One more nice thing about short stories is that you can create a story out of the smallest details—an idea that springs up in your mind, a word, an image, whatever," writes Haruki Murakami in the introduction to his latest short story collection, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. "In most cases it's like jazz improvisation, with the story taking me where it wants to."
Back to the jazz stuff in a sec. Encompassing works from 1981 to the present, the 24-story-long Blind Willow hits most of Murakami's distinctive themes and topics: loneliness pervades; artificiality and nature vie for tonal dominance; ghosts, both literal and metaphoric, linger in characters' minds; jazz soundtracks his characters' confusions and regrets. If Murakami were a jazz musician, these themes would be his standards—and, just like a classic Mingus or Ellington track, they're rich and complex enough to hold up over countless repetitions. In that vein, the titular story—in which a young man accompanies his cousin to a hospital, only to have his memories threaten to overtake the present—is one of the book's strongest. Two other excellent stories, "The Year of Spaghetti" and "Airplane: Or, How He Talked to Himself as if Reciting Poetry," have familiar Murakami characters doing their familiar things: making pasta, fielding awkward phone calls, sleeping with mysterious women.
But more interesting are Blind Willow's off-kilter pieces. "Dabchick" is a surreal, quick-witted bit of fun that's rivaled only by the darkly hilarious "The Rise and Fall of Sharpie Cakes," in which the narrator's future lies in the hands—or beaks, rather—of vicious, junk-food-eating crows. Similarly, "The Ice Man" tells of a young woman unfortunate enough to fall in love with a man made of ice, while the book's most striking character—a thieving primate—shows up in "A Shinagawa Monkey."
Most who read Murakami have their preference: his short stories or his novels. I'm usually in the latter camp; Murakami's distinctive tone and affecting depth require both space and time. But in Blind Willow, he offers ideas that are more risky and less predictable. And when Murakami's extraordinary, singular plots and characters engage their writer in improvisation sessions such as these, there's little, if anything, to complain about.