Yay Murakami! I've plunged back into the canon with "The Elephant Vanishes." I think this may be my favorite of his collections that I've read so far.
The stories span the years when Murakami was becoming known abroad (though still well before he "broke through" with The Wind-up Bird Chronicle), and as a result, two translators are represented here. Alfred Birnbaum translated many of his earlier books into English; I think he's the one who did "A Wild Sheep Chase" and "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World." Jay Rubin has translated all of Murakami's more recent books. Both seem to be good, though obviously I can't compare either one's output to the original Japanese.
The stories generally feel more personal than I've encountered in other Murakami short fiction. You still get plenty of alienation, but there are some close relationships on display as well. One is told from the perspective of a shiftless man in his late twenties who lives with his sister. The sister has started dating a man, an engineer, and the story shows how she is maturing and how that maturity is leading to clashes with the brother. It's a wonderfully complex picture. She still deeply, fundamentally loves the brother, but at the same time, all of his jokes and such have been rubbing her raw. The engineer is named Noboru Watanabe, a name that Murakami seems to love - I believe it's also the name of the brother-villain in "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle." Anyways, Noboru isn't a bad guy, but the narrator still doesn't like him... because of his taste in clothes, because of the motorcycle he rides, because of his soldering iron... ultimately, one suspects, because he's new and different and shaking up his relationship with his sister.
That's just one example, but it's a telling one. No otherworldly activities, no unexplainable phenomenon. Characters actually talk with one another and discuss their feelings. Doesn't sound much like Murakami, but it's excellent.
One of my favorite stories here was "The Second Bakery Attack." If you were to plot the stories here along a continuum from "Realistic" to "Bizarre," this one would land near the middle: nothing supernatural happens, but it's still rather unbelievable, wonderfully so.
The story opens with a severe hunger attack that strikes a husband and wife in the middle of the night. Their fridge only has onions, salad dressing, and beer. As they drink the beer in a futile attempt to sate their hunger, the husband describes a bakery attack he staged when he was at college. A friend and he decided to attack a bakery: not to steal money, but to steal bread. The attack didn't exactly fail, but it didn't exactly succeed, either. The owner of the bakery offered an exchange instead: if they would listen to an entire LP of... I think it was Beethoven, then he would give them all the bread in the bakery. No need for violence. They discuss it and agree. They listen to the music, the owner keeps his word, and they live on the bread for several weeks. Gradually, the narrator realizes, his life changes. He never again does something so wild or irresponsible. He gets married, and settles down to a calm life.
The wife, having heard all this, declares that there must have been a curse, and that she is now also under the curse by marrying him. The solution is clear: they must attack another bakery. She grabs a shotgun, they both find ski masks, and they begin cruising the Tokyo streets at 2AM looking for an open bakery. After a long time, they compromise and decide to attack a McDonald's instead. They threaten the employees, get 50 hamburgers to go, and then pay for two sodas. (The bread in the hamburgers count as a bakery item, so they're stolen; the sodas aren't part of the attack, so they are paid for.) And that's pretty much it. Fun stuff.
Also in the realistic side: "Meeting the 100% Perfect Girl." This is a sweet short story-within-a-story. A young man is smitten by a stranger he passes in the street; it's love at first sight, and he knows that she's the best girl he'll ever meet. But he can't think of what to say, and the moment passes. Later, he thinks of a story he should have told her. It's sad and touching.
"Slow Boat to China" is another good one that doesn't bear the trademarks of Murakami oddness. The narrator reminisces about various Chinese people he has met throughout his life, from school and at work. Like the story with the brother and sister, this one has some really touching looks at moments when people connect and touch one anothers' lives. Which is kind of unusual, in that the encounters he describes are quite brief, but they have made a long impression on him.
On to the strange: the opening book is "The Wind-up Bird," and it's basically the first chapter of "The Wind-up Bird Chronicle." Which I love, so I didn't mind reading it again. It's been a long time since I've read the novel; I don't remember there being any significant differences between the novel and what happens here, so I can't judge if anything has changed, and if so, how. All the weirdness is intact: the passageway with no entrance or exit; the mysterious phone call; the husband's extreme disconnectedness.
One other story I've heard before is "Little Green Monster." I heard this one when I went to hear Murakami at Berkeley. I doubt I'll ever forget it. It's one of his shortest stories, and also one of the most remarkable. In just a couple of pages it manages to pull you twisting through a wide range of emotions: shock, then horror, then disgust, then curiosity, then pity, then alarm. I still have no idea what we're supposed to think of the monster itself. I can't really blame the woman for doing what she does, but at the same time, it does feel a little cruel. I doubt that anyone who has been emotionally rejected can read this story without wincing a little.
The title story "The Elephant Vanishes" is on the gently surreal side. The setting is realistic, but the actual vanishing of the elephant is utterly inexplicable. Another elephant-related story that I liked even more was... I think "The Dancing Dwarf?" This one actually felt a little bit like "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World" in that it takes place in an imagined land, one that is obviously not Japan or America. Which is quite unusual for Murakami - wherever his books may go thematically, they usually are very rooted physically. Anyways, this was just brimming with wonderful oddities. The first scene in the story has a dream with a dwarf who dances better than anyone in the world. The narrator works in an elephant factory, where they manufacture elephants out of elephant parts. There's a forest, and a king, and a revolution. All wonderful stuff.
Great collection here. It was great fun to see a wider range of Murakami's talents on display. I do tend to like his work more the more bizarre it gets, but it's wonderful to see that he's fully capable of writing a "normal" story when he wants to, and to do it well. The mixture should keep everyone engaged and pleased.