Review by Gabriel
This collection includes the short story The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes, in which an unnamed narrator enters a contest to win a two million yen prize by inventing a new kind of confection. To win, he must gain the approval of an unusual panel of judges – the Sharpie Crows, revered birds that live deep in the bowels of the company, and who feed only on genuine Sharpie Cakes. When he presents his invention to the crows (*spoilers on*), they tear each other apart trying to decide if his product is the real deal.
In the introduction to Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, Murakami states that The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes was his reaction to the Japanese literary establishment. When the narrator of the story walks away from the prize due to the savagery and ridiculousness of the judges, he says, “From now on I would make and eat the food I wanted to eat. The damned Sharpie Crows could peck each other to death for all I cared.” This pretty much sums up Murakami’s attitude to writing, and it’s what makes his books so damn enjoyable.
There are twenty six stories contained in this volume. They are about doppelgangers, man-eating cats, spaghetti and palm-sized dab chicks (whatever they are). They are also about relationships, the creative impulse, loneliness and death. Their tone varies from the sombre to hilarious. Some are mundane, but most include his signature style of magic realism.
If you want to enjoy Murakami, don’t try too hard to analyse the supernatural elements in his stories. The vast majority of them don’t mean anything. Sure, the Ice Man or the talking Shinagawa Monkey might convey his feelings on a subject, but mostly they’re just there because reading about weird shit is more interesting than reading about mundane shit. It’s the same with the mysterious atmosphere that hangs over many of his stories – it just makes things more engaging.
If Murakami wants to communicate a message, he just comes out and says it. Sometimes he’s a bit ham-fisted, and his truths are of the simple, everyday variety as opposed to something more scholarly. When he does wax philosophical, it has mixed results. But he always puts the story first, and that’s what makes him a good writer.
Take Birthday Girl. At the end, the main character just comes out and states a message, albeit ambiguously. The rest of the story is devoted to establishing character, setting the scene, creating atmosphere and tension and providing a satisfying climax. It story doesn’t even particularly build towards the message. It’s just a good read.
Murakami is very comfortable with his authorial voice. This means that his male characters often lack variety and are ill-defined because they are proxies for himself. But that’s okay, it works for him. He has a unique and approachable style, and he writes passionately about the things he loves, which makes them interesting to the reader.
Not that all of the stories in Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman are great. The Mirror, A Perfect Day for Kangaroos and The Ice Man are a bit average; Crabs is downright crap. But as a wanna-be writer I find this comforting, and the good is this collection far outweighs the bad.
It’s funny that an author who is apparently being considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature is the subject of debate as to whether his work can actually be considered literature. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t delve deeply into those big philosophical questions, or because he has too much mainstream appeal. But he’s probably just having a bit too much fun to care.