'Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman' by Haruki Murakami

New story collection reveals elements of his engaging fiction

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Haruki Murakami's fiction can be neatly divided into two distinct categories. Novels such as "A Wild Sheep Chase," "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" and "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" are genre mash-ups in which he expertly splices together noir detective fiction, magical realism and outright horror into a uniquely unsettling literary hybrid.

   
"BLIND WILLOW, SLEEPING WOMAN"

By Haruki Murakami
Knopf ($24.95)

   

His smaller, more personal works such as "Norwegian Wood," "Sputnik Sweetheart" and "South of the Border, West of the Sun" offer the reader a more intimate and nuanced storytelling that, for all the mysteries of human behavior that the author may explore, stay resolutely in the very real and familiar world of the everyday.

The schizophrenic nature of Murakami's books could certainly be confusing for a first-time reader. Choose "Wild Sheep Chase" and you forfeit Murakami's beautifully textured characterizations. Choose "Norwegian Wood" and you miss out on the author's adroitly imagined fantasies.

Luckily for the newbie, this collection offers a large helping of Murakami's short stories, a fine distillation of all the defining characteristics of the author's work.

It is in the tight weave of the short story, most no longer than a few pages, that the genetic strands from which the novels are built are best and most easily examined and appreciated.

As Murakami says in his introduction, "The short story is a kind of experimental laboratory for me as a novelist." And "short stories are like guideposts to my heart."

In his own words, then, the form represents both streams of the author's fiction, the entirely fanciful and the painfully personal.

The breadth of Murakami's imagination is in full flower in the stories. In "Poor Aunt," a writer toying with the idea of composing a story about, for no particular reason other than sudden inspiration, a poor aunt one day finds a bizarre addition to his body.

"Perhaps it was the tiny punishment that had been prepared for me. A poor aunt -- a little one -- was stuck to my back."

In "The Ice Man," a young woman, naturally enough, falls in love with a man of ice much to her family's dismay, "And listen, they went on, he's an Ice Man, so what happens if he melts. ... How can an Ice Man possibly fulfill his responsibilities as a husband?"

It could justifiably be argued that such obvious authorial intervention in one's fiction is heavy-handed and knocks the reader right out of the fictive dream.

The thing about Murakami, though, is that at least on one level, his fiction is a study of what it means to be a character trapped inside a Murakami story. Yes, the author does invent entirely strange scenarios for his characters to inhabit, but that is part of the pleasure of reading the stories.

In less assured hands these stories would just not work, but Murakami, unorthodox though he might be, is a writer of great skill.

Stories such as "The Year of Spaghetti" and "A Folklore for My Generation: A Prehistory of Late-Stage Capitalism" are less entranced by bizarre happenstance and more concerned with the emotional isolation of average people.

Whether by way of the darkly fantastic or by merely observing the routine behavior of the estranged, Murakami time and again returns to idea that we are all essentially trapped inside ourselves, prisoners of our own making.

This is the core truth that roots even his most fanciful imaginings to the real world in which we all live.


Kristofer Collins is the owner of Desolation Row CDs in Oakland and also an editor at The New Yinzer.


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