In his latest short story collection, Haruki Murakami often describes the unremarkable physical appearance of a person. Many of his characters are not quite attractive, though not quite ugly, either. They might be described as plain, or bearing some sort of combination of features that might render them fuzzy in one’s memories. It is as if the author, in his stories, is trying to rule out the very possibility of love at first sight, of a singular moment of attraction that might drive his characters into a passionate affair.
In lieu of the explosions of lust and romance, the seven stories offer up quiet, existential mysteries. His characters peer into those unremarkable forms, trying to find some clue that might lead them to decipher the nature of their solitude. An aging, second-rate actor spends time with a man with whom his late wife had an affair, looking for any indication of an essential quality that might have caused the infidelity. A plastic surgeon committed to a life of non-commitment explores the surprising feelings that he has developed for a woman that he’s been sleeping with. In the collection’s most fantastical tale, a cockroach wakes up to discover that he is now Gregor Samsa, and he is forced to investigate the mechanics of his own body, of which he does not have full control.
Through all of his stories, he creates people who are struck with the strangeness of the mundane world. They will attest to the boring nature of their subjects, and confess to the lack of anything extraordinary going on. But they are consumed, anyway, drawn to the questions that inevitably arise in the examination of even the most cursory of human actions. They are people who have grown comfortable with their routines, but for one reason or another are suddenly gifted the realization that the most boring elements of their lives are actually imbued with magic. At times, the magic is literal, the supernatural suddenly breaking into the narrative. But most of the time, the magic stems from the realization that the real world and humans are just pretty weird.
And so, those unremarkable people turn out to be pretty remarkable. They might be secret thieves and deep thinkers and heartbroken wanderers. But even when they turn out to be perfectly normal, they are still the product of a chaotic universe that inexplicably conspired to form these complex creatures with capacity for thought, feeling, and deep sadness. Those combinations of features that make up a nondescript face are given description, and in their telling arises infinite stories.
The heroes of Murakami’s stories are neither great lovers nor great fighters. They are simply people who have grown to be curious about the most seemingly mundane things. They are the existential detectives investigating the mysteries of a quiet life seemingly devoid of meaningful incident, uncovering the magical oddness that makes the heart continue beating, against all odds. In times that are so often lacking in empathy, Murakami’s prescription of curiosity is welcome, even if it leads to so much melancholy.