Mark & Thom,
When I saw this book on our reading list, I was overjoyed. I knew of Murakami from my dad (an avid reader) and from of my interest in Japanese culture, but had never acted on the impulse to read his work. Truthfully, I haven’t read for my own enjoyment in quite some time, and even though Men Without Women was an assignment, the book was glued to my hand this week as I found quiet, leaf-coated nooks on campus to escape. To me, there is something about Murakami’s style that draws you in from the first line, a kind of carefully constructed simplicity carrying so much meaning. For example, the very beginning of “An Independent Organ” – “There are people in the world who – thanks to a lack of intellectual acuity – love a life that surprisingly artificial.” In one sentence, Murakami easily describes the superficial way some people live, some of whom with we have all interacted at some point. As he expresses so much in so little time, it makes me wonder how the original text is worded in Japanese. If I can find a copy, I will try to use my limited knowledge of the language to learn something new and include it in my next letter if I succeed.
But in just the title, Men Without Women – there lies the core of all seven stories. Most of the men spiral downwards when they have lost the women, each fall taking shape in individual forms of sorrow, despair, or longing. Yet, Murakami still varies the narrative: Samsa from “Samsa in Love” is a man without a woman, unknowingly, until he meets the locksmith, and Kitaru from “Yesterday” does not become one until the end, and is better for it. Habara from “Scheherazade” is only one because he has the aforementioned eponymous woman, but not completely. All the works have varying plots and types of conflict, but if there is a man without a woman, there is also a man with one. It reminds me somewhat of Newton’s third law, where for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Reactions, complementary and contrary to emotional loss, permeate the collection.
This theme of loss, while still engrossing, is repetitive, but reflects how a certain course of events tend to repeat over and over, mirroring reality. Murakami even states how constant loss can influence a person in “Men Without Women“: “You might meet a new woman, but no matter how wonderful she may be . . . from the instant you meet, you start thinking about losing her” (224). Paranoia sinks in from the start, regardless of anything else. With this truth, Murakami’s take on the loss of love is fresh, detailed, and relatable, even with a pattern that has occurred forever, one that we still find ourselves in from time to time. I use the word “we” because as much as the book is about men, it is about women – after all, men cannot be without women if they do not exist. Messy, sometimes unhealthy relationships are the focal points of the work, only from a male perspective. Having specifically men narrating the stories was also a necessary choice Murakami made to describe the loneliness and pain of loss, as the women depicted did not suffer in the same way. Whenever they left the protagonists, the women usually had someone, whether a boyfriend, husband, lover, or family, to be with them. The men were left in a snowstorm, barely able to see a hand in front of their faces. Feeling themselves disappear, they remained cold, empty, alone, and exactly where Murakami wanted them.
Kaitlin & Thom,
Kaitlin, I hope you have the opportunity to read Murakami’s work in the original language. Translation can sometimes lose nuances in the original text. I also have an interest in Japanese culture, and Murakami took common individuals, with common problems, and made them interesting.
I feel that a theme of choice is also present within Men Without Women. We see men and women make them and see the consequences of the decisions. In “Yesterday,” Kitaru’s situation is summed in his line, “I known her since she was a kid, and it’s kind of embarrassing, y’know, to act like we’re just starting out.” In one choice, Kintaru sets the course of his relationship with Erika. They miss out being together because Kitaru makes the choice to not push forward, and Erika chooses to not share her feelings with him. With “An Independent Organ,” Dr. Tokai chooses to date married women, and the same women choose to cheat on their husbands. Wrong as Dr. Tokai’s action are, he didn’t trick the women. In the end, Dr. Tokai discovers the women are using him, and he lets that knowledge destroy him. Through each of his stories, Murakami is reminding readers that we live in a messy, complicated world.
Personally, I’ve dreaded facing a sentiment Murakami has chosen as the core of his stories: loneliness. The last few years I have filled my days with so much noise as to forget my own loneliness. I fell into video games as an escape. My life followed a pattern: wake up, work my survival job, and play video games until I fell asleep. This mechanical pattern repeats often in each of Murakami’s short stories, like with Kafuku in “Drive My Car.” Since picking up Men Without Women, the loneliness that Murakami infused the soul of his stories with has pushed its way back up from that dark recess inside me, that “deep down inside your body” as Murakami put it, and left me lying awake at 4am.
I’ve lost women in my life. Two girlfriends I loved and was with for several years each. Both left; they didn’t die, they just walked away. I stood alongside each character in Murakami’s stories and felt what they felt. Except in “An Independent Organ.” I never understood the ‘casual dating’ most people do. Kino’s numbness to pain in “Kino.” Kitaru’s feeling of worthlessness in “Yesterday.” Those feelings, though, are all too familiar to me. I’ve tried to escape the grey landscape that all men without women live in. I, like Gregor Samsa in “Samsa in Love,” felt trepidation towards the new world – social scene – that we had awakened to.
Just like the “red-wine stain on a pastel carpet,” loneliness creeps and spreads out from it’s initial contact with your soul. It starts to affect you in other parts of your life. I hesitate to open up and let others know what I’m thinking or feeling. Last year, a class assignment on writing nonfiction experimental – a story of something happening as it’s happening – led me to write about my attempt at socializing again. So, I went out to a bar. I didn’t talk with anyone. I just sat on the stool, drank my beer, then left. In a weird way, that memory makes me feel just like Kamita in “Kino”, sitting quietly in the corner while passively sipping his drink and reading his book. I’ve tried to fill the loneliness with new friends, but it pushes back. I end up keeping everyone at arm’s length. In time, even they drift away. I form relations with nameless, featureless faces among crowds.
Kaitlin & Mark,
I find your interpretation of “choice” to be rather interesting, as, in my observations, Murakami’s stories express a theme of external “choice.” That our choices are not true representations of our free will, but rather responses to the choices that life has presented before us. Take the examples of Dr. Tokai and Kino. Both find themselves alone in a room, dwelling upon the loneliness of their lives. Dr. Tokai chooses to waste away, while, though his narrative ends before any conclusive elements, Kino appears to move on. In Kino’s case, this option for reflection is placed before him in what he literally believes to be a manifestation of the tree by his house; the tree is presented to be symbolic of life, so it ties back to the idea of life presenting choices. Another example of such a “choice” would be Kafuku and his driver Misaki. Though she has been placed into his life by what seems to be divine will (in the story it is said that his associate recommends her, but in a literary sense, that’s essentially a disguised deus ex machima). Though it is not inherently implied that any sort of romantic connection could arise between the two, Misaki’s professional silence allows time for Kafuku to reflect and, therefore, to choose to open up.
The book itself serves as a sort of meta-opportunity for the reader to reflect and potentially, through potential emotional connections to those represented in the book, choose to open themselves up as well.
Mark & Thom,
Choice and loneliness. These two themes you have brought into discussion have great influences on each other in human behavior, which is what Murakami does best – portraying simple, heartbreaking reality.
People make bad choices. Everyone does, without exception; it is a fact of life. Mark, your mention of nonfiction brought up a memory which I described in a nonfiction story I wrote last year about a time when I was overcome with jealousy. An outgoing, peppy girl – my opposite – was befriending a girl to whom I felt quite close, and one day I made an overtly possessive remark. A selfish decision; an unfortunate choice. I do not know how that may have influenced my future relationship with my friend, but I know my actions were caused by a fear of abandonment. In other words, a fear of loneliness.
Loneliness influences us to make decisions to counter it, whether it be lying to keep a significant other, joining a club, or immersing oneself in novels and befriending characters because reality is too difficult. These decisions made to avoid isolation occur frequently in Men Without Women. Kafuku sought out Takatsuki for revenge, but also because he didn’t want to share the grief of his wife’s death alone. Even though they didn’t have the same level of pain, he desired companionship with someone who knew her almost as well. Erika Kuritani made the choice of sleeping with the man from the tennis club to quench her loneliness because Kitaru couldn’t be there to support her. She also lied to Kitaru because she didn’t want to suffer from his loss. Even Kitaru made a major choice to avoid isolation – adopting the Kansai accent because he didn’t want to be treated like an outsider at the Hanshin Tigers’ games. The gravity of this decision does not come across in English, but in Japanese the accent is immediately discernible from the standard Tokyo style with its elongated vowels, different contractions, and constant cacophony. Think of a harsh Brooklyn accent – while still English, the words seem so otherworldly and different. Kitaru altering his entire sound and speaking style (a large portion of one’s identity as it indicates the culture of where one was raised) just to “be part of the community” during a baseball game shows how much he needed to belong (43). We seek human connection and will do a number of things – horrible, ambitious, and selfish – to keep ourselves from being without it.
I have never been, by a basic definition, a lonely person. I’ve always had many friends with few conflicts and have dated my first boyfriend for over two years, so I haven’t experienced loss or heartbreak like the men in Murakami’s stories. But, from time to time I find myself struck with a kind of loneliness when I’m at parties or in large groups of friends. Everything is fine, and suddenly I’m pushed into the depths of a murky lake. I can hear the gurgled laughs and am periodically blinded by fleeting rays of joys, but I can’t feel the warmth. Tethered to the bottom, I smile, too, but know they are out of reach. It’s usually spurned by a shared gaze or a joke I do not understand, but, in those moments I become an outsider instantaneously.
I could make choices to establish deeper relationships to avoid this feeling, but something always holds me back. Like Kitaru, I busy myself with silly things rather than with what can be done to procure boundless possibilities. Something holds me back, and I remain stagnant.
P.S. In examining my Japanese copy of Men Without Women, I discovered that “Samsa in Love” was not originally included, but was placed in the English version. This was a surprise, but made sense, as I thought that story felt a bit out of place. Gregor Samsa is also not Murakami’s own character. Just some food for thought.
Kaitlin & Thom,
Kaitlin, your words of being in a “murky lake” and “tethered to the bottom” is like Scheherazade’s story of the lamprey and the trout. Is that how we are going to live our lives? I can’t believe I would ever befriend the guy my girlfriend or spouse cheated with, but Kafuku did . . . That’s just too . . . well, messed up. You mentioned the chapter on “Samsa in Love,” which I thought was an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
I was up all night again yesterday. Murakami’s story of “Scheherazade” bothered me. Things left unfinished, left unsaid: “what he really wanted, he thought, was for her to tell him the rest of her story, but he didn’t put that into words. Doing so might jeopardize his chances of ever hearing it.” I met a girl on an elevator Saturday. The opportunity to chat was there, but I let it slide away, just as Kitaru slides away from Erika in “Yesterday.” Kitaru’s lyrics, “Yesterday/ Is two days before tomorrow” – are they pointing out that the present is what’s missing? We worry about what is gone, we long for a future that waits a day out of reach, all the while wasting the single moment that we actually live in.
Last night I puzzled over a passage from “Drive My Car.” Murakami wrote, “He didn’t want to imagine such things, but he couldn’t help it. The images whittled away at him like a sharp knife, steady and unrelenting. There were times he thought it would have been far better to never have known.” It ties back to the unfinished story of “Scheherazade.” I wonder at Murakami’s message. Is our desire to know what keeps us unable to move out of stagnation, out of loneliness? All the years I spent in solitude, wondering what was wrong with me that made my previous girlfriends leave, could have been avoided. I just needed to let go and move on. Murakami’s phrases between “Drive My Car” and “Scheherazade” make me think it is those individuals who cling to what was lost, analyzing every little detail, that end up alone. The inability to let it go drives us into a deeper pit. Does the pain and emptiness fade if we abandon seeking the truth in situations like those of Men Without Women?
I hope so.
About the Author: Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto, Japan, in 1949. He grew up in Kobe and then moved to Tokyo, where he attended Waseda University. After college, Murakami opened a small jazz bar, which he and his wife ran for seven years.
In 1978 Murakami was in the bleachers of Jingu Stadium watching a baseball game between the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp when Dave Hilton, an American, came to bat. According to an oft-repeated story, in the instant that he hit a double, Murakami suddenly realized that he could write a novel. He went home and began writing that night.
About the Authors of this Post: Kaitlin Koncilja is a junior at North Central College majoring in Psychology and Sociology. She enjoys Japanese, video editing, and writing poetry. She hopes to work in criminal research while still finding time for her other passions.