Author: Haruki Murakami
Year Published: 1994
This is the first book I’ve read by Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, and I must say, I was impressed. The book is a collection of 17 short stories, each focusing on a particular character’s point of view as they struggle with their own questions of identity. Some stories focus on characters struggling to break out of their monotonous routines – either to regain a part of themselves they felt they lost or to move forward from where they are now – while others drop their characters into somewhat absurd situations and watch the scenario play out.
The Elephant Vanishes is an excellent read – postmodern fiction at its finest. Murakami is highly skilled at inventing believable characters and giving us a glimpse into their lives. His ability to write such compelling characters – anonymous characters that tell us about their own world philosophies and interactions with friends, family, and strangers – and focus on the intricacies of every day situations – like family interactions, careers, love, and death – bring the stories to life.
For instance, Sleep focuses on a mother who hasn’t slept for 17 days. She hasn’t told anyone about this because she doesn’t want to worry her family. Yet, she cherishes those hours she has all to herself, when everyone else is sleeping. It allows her the freedom to explore who she once was – to read novels again, to indulge in chocolate and brandy, and to drive around the city in the middle of the night – searching for identity and meaning. At one point, she observes her sleeping husband and sees her mother in law’s face. She realizes they had grown apart and remembers the incident where she lost faith in their relationship. Yet her quest for independence takes an ironic turn when she finds herself in just the dangerous situation she had been warned about some time before – but at that time, it could never happen to her.
And then there’s the 100% Perfect Girl which describes a man who passes his 100% perfect girl as he walks down the street. Only after he passes her does he finally figure out what he should have said to her, but by that time, it is too late.
The TV People is a fascinating story about the mysterious TV people – men who are slightly smaller than average who deliver TVs, yet no one recognizes their existence. Our narrator is captivated by these people who one day, silently deliver a TV to his apartment. He watches them curiously, as not only did he not purchase the TV, but they don’t seem to acknowledge that he is even in the room, making him question his own existence. And things become even odder when his wife comes home and doesn’t even seem to notice it. Later, he sees the TV people at the office, but when he asks about them, his co-worker ignores him for the rest of the day. It sees that by acknowledging that the TV people do exist, he loses his own identity and becomes like them.
And Family Affair describes the interactions of a bachelor-for-life brother and his soon to be married sister, who he’s been living with for the last several years. The sister tries desperately to get her brother to take an active interest in her fiancée – to meet his family, have dinner with them, and the like. Yet the brother remains in his disinterested state, preferring not to get involved with the affairs of others, and choosing to spend his time drinking and dating. The sibling interaction is endearing, though the two obviously come from different life philosophies, and have a difficult time understanding one another.
Overall, I found the book quite enjoyable and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys character development over plot. Each tale is only a few pages, and focuses on describing a character’s world view in their daily activities, rather than creating a beginning, middle, and end. It’s as if you were meeting these characters in real life and they’ve decided to tell you a story about themselves. Of course, they’ve had full lives up to this point, and will continue to do so once they stop interacting with you, but for these few minutes, they have a story to tell.