A man receives mysterious phone calls from a stranger while searching for his missing cat. A couple commits a daring robbery at a McDonald’s in order to break a curse that is giving them severe hunger. An elephant and his keeper vanish one morning without a trace. These are just a few of the bizarre stories in this collection of tales by the incomparable Haruki Murakami. Normally an author impossible to describe because there is nobody out there like him. I’ve read and reviewed several of his novels, such as 1Q84 and Sputnik Sweetheart. The descriptions of some of these bizarre short stories was too tempting to resist. Overall, I enjoyed this collection as Murakami blends the fantastic with some strong realist fiction.
The opening story, “The Wind-up Bird and Tuesday’s Women,” was a short piece Murakami later expanded into his classic The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. It was interesting to see this story before it evolved into a much longer work. As with the majority of Murakami’s fiction, there is a lot of surrealism that leaves you wanting more. The second story of the collection, “The Second Bakery Attack,” is one of my favorites. The narrator and his new wife are consumed with horrible hunger pangs. The man tells her about robbing a bakery when he was younger, and his wife deduces from the story that a curse has been placed on them. The solution is to rob another bakery, but unfortunately there aren’t any open in the late hours of the night. This leads to a hilarious robbery at a McDonald’s. The stories only get more bizarre from there. Another favorite titled “Sleep” involves a female narrator who has not been able to sleep for several days. Her typically bland life is shaken up as she begins to find passion for reading again, but also slowly plunges into a dark nightmare. “Sleep” really stood out for me because I myself have suffered from bouts of insomnia, and I really haven’t been this frightened from a piece of fiction in a very long time.
Murakami is known for blending fantastic elements into his fiction, but some of my favorite short stories from him are actually grounded in a realistic vein. “The Last Lawn of the Afternoon” is a superb character piece with no fantasy or science fiction elements at all. However, my all-time favorite work in this book is “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning.” This story takes the prize for me because it evokes so much emotion for being so short. As I always say, less is often more. The more fantastic stories are superb too, such as “The Dancing Dwarf” and the title piece that closes the book, “The Elephant Vanishes.”
This isn’t to say that the collection is without faults. Murakami typically uses the same type of narrator, someone ordinary who typically doesn’t stand out, lacks ambition, and usually takes a rather passive approach to the strange events that occur. I get his reasoning for this technique as it makes the bizarre stand out even more and we get to puzzle over what it all means in the grander picture. In this case, all the narrators both men and women spoke with the same voice. These characters could have all been the same person. This is my only complaint, and I will say that if you are new to Murakami, his short stories or one of his shorter novels would be great starting places. It’s a surreal journey you will hopefully enjoy.
Reading a piece of Murakami fiction is like being wrapped up in a dream for a few hours, one that will linger with you long after the pages are closed.