In the fictional universe of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, the physical world is always subject to strange permutations: a well gives way to underground labyrinths, stray cats take the place of women. The surreal and the plain sit side by side in narratives that trick and beguile. In this new collection of short stories, Murakami’s riddling ways continue: a beetle wakes up to discover he is a man, a woman believes herself to be part fish, midnight snakes haunt an urban bar. Even in the stories of plainer fabric, a complex interlocking structure of tales within tales leads us to unexpected places.
The title, however, is misleading. While it suggests men alone, or men in the company of other men, the stories all circle around a series of sexual encounters with women, and the aftermath of these. In nearly every story men have been abandoned or betrayed by the women they desire: a cosmetic surgeon starves himself to death after the woman he loves takes up with someone else, a widower seeks out the man who had an affair with his wife, a husband phones his wife’s lover to inform him of her suicide. These are lonely men, and bereaved: “It’s quite easy to become Men Without Women,” one narrator tells us. “You love a woman deeply, and then she goes off somewhere.”
But this love that they profess is limited to the expression of sexual desire, and the women themselves are largely without complex lives of their own. When the women are granted sexual appetite, their proclivities and sensations are oddly imagined. One woman is unsure if she is feeling libidinous or whether the sensation is being caused by the onset of her period. Earlier, this character is aroused by carefully placing an unused tampon in a man’s drawer. Throughout the book, women are characterised solely as sexual beings who are biologically driven to deceive: “Women are all born with a special, independent organ that allows them to lie,” one character announces in the wake of his own betrayal. Men, on the other hand, are helpless in the face of this, for they possess, another character argues, a “blind spot” that prohibits them from ever understanding “all that a woman is thinking”.
Given this Freudian reduction, it is perhaps no wonder that the women leave. Yet the trademark pleasures of Murakami’s work remain: the lasting impression is of a chorus of voices, both creaturely and human, that rises up to tell strange tales before vanishing into a subterranean darkness.
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