Could we possibly need yet another fictional investigation of men in 2017? Haruki Murakami’s Men Without Women suggests we do with seven short stories that blend a narrative focus on men who seem equally inept at connecting with women and ultimately incomplete when women seem destined to leave, to be absent.
“Drive My Car” opens Murakami’s slim collection by immediately challenging reader’s with “most female drivers fell into one of two categories,” leading into a story uncritically awash in sexism. Kafuku, an aging actor, hires a woman, Misaki Watari, to be his driver—a sparse plot common in Murakami, whose work is often driven by characters and narration instead of traditional action.
The shallowness of men, the weaknesses of men who embody and perpetuate sexism and misogyny—these would seem to be the sorts of fictional investigations needed in the twenty-first century. Murakami, however, investigates loneliness through the lens of men such as Kafuku:
Kafuku adored his wife. He had fallen deeply in love with her when they first met (he was twenty-nine), and this feeling had remained unchanged until the day she died (he had been forty-nine then). He hadn’t slept with another woman in all the years of marriage. The urge had never arisen, although he had received his fair share of opportunities.
His wife, however, slept with other men on occasion. As far as he knew, there had been four such affairs.
Throughout the collection, Murakami paints these men sympathetically despite their many flaws. Kafuku begins a friendship with one of his wife’s lovers after her death, in fact:
They shook hands once again on parting. A fine rain was falling outside. After Takatsuki had walked off into the drizzle in his beige raincoat, Kafuku, as was his habit, looked down at his right palm. It was that hand that had caressed my wife’s naked body, he thought.
The lonely, abandoned man is a staple of Murakami—and the stories include many signature elements of his fiction, such as The Beatles, quirky narration and the centering of storytelling, bar tending and jazz, and the ever-present hint of the supernatural, the unexplainable.
For readers already drawn to Murakami, this collection reaches out to them while often remaining subtle and nearly stationary. Someone new to Murakami may find the men too flawed to deserve the compassion Murakami seems eager to solicit.
As a Murakami fan and literary scholar of his work, I think the collection shines most powerfully with “Scheherazade” and “Samsa in Love”—both of which center loneliness in ways that rise above the more problematic portrayals of men and women.
“Whatever the case,” we learn in “Scheherazade,” “Scheherazade had a gift for telling stories that touched the heart.” This story’s man is a shut-in, although why is never revealed, and the woman offers him awkwardly satisfying sex and, as noted above, stories.
Habara, the man, dubs the woman “Scheherazade,” although it is not her name and he never shares this with her. The stories about dreams involving lampreys and her own pseudo-sexual teen obsessions driving her to break in a house constitute a second-level set of Murakami’s quirkiness.
The story blends the power of sex/intimacy with storytelling/intimacy as Habara becomes more and more linked to, dependent on Scheherazade:
She got out of bed and put on her clothes—panties, stockings, camisole, and, finally, her skirt and blouse. Habara casually watched the sequence of her movements from the bed. It struck him that the way women put on their clothes could be even more interesting than the way they took them off.
As the reader is guided along with Scheherazade’s adventures, the interior of Habara is more fully revealed, despite the remaining lack of details about his situation. That interior becomes a place where he fears loss:
He could be deprived of his freedom entirely, in which case not only Scheherazade but all women might be taken away from him….Never again would he be able to enter the war moistness of their bodies. Never again would he feel them quiver in response.
This fear of physical loss is immediately qualified:
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 neglecting it entirely on the other.
“Scheherazade,” like many of the stories, walks the edge of objectifying women and reducing any individual woman as simply a stand-in for “woman,” to fulfill the need of any man. But Habara’s sadness is linked to the “gift,” “inexhaustible,” that is Scheherazade.
A companion to “Scheherazade” is the gem of the collection, “Samsa in Love.” Here Murakami brilliantly re-imagines Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, a class of surreal existential literature often under-appreciated for its dark humor and ultimate focus on Gregor Samsa’s family.
The story’s first sentence echoes Kafka’s tale and appears to suggest the insect metamorphosis has reversed (insect becoming again human) with the remnants of the Kafkan nightmare throughout the house.
Samsa is uncomfortable in his human form and suffering an existential crisis of what he knows and how he knows it:
Samsa had no idea where he was, or what he should do. All he knew was that he was now a human whose name was Gregor Samsa. And how did he know that? Perhaps someone had whispered it in his ear while he lay sleeping? But who had he been before he became Gregor Samsa? What had he been?
Deftly, Murakami crafts a layered homage to Kafka as parody of Kafka—the original itself often driven by satire and parody.
Samsa struggles moving about the house—the stairs are a death trap— and feels compelled to cover her nakedness. But what most drives him is hunger, a powerful Kafkan motif in his novella and other works:
What mattered was filling that empty cavern inside him. He ate with total concentration, as if racing against time. He was so fixated on eating that once, as he was licking his fingers, he sank his teeth into them by mistake. Scraps of food flew everywhere, and when a platter fell to the floor and smashed he paid no attention whatsoever.
In his journey through the house, Samsa discovers he is alone, but there seems to have been others who fled quickly—his family. The central conflict of the story, however, is that a woman comes to the door to repair a broken lock.
This visitor appears first to be “little,” but soon Samsa “realized that the issue was not her size. It was her back, which was bent forward in a perpetual stoop.”
The hunchback woman arrives to repair a door lock, and the rest of story reveals an interaction between the only two characters—at times typical Murakami awkward man/woman interaction and then often bawdy slapstick:
“What the hell is that?” she said stonily. “What’s that bulge doing there?”
Samsa looked down at the front of his gown. His organ was really very swollen. He could surmise from her tone that its condition was somehow inappropriate.
Samsa pleads that his arousal is “‘some kind of heart problem'”—not sexual, but the reader soon realizes, his affection is emotional, not merely some carnal attraction.
Against the surreal plot and the social upheaval the woman mentions several times, she offers Samsa words of solace:
“Maybe working on the little things as dutifully and honestly as we can is how we stay sane when the world is falling apart.”…
“If you think of someone enough, you’re sure to meet them again,” she said in parting. This time there was real warmth in her voice.
The story ends with Samsa resolving to work on the little things, and he is hopeful.
None the less, the volume ends with the title story, and the foreboding returns: “Suddenly one day you become Men Without Women.”
Often, Murakami’s men challenge us to feel compassion for their longing, their loss, and their loneliness. But, ultimately, his storytelling suggests to me that, yes, there is something compelling about yet another literary investigation of men in 2017.