Haruki Murakami's short stories are a hit and miss proposition. In this aspect, they're not unlike his novels, in which mysterious and evocative developments swell and shrink, drifting through the narrative like strange, pulsing sea creatures whose course eventually gets lost in the dim distance. Murakami's fiction is full of perplexed women, aimless men, subterranean corridors, objects with minds of their own, wayward cats and old men with very odd stories to tell. Not all of these elements find resolution, but in the context of the author's longer narratives, the occasional lack of closure and explanation isn't a problem; the whole thing somehow feels satisfying -- and how Murakami pulls that off (I couldn't hope to explain it) is the secret to what makes him a great novelist.
His short stories, however, don't always achieve this satisfaction. In his new collection, "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman," there are indeed some genuine stunners, stories that distill the Murakami essence, that addictive combination of the banal and the archetypal. Take "Where I'm Likely to Find It," which is narrated by a private detective who only works on a particular kind of case and refuses to accept any payment for his services. His most recent client is a woman whose husband inexplicably disappeared somewhere on the stairway between the 24th and the 26th floors of their high-rise condominium apartment building.
The man is unlikely to have run out on his wife; he didn't have his money and credit cards and had just asked her to whip him up a batch of pancakes. So the detective takes to hanging out on the stairway, chatting with the handful of residents who use it instead of the elevator. He meets a philosophical old man who tells him, "sometimes we don't need words. Rather, it's words that need us. If we were no longer here, words would lose their whole function. ... They would end up as words that are never spoken, and words that are never spoken are no longer words." Then there's the little girl who helps him clarify his quest by asking him what he's doing:
"'I'm looking for something.'
"'What is it?'
"'I have no idea,' I admitted. 'I imagine it's like a door.'"
The lost husband turns up in a train station 20 days later, with no memory of how he got there, but the narrator's search goes on.
In a way, Murakami is just like this detective. He likes to linger in the dullest of functional, in-between places, like stairwells and bus stops, waiting for a door to show up. In his fiction, these spots are transformed, made uncanny -- or maybe it's just that their underlying uncanniness is revealed. Atmosphere is so important to Murakami's work that he's at an inherent disadvantage writing short stories, where there isn't much time to conjure it. Some of the pieces in "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" feel too formless or, conversely, a little pat, like a ghost story in which a night watchman doing the rounds confronts a reflection of himself whose expression conveys an implacable hatred; needless to say, the next morning he discovers that there is no mirror on that wall.
What rarely fails this writer, though, is his knack for images. Sometimes delivering one of these is all the story really needs to do. It might be a little boy, suspended between life and death for a few moments in the hovering wall of an enormous wave. Or, more humbly, a smooth, kidney-shaped stone that is in a different spot in a doctor's office every morning despite the fact that no human hand could have moved it. Or it might be the unearthly music a man vacationing on a Greek island hears on the moonlit night when his lover vanishes impossibly and forever.
About half of the stories here have enough of Murakami's signature strengths to make them unmissable -- the rest will appeal mostly to completists. Unlike his masterly 2002 collection, "After the Quake" (which the author likens to a "concept album" in his introduction to this book), "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" is miscellaneous, a roundup of early and late works. Some of them have been substantially revised since their first publication, a reflection on the provisional nature of Japanese publishing; Murakami's novels are also often significantly revised or cut -- by the author himself, I might add -- in later editions and translations. Chances are the versions of the tales you'll find in "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" are better than those you may have read elsewhere.
As a writer, Murakami seems to take his cue more from the jazz musicians who played in the nightclub he once managed than from some of the pristine, controlled American writers he has translated -- Raymond Carver, for example. Murakami's fiction is improvisational, welling up from his unconscious, and he has told interviewers that he never knows where it's going when he starts. As a result, unless he's got plenty of room to chase impulses and circle back from sidetracks, it doesn't always arrive where it needs to. Still, no one else can take us to the wondrous, creepy, sublime places that Murakami can when he's in top form, and that's why it's always worth coming along for the ride.