book club: the elephant vanishes

In June, we read We Are The Ants by Shaun Davis Hutchinson, an engaging read that delved into the troubled world of the main character Henry Denton. For July, it was time to change up the pace a bit.

Sometimes you don’t have enough time to finish a book, but you’re in the mood for a quick adventure, journey to another world, or existential crisis brought on by deep questions. Short story anthologies can be a great way to get your literary fix without being stuck in suspense or, for those of us with completionist tendencies, walking around with that mental itch to reach the end of the book. 

One of my favorite living authors is Haruki Murakami. His works are engaging and intriguing. Unfortunately, I don’t have time to sit down and read one of his novels, which range from tiny to massive in size and scope. That’s why The Elephant Vanishes is a great way to get a dose of magical realism in a short sitting.

Some Highlights

Seventeen short stories highlight the best of Murakami’s shorter works from across a decade of his career, beginning in 1980 and ending in 1991. Some of these stories had been published in English, but not all of them. Each story examines an individual facing a quirky life circumstance. Murakami uses the bizarre or the mystical to take a closer look at human emotions.

Afraid you missed the love of your life? Take a stroll down a Tokyo street and see such a moment in “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning”. Ever wanted an adrenaline rush to pull you from an existential dread? Experience it passively (so you don’t have to break the law and get hurt) in “The Second Bakery Attack.” 

“Lederhosen” is a fascinating look at how a pair of German shorts led to a divorce, which also wrestles with the relationship dynamic between parents and their grown children. “A Window” is a touching look at the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens in life. For the science-fiction fan, “TV People” has an atmosphere reminiscent of The Twilight Zone.

Other topics include mysterious, monstrous visitors, sleep experiences of those with insomnia or sleep paralysis, and reflections on the past while looking forward to a new future. In his elegant prose, Murakami reflects on differing facts of life with his uniquely odd way of viewing the world, immersed in classical music, odd encounters, and unexplained phenomena. 

He Does Address More Mature and Difficult Topics

The tone of the stories in the anthology range from whimsical to morbid. Most of the characters are adults and tackle adult behaviors and situations. If portrayals of sex, mental and emotional distress, mild drug use, or self-harm bother you, this anthology may be a pass. Murakami handles them with tact, but they are present. 

One of my favorite stories is “Family Affair”, a story about a brother and sister who are roommates and have to come to grips with their different life choices. Coping with changing relationships is a part of life, but it can be hurtful when two people slowly drift apart. The brother in the story wakes up one day and realizes his irritation at his sister’s boyfriend may have more emotion behind it than he may want to admit.

Perhaps the most intriguing story, in my humble opinion, is “Barn Burning”. Two men get to know one another through a mutual female friend. The narrator did not seek the other man’s confidence but was surprised one evening when he received it. The gentleman admits that he burns barns as a hobby. He goes all over Japan, finds a barn that meets his qualifications for burning, and commits arson. He also hints that he has decided which one he will destroy next.

The Korean thriller Burning, which came out in 2018, is based on this short story.

How Do I Know If This Book is for Me?

If you don’t like short stories, or you prefer to avoid some of the topics I mentioned earlier, then give this anthology a pass. You can look up all the stories and short summaries online and choose to skip the stories with content you don’t like. If you enjoy the weird, the mysterious, and the complex, picking up any Murakami book is a great idea, and The Elephant Vanishes is a great way to get introduced to what he does best. It also is great to have if you want a little something to read, but you are really busy. 

I give The Elephant Vanishes 4.5 Chopin Vinyls out of 5.

Want to catch up on our other Book Club novels? Check them out!

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