The master's sketchbook

<strong>Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman

</strong>Haruki Murakami <em>Harvill Secker, 338pp, £16.99</e

What are short stories for? If they're any good they're annoying, because you've only just got into them and they're over. If they aren't any good, even ten pages is too long. The form was only created to meet the demand for fiction in Victorian magazines. Conan Doyle was the arch-exponent, and admittedly people still read his stuff in book form. The magazines are mostly long gone, though. Haruki Murakami's stories have appeared in Granta and the New Yorker, but you never know where to find Granta in the bookshop, and all you do with the New Yorker is glance at the cartoons. Not even the publisher seems to have read Murakami's new collection. The press release acclaims the stories as his most eclectic yet, "spanning five years of his writing". But as his introduction points out, the earliest stories here date from 1980, the latest from 2005.

And why does he bother with this annoying form? Because it's no bother. "To put it in the simplest terms, I find writing novels a challenge, writing short stories a joy." Not proper work, in other words. When he completes yet another mega-selling novel, he gets the urge to do a little light doodling in prose before he tackles the next mega-selling novel. Some of the stories here were later incorporated in the novels The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood and Sputnik Sweetheart. In a sense, the Japanese master is giving you a peek at his sketchbook.

In the title story, a man takes his young cousin to an appointment at the ENT clinic. The lad is partially deaf after being hit by a baseball. While the examination proceeds, the narrator goes and sits in the cafeteria. You notice he does not pick up a literary magazine and read some ground-breaking short fiction. He'd rather just stare into space. He remembers once going to hospital with a friend whose girlfriend was in for an operation to correct a wonky rib. Sitting in bed, she drew them a picture to illustrate a poem she was writing. It was about a woman whose house was surrounded by "blind willows". From these imaginary trees, tiny pollen-covered flies crept into the woman's ear, put her to sleep and ate her flesh from the inside. Oh, and the girlfriend's boyfriend died shortly afterwards. We are not told any more about that. The cousin comes out and says that not hearing properly makes him think of a John Wayne line in Fort Apache: "If you were able to spot some Indians, that means there aren't any there." He finds this strange and numinous, as does the narrator.

Murakami is known for his interest in western culture - he actually lives in the US, not Japan - but he appears to be conjuring a mystery where none exists. Big John just means that if the Indians were up to anything, they would stay hidden. It is quite impressive, though, to see Murakami take something not remotely odd or unexplained and absorb it into his idiom of unexplained oddness. Powerful imaginative writers can put their stamp on anything that way.

The other stories mostly conform to type as well. A man has a bout of nausea which may be connected to an unexplained series of menacing phone calls. A night watchman sees a ghost on his rounds, realises it's his reflection in a mirror, but discovers in the morning that there was no mirror. A man who has left his family for a new love reads a newspaper story about an old woman whose dead body was eaten by her starving cats; he realises that, having deserted his old life, "I - the real me - was dead" and metaphorical cats are consuming his remains.

That one almost makes sense, and conveys a strong sense of regret. Perhaps the most effective story, "A Folklore for My Generation", uses barely any trademark Murakami tricks at all. The author recalls the top boy and girl from his high school, and what a golden couple they seemed to make. Years later he meets the former top boy, who tells him how it ended. The top girl was in fact a sad screw-up, unconsciously bent on screwing up her boyfriend, too. Sharp but humane observation replaces dreamlike whimsy to make the story as unforgettable as it is untypical.