Sunday, October 04, 2009

Book Look: The Elephant Vansihes

Book Look: The Elephant Vansihes, by Haruki Murakami: The stories in this collection are about confusion. As with all good short stories, it is a shock to the system that triggers the action, and in this case that means bringing this confusion and chaos on to the scene. Given Murakami's predilection for magic realism it is not surprising that in all but two, the shock is something paranormal.

That is not to suggest these are dire and dark missives. Some can be quite lighthearted and charming. Some are opaque. All involve workaday Japanese going through the motions of modern life. They laconically describe their days --shopping for meals, sitting in dull meetings, sipping coffee, reading newspapers, etc. Then something strange happens. Ghostly figures appear and watch the static on TV; a dwarf arrives who can dance like an angel; an unusual memory sends a couple on a crime spree; a beloved sister brings home a boyfriend who burns down barns; an elephant disappears into thin air. Through these, we see the workaday types surrender themselves to strange longings and fears that they themselves don't really understand. This from the titular story:

That was the last time I saw her. We talked once on the phone after that, about some details in her tie-in article. While we spoke, I thought seriously about inviting her out for dinner, but I ended up not doing it. It just didn't seem to matter one way or the other.

I felt like this a lot after my experience with the vanishing elephant. I would begin to think I wanted to do something, but then I would be incapable of distinguishing between the probable results of doing it and of not doing it. I often get the feeling that things around me have lost their proper balance, though it could be that my perceptions are playing tricks on me. Some kind of balance inside me has broken down since the elephant affair, and maybe that causes external phenomena to strike my eye in a strange way. It's probably something in me.

Even the lighthearted stuff is just a bit unsettling.

The stories I found most affecting lacked the magic realism and the source of the shock was more human. In "Sleep" a woman is afflicted with insomnia, but uses the time to pursue interests beyond her current role as a housewife. Her view thus expanded, she grows to despise and resent her husband and son. In "A Family Affair" a free spirited bachelor who lives with his sister is thrust into re-evaluation when he realizes her new boyfriend, utterly conventional and straight-laced, should be admired rather than reviled.

In evidence throughout is Murakami's signature style of using innocent prose to describe convolution and complication. For the most part it works, until it doesn't. Resolutions, when you get one, are not exactly fluid. Often the stories seem to end by hitting a wall.

If you are a Murakami fan, you should read The Elephant Vanishes; you'll appreciate it. If you haven't read Murakami, this is not the place to start. It is safe to say he is a vastly better at novels than short stories.