Book Review: Men Without Women

by Haruki Murakami

Men Without Women is my second book by Haruki Murakami.  This one is a collection of seven short stories. On a surface level, each story seems banal. I asked myself, why am I reading this? But once I sat with each story, once I let it sit in me, I found them to be quite the contrary–nuanced and interesting and worth the read.

I think the first story is about the frustrating realization that sometimes when a spouse cheats, it has nothing to do with you.  The main character is Kafuku, an actor whose wife dies. Kafuku tells the story to his driver, Masaki, from the backseat of his car.  He loved his wife with everything he was and thought they were perfect together. So when his wife, also an actor, started cheating on him with her scene partners, he didn’t say anything.  When she got sick, she went quickly. He never got the chance to ask her what those other guys had that he couldn’t give her.  This was his biggest regret in life. When her most recent paramour showed up at the funeral, he decided to make friends rather than kick him out. He wanted to measure himself against his dead wife’s ex-lover. He ultimately concludes there is nothing particularly special about this guy, but nothing bad either. It seems cheating can be irrational, unjustifiable, inexplicable, etc. Is it better to know? Does it matter?

The second story is more about the love of friendship between men and women.  I think. It’s about a man, Kitaru, who has been with a woman, Erika, since they were kids.  As they got older, they never progressed to the romantic stages of the relationship — didn’t kiss or otherwise become intimate.  Kitaru eventually moves to the United States and continues to send Erika postcards. They never officially breakup, but Erika sees other men in Kitaru’s absence.  It’s interesting to think about that type of love. The two were obviously connected in an unseverable way, but not in the way people think men and women connect. I like to think romantic love can have that kind of love underlying it.  

The third story involves a man who was never, and never wanted to be, in a committed relationship with a woman.  He exclusively dates women who are married or in serious relationships assuming they won’t want more out of the relationship.  But he falls in love finally. When she breaks it off with him, he spirals. He literally starves himself to death wallowing in his heartbreak. I’m still searching for what this story means to me.  This man died because he could not be with this woman. Is that love or insanity? Is that love or ego? If I were the woman, would I feel guilt? Probably, yes. But why? Why do we feel bad when someone loves us and we don’t love them back?  Why do we feel responsible for other people’s inability to cope?

The fourth story was weird.  I felt dirty reading it. A woman tells a story of repeatedly breaking into a boy’s bedroom (when they were both kids) and the nasty little things she did in his room.  One day, the locks to the house have changed and it’s clear they’re onto the fact that someone has been in the boy’s room. She stops doing it and eventually forgets about the boy.  She’s telling this story to her lover, who is her patient. The whole chapter just sort of rubbed me the wrong way.

I really enjoyed the fifth story.  It’s about a man, Kino, who moves to a new city and opens a bar after finding his wife cheating on him.  A cat visits him everyday and he gets acquainted with the locals. One day his ex-wife comes into the bar.  She sort of apologizes, but Kino doesn’t exactly accept the apology. Shortly thereafter, snakes appear all around the grounds of the bar and the cat disappears.  A man tells him to close the bar and leave until further notice. He travels from town to town. He has nightmares. I think this story is about what it’s like when you don’t deal with hurt.  It was welling up in Kino, which manifested in snakes and other odd happenings. Getting away helped him realize that he never actually dealt with the pain of his wife cheating on him. This resonated with me.  I feel that the world would be a much better place if people dealt with their ailments, rather than run or divert or push down. I always try to feel whatever comes my way in the moment, and I think it has served me well to do so, despite the pain I have felt.

In the sixth story, a man wakes up unfamiliar in his own skin.  He’s hungry, so he eats all the food that is, for some reason, already prepared on the table.  A lock is broken, so a locksmith shows up to fix it. They have some awkward exchanges about the locksmith’s body (at one point the locksmith is fixing her bra strap and sees the man has an erection).  Kind of an odd one.

The seventh story related to a man hearing that an old lover of his committed suicide.  I think he was surprised at his anguish over losing her, when, of course, they hadn’t been together for a long time.  Loss is difficult and it’s especially weird to lose someone who used to be in your life.  At my sister’s funeral, so many people from so many different walks of her life showed up.  And I’m sure there were many more who felt it wasn’t appropriate given how long ago or how brief their relationships were. Oh, the title of the book also comes from the seventh story.

Overall, I liked this collection of stories.  It’s as much about men with women as it is them without. I have never really read books like this. I love this author and will keep going down his list of books.  

Interested in reading it? Buy it from Amazon here.

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