A good book is like travel. Sometimes it's not the final destination that matters. It's the journey itself.
To really appreciate a Haruki Murakami novel it's important to adopt that perspective. I enjoy his writing, characters, and stories but often am frustrated at the end. They just stop. The main character comes to a certain growth point, and Murakami walks away from the plot and stops. He often doesn't tie up the loose ends or explain exactly what happened. Presumably it's not important.
The Elephant Vanishes is a collection of Murakami short stories. They all have his unmistakable tone and style.
Some of them have the same frustrating ending. A few are more traditional and wrap up nicely.
Despite the frustrations, I did enjoy the book immensely and have no problem recommending it. Just be prepared for more deliberate loose ends than pair of leather pants with fringe.
One thing that is fairly common in Murakami's novels is that characters are very accepting of their situation. They don't question things, but drift with the current and do what they're supposed to do. This passage is the epitome of Murakami:
Stretched out in the back seat, long and stiff as a dead fish, was a Remington automatic shotgun. Its shells rustled dryly in the pocket of my wife's windbreaker. We had two black ski masks in the glove compartment. Why my wife owned a shotgun, I have no idea. Or ski masks. Neither of us had ever skied. But she didn't explain, and I didn't ask. Married life is weird, I felt.
The book is filled with lines like that. And lines like that are why I keep reading Murakami books.
As I put this review together, and as I thought more about the stories, Murakami's main theme became clear. It became clear in a way that may not be evident from individual stories. The last story in the book, the one the title comes from, is the pure essence of Murakami. If you want to see what he writes about, you can start there. Or go to the end of this review and start reading backwards.
Murakami is writing about loneliness. His characters are alone, some through loss, some through poor choices, and most because that is the way they are. They can have a family, friends, and coworkers, and still be completely alone.
They characters throughout these stories are looking for a genuine heart-to-heart connection with someone or something in this world. And often, they can't quite find it.
The characters all exist apart from the rest of the world. Many of them seem normal enough, but they are all damaged in some way. And that makes them different.
Unlike many authors, though, Murakami doesn't seem to say that this happens to everyone. He's not telling the reader that everyone feels this way. His main characters all have this in common, and that makes them extraordinary and special. And rarely do they get to experience true happiness.
There's a great deal that could be written about this, and what he is trying to say about late 20 century society, but that will have to wait for another time. The Elephant Vanishes is a collection of short stories, and here they are:
01. The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women
The first story in the book is also a chapter from Murakami's best know novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. It sets the tone and fleshes out some important characters quickly. Nothing really happens here. Or at least nothing that gets resolved. But descriptions are vivid, and you want to know more about these people.
02. The Second Bakery Attack
In the second story of the book, a husband and wife fine themselves starving one night. The husband tells the story of when he and a friend in high school robbed a bakery.
"I don't get it." She looked hard at me. Her eyes could have been searching for a faded star in the morning sky. "Why didn't you get a job? You could have worked after school. That would have been easier than attacking bakeries."
"We didn't want to work. We were absolutely clear on that."
"Well you're working now, aren't you?"
I nodded and sucked some more beer. Then I rubbed my eyes. A kind of beery mud had oozed into my brain and was struggling with my hunger pangs.
The wife decides it sounds like a good idea and the story unfolds. It turns a little strange toward the end, but wraps ups nicely. Like most stories, Murakami never explains how the circumstances came to be, and never really explains things in the end. But if you accept that the universe is a very strange one, and that odd things overcome people at random times, it's a fun tale.
03. The Kangaroo Communiqué
The narrator manages complaints to a department store, and one touches him deeply. He then reaches out to author of letter, because he needs to share his thoughts with someone. Something drives him to reach out and talk to another person. Not unlike the motive behind many bloggers
Ever want a definition of frustration?
It's like standing in the middle of the desert sprinkling water around with a cup.
04. On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning
This is my favorite story in the book. Nothing really happens. It's one of the shortest stories in the book. And it's the most poignant. There's a wisp of sadness, lost opportunity, and acceptance that has the sad beauty of a comfortable blanket that will never be taken out of its packing material.
I really enjoyed this story. It's the story of a woman who stops sleeping. She's not tired. She just no longer sleeps. While her family sleeps, she gets to live her life they way she likes. The ending, however, left too much up in the air. I'm glad I read it, but I wish there was another page to tell me what happened.
Here are some great lines from the story:
The odometer has over 150,000 kilometers on it. Sometimes – once or twice a month – the car is almost impossible to start. The engine simply won't catch. Still, it's not bad enough to have the thing fixed. If you baby it and let it rest for 10 minutes or so, the engine will start up with a nice, solid vroom. Oh, well, everything – everybody – gets out of whack once or twice a month. That's life.
As I looked at the whitened flakes of chocolate from over a decade ago, I felt a tremendous urge to have the real thing. I wanted to eat chocolate while reading Anna Karenina, the way I did back then. I couldn't be denied it for another moment.
06. The Fall of the Roman Empire, The 1881 Indian Uprising, Hitler's Invasion of Poland, and the Realm of Raging Winds
The longest title in the book is for a story just 7 pages long. It's a story of wind, journaling, and short hand for the mind. I think there's something deeper in the story that I missed, but it's worth reading at face value.
Lederhosen is a story of divorce and self discovery. Or, rather, the story of divorce is there to show us a number of characters.
Murakami's characters are often more interesting and important than the story itself. And he uses the structure of the story to tell us about these characters. The main characters in this story aren't even the main plot components. It's just one telling the story to another, and in the process we come to understand 4 or 5 different people.
From this story, consider:
How wonderful it was to travel by oneself, she thought as she walked along the cobblestones. In fact, this was the first time in her fifty-five years that she had traveled alone. During the whole trip, she had not once been lonely or afraid or bored. Every scene that met here eyes was fresh and new; everyone she met was friendly. Each experience called forth emotions that had been slumbering in her, untouched and unused. What she held near and dear until then – husband and home and daughter – was on the other side of the earth. She felt no need to trouble herself over them.
08. Barn Burning
This story is a fun read. It's part relationship story and part detective story. It's fairly straightforward, except for a main character's affinity for arson. But he does have deep feelings about it so it fits in the Murakami universe.
As with most of the stories, I would have preferred more detail in the end, but I'm okay with how it wrapped up. It didn't quite leave me screaming "What the hell just happened?!"
In this 5 page story about the power of negative thinking, a little green monster crawls up through the dirt to profess his love for a woman. I can't really say much more without spoiling it, but it does resolve itself fairly well. It is a sad story, however.
10. Family Affair
This story is about the relationship between a brother and sister and the way that relationship changes when she gets engaged.
A recurring them in Murakami's stories is the name Noboru Watanabe. It's the name of the fiancée in this book. It's the name of the cat in the first story of this book. And it's the name of one of the bad guys in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. When Murakami creates a character the main character will disrespect, he names that character Noboru Watanabe.
I don't know if that's a generic name, or if it's the name of someone who taunted Murakami while he was young. It crops up in several stories and books, though.
11. A Window
This is a different type of story, but it is fairly straight forward. The main character works for "The Pen Society." Members (customers) of the society write letters to the company to improve their writing skills. Employees critique these letters and respond to the members.
In this story, one particular letter captures the attention of the employee, and, when he quits the job, he takes the woman up on her invitation for a dinner of hamburger steak.
The story is really about the connections people try to make with one another. The members are mainly housewives older than 30, looking more for companions and pen pals than they are writing tips.
It's a sweet and pleasant story, about two people trying to navigate an anonymizing world.
Once we have finished surprising each other, the usual tension of a first meeting was gone. We ate our hamburger steak and drank coffee, feeling much like two would-be passengers who had missed the same train.
12. TV People
I don't know where to begin with this story. It's about reduced size people who bring a TV to the main character. He gradually feels like he is losing his grip on the situation, but accepts what is going around him. He makes little effort to fight it. Beyond that, I don't really know what to say about this one, so I'll leave it with this thought:
My world may be crumbling, out of balance, but is that a reason to ring up her [my wife's] office?
13. A Slow Boat to China
The narrator tells this story about three Chinese people he met over the years. One was an exam proctor. One was a girl he met at work and went dancing with. And the third he talks to as an adult. It turns out he this person was a classmate in school and the narrator barely remembers him.
It's nice story about the characters. Nothing terribly unusual or supernatural happens.
14. The Dancing Dwarf
The main character works in an elephant factory. They make elephants. Not toys or statues, but actual elephants. They take one elephant, take it apart, and built 5 new elephants from the parts.
This isn't a normal tale.
The elephant factory seems to be some sort of metaphor for deconstructing and rebuilding society. It is juxtaposed against a fascist government that overturned a monarch. Throw into the mix a renegade supernatural dancing dwarf, and you've got a story.
There is a deeper meaning in this story, and it is just beyond my ken. After several more readings, I may "get it," but not quite today. I know it's there, just the way pets can sense thunder storms in clear skies.
But to give credit to Murakami, it's a great story even without quite grasping all the deeper levels of it. It's the fascinating a story of an elephant factory, and a classic deal with the devil, like Disney's The Little Mermaid.
15. The Last Lawn of the Afternoon
In a story about working and living deliberately, Murakami tells the tale of a landscaper who quits his job when he no longer needs the money.
The main character is slower and mows fewer lawns than his coworkers, but his attention to detail makes him popular with customers and with his boss. He does the work his way. And it's not that fastest way. But it is the right way. He relishes the joy of a job well done.
His last customer is a lonely woman who is mysteriously missing her daughter, or perhaps her own youth and potential. The main character mows her lawn, and then she invites him in to talk to him.
16. The Silence
Here is a story of junior high and high school battles that continue haunting people into their later years.
Two business colleagues are in an airport bar waiting for a flight and start talking about their youth. One of them tells the story of his relationship with Aoki. Aoki was a bully, but not in the classical sense for men. His bullying took on a decidedly more feminine approach, at least in the western context. He was popular and he manipulated people. He could cut off all of person's friends and companions. He would lie in wait for years, plotting the perfect revenge. He didn't need to beat anyone up. He could destroy them, or try to, in other ways. The story is about how easily people succumb to the manipulation
"No, what really scares me is how easily, how uncritically, people will believe the crap that slime like Aoki deal out. How these Aoki types produce nothing themselves, don't have an idea in the world, and talk so nice, how this slime can sway gullible types to any opinion and get them to perform on cue, as a group. And this group never entertains even a sliver of doubt that they could be wrong. They think nothing of hurting someone, senselessly, permanently. They don't take any responsibility for their actions. Them. They're the real monsters. They're the ones I have nightmares about. In those dreams, there's only the silence. And these faceless people. Their silence seeps into everything like ice water. And then it all goes murky. And I'm dissolving and I'm screaming, but no one hears."
17. The Elephant Vanishes
A town adopts an elephant. And it disappears, along with its old handler. It doesn't appear to have run off, or even left its compound, but nevertheless, it is gone.
In this story the narrator tells about his obsession with the elephant story, and his own tale of how it vanished. Without going into detail, it, of course involved the supernatural.
This is the quintessential Murakami story. The narrator is a single man in his thirties. He is outsider and somewhat disconnected from normal life and society. He's a bit of a loner. He has a decent job (marketing appliances) that he is good at but has absolutely no passion for. He meets an attractive woman and they talk.
The story has the beautiful writing and phrasing I've come to expect from Murakami, and the characters just seem to accept what goes on around them.
I joined the crowd at the elephant-house dedication ceremonies. Standing before the elephant, the mayor delivered a speech (on the town's development and the enrichment of its cultural facilities); one elementary-school pupil, representing the student body, stood up to read a composition ("Please live a long and healthy life, Mr. Elephant"); there was a sketch contest (sketching the elephant thereafter became an integral component of the pupils' artistic education); and each of two young women in swaying dresses (neither of whom was especially good-looking) fed the elephant a bunch of bananas. The elephant endured these virtually meaningless (for the elephant, entirely meaningless) formalities with hardly a twitch, and it chomped on the bananas with a vacant stare. When it finished eating the bananas, everyone applauded.
And if there was any doubt that this story epitomizes Murakami's work – the elephant handler's name is Noboru Watanabe.