review by Gabriel
It’s Murakamipalooza! By which I mean, I’ve read two Murakami short story collections in a row. That probably doesn’t qualify for a palooza suffix, but I’m going with it anyway. The Elephant Vanishes, like Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, is a random collection of short stories, being neither chronologically nor thematically linked. It is probably more consistent in quality than the latter, and contains everything you’d expect of the author – readability, weirdness, a sense of playfulness and gratuitous references to jazz, classical music and cats. But it also contains a few stories that surprised me with their characterisation and perspective, and showed me that Murakami can be more flexible than I’d thought.
As I’ve said in other reviews, Murakami often includes weird things in his stories simply because they make them more interesting. Dancing dwarves, vanishing elephants, little green monsters, barn burning arsonists – you get the idea. He creates fictional worlds full of symbols and events that seem to signify something, but in fact have no underlying meaning.
If Hemingway writes using the iceberg method, where the bulk of the meaning is submerged beneath the surface, Murakami writes using the UFO method, where the story is weird and fascinating, but probably just an illusion. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Lots of people spend their lives obsessing over UFOs. I’d even go so far as to say that Murakami’s lack of philosophy is one of the reasons he’s so popular – a kind of playful nihilism that would appeal to modern audience. Most importantly, he’s able to pull it off because he understands what it takes to tell a good story.
His characters are similarly nebulous. The narrator is usually a detached middle-class everyman thrust into an unusual situation, and he’s often paired with a wife who he feels estranged from in some way. We might find out about some of their daily habits or quirks, but we never have a clear idea of their motivations or limitations, or any of the other things that make it easier to connect with a character is like. Whenever they’re faced with some strange occurrence, they usually just shrug their shoulders and deal with it in their own private way. And most of the time, these ciphers serve perfectly well for the purposes of the story.
But in The Elephant Vanishes there are three stories in which Murakami utilises narrators with voices and perspectives that are distinct from his default storyteller. Sleep is told from the viewpoint of an unhappy housewife, who finds in her prolonged inability to sleep the means to reclaim her identity. A Family Affair is about a twenty-something playboy who is forced to reconsider the direction of his life by his younger sister and her fiancée. And A Window tells the story of a young man who writes personal letters for a living, and his meeting with one of his clients.
As I was reading, I found myself enjoying the realistic stories more, and getting a bit tired of the fantastical ones. There is a tendency for Murakami to focus on the gimmick at the expense of the human element. I’m thinking here of The Dancing Dwarf, The Little Green Monster and TV People, none of which were really engaging.
Maybe I’m just Murakamied out for the time being. I get tired of reading too much of any author with such distinctive voice and style. And while I’d love to see him stretch himself to write more from varied perspectives, the reason he’s probably my most read author is because I know that I can rely on him to deliver page-turners that aren’t too heavy, but which effectively capture some of the mystery and ennui of modern life.