Three years ago there was a tiny revolution in the world of short-story writing. It was a small-stakes putsch, sure, but for those who flip eagerly to the fiction pages of The New Yorker or Harper’s it was an event. Writing in McSweeney’s, Michael Chabon called out his fellow writers for penning boring stories, and he had an alternative to present. Chabon had asked 20 contributors to write thrilling tales in which something happened and mysteries abounded. Not all the stories that came from this call to arms worked—but a few of them did, and they reminded readers how much more short stories could be when unshackled from literary pretensions.
The only problem with Chabon’s literary intervention was that there was already at least one writer working in a style that was literary and action-packed all at once: Haruki Murakami. Since 1980, the year he wrote his first short story, the Japanese writer has provided a walking definition of genius: his work is magical because it’s almost impossible to explain how he does it. Why is a short story about a man obsessed with a human-sized frog not just funny, but poignant too? How does he make a tale of cooking only spaghetti for a year sound so eerie and otherworldly? Is there any other writer who can make a yarn about a man who sees a ghost feel so true to life?
Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman is Murakami’s latest collection, and it gathers stories from the last two decades of his career. In an introduction the author remarks that the first one was written in the early ’80s, and the last were written in a five-week blitz in 2005 and published that same year in Japan as Five Strange Tales from Tokyo. In between, he has pilfered a story or two from other books and included five short pieces of “flash fiction.” The resulting book should feel like a grab bag; instead it shines as a virtuosic demonstration of Murakami’s incredible range.
Murakami is a master of tone, and among the first things to jump out of these tales is how well he manipulates a reader’s curiosity. “This happened over ten years ago, and I’ve never told anybody about it,” begins “The Mirror,” a Poe-like tale about a night watchman scared by his own reflection. “What follows is the story of a guy I know, a high school classmate in Kobe,” starts another, the tale of a man who has a chance to sleep with his high-school sweetheart, only 10 years later, after she’s married to another man.
Moral dilemmas abound in these tales, but they are often cloaked in strange occurrences. In “Nausea, 1979,” a man who has a monthlong vomiting spell may be receiving bodily punishment for making a sport out of cuckolding his friends. “The Seventh Man” revolves around its narrator’s sureness that he saw a friend of his who drowned riding onto a beach on a wave—looking at him through the icy water and smiling. A woman in “Hanalei Bay” begins taking an annual pilgrimage to the beach in Hawaii where her somewhat estranged son was attacked by a shark. At the end of one trip, she learns she is the only one who doesn’t see his ghost sitting there watching the surfers.
Like Kafka or Gogol, Murakami can slip sideways out of reality because the premise of his storytelling is always this: something strange happened; let me tell you about it. He’s also a master of economy. His sentences are short and matter-of-fact. Repetition, rather than embellishment, often achieves his desired tone. “It rained a few times each day,” he writes in “Hanalei Bay,” the story about the mother whose son was killed by a shark. “Violently, as if someone were tipping a huge bowl of water out of the sky. Autumn weather on the north shore of Kauai was unstable. When a downpour started, she would sit in her car, watching the rain. And when the rain let up, she would go out to sit on the beach again, watching the sea.”
In just a few sentences, Murakami has sketched a moody scene and shown us the relief in giving one’s grieving self over to a higher power—in this case, the elements. Here is Murakami’s greatest achievement in these stories: He approaches the large subjects sideways, through mood and bizarre occurrences, and always trusts his readers’ capacity to be moved. Most of the time, he gives us an unusual tale, something worth passing on—a thrilling experience. Other times he simply describes the weight and texture of a middle-aged man’s ennui. Somehow, Murakami makes that thrilling, too.