Book Review: Men Without Women

Having just finished Murakami’s new short story collection, Men Without Women, I am not immediately sure what to say about it. This collection of short vignettes by Murakami does not contain the magical realist pyrotechnics of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle nor the deeply poetic sadness of Norwegian Wood nor the character-driven page-turning mystery of 1Q84. What it does contain are expertly-paced tales made up of quiet, small, moments in the lives of men who all seem to pursue self-abnegation in lieu of love or relationships.

Portrait of Murakami
Portrait of Haruki Murakami. (Image source)

Murakami always does depict alienation, solitariness and quiet moments so very well. In his stories, it seems that these are what he finds most interesting about the human condition. Indeed, in a New Yorker interview, he describes this as his central aim.

What I wish to convey in this collection is, in a word, isolation, and what it means emotionally.

As other readers and reviewers have observed, an echo of Hemingway is impossible to ignore. Like Nick Adams or Jake Barnes, the male narrators in these pages seem to observe their own lives and avoid participating too much in anything. Instead, they hold back, repress emotions so expertly they seem not to have any; they have sex but with a cool detachment; they wonder in the dark who they are and what is inside where their hearts should be. In so wondering, they betray their deeply-buried desire and longing.

As if to underscore the universality of male alienation and emotional isolation, we also get a deliberately uncomfortable retelling of Kafta’s Metamorphosis, where Gregor Samsa awakens again and must reckon with having become a human man, with a clumsy erection that he can’t begin to understand. One message throughout the stories seems to be that the careful repression of self-awareness and emotional communication is not just a characteristic of Japanese culture, though all the stories appear to take place in Japan; it is also a tragic characteristic of masculinity or even humanity in general.

Book review: Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami.
3.5/5 stars.

A note about ratings: Ratings are hard. I am tempted to give this collection two ratings: 4/5 stars, because Murakami on a bad day is still one of the greatest, most subtle and interesting writers of our century. Maybe for me personally, 3/5 stars, because I didn’t enjoy this as much as many of his other works and I probably won’t read it again.