My introduction to Murakami’s surreal world came via his novel Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End Of The World, an absolutely bizarre and highly imaginative novel concerning the subconscious mind and what happens when it collides with the conscious mind in the same space and moment. Since then, I’ve read a lot about Murakami’s writing and have been eager to explore them further. It is his mashup of surrealism, existentialism and realism that intrigues me the most and I felt that Hard-Boiled was the perfect blend of the three, a “balls-out” exploration of the imagination and where it can go if one allows it to flourish - one part science fiction, one part surrealism, one part “literary” which highly impressed me. You have a similar type of fiction in his short story collection The Elephant Vanishes and although I enjoyed a great number of the 17 stories contained within, some of them simply don’t reach the potential of their highly imaginative premises.
There are common themes running through these stories: the disaffected, lazy narrator who often finds himself in a world where both the real and the surreal merge as if it were something that happened every day, some with better effect than others. When it works, it’s brilliant. When it doesn’t, you’re sort of left scratching your head wondering what it was all about. There is a sameness to a lot of these stories and the fact that they are all written in the first person (a little variety would have been nice) a lot of them tend to come off as a recurring experiment, different attempts and approaches to the same basic themes. The stories that work brilliantly - The Wind-Up Bird And Tuesday’s Women, The Kangaroo Communique, Sleep, Barn Burning, Family Affair, Little Green Monster, A Window, A Slow Boat To China, The Dancing Dwarf and The Last Lawn Of The Afternoon are wonderful explorations into the surreal and existential, much of it focusing on the restrictive and claustrophobic nature of Japanese society (as Murakami sees it, anyway) with great writing and interesting ideas. When it doesn’t work, the stories seem like interesting ideas that aren’t fully fleshed out and fail to reach their potential and are often anti-climatic.
I’ve yet to explore more of Murakami’s bizarre world and while this collection certainly does give one a taste of it, it hardly shows his full potential, as Hard-Boiled most certainly did. A good collection for those who want to explore surrealist/existential short fiction but not a good one for those who want to introduce themselves to Murakami’s writing. Not a terrible book by any means but one that won’t blow your mind either. Perhaps this collection would have benefited by being a little shorter but that’s just me. Definitely worth a read for the stories I mentioned above but most definitely not an ultimate “primer” of what Murakami is capable of.