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The Elephant Vanishes
Author Herbert Mitgang  
Date May 12, 1993  
Media The New York Times  
  From Japan, Big Macs and Marlboros in Stories

Haruki Murakami's frequent-flyer fiction crosses the Pacific from Japan effortlessly and makes a soft landing in the United States for the American reader. But I wish the characters in "The Elephant Vanishes," his new book of short stories, wouldn't spend so much time at McDonald's, lighting up Marlboros, listening to Bruce Springsteen records and watching Woody Allen movies as a prelude to romance. Just when you're ready for some wisdom from the Orient, the author serves up a Big Mac.

No question that Mr. Murakami is the most international voice among the current generation of Japanese novelists. He demonstrated that in "A Wild Sheep Chase," an imaginative novel in which modern and traditional forces clashed symbolically, as well as in the novel "Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World."


Undeniably, he is on the mark about the influence of copycat culture and franchises in Japan, but that's a familiar story by now. Perhaps in vain, he makes a reader yearn for literary insights without so many American icons and brand names.

The stories, lucidly translated by Alfred Birnbaum and Jay Rubin, display the author's (all right, his characters') wide range of reading and interests. Most are set in Tokyo and its environs, but they include references to Allen Ginsberg, Clarence Darrow, Candice Bergen, the "Colonel Bogey" March, Penthouse magazine, Adidas T-shirts, Meryl Streep, Remy Martin cognac, I. W. Harper, Robert De Niro, "Anna Karenina," Sly and the Family Stone, Dustin Hoffman, the film "Jaws," Willie Nelson, Silly Putty, Julio Iglesias, Baskin-Robbins ice cream and Katherine Mansfield. (How many American novelists have read her lately?)

There are 17 charming, humorous and frequently puzzling short stories in "The Elephant Vanishes," some of which first appeared in The New Yorker. Nearly all bear the author's special imprint: a mixture of magical realism, feckless wandering and stylish writing, often ending at a blank wall. In one tale, the first-person narrator is reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez and finds the writing opaque, to which the reader is inclined to respond, Look who's talking.

In the title story, Mr. Murakami succeeds in creating one of his typical phlegmatic characters: a public relations junior executive for a manufacturer of electrical appliances who doesn't particularly care what he's doing for a living, contrary to the conventional wisdom that all workers in Japan cheer for the company team. The narrator says, "My job was to negotiate with several women's magazines for tie-in articles -- not the kind of work that takes a great deal of intelligence, but I had to see to it that the articles they wrote didn't smack of advertising. When magazines gave us publicity, we rewarded them by placing ads in their pages. They scratched our backs, we scratched theirs." To be sure, the wised-up author slyly hints, this isn't New York, it's Tokyo.


But what about the vanishing elephant? And what about the vanishing girlfriend the narrator meets on the job? Yes, an old elephant does disappear, together with his old keeper, from a Tokyo suburb, and yes, the narrator wants to connect with a new girlfriend, but language pulls them apart. She seems to count his words too carefully. Out of a minor incident, Mr. Murakami somehow manages to put the pieces in the magical puzzle together yet without arriving at a solution. Along the way, he quietly slips in observations about developers, pompous town officials, inept law-enforcement officers and the overkill methods of the state.

Mr. Murakami lets his imagination run wild in "The Second Bakery Attack," in which a husband and wife hold up a McDonald's and steal 30 hamburgers, grilled for takeout, although the manager offers them money instead. In "TV People," little men from somewhere out there invade a household, bring in their own television set, push aside the books and magazines and silently take over the living room and maybe the imagination. In "Barn Burning," the narrator loses his flaky girlfriend to a cool gent with a fancy car whose hobby -- or is it his source of easy money? -- is burning barns.

Mr. Murakami's humor shines through his writing. In "Lederhosen," the most offbeat tale in the collection, the author shows how a minor event can be built up into a story that, if it didn't happen, should have. A pair of those Alpine shorts leads to the divorce of a long-married Japanese couple. In a kind gesture, the wife goes to a special lederhosen store outside Hamburg to buy her husband a pair. He isn't there to try them on for a snug fit, as the proud shopkeepers insist, so she drags a man in off the streets who has the same build as her husband. Seeing the stranger's bare skin, legs and belly as he prances in the shorts, she suddenly realizes she's hated her husband all through their years together and files for divorce.

Generally, Mr. Murakami keeps his writing simple and straightforward, but every now and then he offers a stunning image. After one of his characters finishes a six-pack of beer, "Six pull-tabs lay in the ashtray like scales from a mermaid." Later, "I took the six pull-tabs from the ashtray and arranged them into an aluminum ring the size of a bracelet." Far less original are some of his frequent references to American films: "A few minutes later, the pangs struck with the force of the tornado in 'The Wizard of Oz.' These were tremendous, overpowering hunger pangs."

Nearly all the short stories in "The Elephant Vanishes" are fun to read, but Mr. Murakami seems better as a long-distance runner in fiction. Allegorically, it would also help if he substituted some sushi for all those Big Macs.