There are shades of Hemingway in these stories about men who choose loneliness in the avoidance of pain quiet panic afflicts the male characters in Hemingway’s 1927 collection Men Without Women, that touchstone in the development of both Hemingwayism and the short story. Men should never put themselves in the position where they can lose someone, a bereaved Italian soldier warns Hemingway’s long-running protagonist Nick Adams: instead, a man “should find things he cannot lose”. Ninety years later, Haruki Murakami’s men without women have come to the same conclusion, polishing it into a postmodern lifestyle.
Kafuko, a middle-aged character actor, used to be married. Throughout their life together, his wife had affairs, but he loved her, and though it was painful – “his heart was torn and his insides were bleeding” – he never dared ask her what deficiency she was tryng to make up for in their relationship; now it’s too late. In another story, jazz fan Kino blunders in on his wife having sex with his best friend and, apparently more embarrassed than wounded, decides to begin life again as a bar owner in another part of town. He equips the perfect establishment, then sits in it playing his favourite albums and waiting for his first customer, a policy guaranteed to draw in spirits as unquietly defeated as himself.
By the end of the title story, its narrator has concluded, in appropriately Hemingwayesque fashion, that when you lose one woman, you lose them all: you become, somehow, the representative of the category “men without women”, alone but not singular. To be trapped by that “relentlessly rigid plural” is to live at the heart of loneliness. But something about this rhetorical sleight of hand reveals loneliness as a coping strategy in itself. Kafuko the actor, for instance, performs his way into his exchanges with others, taking on the qualities of the person he needs to be in the situation he’s in – but he learned the technique in childhood, long before he got into the profession, long before his wife died. “Why don’t you have any friends?” his new driver asks him one day, in a traffic jam on the Tokyo metropolitan expressway. It’s an interesting question.
There’s a dialled-down quality to these men. Their exchanges with other people are limited to bedrooms and bars. They have one eccentricity each: they care about reading or cooking or the history of popular music. Murakami Man, we begin to see, has no friends because, in the pursuit of convenience and emotional self-protection, in proofing himself against grief, he chose distance. He chose loneliness long before he experienced loss. As a result, he is unable to take advantage of the predictable life he has been at such pains to organise. If he fails to connect with others, he fails, equally, to connect with himself.
Devotees will find plenty of signature Murakami here, in the empty, almost Lynchian interiors of “Kino”, the weird psychic landscape of the narrator of “Men Without Women”, the troubled Prague of “Samsa in Love”. You’re never quite sure about the story’s boundaries – sometimes you aren’t even sure it’s begun. Murakami never tells it until he’s ready, and that may take pages of careful preparation. He’s as fascinated as his specimens by the complex layers of social geology in which they’re to be found embedded, so that’s where he begins. It’s up to the reader to work out why.
The authorial voice is as subtle as the tease, unassumingly ironic enough to avoid the banality it explores: it calmly reveals the passive self-repression or puncturable egotism of the men. Murakami’s women are a different matter. Their capacities seem to fall halfway between motherly and male: they are gruff caregivers. Misaki the chauffeur in “Drive My Car” speaks bluntly, wears a man’s herringbone jacket and drives with “a minimum of wasted effort”. In “Scheherazade”, the eponymous storyteller is “a housewife from a provincial city”: her businesslike sexual manners remind the hero that she’s a trained nurse.
Tale by tale, the different women – unassuaged, and who can blame them – move off to the peripheries. The men apologise for themselves and are content to drift, remaining puzzled as much by their own behaviour as anyone else’s. Their stories are never less than readable, comic, amiably fantastic, human, yet with an entertainingly sarcastic edge, but verge on the bland. Unlike Hemingway’s Italian soldier, they can’t pinpoint the moment their lives went wrong; they barely remember their previous condition – and not well enough to describe it. Have they learned anything from experience? They say so. We’re left wondering if that’s true, or if, like Kino the barman, they’re really courting self-erasure.
• M John Harrison’s short story collection You Should Come With Me Now will be published by Comma later this year. Men Without Women is published by Harvill Secker. To order a copy for £14.44 (RRP £16.99) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.