Was it all a dream—
I mean those old bygone days—
Were they all what they seemed?
All night long I lie awake
listening to autumn rain.
This poem from the Zen monk, Ryokan, could serve as an emblematic preface to Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women. Claustrophobic poignancy and stringent wistfulness, shot through with quirky humor, characterize the autumn-flavored tone of the seven stories comprising the collection.
Men Without Women, a title borrowed from Hemingway’s 1927 collection of stories, bears ancestral resemblance to the shorter work of Hemingway sans the masculine mettle and tough-guy stoicism. Murakami’s protagonists, often playing the role of mute witnesses, are men who have walled themselves inside metaphysical caves, who have warmed their adopted solitude with distant blue valentines while deriving sustenance from Memory, men whose carefully cultivated dams are crumbling due to age, mortality and circumstance, allowing a backwash of emotion to flood their interior. It is not hard to imagine Murakami’s characters, the men and the women, haunting the clean, well-lighted insomniac cafes of Hemingway, or savoring the soul-ache crooning of Chet Baker on vinyl. It seems synergistically perfect that the return of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks more or less coincided with the release of Murakami’s new book: two iconoclastic masters when it comes to creating stylized and texturally rich moodscapes. Agent Cooper could easily be slotted into Murakami’s universe and not skip a beat, same as the Black Lodge could function as the purgatory pit-stop for Murakami’s “transients.”
In this collection, though, conceptual wizardry and hyper-surrealism are underplayed, or kept to a subtle minimum, with emphasis on what you might call backlit sorrow. These are torch songs steeped in the Japanese ethos, mono no aware, “a gentle, sorrow-tinged appreciation of transitory beauty, or an emotion of tender affection in which there is both passion and sympathy . . . a kind of agreeable melancholy.”
Murakami indeed distills the pangs of loss and loneliness with a sense of agreeable melancholy, or a grave calm. Betrayal is one of the emotional cornerstones of the book, as are the phantom aches of vanished youth. The protagonist from the story, Yesterday — a referential nod to The Beatles — reflects, “But when I look back at myself at age twenty, what I remember most is being alone and lonely. I had no girlfriend to warm my body or my soul, no friends I could open up to . . . For the most part I remained hidden away, deep within myself week without talking to anybody. That kind of life continued for a year. A long, long year . . . At the time I felt as if every night I, too, was gazing out a porthole at a moon made of ice. A transparent, eight-inch-thick, frozen moon. But no one was beside me. I watched that moon alone, unable to share its cold beauty with anyone.”
Or, in the story “Men Without Women,” a man muses on the suicide of his former lover, “When she died I lost my fourteen-year-old self. Like a baseball player’s number that is permanently retired, the fourteen-year-old inside me up and left for good. My fourteen-year-old self was now locked away in a dark safe, intricately locked, buried in the bottom of the sea.” This heartache also gives voice to the existential term and axiom which represents the book’s totemic shadow: “Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women. That day comes to you completely out of the blue, without the faintest of warnings or hints beforehand. No premonitions or foreboding, no knocks or clearing of throats. Turn a corner and you know you’re already there. But by then there’s no going back. Once you round that bend, that is the only world you can possibly inhabit. In that world you are called ‘Men Without Women.’ Always a relentlessly frigid plural.”
The metaphorical diagnosis and verdict might sound something like this: You are men with woman-shaped holes in your hearts, coronary bypasses deprived of something essential, and this absence has left you tethered to nostalgia, has left you orphaned on the doorsteps of strange gods.
As if fulfilling Thoreau’s claim that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” Murakami’s “Men Without Women” are coming up against themselves, their mortal handicaps and inbred solitude, in trying to reach out and make vital contact. Long deep silences punctuate many of the interactions between the men and women, as if crossings to meet one another have become hazardous or impossible. These are bridges that went out, or were burned, or were never properly constructed. And then, one day, the distance begins to reverse itself, to narrow and enclose with asphyxiating intimacy: “In a small dark room, somewhere inside Kino, a warm hand was reaching out to him. Eyes shut, he felt the hand on his, soft and substantial. He’d forgotten this, had been apart from it for far too long. Yes, I am hurt. Very, very deeply. He said this to himself. And he wept. In that dark, still room.”
Despite, or perhaps because of the elegiac tone of Murakami’s collection, there is a sense of gratitude and blessing, a generosity of spirit that comes through. This reminds me of the stories and poems that Raymond Carver wrote after he got sober (and later was diagnosed with and died from lung cancer), work which became more emotionally expansive without losing its sense of economy.
Kino, from the story of the same name, realizes: “I need to learn not just to forget but to forgive.” He, like the other romantic somnambulists drifting through Murakami’s twilight world, cannot help but move toward grace, no matter how slowly or falteringly.
Originally from Brooklyn, writer, poet, playwright and performer, John Biscello has called Taos NM home since 2001. He is the author of two novels, Broken Land, a Brooklyn Tale and Raking the Dust, as well as a collection of stories. To see more of his work, visit johnbiscello.com