Books on Japan

Men Without Women

By Haruki Murakami

My Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

“Perhaps an even more distressing prospect for Habara than the cessation of sexual activity, however, was the loss of the moments of shared intimacy. To lose all contact with women was, in the end, to lose that connection. What his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality, on the one hand, while negating it entirely on the other.”

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I’m a big Murakami fan, yet I wasn’t sure I really wanted to spend my time reading Men Without Women.

I just don’t like short stories all that much. I pefer novels. I like to get attached to characters and immerse myself in their stories. With short stories, by the time I get attached to a character, the story is already over.

And with Murakami it’s all about his characters. He’s one of the few authors who puts more effort into crafting his characters than his stories’ plots. Would a Murakami short story be any good I wondered?

Second, the title. Men Without Woman. Ugh! Am I going to get another man explaining to me what’s inside a woman’s head? Not really that interested in reading a book of mansplaining! I sometimes detect a bit of sexism in Murakami’s books.

But hey! It’s Murakami, right? Why not give it a try! Plus! I vowed to read EVERY. SINGLE. THING. Murakami has ever written. And I love books set in Japan.

Did Men Without Women exceed my low expectations? Are we going to get the realistic side of Murakami or the magical realism side?

A Summary of Men Without Women

There are 7 short stories in this collection. And they’re all pretty much about loneliness and about men struggling with the loss of a woman either through death or a breakup.

There’s a lot of cheating going on in these stories as well, and always by the woman. Hmmm. Not sure what Murakami is implying, but then again in most of his novels, the man is the faithful one and the woman is the unfaithful one.

1. Drive My Car – Absolutely favorite story of the bunch! Love, love, love the main character, Kafuku, and the supporting character, Misaki.

Kafuku is a stage actor. He’s lost his license because of a DUI, and because he doesn’t like public transportation or taxis, he hires a driver, Misaki. He ends up getting a female driver, which at first he’s not too keen on having a female driving him around as he finds them irritating drivers. Misaki driving Kafuku around Tokyo lends itself to lots of opportunities to talk about their lives. The main focus of the book is on Kafuku’s wife who passed away and how he befriended his wife’s lover.

Despite his views on female drivers, I loved the character, Kafuku. I think was I adore about him is his complete loyalty and love he had for his wife when she was alive. Maybe I’m a bit of a romantic. But I find men who are still in love with and monogamous to their wives even after being married to them for so long to be kind of sexy. He never cheated on her and never even thought of cheating on her. His wife was a different story.

I sometimes wonder about Murakami’s own relationship with his wife. Is he like Kafuku?

I would love to see a longer novel focusing on the lives and losses of Kafuku and Misaki.

Pretty impressed by this first story, I was looking forward to reading the rest of this collection.

2. Yesterday – “Yesterday” is about a young and eccentric man named Kitaru. He’s got a few quirks—for example, he’s from Tokyo but speaks with a Kansai (Osaka) accent. There’s a long discussion in the story about why this is strange. As a language teacher and as someone who loves Japanese culture, I found this quite fascinating.

Kitaru has a friend/girlfriend who he’s in love with but also not really into. He loves her but he doesn’t want to have sex with her. It’s all a bit complicated and I’m not sure Kitaru understands what he wants either.

I wasn’t as excited about this story as I was about “Drive My Car.” Kitaru has got some interesting idiosyncrasies but he’s also got some annoying ones as well. I actually found him to be kind of stupid.

3. An Independent Organ –Dr. Tokai is a 40-something playboy. He sleeps around with multiple, often married, women. He’s never been married and has no intention of ever getting married. Never been in love and never sees himself ever falling in love. But he’s completely content with his life. And then Dr. Tokai meets a woman he can’t help falling in love with. He tries really hard not to fall in love with her by focusing on her negatives. But he realizes he even loves these negatives.

Kafuku was admirable. Kitaru was stupid. Dr. Tokai was just boring. Philanderers generally bore me (except for Don Draper in Mad Men). He’s also pretty pathetic.

Yet on a positive note. I loved, loved, loved the irony of the story. And I I found so many truths in this story. I think Murakami was asking the question of why some people cannot commit to one person. Is it that they are so afraid that if they really did fall in love, they’d lose control and never recover?

4. Scheherazade – The narrator of this story is housebound for some reason that is never explained. He has a married friend who comes once a week to bring him groceries and sex. The sex isn’t all that great, but the stories she tells afterward are what he most cherishes. Hmmm. Interesting, here. Could it be that the stereotype that men are only interested in sex to be wrong?

For her storyline telling prowess, he calls his friend Scheherazade.

Scheherazade tells this one crazy story of when she was a teenager and in love with a boy. She’d sneak into his house, steal something from him, but also leave gifts for him. The story is interesting. You want to find out if she gets caught or not. Yet I cringe whenever I read stories about people who are so obsessed with someone that they do stupid things like spy on that person or break into their house.

I liked this story. I also liked what Murakami here has to say about sex and intimacy.

5. Kino – Out of all the stories here, Kino has probably the one that has stuck with me the most. Unforgettable characters. Atmospheric setting. And deep, insightful ending.

Kino comes home early from a business trip to find his wife in bed with his coworker! This would be  enough to destroy any sane person. But Kino is pretty nonchalant about it. Not too upset. Or is he more upset than he’s letting on?

Kino and his wife separate. He eventually buys a piece of property from an aunt (somewhere near the Nezu Museum in Tokyo), opens up a bar on the first floor and lives in an apartment on the second floor.

The bar is this small, cozy jazz bar that doesn’t get much business except for some mafia types. There’s one mysterious customer who comes regularly and always sits in the same seat. I imagine the bar is similar to the one Murakami used to own.

Murakami has crafted interesting characters in Kino and the man who sits in the same seat. And the story has a lot to say about how people cope with loss.

But I did find the story disjointed. It starts out focusing on the man who sits in the same seat and some of the customers in the bar. Yet, these people are not central to the story. That sort of frustrated me. It felt poorly thought out, and it felt like Murkami was taking me in one direction throughout most of the book, only to take me in a completely new direction at the end.

6.  Samsa in Love – So far all of these stories up to this point have been pretty realistic. “Samsa in Love” is the most fabulist of all these stories. It reminded me from the start of a Franz Kafka story, and later I read that it’s indeed a reversal of the story, Metamorphosis, where a man named Gregor Samsa turns into an insect. In this one, an insect turns into a man and then falls in love with a hunchback locksmith.

Bizarre story but also kind of cool.

7. Men Without Women – A man gets a phone call in the middle of the night from the husband of a woman he used to date long ago. The husband is calling to tell the narrator that his wife had committed suicide. There’s no explanation as to why or how she killed herself. The narrator can’t figure out why the husband called him, but he’s deeply impacted by the news. And the husband doesn’t leave his name so he doesn’t know the woman’s married last name. He can’t contact the man again to find out the details of her suicide.

This story is ok. It didn’t grab me as much as Drive My Car or Kino.

The storyalso ends with several pages of what feels like a conclusion that wraps up all the stoires. I’m not sure that this ending was needed as I think the points Murakami was trying to make in these stories is self-explanatory.

My Thoughts on Men Without Women                     

Like I said in the beginning of this book review, I’m not a fan of short stories, and if I had a choice between reading a novel by Murakami and a collection of his short stories, novel wins, even a 1000-page one.

I loved some of the stories. Drive My Car and Kino were my favorite. Both of them had characters that really grabbed me emotionally. The rest of the stories were fine.

I didn’t find Murakami doing any mansplaining at all. In fact, I felt he was trying to tell us what relationships mean to men, and how men can be really sensitive and emotionally devastated by the loss of someone they love. It’s also not all about sex. Instead, it’s more about intimacy and making a connection with someone. That is what is important.

Characters: I love Murakami’s books for his characters. But at the same time, you’re going to find the same male protagonists in these stories that you find in almost all of his other stories. Loner, apathetic male without friends or close family. Going through life not really getting excited about too much. Loves music. For me, I’m not tired yet of these men. If you are, you might want to give this collection a skip.

If you love short stories, then I’d recommend this collection. Murakami is a great writer. The language here is beautiful, the characters are well-drawn out, and the stories are pretty interesting.

If you’ve read pretty much most of what Murakami has written, then by all means you probably won’t be too disappointed by this collection.

But if you’re new to Murakami, I’d say look at one of his novels instead. What makes him such a great writer is his focus on the characters and you need a novel to appreciate his work. Short stories end by the time you can get into the character.

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