- Kaleb A. Brown
Men Without Women Book Review
Updated: Aug 6, 2021
For the annotations, both humorous and thoughtful, that I wrote while reading Men Without Women (mostly of "An Independent Organ"), check out the review on Goodreads.
Read from ~04/21/2021 - 04/30/2021
I approached Haruki Murakami's 2017 short story collection, Men Without Women both as a fan and a sceptic. I approached as a fan because Haruki Murakami is one of my favorite authors. Ever since I read Norwegian Wood, I've been sucked into his worlds: often fantastical yet grounded in reality. He ingeniously uses just a bit of fanaticism to make a normal world appear strange, unsettling. Even relatively normal stories such as Norwegian Wood can strike as odd whether through their pre-occupations or the actions of their characters. I always find myself engrossed in his prose. I respect Murakami to such an extent that I'd say he's an inspiration for my own writing. With ten books read, Murakami is the author whose work I've read the most of, just edging out Margaret Weis of Dragonlance fame. However, for all the respect and fond memories I have of Murakami's work, I've had to acknowledge that one of my favorite authors may be Problematic™. Murakami finds himself being a frequent whipping boy of r/menwritingwomen, a subreddit dedicated to showcasing male authors failing to compellingly portray women in their work. Accusations of the authors on display range from being good authors who simply have a blindspot, hacks, horndogs, to full-blown sexists. From what I've seen, Murakami is often criticized to be a mildly sexist horndog. Being a fan of him, I was naturally defensive.. However, after reading an admittedly gross author introduction in his anthology in which he introduces Andrea Lee as being "a woman of remarkable beauty," finding her to be slim and elegant," I had to wrestle with the possibility that I might indeed have a Problematic Fave.
Still, my time worked out so that I could finally have another annual Murakami Month and the premise of Men Without Women intrigued me. I'm a sucker for love stories, particularly ones that highlight love's hurts, its harms, instead of just its healing. On the other hand, this short story collection brought as much suspicion as it did intrigue. A collection titled Men Without Women by an author who may-or-may not have a women problem was practically advertising the possibility to tarnish my view of Murakami. I went in this book cautiously curious. Curious to see if I'd find another Murakami book I adored, but cautious that I'd find something that made me question someone I once respected.
And what did I find?
On one hand, the jury's still out on how Problematic™ Murakami is. Don't get me wrong, there's certainly problematic, unquestionably annoying aspects of the book that I'll get into shortly. That said, I'm not sure it's quite enough to throw him under the bus, whether said bus' horn is disavowing his work completely or doing my damndest to separate art from the artist. On the other hand, the jury's in on the quality of this book in-and-of-itself: it's good, I suppose. There are certainly some standouts, but overall, I don't think the collection is that much to write home about. Given how much I gushed about Murakami's uniqueness as an author, I can't help but feel a bit disappointed.
Men Without Women consists of seven short stories, most dealing with a man losing a woman that's close to him, whether through break-up or death. One deals with a man who doesn't have relationships with women at all. In all the stories, Murakami explores the psyches of the male characters, seeing how they deal with this loss or lack. And we've got a mix here; while the stories are all fairly consistent in subject matter, there's decidedly a range in how much I believe and care about the main character, how engaging the story is, and how much it has that "Murakami flair" I've come to know and love.
The first story, "Drive My Car", follows main character, Kafuki, an actor who hires a chauffeur. In the story, he reflects upon his relationship with his long-departed wife, whom, shortly before death, he discovered had been having multiple affairs. He muses to himself and his attentive chauffeur, trying to figure out why someone who seemed to love him until the bitter end cheated on him. I liked the story well-enough. The main character was believable, the story was decently engaging, and I found the main character's struggle and questions heartbreaking without being overwrought. Murakami has a knack for understatement, for a matter-of-fact way of approaching material that should be shocking or provoking. In Men Without Women it's used to give a detached, almost clinical view of loss and isolation, making it feel that much more heartbreaking. Writing this, I can acknowledge how Murakami uses his unique style to further these stories, but I still can't help but feel that they don't feel that much like Murakami. I certainly don't want to pigeonhole him, but a lot of these stories I could see being written by someone else without losing too much. Ultimately, this is fine for "Drive My Car". As it's the opening story, you could argue that it acclimates readers before things get wild. On the other hand, I'd argue that "Drive My Car" sets the scene for an ultimately less exciting Murakami ride that I'd want. Again, though, it's a decent story that ends in agonizing irresolution.
The second story, "Yesterday", follows narrator Tanimura, as he reflects on his relationship with his oddball friend, Kitamura. The easy-going Kitamura's eccentricities drive a wedge between him and his longtime girlfriend and childhood friend, Erika. Kitamrua gives his friend permission to date Erika in his steed, and while the two are confused, they agree to it. While on their date, Erika reveals that she's been cheating on Kitamura. The story, similar to the previous one, is good, yet nothing phenomenal. I bring up the plot of "Yesterday" because you may notice that it also features a woman who cheats on her partner. Given one of my preoccupations of determining if Murakami is Problematic™ you can probably guess why I'd take notice.
Infidelity plays a part in five of the seven stories; invariably, the main character themselves is never the person cheating, it's always the women they're seeing. Infidelity is a quick way to make me dislike a character, but I tried to look past my feelings, asking myself what purpose, if any, the infidelity served. Its purpose isn't to paint a picture of the main characters; in parts thanks to Murakami's style, in parts thanks to the medium of short stories, we don't get much characterization of the relationships themselves. If anything, we get the guy going "I didn't do anything wrong." From this, it's possible that the infidelity is meant to characterize the women in the stories.
This is most explicit in the third story and my least favorite, "An Independent Organ." This story, more than the others, is focused on infidelity. An already somewhat uncomfortable journey is made doubly so thanks to a very unlikable, womanizing main character that pushed all the wrong buttons for me. For one, he actively pursues women that are already in relationships. An unlikable main protagonist doesn't make for a bad story, but it does make for a bad story when the narrator is a glorified hype man whose job is to tell you "oh no, this scuzzy dude is in fact so noble!" The character is self-important to the point of genuine disgust. When the sod catches feelings for one of his flings, he compares the pain and confusion he feels to a Jewish person being sent to a Nazi concentration camp. And another character independently comes up with the same comparison. The story would work fine if the narrator served as a straight-man to the main character, Tokai, and his insanity. As it relates to infidelity, the story's main takeaway seems to be that "women lie." The titular "independent organ" is a hypothetical organ that allows women to easily lie. This is really rich given the main character being fine with these lies until it affects him. I'd like to say that the gross attitude is specific to this story, but even if it's not explicitly stated, it's hard to feel this sentiment doesn't apply to the collection as a whole given Murakami's obsession with cheating women.
Three stories in, and I wasn't too keen on the collection. I was halfway through the book and the stories so far ranged from "just good" to "awful." At worst ,the trio began proving my suspicions toward Murakami, at best, they simply weren't what I was looking for when I pick up a Murakami book. Norwegian Wood as tame as it is in terms of fantastical elements, still felt quite unique. There was little about these stories that screamed "Murakami" to me.
Fortunately, things pick up immediately after, with "Scheherazade" being a bit unsettling in its bizarreness, though still conveyed with a distinct matter-of-factness. I'm not at all unique in saying that "Kino" is the standout story — quickly swerving into odd territory near the end, but not simply doing it to shock. Despite being one of the most odd, it feels like the most genuine stories of the bunch, with the cherry on top being that it feels like something only Murakami could have written. While "Kino" may be the best story, "Samsa in Love" is my absolute favorite. It's both the most absurd and most sweet story. My appreciation of it would doubtlessly be enhanced if I read the original story it was derived from. I'd say Murakami saved the best for last if not for Men Without Women. It has Murakami's characteristic weirdness, but it's a bit too obtuse for its own good. It really tries to earn its place as the titular piece (complete with an extremely award title drop) but just falls flat for me.
That being said, I cannot deny that the back half is much, much stronger than the first, to the point where I'd say you're fine skipping over the first three stories entirely. As I said before, I liked the second half because it tapped into Murakami's strengths. I'm ultimately not sure that I can recommend this in full. There are some highlights, but they're ultimately bogged down by middling and downright bad sections that I don't feel are indicative of Murakami's talents. If you're new to Murakami and looking for a more grounded work of his to get into, I'd still suggest Norwegian Wood over this book, unless you're fine only reading a few stories. As for my preoccupation, I still can't say for sure where I stand. In light of the criticisms lodged at Murakami, some aspects of this collection made me uncomfortable, and there are unfortunate implications that seem to snake underneath the surface throughout. Perhaps me walking away from this book with my respect of Murakami intact despite the number of times I recoiled while reading is indicative of me being in denial of my favorite author's misogyny and/or sexism, even if it's not born of malice. I'll say this: I have evidence, but not enough that I can cast judgment without reasonable doubt. Right now, the only thing I'm 100% sure of is Murakami is a weird dude, and I could have told you that after reading Norwegian Wood all those years ago. I largely leave the book the same way I approached: skeptical. It's just now I leave having read a book that was "just good."