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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Men without Women

Murakami Haruki

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To purchase Men without Women

Title: Men without Women
Author: Murakami Haruki
Genre: Stories
Written: 2014 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 228 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Men without Women - US
Men without Women - UK
Men without Women - Canada
Men without Women - India
Des hommes sans femmes - France
Von Männern, die keine Frauen haben - Deutschland
Uomini senza donne - Italia
Hombres sin mujeres - España
  • Japanese title: 女のいない男たち
  • Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen
  • Several of these stories have been previously published, in The New Yorker (Kino, Samsa in Love, and Yesterday) and Freeman's

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Our Assessment:

B : the usual Murakamiesque appeal, but limited by format (stories; collection)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 5/5/2017 Arifa Akbar
The Guardian . 5/5/2017 M.John Harrison
The Hindu B- 10/6/2017 Keshava Guha
The Independent A+ 17/5/2017 Lucy Scholes
The LA Times . 4/5/2017 J.R.Allen
The NY Times Book Rev. . 21/5/2017 Jay Fielden
The Observer A+ 14/5/2017 Kate Kellaway
Sunday Times . 14/5/2017 Claire Lowdon
TLS . 4/7/2017 Andrew Irwin
The Washington Post . 5/5/2017 Heller McAlpin
World Lit. Today B 11-12/2017 Erik R. Lofgren

  Review Consensus:

  Typical Murakami, for better and worse; most quite (and some very) impressed

  From the Reviews:
  • "Murakamiís men are not good at emotional intimacy and keep their feelings guarded from women; but the wisest of them are aware of their culpability in relationship breakdown. Every line is saturated with existential loneliness. (...) The over-arching message, though, is of an unbridgeable gap between the sexes. (...) Murakami writes of complex things with his usual beguiling simplicity -- the same seeming naivety found in the Beatles songs that are so often his reference points. The stories read like dirges for "all the lonely people" but they are strangely invigorating to read. " - Arifa Akbar, Financial Times

  • "Tale by tale, the different women -- unassuaged, and who can blame them -- move off to the peripheries. The men apologise for themselves and are content to drift, remaining puzzled as much by their own behaviour as anyone elseís. Their stories are never less than readable, comic, amiably fantastic, human, yet with an entertainingly sarcastic edge, but verge on the bland." - M.John Harrison, The Guardian

  • "At times they read less like original stories than like discarded bits of old novels that have been repackaged. It is an impression strengthened by the fact that a few of the stories feel shapeless and unfinished, as if they were meant to be the starting points for longer works. (...) (T)he perpetual contrast between the drably mundane men and the enigmatic women grows weary, as do the endless, not-quite-ironic descriptions of bosoms (...) and sex scenes that read like a bad parody of Michel Houellebecq. Many of the stories are languid to the point of dullness." - Keshava Guha, The Hindu

  • "(E)ach of the seven stories here (...) a gem in and of its own right, but strung together theyíre a sparkling strand of precious stones, the light refracted from each equally brilliant but the tones varying subtly. The collectionís central concern is loneliness." - Lucy Scholes, The Independent

  • "The stories in this collection find their power within the confines of common but momentous disturbances that linger on in memory." - Jeffery Renard Allen, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The melancholy soufflé Murakami whips up in these pages is decidedly masculine, a rainy Tokyo of unfaithful women, neat single malt, stray cats, cool cars and classic jazz played on hi-fi setups (.....) (T)hese stories -- part allegory, part myth, part magic realism, part Philip Marlowe, private eye -- are sometimes confusing even to those who narrate them. (...) (S)lim but beguilingly irresistible" - Jay Fielden, The New York Times Book Review

  • "Curiosity, in Murakamiís supremely enjoyable, philosophical and pitch-perfect new collection of short stories -- his first for more than a decade -- is what motivates many of his characters. (...) The mix of humour and melancholy in Murakamiís writing is extraordinary. One never wrong-foots the other and the stories have been outstandingly translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen with fluent, colloquial grace. (...) As the collection progresses, the stories become darker and more existential." - Kate Kellaway, The Observer

  • "These stories are all scattered along the Murakami weirdness continuum. (...) Perhaps it is a coincidence, but the realism of these stories seems strongly and negatively correlated with quality." - Andrew Irwin, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Detached from their feelings and missing pieces of themselves, Murakamiís lonely souls struggle to understand whatís hit them. Unexpected connections with strangers shed light, though the illumination is often indirect or partial." - Heller McAlpin, The Washington Post

  • "Despite the generally engaging nature of these seven vignettes, however, it was with some disappointment that I put the book down, for I could not help feeling that Murakami had been unable to go beyond his previous work. The specific contexts are new, and a different problem is the focus, but the stories feel overly familiar, as if we have read them before." - Erik R. Lofgren, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Men without Women collects seven stories, and, yes, they basically revolve around men more or less on their own, connecting intimately but only fleetingly and/or partially with women, living (or driven to) lives apart -- but then, what Murakami novel or story-collection doesn't ? So this is familiar territory -- as are many of the locales (bars where jazz plays in the background ...) and details (the odd stray cat) -- but presumably, too, this is all very much what readers expect and wish for in their Murakami.
       The collection closes with the title-story, apparently meant to tie together the collection, its narrator finding he is: "one of the Men without Women", growing reflective after he learns of the third woman who he had at one point gone out with having committed suicide -- certainly the kind of thing that can make you think ..... He's actually not 'without women' at that point -- in fact, he's in bed with his wife when he gets the news -- but, yeah, there's something missing, an absence. And Murakami elaborates on some of this very nicely here, the narrator explaining his history with this latest suicide. He calls her "M", and uses the excuse that :"If the facts came out, they might cause trouble for people who are still alive" to explain why he: "can't give any particulars" (as if Murakami wouldn't always find some excuse to avoid giving particulars ...). The narrator fell in love with M when they were fourteen, but she disappeared out of his life before anything happened between them; only later, as adults, did they connect.
       Even then:

     M and I went out for about two years. Not a very long time. But a substantial two years. Only two years, you could say. Or a long two years. It all depends on your viewpoint. I say we "went out," but really we only saw each other two or three times a month.
       Telling his story, the narrator maintains: "I'm not exactly sure what I'm trying to say here", but in fact he (or rather Murakami) is trying too hard, explaining about "trying to write about the essence" rather than just showing it -- as he does very nicely for parts of the tale (and most of the rest of the collection).
       With the penultimate story, premised as a reverse-The Metamorphosis ("He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa"), Samsa in Love, that, while also featuring an isolated man and a female figure he is attracted to but has an only uncertain hold over (a hunchbacked locksmith who has trouble with her brassiere ...), is a more uncomfortable fit with the rest of the collection, the closing title-piece feels like a too-forced effort to bring things back round again and neatly round off the collection. Instead, with its final two stories, Men without Women loses its way a bit. ('Samsa in Love' has some stand-alone appeal, but its blank-slate protagonist is of a different order from the males in all the other stories, and his experience doesn't compare; effectively a fish out of water, so is the story in this septet.)
       Many of the characters in these stories have lost the women in their lives; even those in relationships tend to be in ones that are only occasional; the rare case of a (still-)married man finds barely a mention of the wife (and the story focused on some other('s) relationship). Several of the characters were married: in 'Kino' the title-character left his wife after he found her cheating on him, while in 'Drive my Car' the wife of the main character, Kafuku, died -- and he subsequently befriended one of the men she had been cheating on him with. In 'Scheherazade' Habara is in hiding, or in a sort of protective custody -- we never learn exactly why -- and unable to leave the apartment he is stuck in; his minder -- "support liaison" -- who brings him supplies is a married woman who he winds up sleeping with (and, yes, who tells him stories -- including one of her own youthful obsession and transgressions).
       Many of the stories in Men without Women involve re-tellings, a story within the story, which, in its second-hand retelling, is presented at an even greater remove. 'Scheherazade' is the obvious example, but other stories also use a similar narrative device: in 'Drive my Car' Kafuku shares his personal story with the girl he hires to drive him; in 'An Independent Organ' the narrator tells the story of Dr.Tokai, a bachelor plastic surgeon who constantly juggles affairs before finally falling in love with a married woman -- the details revealed to the narrator in conversation with Tokai, and then the aftermath recounted to the narrator by the doctor's assistant.
       For all their isolation -- and even the married narrators don't have much to say about their wives -- there's a deep emotion welling under most of these stories. If hardly traditional love-stories, they suggest the power of human connection -- and the difficulty of finding (much less sustaining) it.
       It's all presented with the usual Murakami charm and quirks -- a simple, straightforward style that nevertheless harbors greater depths -- and for the most part works as effectively (or, for some readers, annoyingly) as usual.
       There are the occasional missteps -- notably, in an otherwise effective scene (involving a character seeing herself as a lamprey eel in her a former life):
     Habara though that he wouldn't have enjoyed being a Roman slave, either. Of course, being a slave was a downer under any circumstances.
       But mostly Murakami treads comfortably and confidently across his usual stomping grounds -- so Men without Women is certainly welcome filler-fare for fans, between the meatier novels. If ultimately a bit unbalanced by its closing two stories, overall it's a solid collection.

     Note: While not wanting to get hung up on individual translation word-choices/mistakes, this collection does offer one curious example: in Japanese 'putty' and 'pâté' are both written in katakana, as: パテ (essentially a transliteration, spelling out the word(s) phonetically -- and, due to the limitations of Japanese, identically). Murakami appears to have used the word パテ twice in this collection.
     In 'An Independent Organ' the narrator wants to: "record everything that I learned about this man" -- but acknowledges:
Admittedly, a certain amount is also conjecture, based on my own observations of things I thought might be true. Like soft pâté nicely filling in the gaps between one fact and another. In other words, the portrait that follows is not based entirely on fact.
     I find it hard to believe that Murakami does not mean 'putty' in this instance .....
     The second example, from 'Scheherazade' would seem to get it right (though pâté would work here too, sort of ...).
She was a housewife from a provincial city well on the road to middle age and running to flab (in fact it looked as if every nook and cranny had been filled with putty), with jowls and lines webbing the corners of her eyes.
     The two stories were not translated by the same translator; still, I would have thought they -- or then certainly the editor, or even the fluent-in-English Murakami (who, by the way, holds the translation copyright to this volume ...) would have flagged this; since it slipped through, maybe it is the 'correct' translation, i.e. really what Murakami meant ? (Again: in the Japanese original it's ambiguous: the word on the page is identical in both instances, and it's left to the reader to decide on the meaning.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 November 2017

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Men without Women: Reviews: Murakami Haruki: Other books by Murakami Haruki under review: Books about Murakami Haruki under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Japanese literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Murakami Haruki (村上春樹) was born January 12, 1949. He attended Waseda University. He has written several internationally acclaimed bestsellers and is among the best-known contemporary Japanese writers.

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