Mike Fischer
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Men Without Women: Stories

Haruki Murakami

Men Without Women, a new collection of seven stories by Haruki Murakami, could best be summed up by the title of the second one: “Yesterday.”

As one might expect from an author whose breakout novel is named Norwegian Wood, this story’s title refers to the aching Beatles song pining for a receding past. Or, in this new collection, a time before these stories’ male protagonists lost the women they’d most loved.

In “Drive My Car,” an aging actor mourns his deceased wife, despite the four affairs she’d never disclosed. In “An Independent Organ,” a physician playboy who’d prided himself on avoiding “sticky emotional conflicts” falls madly in love at age 52 — only to lose his beloved and confront his largely unlived existence.

In “Kino,” a husband catches his wife with another man and then tamps down the hurt, even if that means turning his back on the living. In “Yesterday” itself, a man who has loved the same woman since they were both children ultimately sacrifices their potential future as a couple.

In the title story, a man invents such an idealized past, imagining that he’d actually met the woman he’s long since lost when they were both just 14. Seeing her in his mind’s eye as “a young girl” while they make love, he holds her so hard that she tells him it hurts.

It recalls the similarly arrested development afflicting Tengo in Murakami’s massive 1Q84 — his memories of his long-lost beloved at age 10 initially thwart his efforts to move forward.

The men in this collection are similarly stuck, deliberately impersonating different selves rather than facing up to who they’ve become and how they live now.

The actor in “Drive My Car” relishes the roles he plays as an escape from himself. Men in other stories turn their back on life by fleeing to America or starving themselves to death (symptomatic of the passive behavior exhibited by many Murakami males). Another remakes his life as a meticulous routine. Still another lives in hiding while trying to forget the world.

In a homage to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Gregor Samsa instead awakens as a onetime bug who discovers he’s somehow become human. He falls in love, making him glad to be human — even if that means coping with emotional ups and downs.

Moody and melancholic as this collection’s stories can be, some of them offer comparable hope that these men without women might emerge from their long loneliness, acknowledging the hurt, pain and even rage they feel rather than folding in on themselves and ceasing to fully live.