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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: The Elephant Vanishes

The Elephant Vanishes - Alfred Birnbaum, Jay Rubin, Haruki Murakami

I've had a tough time putting my finger on my feelings about Murakami and his writing. Before investing in this collection of short stories, I've read two of the author's more celebrated works, as well as the author's terse answers for The Secret Miracle project. I'm still not convinced of Murakami's brilliance. While reading his stories, I often feel underwhelmed. The story can be incredibly dry, but given some magical element and a cat, it is supposed to be transformed into writing of the highest quality. The characters are often the same: young men, stuck in a tedious work, with a great love for breasts and refrigerators. Seriously, take my word for it non-Murakami readers, there is a lot of time spent in the kitchen. And yet...

And yet I cannot shake these stories. There are novels I gave five shinning stars to, but five years later, I have only the vaguest memories of their plot. It's been six years since I read my first Murakami, Kafka on the Shore, and I still remember so many details. Every week or two, an image from that novel comes back to me. I gave the book an embarrassing three-star rating, yet there are few books I've read since that I think of as much as that one. It's powerful, and yet, I'm still underwhelmed.

I heard some years back that all fiction readers can be divided into three categories: those who read for plot, those who read for character, and those who read for language. Now, a reader can span multiple categories, but most readers are going to fall primarily into one or another. A plot-driven reader can forgive sloppy characterization if the story is well told. Myself, I'm character primarily, language secondarily. A story without a well-built character, no matter how amazing the plot, is going to fall flat for me.

So here I am, analyzing my feelings regarding Murakami, trying to figure out how his writing fits into these categories—and I'm not sure they do. His characters certainly aren't carrying the stories. The language, or I should say the English translation, is nothing beautiful or unique. One could argue the plot is the central focus, as it is the strongest of the three, but I'm now noticing there is a fourth force that may be at play here: imagery. Are there books where imagery is the primary element? Then there must be readers who are image-driven readers, right? With its little people, magical flutes, elephant factories, and perfectly round breasts, breasts, breasts, Murakami's stories make a strong argument for the image-centric novel. It makes sense that Murakami would appeal so much to a visual generation that grew up with video games, comic books, and 32 television channels.

The stories in The Elephant Vanishes are most significant when they tap Murakami's talent of the visual. Murakami is skilled at taking two seemingly random elements and making a story out of them. The more visual these elements are, the more successfully they breathe life into the story. These are unforgettable moments. There are many stories in The Elephant Vanishes that fail to do this, in my opinion. Much like nearly every collection of short stories I've read, there are great stories and there are mediocre stories; despite its gems, The Elephant Vanishes is bogged down by quite a few less-than-memorable tales. As a whole, the collection is rather average.

So I walk away from Murakami again feeling underwhelmed. Despite this feeling, I already know there are images from this collection that I won't be able to shake: factories where elephants are manufactured, a dancing dwarf who comes in dream, a young couple donning the mask of the Hamburglar. In time, I'll return to the author, keeping in mind what I learned this go around: despite working in the medium of words, Murakami is in some regards a visual artist.