The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Some authors excel at writing novels. Others excel at the short form. A few are equally adept at writing novels and short stories. From my reading of The Elephant Vanishes, Haruki Murakami is not one of those people. Here’s why:
Murakami’s novels are lush affairs. By that I mean that his proto-typically lazy character has time. Time to develop interests, time to contemplate deeply, time to be affected, to become . . . something. The short form, by its very nature, does not allow the same luxuries. So when Murakami’s prototypical ambivalent protagonist shows in a short story (which they often do, in this collection), the results are unspectacular. What one might consider “breathing space” in a Murakami novel, a place where the reader can coast through the reading before returning to the more meaty, idea-heavy sections, becomes a void in his short work. Unfortunately, once in the void, there are two options: float silently away into space or explode as the vacuum’s pressure differential kicks in. More often than not, these types of stories simply fade away into an unsatisfying whisper. I can appreciate the difficulty in transitioning from one form to another. I started off as a short story writer, then pushed my way through novellas, then novels. It’s not an easy task to switch from one mode to another, and I’ve failed myself, many times. My notebooks are full of half-finished longer work and ideas that never really coalesced into full-formed novels. Murakami seems to have the opposite problem, soaring in his novels while stuttering in his short stories.
Thankfully, there are exceptions.
The collection starts off well enough with “The Wind-Up Bird and Tuesday's Women,” an ethereal tale about a loveless marriage and a strange encounter in the lot of an abandoned house. This literary dream is the sort of thing Murakami is famous for, and rightfully so. This is a story that wraps itself around your head and doesn't let go.
“The Second Bakery Attack,” incidentally, the second story in this volume, is a downright wacky escape from responsibility, one of those adventurous, spur-of-the-moment, nearly psychotic events that you've always wanted to orchestrate, but never had the guts to carry out. It's a rampage, of sorts, but a darkly funny rampage.
The story “Sleep,” about a woman who loses the ability to sleep and seems to be none the worse for wear because of it, could have been brilliant. But the ending was terrible. It was just too abrupt and jarring, like the evil twin of deus-ex-machina descending out of an unseen trapdoor in the ceiling to drop on the reader with an unwarranted assault of the intellect. Reading this ending, I felt insulted. So much wasted potential!
“Barn Burning” had the tone of The Great Gatsby, but nowhere near the same depth of substance. A good story, but not great.
My favorite story of the collection was “A Window”. This one blew my socks off. It is one of the shortest works in the volume, and the most powerful. The main character is a young man who is hired to read and edit letters sent to him by women who want to become better writers. There's little to excite in the plot itself, but the emotion is deep and often poignant. Absolutely the most moving story in the book. This is one that should be anthologized for the sake of the next generation of readers.
“The Dancing Dwarf” came in a close second. It is a modern fairy tale, replete with spiritual possession, diabolical contracts, and the dire consequences of living up to such a contract. This one pushes beyond magic realism into the realm of fabulism. Its mood is different than any other story in this collection, truly horrific, and I wonder if Murakami couldn't fit this into a collection of darker work. I'd buy it in a heartbeat.
The title story is a very interesting tale, ostensibly about a vanishing elephant, though I suspect that the impetus for the story came from questions about quantum mechanics, probability, and scientific observation. But those philosophical underpinnings lie beneath many folds of pachyderm skin. As the elephant vanishes, the implications grow. A fitting ending to a short-story collection, no?
While the stories I've mentioned are strong and would have made an excellent collection on their own, the others detract from the “oomph” I like in short story collections. I'm a bit disappointed, to be honest, but the stronger stories hold the overall product up at an acceptable level. Don't bust the bank to purchase a copy, but do seek it out at your local used book store or library. It's worth that much, as well as a few hours of your time (if you're a slow reader like me). Recommended, with reservations.
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