Book Babble #2 – The Elephant Vanishes

The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami


I’m a big fan of short stories. It all started after I read Instruction Manual for Swallowing by Adam Marek. Anyone who knows that collection knows they’re pretty weird stories -animals measured by volume, robot wasps, zombie cafés – but I was really into them. I read more and more short story collections, and ‘weird’ seems to be a common theme. It’s almost as if writers aren’t quite confident enough to carry their strange and unusual ideas out in a full-length novel, so they opt for short stories instead.

I knew Murakami’s stuff was weird because my dad had been reading 1Q84 and told me about all the strange and wonderful things that happened in it. I wasn’t allowed to read it at the time, though, so I promptly forgot about it – until a few weeks ago. I found a very interesting-looking cover in Waterstones and recognised 1Q84, and then picked up Norwegian Wood as it had its own recommendation card. I was thoroughly intrigued, but we couldn’t find our copy of Norwegian Wood at home so I instead had a go out The Elephant Vanishes, Murakami’s short story collection.

Every one of these stories made me laugh, whether it was because the writing was funny or the story itself was just so bizarre or the ending so unexpected. Each story was, I can only assume, well-translated, although none of them felt ‘Japanese’, per se – they could be set anywhere. The stories range from family affairs (one story is literally called ‘Family Affair’) to urban adventures to unconventional mysteries, but all of them were very Murakami. Here are some recurring themes I noticed:

  • Spaghetti (or miso soup, or tofu)
  • Ears
  • Things vanishing (like elephants!)
  • Housewives
  • Obscure composers
  • American rock bands
  • Cats
  • Percentages
  • Sudden phone calls

In fact, I just found a Murakami bingo board by Incidental Comics, so I wasn’t exaggerating:


I mentioned unexpected endings. This was a common occurrence in The Elephant Vanishes, but oftentimes perfectly justified. All too often, stories focus on having a perfectly formed beginning, middle and end, but it’s as if Murakami writes his story and finishes it when he has nothing more to add, regardless of how complete it feels. In fact, some stories might seem ‘pointless’ to some readers – if there’s no real conclusion, then why tell it? But these are the exact type of stories that I love. He plays around with structure quite a lot, especially in The Kangaroo Communiqué and The Fall of the Roman Empire (etc), and whilst every story retains its Murakaminess, each is distinctive.

Rather than themes, clichés and storylines, in fact, the largest similarities between these stories are their narrators. They’re all apathetic – they are going through what they’re going through, they don’t think too much of anything, they deal with the situation and they simply tell their story. In that sense, the reader is forced to come up with their own emotional responses. Not that we don’t do this when reading any other stories, but nothing is influencing us when it comes to reactions.

I’d thought the previous story collections I’d read were weird or unconventional before, but Murakami takes the cake. I look forward to reading Norwegian Wood next, and hopefully many more of his works.

(My favourite story from this collection has to be The Second Bakery Attack).



Embarrassing Moments

This is my own version of a piece by Megan Boyle that I had to do in class.

Auditioned to be an angel in the school nativity. Ended up as the ‘innkeeper’s wife’. I had literally no  dialogue but the second I walked on stage I started bawling and had to be carried off. The teacher gave me a digestive biscuit and I stopped crying.
(age 5)

Saw my first ever Chinese person and shouted, “Look, it’s Jackie Chan!”
(age 6)

Told my mates I was half-French and had eaten snails before. Found a garden snail and licked it to prove it. They ran away screaming.
(age 7)

My class prepared for Let’s Sing for months and when we finally performed our cover of ‘Viva La Vida’ my mum had to rush over to the stage because I was clearly about to faint. I didn’t get a digestive biscuit that time.
(age 8)

Spilled a glass of milk over the table at M&S and felt like such a failure that I started crying.
The waitress who was mopping it up said, “There’s no use crying over spilt milk.”
(age 9)

A girl tried to drag me off the climbing frame in the playground and pulled my trousers down in the process. I managed to kick her in the face and make her nose bleed, though, so we ended up even.
(age 10)

One of the girls on my netball team got hit in the face by the ball and I started giggling.
girl: Why are you laughing?
me: The ball just whacked her in the face.
girl: Oh, so you think her getting hit in the face is funny?
me: Well, yeah.
She chucked the ball at my head and I went flying.
(age 11)

I got a pixie cut and proudly waltzed into a new class. The teacher called me a “young man”.
(age 12)

A boy at school asked me out on a date but I genuinely thought he just wanted to get pizza, platonically, and said yes. He proceeded to tell everyone we were going out so I had to tell everyone we weren’t. He promptly blocked me on Facebook.
(age 13)

I let my English teacher borrow my copy of Grasshopper Jungle because her son wanted to read it. She returned it the next day after skimming through it and said very loudly that it was highly sexual and graphic and she didn’t think neither I nor her son should be reading it. She also recommended me ‘The Chocolate War’ that same month.
(age 14)

A seemingly random fifty-year-old bloke stopped me on my way to school and asked me if I was a student and if I lived nearby. I wasn’t sure if he was going to kidnap me or not so I sprinted away mid-conversation.
My friend later came up to me and asked me why I’d ran away from her dad.
(age 15)

Wrote a mess of an email at 2AM telling my ex-favourite author why his new book was terrible and how disappointed I was in him. Thought I’d hit ‘delete’ but I’d hit ‘send’. He posted a passive-aggressive Tweet the next day about ‘haters’.
(age 16)

A Blog Post About Blogging

I recently stumbled upon a blog I made when I was 11, almost six years ago, where I introduced myself with a “Salut!” (and swiftly explained I couldn’t speak French), made a rant about footballers being paid too much when there are far more deserving careers out there (although that’s a viewpoint I stand by to this day), and, I can only assume, promptly gave up on the idea and moved onto something more interesting like mashing all my sticks of plasticine into one squishy grey ball.

Since then, I’ve kept most of my thoughts to my journal, save a few comments on YouTube videos and Reddit articles here and there. Those tend to be anonymous, though. Something about blogging is a bit scary, and not in a big-empty-expanse-of-white way that I often experience when writing on paper. It’s a bit like spilling out personal thoughts on a lovely big stage but you’ve got no audience. Of course, if you’re reading this, you’re my audience, but I’ve no idea where you’ve come from unless you’ve been doing some Googling (don’t worry, I do that too!). At least with a journal, I know I’m writing those thoughts for me. I don’t expect anyone to read them. But these blog posts are, technically, being published. And isn’t every writer both excited to be but terrified of being published?

(Note that I use the term ‘writer’ very loosely; I once won an award in primary school for writing a letter of complaint about finding dog saliva in a packet of sweets.)

But I have a lot to say most of the time, and since I’m not very good at spitting it all out in real-life/significant situations, my best bet is spitting it out onto a blog. And here we are! I think the most important thing to remember is that I shouldn’t give a toss if someone reads this or not – getting it down and posting it is the main part, and responses are just an added bonus, provided they don’t hurl abuse at me. But even that would prove they’ve read what I have to say, so, I suppose, I’m ultimately the real winner here!

A few people have said I’d probably enjoy doing a blog, but I’ve never actually considered it myself. I write a lot – stories, mostly – but never publish or submit them anywhere, leaving them to lie around like the empty cartons of chocolate soya milk that are currently littered around my bedroom. I have thirty notebooks on my shelves that are ‘in use’, and three Ikea drawers literally filled with ‘dormant’ notebooks, so that should give you an idea of my track record in writing and finishing my stories. However, I can’t exactly post a half-finished blog on here, so maybe this is for me. We’ll see, won’t we?