A new silent killer has been making headlines all over the world, and it’s not heart disease, carbon monoxide, or cancer. It’s loneliness.
According to a 2010 study, the incidence of loneliness among adults in the United States has doubled since the 1980s, to 40 percent. Britain is being hailed as “the loneliness capital of Europe,” where nearly 5 million people “have no real friends.” Meanwhile, elderly people all over the world are dying alone in their homes. To avoid that fate, in the Netherlands many older folks are choosing doctor-assisted euthanasia “if they’re tired of living with Lou Gehrig’s disease, multiple sclerosis, depression, or loneliness,” Newsweek reports. “The Dutch can now choose death if they’re tired of living.”
In Japan, there’s a term for old people who pass away in isolation, kodokushi. But it’s not just the aged and infirm that are living as shut-ins. There’s also an epidemic among young people of what’s called hikikomori, “a phenomenon of social withdrawal in which individuals remain locked in their room for several months or years without social relationships.”
These trends cannot have escaped Haruki Murakami, whose new anthology of short stories, Men Without Women, takes his audience on a journey into a lonely hearts club of characters who have loved and lost and often live in isolation.
Several of the stories fall squarely in the realm of Murakami’s signature magical realism. But others are starkly realistic, like “Drive My Car,” which features an aging actor, Kafuku, who hires a taciturn young woman to drive him around town. As they slowly begin to get to know each other, we learn that Kafuku’s late wife had had multiple affairs. Out of a muddled effort to understand why, Kafuku had slyly befriended one of her former lovers, Takatsuki, without telling him what he knew. Their friendship is both genuine and fraudulent, and Kafuku goes so far as to tell Takatsuki, “I didn’t truly understand her—or at least some crucial part of her,” the woman he’d been with for twenty years. Just like in his relationship with Takatsuki, Kafuku and his wife were alone, together.
Murakami explores a similarly detached duality in “Scheherazade,” in which a man named Habara, confined to his home for reasons we never learn, is visited by a woman, a “support liaison,” whom he dubs Scheherazade. She brings him food and CDs and books, and she has sex with him. Their relationship is perfunctory but not cold, and after their lovemaking sessions she mesmerizes him with stories of her life. But Habara worries about the possibility that he will never see her again. “Theirs was a chance relationship created by someone else, and might be terminated on that person’s whim,” Murakami writes, describing the unseen hand that has condemned Habara to the prison of his home. And not only might Scheherazade disappear forever, but Habara “could be deprived of his freedom entirely,” which would deprive him not only of sexual activity but of “moments of shared intimacy,” Murakami continues. “To lose all contact with women was, in the end, to lose that connection. What his time spent with women offered was the opportunity to be embraced by reality on the one hand, while negating it entirely on the other.” We never learn if Habara’s isolation becomes complete, only that the sun sets and leaves him in darkness.
In perhaps the grimmest of the stories in this collection, “An Independent Organ,” the narrator, Tanimura, tells the story of Dr. Tokai. A successful plastic surgeon and likable playboy, Tokai lives a pleasant, superficial life, eating well and enjoying numerous casual affairs. But one day, he falls in love, and it’s a state so foreign to his character that it confounds his worldview and sense of self. “It makes me realize how incomplete I’ve been, as a person,” Tokai tells Tanimura. For the first time in his life, he starts to wonder, “Who in the world am I?” When the woman leaves him, Tokai learns that she was only using him, and the loss and loneliness are too much to bear. He slowly gives up on his life, eventually dying in bed, of starvation. Tokai “had given up the will to live and decided to reduce himself to nothing.”
Bleak as they are, these fictional worlds are not without hope. Even in their isolation and detachment, Murakami’s characters can see that there’s another way to live. They struggle and hurt; some of them—like Tokai—fail to realize the closeness they desire, while others take halting but hopeful steps on the path to human connection.
Take Kafuku, continually missing his wife and pondering her betrayal. Takatsuki tells him “the proposition that we can look into another person’s heart with perfect clarity strikes me as a fool’s game.” The real challenge is “to look inside your own heart as perceptively and seriously as you can, and to make peace with what you find there,” he says. “If we hope to truly see another person, we have to start by looking within ourselves.”
Murakami weaves that idea into a magical adventure in “Kino,” one of the book’s most gripping stories. A reserved, unemotional man, Kino once worked for a sporting goods company. He spent a lot of time on the road, and in his absence, his wife cheated on him with his best friend at the company. He learned about it in the worst possible way: by walking in on them in bed. Kino left the company, divorced his wife, and opened a tidy little bar where, awaiting his first customers, he read books and played his favorite jazz records. “Like dry ground welcoming the rain, he let the solitude, silence and loneliness soak in.” But a series of bizarre occurrences—the bar’s resident gray cat disappears, snakes appear out of nowhere, and a mysterious stranger tells Kino to leave town—forces him to come to grips with the growing void he feels inside. “No matter how empty it may be, this is still my heart,” Kino tells himself. “There’s still some human warmth in it. Memories, like seaweed wrapped around pilings on the beach, wordlessly waiting for high tide. Emotions that, if cut, would bleed. I can’t just let them wander somewhere beyond my understanding.” Kino reconnects to his humanity through pain, like a second birth.
In “Samsa in Love,” protagonist Gregor Samsa must also be reborn into the world. In this reimagining of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, the hapless Samsa awakes one day to find himself transformed—into a human. The world is strange and cold and hard, and beyond learning to walk on his wobbly two feet and finding some food in his empty house, Samsa is at a loss. What’s more, he has awoken in a militarized dystopia. The streets of Prague are filled with tanks and “people are being rounded up.” But there’s a knock at the door, and love presents itself in the form of a sharp-tongued, hunchbacked female locksmith. Samsa is smitten. All he wants is to “walk side by side with her up and down the staircases of the world.” Before he can do that, however, he must learn how to be a human, how to eat with a knife and fork, how to wear clothes.
Perhaps that’s what Murakami is telling us: That no matter how bleak life seems, no matter how alone we find ourselves, we have to push forward one step at a time, to cast aside the shackles of isolation, and connect.
“Samsa sat there for a long time with his eyes closed. Then, making up his mind, he stood, grabbed his black walking stick, and headed for the stairs. He would return to the second floor and figure out the proper way to dress. For now, at least, that would be his mission.
The world was waiting for him to learn.”