The Jakarta Post
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami (Shutterstock/File)
If the late frontman of the American rock band The Doors Jim Morrison was the cult figure embodying the flower generation of the 1960s’ anti-establishment stance complete with fascination with sex, drugs and all things associated with the “dark” side, it is fair to say that nowadays Japanese author Haruki Murakami is on the altar of angst-ridden millennials.
Similar to Morrison, Murakami’s craft highlights the dark side of the human psyche, of people looking inside themselves only to look at disturbing and demoralizing pictures. He also frequently features obsessions with sexuality in his books.
Different from Morrison, though, Murakami’s crafts rarely adopt defiant stance toward society or thanatophilia or obsession with death. Instead, the allure of Murakami’s prose lies in his depiction of helplessness and melancholy of people who, for one reason or the other, fails to fit into the rigid boxes of society.
On a macro level, if you sense that there are more ‘emo’s now than ever, your hunch is probably correct and this phenomenon is not an accident. It is intimately tied to the sense of alienation and detachment caused by the nature of our modern, capitalist society.
Writer Francis Fukuyama writes that thanks to the modern capitalist system, human needs have become very flexible to the point that it could be excessive. We want more things than we need: money, materials, prestige and status — the embodiment of power and recognition.
Excessive want means living constantly on a fast lane. All the while measuring everything based on prestige. According to British writer Daniel Nettle, this way of living leads to a sense of detachment, which in turn becomes paranoia and obsession.
In his latest short story collection Men Without Women, available in Indonesian imported bookstores starting May 6, Murakami chronicles the lives of people who cannot live up to modern capitalist society’s impossibly high standards — in friendship, romantic relationships or marriage.
Therefore, they do not have many friends and have to live alone. They are taken over by their desire for companionship, intimacy and sexual pleasure. If they no longer desire these things due to being removed from human beings for too long, they then get caught up in their own imaginary (or real) antics.
True to the Murakami’s brand of prose, the loneliness of these people then leads them to strange obsessions or absurd circumstances. No lonely man is immune to this, whether he is a medical doctor, bar owner, stage actor or just a simpleton — the main characters in each of the stories. If you have nobody to distract you from the darkest depth of your psyche, you’re bound to swim on it.
Be it a stage actor who is haunted by his own unresolved past or a medical doctor and a female driver driven mad by unfulfilled intense sexual yearning to be devoured the opposite sex, these tales tell the stories that, out of embarrassment perhaps, most people might keep secret.
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The sense of loneliness and dejection told by Murakami is also very similar to that expressed by troubled, angst-ridden youngsters through social media, blogs and vlog posts in confessional narratives of deeply personal pain that seem to be in fashion right now.
As a literary writer, however, Murakami’s advantages lie in his use of literary devices such as hard-hitting metaphors and keen eyes for detail. Sexual obsession is described down to every detail, like in Scheherazade, where a woman recounts a story of how she used to break into his (unrequited) high school sweetheart to get a feel of him.
The narratives told in this short story collection, however, bring some disappointment. Different from his previous adult novels 1Q84 (2009-2010) and Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage ( 2014 ), where he offers some solutions to overcome one’s angst, most of the stories here leave their characters hanging in the dark, lost in their own despair.
One exception is Samsa in Love — inspired by the famous Gregor Samsa character from Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis — the only story told through hilarious sense of humor which can make you laugh. For this story, Samsa is pretty fortunate to have seen glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel.
Or perhaps Murakami wants us to think for ourselves and draw our own conclusions and resolutions after reading these stories. Instead of becoming one of these ‘emo’s who read Murakami in order to justify their own pain and endless whining (there are a lot of them out there), this book should help us to contemplate to find ways to connect with others in a healthier way.
Warning: do not read this book when you are in a melancholic mood or alone in your house. The dark longings portrayed in the stories cut so deep that it might impact your psychological well-being adversely.
Men Without Women
Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
Knopf, April 2017