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Murakami pulls mind-bending stories from the ruins of broken rules

Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman
By Haruki Murakami
Knopf, 334 pp., $24.95

Strange things happen in Haruki Murakami's stories, strange enough to make Newton and Darwin spin in their graves. Somehow, the rules that govern this physical planet bend to the point that we forget the rules existed in the first place. In ``Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman ," monkeys talk, stones move of their own accord , and people exist in dreamy, suspended states.

The 20-plus short works that make up this collection exhibit Murakami's fascination with the act of storytelling. Many of these are stories within a story, with the narrator telling a specific tale while the world swirls around him and outside events occur in a seemingly random manner that ultimately illuminates -- or undercuts -- the story being narrated.

``Birthday Girl " starts with an omniscient narrator telling the story of a bizarre encounter a waitress has with an old man on her 20th birthday. Just as we grow comfortable with this narrative voice, Murakami introduces a first person character, to whom, we realize, the story is being told. This story within a story introduces another layer that complicates the information we are being given and makes for a more satisfying read.

Some of Murakami's stories are the prose equivalents of a painter's collage, where he pieces snippets of news or interesting facts into a whole. ``New York Mining Disaster" opens with information about a friend of the narrator who goes to the zoo whenever there's a typhoon, segues into a rumination about the Year of Funerals, in which the narrator laments the many friends who have died young that year, and ends with a random encounter with a woman at a party who claims to have killed a man who looks exactly like the narrator. Or, almost ends. As a kind of coda, Murakami gives us a short but emotional scene of trapped miners awaiting rescue.

For the most part, Murakami's characters accept whatever bizarre events happen in their lives. Their willing suspension of disbelief imposes a kind of normalcy on the reader, so that by the time we get to, say, ``A Shinagawa Monkey," we are not terribly disconcerted by a talking monkey who steals people's names and identities.

Murakami's writing can be deceptively simple at times, so it is easy to overlook its deep psychological underpinnings. ``Where I'm Likely to Find It" starts out as a conventional detective story in which a woman asks a detective for help in finding her husband, who has disappeared from their apartment building. But Murakami subverts this genre from the opening sentence, in which the woman describes her father-in-law's death in an accident rather than her husband's disappearance and waits three pages before getting to the reason for her visit. As the detective encounters the other residents of the building, we realize the story is really about him and his search for himself.

As psychologically rich as these stories are, Murakami's writing is a tad overwrought on occasion. In describing the death of his friends, the narrator of ``A Folklore for My Generation" tells us, ``But that's exactly when the massacre began. It was like a surprise attack on a lazy spring day--as if someone, on top of a metaphysical hill, holding a metaphysical machine gun, had sprayed us with bullets."

Still, one can't help feel that Murakami's chief objective is to evoke a certain mood and feeling. And in this he succeeds. The stories range from the desultory to the disquieting. Above all, with their themes of alienation and loneliness, they feel urgently, heartbreakingly modern.

Thrity Umrigar is the author of the novels, ``The Space Between Us" and ``Bombay Time."

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