on 16 December 2002
Americans seem to be fascinated by the culture of Japan. We wonder endlessly about a group of islands that can produce things as diverse as Noh drama, zen gardens and Nintendo games. American writers, too, can't seem to get enough of Japan, e.g., Jay McInerney, John Burnham Schwartz and Michael Crichton.
Haruki Murakami, one of the most original and brilliant authors writing today, gives us an entirely different look at life in Japan in his collection of short stories, The Elephant Vanishes. These stories show us Japan "from the inside." What might seem exotic to both Americans and Europeans, such as oyster hot pot or pillows filled with buckwheat husks, becomes, in these stories, the stuff of everyday life. In fact, Haruki Marakami's Japan could be "anyplace," and one has to read eleven pages into this collection before the first reference to Japan is ever made.
In The Elephant Vanishes, Murakami's narrators are as much "Everyman" as are the narrators of his novels. They are young, urban and charmingly downwardly mobile. And, they are more likely to eat a plate of spaghetti than soba noodles. They listen to Wagner and Herbie Hancock but eschew Japanese rock music. They read Len Deighton and War and Peace rather than Kobo Abe and The Tale of the Genji. They are Japanese, to be sure, but all their points of reference seem to be exclusively Western and signature Murakami.
In the world of Haruki Murakami, bizarre events take place with striking regularity and, also with strikingly regularity, they are accepted as simply the stuff of everyday life. In The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women, the narrator's search for a missing cat leads him to a closed-off and neglected alleyway passing between the backyards of parallel houses. Here, he encounters a sunbathing teenage girl who mimics the alleyway in that she is both ordinary and alien.
In A Window, a correspondence school writing teacher pays a visit to a pupil, a married woman in her early thirties. They spend their time eating hamburgers and listening to Burt Bacharach. Nothing much happens; in fact, the thing the narrator remembers most is the lovely weather and the colorful array of sheets and futons drying over the railings of the building's verandahs. Like many of Murakami's protagonists, what these two share is absent more than it is present.
Many of these stories seem more than a little fabulistic. The Dancing Dwarf is a good example. This story takes place in an impressively efficient factory that manufactures, of all things, elephants. The protagonist just happens to be assigned to the ear section during his narration of the story, working in that part of the building with the yellow ceiling and the yellow posts. His helmet and pants also happen to be yellow. The month before, however, he had been assigned to the green building and he had worn a green helmet and green pants and had made heads.
TV People is a bizarre story that involves human mutants reduced by twenty to thirty percent, something that made them look far away even when close up. When these mutants invade both the narrator's home and office and begin to deny his very existence, he begins to doubt it as well.
And, in The Elephant Vanishes, the haunting title story, an elephant actually disappears, with its keeper, from an enclosure where it has been kept as a mascot for a Tokyo suburb. The solution to the mystery, like all of Murakami's mysteries is not clear cut but hinges on a matter of perspective and proportion instead.
Parallel worlds abound in these stories; this is ordinary life, but ordinary life fraught with unexpected and unsettling views. In the stories that make up The Elephant Vanishes, Murakami is doing what he does so wonderfully: pointing out how much of life is hidden beneath the surface, how much is truly unknowable.
In Sleep, a young woman suddenly finds she no longer needs it. Rather than question her sudden awakening, she focuses instead on the strangeness of her husband's face. Unable to describe exactly why it now seems so strange to her, she simply accepts that it is weird and that is that. The protagonist of The Second Bakery Attack is similar in that he really doesn't question why his wife keeps a shotgun and ski masks in their car, even though neither of them had ever skied.
Lest anyone think these stories gloss over life, they couldn't be more wrong. Detail abounds: the pull tabs from beer cans lying in overflowing ashtrays, shotgun shells that rustle like the buckwheat husks in old-fashioned pillows, ice melting in cocktail glasses.
Like kittens lolling all over one another, a metaphor from a story entitled The Last Lawn of the Afternoon, these are stories in which animals--elephants, kangaroos, windup birds, and even the tragically mistreated "little green monsters"--play an extraordinarily prominent part. The Elephant Vanishes is definitely the world of Haruki Murakami, ordinary and yet so very, very extraordinary.
on 29 August 2003
It's late at night, I'm very tired but while looking around Amazon and seeing this book only getting one star, I had to put in my 5 cents, 2 dimes, 3p- whatever (I'm tired ok?) I recently read this book and it reflects exactly how the Japanese culture represents to me. Watching anime cartoons or meeting Japanese people, anything Japanese- brings a feeling in me that is encompassed in this book. The style of writing is simple, and unembarrassed- by that I mean it isn't over littered with psychologial, intellectual condescending tidbits here and there to please people who want to think they're reading something clever. Any intellectual musings you have about the stories, Murakami allows you to do for yourself. Overall, you've got to expect the eccentricity of some of the stories. Sometimes the endings are open, sometimes the conclusion is perfect. 'On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning' was one that definitely brought back that unique type of sadness that some Japanese animated films have- a sad, inexplicable melancholia. It made me think and is definitely one of the best short stories I've ever read not only because of it's originality, but also because of it's structure, it's form- jumping from present to future to past back to present again so seamlessly. In some ways, the simplicity of the narrative reminded of the novel 'Naive. Stupid' by Erlend Loe so expect a kind of scandanavian essence to his story-telling. Another notable aspect of this book is the way that Haruki Murakami makes the narrative so filmatic. Not only in describing his characters- but also the scents, the scenery, the colours- every nuance of the characters' environment is described poetically and again with that Japanese 'thing' that I can't put into words. Better get this book yourself and have a go if you're open minded and don't mind that haiku feeling in a story. I'm very interested in Japanese culture (this is a Chinese person speaking) so that probably helped but otherwise, it is a good book that I would recommend if you want to break away from conventional novel forms.
on 9 April 2002
17 modern, magical, urbanic hilarious tales.
It's the first Murakami book I've read, and from now on I got addicted to his books. Murakami 's deadpan genius. King of the bizarre realm.
His stories take place in Japan, but could as well be everywhere else.
I found myself enthralled by the way he writes, captivated
To his ideas, fascinated by his way to see the unnatural in a so natural way.
The confusion of the young people in his stories is funny, touching and so familiar. Everything could happen; anything is for real if you can see it in your head. Everyone's normal, just the circumstances aren't...
It left me with the taste and desire for more! One by one I swallowed all of his other books.
I had never got disappointed from any of the others, but I found these short stories as the essence of all that I like about his books, and I keep reading it again and again.
This is a wonderful collection of short stories. Each is strangely believable, although many are somewhat surreal. Populated by a dancing dwarf, a monster which appears in a suburban garden, and a disappearing elephant, as well as covering with real poignancy, love, loss, loneliness and compulsion, these stories are the very essence of Murakami's literary world. I thoroughly enjoyed ever story, but my particular favourite is 'on seeing the 100% perfect girl one april morning' - one of the most romantic and bitter sweet stories i have ever read. The Elephant vanishes is full of great stories, but it is worth buying for that story alone
Highly enjoyable, beautifully crafted stories and characters - 1 simply can't recommend this book too strongly
on 1 December 2014
Brilliant stuff. I'm not a great fan of short stories and have just read my way through all the David Mitchell books. My partner (a novelist) recommended this and I'm delighted she did. There's more than a hint of the fantastical that Mitchell is so good at, and the shortness of each story seems to play to the shorter length as so many books now are episodic rather than linearly narrative. Murakami is a master at description of the simple and everyday, pointing up the difference in what we would normally see and what he, as the artist/author sees. This is the job of the artist, to show us how to see things in different ways and Murakami does this so well. Don't be fooled by the quietness of the prose, read slowly and think. I'm certainly getting everything else he's written.
on 18 June 2001
This is a collected work of short stories, ranging in style and genre. I would recommend this as a great kick-off point for anyone wanting to try Murakami - firstly, it has a lot of varying stories that give a flavour of his style and secondly, it has the opening chapter of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which will make you want to read that as well.
For my money, the best stories are the one about the man who is employed to provide critiques of people's letters, in order to make them more fascinating, the final painfully sweet story about the elephant and the account of the tv people, men who keep coming into the narrators life and installing television sets that only he can see.
Funny, graceful, delicate, surreal and very human.
on 20 May 2008
Simon Barrett's two line review (previously posted) isn't helpful when considering whether to read this book and as a thirty five year old I find him patronising.
This isn't Murakami's best work and I don't think that his short stories really give him the length of work that he needs to fully develop his ideas. Having read how Murakami writes - he alternates between novels & short stories, sometimes developing short stories in to novels - I think you've really got to read the 'Sheep' novels or Kafka On The Shore to be drawn in to the maelstrom of ideas & surreal madness that he can conjure.
For me Murakami's the literary version of John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman. You've just got to go with it, don't worry about understanding everything, let it twist & turn, it'll reward you for it.
For Mr Barrett to call The Wind Up Bird Chronicle 'execrable' is pointless without telling the prospective reader why.
But then, I'm not likely to take literary criticism seriously from a man who recommends a Ten Thousand Maniacs album ;-)
on 6 August 2009
I have to say, I never like short stories, but having read Norwegian Wood I am so mesmerized that I have to pick up any book of Murakami I can get hold of from the library, and this happens to be the one.
I must admit I didn't finish all of the short stories although I attempted to start each - it was a bit of hit and miss, most of those I quite enjoyed, but I only wish the stories could be longer to allow it develop a bit more, as many of them gave me the "not quite finished" feeling.
Well, the good news is that the first story "The Wind-up Bird And Tuesday's Women" is actually a section of his novel "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle", so at least I know which of his book I should read next. Overall, a random, creative set of illusive writing and most worth a read.