According to the bestselling Japanese author who is celebrated for
both his short fiction and his longer novels, writing short stories
is a purely joyful experience and a welcome respite from the
challenges that accompany writing a full-length book. "If writing
novels is like planting a forest, then writing short stories is
more like planting a garden. The two processes compliment each
other, creating a complete landscape that I treasure." BLIND
WILLOW, SLEEPING WOMAN is Murakami's latest collection of short
stories, compiled over the last 25 years of his career.
If many of the 24 offerings presented here seem familiar, they are
--- 19 have been previously published in prominent literary and
cultural magazines such as The New Yorker,
Harper's, McSweeny's, Granta, The
Yale Review and Storie Magazine, and one ("Firefly")
appeared in his highly acclaimed novel, NORWEGIAN WOOD. When
included together in the same volume seemingly in no particular
order, these stories represent a comprehensive portrait of
Murakami's wide-ranging talent and broad scope.
As many fans of his are aware, the magic of Murakami's work lies
mainly in his ability to manipulate structure when balancing what
is with what might be. His multi-layered stories consist of a
number of atmospheric and allegoric vignettes that, when fused
together, form a narrative that takes place somewhere between
fantasy and reality. Contemplative and often very intense, these
dreamlike sequences add depth to the plot and meaning that can take
days to digest and comprehend. In most, if not all of these
stories, this emphasis on what lies in-between is what makes them
so compulsively readable.
While not all of the stories in this collection are up to
Murakami's far above-average par, there are a few of them that
stand out. "The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes" is quite possibly
the collection's most entertaining piece, for it parodies the
Japanese literary "scene" at the time of Murakami's debut. In the
form of a fable, he describes a man who attends a "major
informational seminar" on Sharpie Cakes --- a type of confection.
The purveyors of the conference are sponsoring a contest to see who
can create the preeminent Sharpie Cake for the next generation.
High-minded readers will love the somewhat predictable but
nonetheless ingenious ending (featuring a gaggle of Sharpie Crow
judges pecking each other to death upon picking a possible winner)
and might even smugly agree with its sentiment.
"Birthday Girl" was composed when Murakami was working on an
anthology containing other writers' birthday-themed stories.
Thankfully, his editor requested that he also write a story for
that collection, and the result of that request is also included
here --- a perfect illustration of a somewhat real, somewhat
fantastical and slightly ungraspable allegory of a person on the
edge of a seemingly ordinary yet life-changing experience. What
transpires on the protagonist's 20th birthday is simple, yet the
consequences are unalterable and far-reaching. Looking back on that
day many years later, the girl shares a bittersweet conversation
with a friend about what happened, and the impression left is both
perceptive and slightly unnerving.
"Nausea 1979," "The Year of Spaghetti," "Firefly" and "Crabs" are
all variations on the same intertwined theme: loneliness begets
haphazard behavior in the attempt to find communion begets even
more loneliness. In each of these stories, characters fumble around
carelessly trying to connect with each other while also trying to
maintain their independence. They love wholeheartedly. Some latch
on too tightly while others push defiantly away. No matter what the
circumstances are, all of them take advantage of each other,
thereby forgetting their inherent mortality (in its most basic
sense) and end up alone despite their intentions.
While most readers will not like all of the selections in
Murakami's latest collection equally, they will find certain
pleasure rifling through the pages to pick out what to read. His
introduction provides a useful menu of background information
surrounding the stories, as well as a few notes about their
translation. BLIND WILLOW, SLEEPING WOMAN is a worthwhile foray
into this esteemed author's shorter works while waiting for his
next sure-to-be marvelous full-length literary masterpiece.
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on December 22, 2010