I just finished Haruki Murakami’s latest collection of short stories — Men Without Women. It’s a sad, surreal, gentle, loving, almost sexy group of stories about different ways men feel regarding being alone in the world and grappling with being somehow womanless.
I’d guess most people who are not heterosexual won’t really appreciate this book. That makes sense. For all other heterosexual writers, I want to apologize right now and forever more from the bottom of our hearts: we can only write about what we know. So, please forgive us. You may, however, throw lots of slings and arrows and rotten vegetables at any hetero writer who improperly incorporates a gay character into their stories. Note I say improperly. I think it’s okay to have gay people, we just really need to stay out of their heads. In The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Murakami has a gay autistic character that only an asshole would not love.
What I really want to say here is that Murakami has been a beacon of hope for me as I do my own work here in 2017 on stories that involve sex, being male, and searching for the meaning of life. About fifteen years ago (I was in my mid-20s), I read Portnoy’s Complaint (Philip Roth), Rabbit, Run (John Updike), and Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov). All back-to-back over one summer. I was extremely dismayed at each book’s depiction of male psychology. These novels are considered great, modern literature written by masters. I think they offer pathetic depictions of men. Embarrassing, really. Maybe they work for their eras, but from my vantage point the main characters are all superficial, unable to understand their own feelings about life, and just plain stupid when it comes to the emotions of women in their lives. Basically, the characters in these renowned novels are assholes.
There’s no question that life is difficult and confusing for guys. Doesn’t matter the era. But men have emotional lives — that’s always been the case. Most of us are not assholes. What we have always sought in our confused and maudlin existences is connections with others — especially those we love. If there’s a story in anything about men, it should try to be about the difficulty we have translating what is inside of us so that the world knows who we are, so that we actually have a chance to connect with those we love.
It’s always seemed to me that above all else Haruki Murakami understands the need for novels to grapple with emotion. To be sure, he understands that when he tells stories, he’s generally telling stories from a male point of view. I’m not sure writers of the last century were always as aware of that issue as they should have been. Men Without Women furthers Murakami’s career-long obsession with loneliness, being inexplicably sad, confused about love and sex, and the male battle with regret.
I’m not writing a review here, so I won’t say any more than that I always appreciate how he handles these issues — whether characters are male of female. It’s true that all his books kind of hit the same themes, use the same motifs, and present the same puzzles about reality, but they always manage to dredge up for the reader things that really matter — things most people ignore. You realize as you read him — that simple style like the calm surface of a deep lake — he’s presenting us with legitimate concerns about the perpetually new and dynamic complex emotional reality we’re confronted with here in our half virtual universe.
What I want to talk about specifically, though, is that Murakami seems to really piss off some of his female readers. I don’t understand this. His male characters are almost to a man respectful of women, non-manipulative, gentle, as loving as they can be, and usually quite impressed with what women bring to the table. They do, I must admit, have sexual thoughts about women. They enjoy sex and usually want to have it. They talk about how their penises feel before, during, and after sex. They enjoy being mounted and letting women fuck the crap out of them.
There are a few good female orgasms in Murakami’s work. Men have nicely drawn orgasms, too. There are also blow jobs. Women use their talents to entice and/or work magic on the men in question. Always quite a ride!
Sometimes magic really does get created in these stories — thought and spirit transferral — especially during sex. Murakami’s sex scenes can be charged with cosmic significance. It can be wild too, in weird ways. But none of Murakami’s sexual descriptions are pornographic. They can be somewhat erotic. To be honest, he is a master at describing a character’s mental state as an erection forms. I recall a prolonged scene in his great work, 1Q84, that gave me an erection myself as I read. It made me feel something sexual I’d never felt before. I wasn’t just horny, I was in a strange kind of magical-realist heat.
It seems reasonable, does it not? that a writer would try to make their reader horny and tweaked to awe of eros at the same time. We pay a lot of money for books. It’s not a bad thing to feel somehow that the mind is being titillated. My God, that’s what TV, movies, magazines, and pretty much half the internet is trying to do to you every time you let your eyes go there. Writers who don’t understand that they have the power to penetrate their readers with a kind of oral poetry are missing out on a tremendous opportunity. And readers who don’t appreciate this are simply not getting their money’s worth.
So it’s important to note that the horniness thing — the erections, sex acrobatics, wet pussies, eroticism, etc. — are usually about something far more interesting than fucking. That may be why some women freak out reading Murakami’s books. “Here I am, led so gently and languidly through a story, the writing so simple and zen-like, where there is mystery and sadness and such a poignant alienation. And then all of a sudden, a man is fucking a woman. I feel it. I feel his gaze. I feel his pleasure. My mind is so open. I feel that penis inside, growing still. I feel desire roaring through me. Whose desire is that? Why is this great, zen-like writer doing this?”
Most Murakami stories are about people on a quest to find connection and meaning in a world that is riddled with duality. Usually, there are two women in these stories. Christian Lorentzen posits the Murakami feminine dichotomy well when he writes for Vulture.com: “The hero will spend some time at the bottom of a well, or some other deep and lonely space. His mind and heart will be tugged between desire for an ethereal, spiritual woman (usually the one who’s gone missing) and attraction to a sassy, sexy, down-to-earth gal (who at first seems more like a sidekick on his vision quest but may turn out to be just what he needed all along).”
I find it interesting that virtually no Murakami novel is about adults who have actual children to worry about. True, there are young protagonists, but they tend to be parentless or runaways, like so many other orphans in modern literature.
Murakami eschews the idea of God, too. Good for him. I’ve never been sure God should be part of art. Life is too crazy in reality. There is, however, in these strange tales the promise of exposure to a secret, sometimes a whole parallel world, sometimes the answer to alienation, sometimes the key to melding love with passion. And sometimes the secret goes so far into infinity you don’t know anything other than the fact that your mind has been penetrated by some potential that is at once both on the tip of the tongue and swirling in the reader’s altered state — a state that puts you in touch with multiple universes, the lure of circular time and so much more.
I’ll close with a point I keep forgetting to make about Murakami. Sometimes he gets lumped into what people refer to as Dick Lit — ie, literary fiction by and about men, usually making the male view of sex somehow specific, but also just simply about men (since we seem to be the ones with dicks swinging between our legs). Dick Lit isn’t really a genre yet. It’s more a term that people (often women) use to derogatorily describe serious fiction written by men.
The sad thing is that when we write, we really are trying to express ourselves to the universe, to all of humanity. Maybe we’re trying to justify ourselves to the world — especially women. Maybe, as with Haruki Murakami, we’re using every aspect of being male in the world to tell weird stories about what goes on in our heads. Maybe we’re trying these days to get across our emotions and what if feels like to be alive here in this insane historical epoch.
Why is that somehow despicable? Why is the term Dick Lit used as a barb? I think a lot of male writers these days are moving away from characters who are assholes (or even losers). I think a lot of fiction these days shows emotionally vulnerable, thoughtful, kind, decent men. Sure we get horny when presented with archetypal female heroines. Sure we seek to connect with women in order to rise above our loneliness and our sense that modern existence is somehow alienating and holding our ability to understand life’s mysteries at bay.
So, yeah, it’s Dick Lit. What do you want? I’m going to call it a genre right here and now. I don’t make fun of Chick Lit. I don’t even denigrate it. I love stories by women. Even when men are depicted as assholes.
Maybe the first tenet of Dick Lit should be that men aren’t allowed to be assholes anymore. And women shouldn’t be sex objects. But women can still be sexy. And men can still desire them. I’ve always said, there’s no woman who isn’t beautiful when she’s naked. I’ll stand by that. I’m sure most of Haruki Murakami’s characters would agree with me if they thought about it long enough.
Find out more about Men Without Women here: