a deeper existential crisis. On seeing an account of the dehumanizing process in Nazi concentration camps, he begins to wonder at his own worth should his title, smart clothes and wealth be taken from him. The conclusion he comes to leaves him unable to take any further pleasure in life.

The strongest story of the collection, ‘Kino’, brings with it echoes of Murakami’s best works. This is the sort of story that only Murakami can write, the adventure that takes pace in a microcosm, a sedentary Odyssey where Odysseus takes the plane home because the seas look a bit choppy. The titular Kino, after discovering his wife being unfaithful, quits his job and opens up a small bar in a quiet suburb. Listening to jazz and reading books, his routine in occasionally interrupted by stray cats, Yakuza-types and nymphomaniacs. Seemingly unmoved by his wife’s conduct and their ongoing divorce process, Kino finds contentment in his self-created haven and its unbroken equilibrium. One day, however, he begins to notice snakes circling his bar and takes them as an ill omen. When one of his peculiar regulars advises him to leave before something bad happens, he escapes to Kyushu. ‘Kino’ does a great job of introducing mystery and keeping the reader intrigued, and while it does have many similarities to Murakami’s earlier work, it’s difficult to not wish that, as he turned the short story ‘Firefly’ into Norwegian Wood, he couldn’t do the same here. As it is, it remains an accomplished short story but also a prematurely-ended tease at something greater.

With this collection, Murakami, delves far deeper than just the roles of the sexes to portray the everyday artifice people rely onto survive in society, drawing focus on the unease this can cause within them. Those that actively shun this pretence find themselves in no better predicament, inevitably misunderstood by those around them and ostracised from common society. In a book that grows in skill and confidence with each story, Murakami has deftly portrayed the modern human condition in a way that is both sensual and heart-achingly sad.

In the final, titular, story ‘Men Without Women’, the protagonist’s ex-girlfriend is describing her love of elevator music.

‘When I listen to this music I feel like I’m a wide-open, empty place. It’s a vast space, with nothing to close it off. No walls, no ceiling. I don’t need to think, don’t need to say anything […] everything is simply beautiful, peaceful, flowing. I can just be‘ (p. 227).

Despite all other hurdles that the characters overcome in the world, despite everything else they accomplish, it is this just being that always eludes their grasp.

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