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Friday, September 1, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

"Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman": Tales of "grotesques," and feelings of vertigo

Special to The Seattle Times

"Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman"
by Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel and Jay Rubin
Knopf, 334 pp., $24.95

American short-story writer and novelist Sherwood Anderson had a word for them. He called them "grotesques": characters consumed by guilt, loneliness and isolation. There are numerous grotesques in the 24 enigmatic short stories collected by Japanese writer Haruki Murakami in the consistently intriguing "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman."

Murakami's "Introduction" is a must read. It helps sort out several story clusters — from the first three stories Murakami ever wrote to a mixture of short shorts ranging from three to five pages. There is one story based on his wife's dreams ("Ice Man") and another inspired by images that came to him while he was surfing ("The Seventh Man").

The volume ends with five stories published in Japan as "Tokyo Kitanshu" ("Strange Tales from Tokyo"). But, as Murakami notes, "everything I write is, more or less, a strange tale."

The strangeness of all the stories is exemplified in the unsettling tone of the opening title story. Two cousins barely acquainted with each other travel to a hospital where the younger 17-year-old is having treatment for a mysterious ear disorder. Everything he hears is "like you're at the bottom of the sea wearing earplugs."

The 25-year-old narrator views the world as "vivid enough ... but an illusion nonetheless." He recalls visiting a friend of his cousin who recounts the tale of a woman who falls asleep after "a lot of pollen, and tiny flies covered with the stuff crawled inside her ear." His life is as unbalanced as his cousin's. It is as if he, too, suffers a disorienting vertigo.

The same sense of imbalance dominates other stories. In "The Mirror" (one of the short shorts), a group of guests tells ghost stories of paranormal events. The 30-ish host recalls a decade-old experience as a night watchman in a junior high school, when he imagined seeing inside himself in a hall mirror that he later discovered did not exist.

One of the longer stories, "Tony Takitani," emphasizes the permanence of loneliness seeping into a character "like a lukewarm broth of darkness." Each memory becomes "the shadow of a shadow of a shadow."

Those shadows haunt the edge of every sentence in one of the most mysterious of the "Strange Tales." In "Where I'm Likely To Find It," an amateur investigator is hired to find a man who apparently disappeared between the 24th and 26th floors of an apartment building. Others in the same group include "A Shinagawa Monkey," a bizarre tale of a talking monkey that solves identity-theft problems. Another, "Hanalei Bay," is a ghost story about the annual appearance of a dead teenage surfer.

Some stories are not completely successful, including two oddities ("Airplane: Or, How He Talked To Himself As If Reciting Poetry" and "Dabchick"), one that is like being in a cerebral funhouse ("A Folklore for My Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism") and the downright grisly "Man-Eating Cats."

Overall, "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" is a satisfying, entertaining collection from the writer of the brilliant "Kafka on the Shore." It is a solid introduction to the eclectic talents of this master storyteller of the absurd.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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