The Murakami Project: Each week leading up to October 25th, the on-sale date of Haruki Murakami’s long-awaited 1Q84 in its English translation, a different BookPerson will review one of Murakami’s previous titles. Folks who haven’t read Murakami yet can familiarize themselves with what the book world will be buzzing about come October (and maybe discover a new favorite book), and established fans can remember why they fell in love with him in the first place.
Book: The Elephant Vanishes
Reviewer: Jenn S.
Have you ever woken up hungry? I mean, really hungry. It’s the middle of the night, you went to sleep a few hours ago, and suddenly, you’re up and famished.
That’s the premise of “The Second Bakery Attack,” a story in Murakami’s first published collection The Elephant Vanishes. With nothing to eat in the house but beer and baking soda, the newly-married couple finds a different way to cure their hunger: it involves a shotgun and thirty Big Macs.
Murakami’s stories always start with something totally normal, like midnight hunger, but they end up in the realm of the bizarre. And yet, each of his stories proceeds in an exceedingly logical, transparent manner—immersed in his strange world, you accept the character’s irrational rationality and never question whether what happens next really has to happen. Could the woman in “Lederhosen,” whose husband sends her to get him some iconic shorts, have done anything else but decide to divorce him? My answer is no. The logic of Murakami’s world is fool proof.
In one of my favorite stories, “Sleep,” the protagonist can’t sleep. Pretty normal, I’d say. But she remains awake for seventeen days straight, with no visible side effects. Instead of sleeping, she stays up all night reading Russian novels and eating chocolate. After she’s read Anna Karenina for the third time, she says, “This enormous novel was full of revelations and riddles. Like a Chinese box, the world of the novel contained smaller worlds, and inside those were yet smaller worlds. Together, these worlds made up a single universe, and the universe waited there in the book to be discovered by the reader” (100). What she has noticed about Tolstoy is actually one of the best things about Murakami. You can read his books and stories over and over again. Chances are, there are tons of discrete elements, idiosyncrasies, and details you won’t remember. The trajectories of his stories constantly veer in the least likely direction. Each time you read, it’s a whole new book.
Which is why I’d vote for this story collection as a desert island book—dense, intertextual, and unexpected, these stories can sustain infinite rereadings. Murakami’s novels are also wonderfully immersive, but his short stories offer something else. That move he makes, where he starts on an ordinary day and winds up in an alternate universe, has to happen zero to sixty in so few pages in a short story. And he makes it happen convincingly, every time. It’s proof that he’s a master of the interior logic of the human imagination.
One last note: as I reread this collection for the third or fourth time, I was struck by how funny it is. Murakami’s got a lot of things down, and one of the best parts of his fiction is the comic awareness it instills. These stories are highly attuned to the reader, setting up little mysteries and surprises, revelations and riddles throughout, only to arrive at the final, title story, “The Elephant Vanishes.” Here, the principle that makes Murakami’s fiction work is brought right to the surface: sometimes a vanished elephant is just a vanished elephant.