Grace Paley, Meet Haruki Murakami, A Deal-Me-In Short Story Challenge

blind willow (1)I was so happy to finally draw something by Haruki Murakami this time around.  Glad to have Grace Paley again as well.  Paley has been a discovery. Murakami is an old friend.

A Perfect Day for Kangaroos” by Haruki Murakami is a very short, slip of a story about a young man who is finally taking his girlfriend on a long promised trip to the zoo to see the baby kangaroo.  The title echoes Salinger’s story “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” which ends in a suicide.   While there is no such ending in Murakami’s story, there is the dicussion of having children that implies the girlfriend might be pregnant.  This echoes Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” but there is not going to be an abortion in Murakami’s story.

While there is more going on in Murakami’s story than meets the eye, that’s not what I liked about it. What I liked about it were passages like this one:

We tried to locate the mother kangaroo  The father was easy to spot–he was the biggest and quietest of the foursome. Looking like a composer whose talent has run dry, he just stood stock-still, staring at the leaves inside their feed trough.

This kangaroo sounds just like a male character in a Murakami story.

“Zagrowsky Tells” by Grace Paley is the ‘confession’ of an elderly man who once ran a neighborhood drugstore.  He meets a former costumer in the park one day. She is happy to see him, talks about the old store, inquires how he is doing.  He is initially angry with her, and has a hard time hiding it.  Eventually he accuses her of ruining his life when she led a boycott of his store after accusing him of racism back in the 1960’s when he appeared to refuse service to a black woman until he had dealt with his white costumers first.

It’s an excellent story, like all of the Paley stories I’ve read to date.  While Paley is sympathetic with all of her characters she lets none of them off the hook here.  Her world, while comical most of the time, is complicated.  People have complicated motivations in her stories.  Their actions do not always reveal their true character.

Looking at the two stories together what strikes me is the sheer number of characters who populate Paley’s stories.  While each story contains only a few people, each story contains different people.  I haven’t read enough of her yet to determine who exactly her characters are, they way Eudora Welty so clearly has a defined, though large, cast of characters.  But whatever the ultimate limitation of Paley’s cast turns out to be, it’s a big cast.

Murakami, in contrast, really has a cast of two, maybe three.  His stories, his novels too, are really all about the same young man.  Sometimes the young man is a little older than he is at other times, but he’s always the same young man deep down.  There is also a woman, sometimes two women, and she (or they) are really the same character from story to story.  And that’s fine with me, I should add.

Reading a Murakami story is like coming home, for me.  I know what I’m going to get, and I almost always enjoy it.  Really enjoy it.  I’m a Murakami fan-boy who fully intends to read all of 1Q84 some day.

Reading Paley is more like going away on a little trip to a new town.  Each trip is taken in the same car, but the people met along the way are quite different town to town.  So far, I haven’t been to the same town twice.


5 thoughts on “Grace Paley, Meet Haruki Murakami, A Deal-Me-In Short Story Challenge

  1. Hi James,
    Great analogy in your final two paragraphs, comparing the difference in what it’s like to. Read a story by each. I’m a huge fan of Murakami as well, and the collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman was my gateway drug a few years back. I still haven’t read Paley, but I fell almost like I’m becoming a fan just through your posts about her. 🙂 I didn’t think about it the couple times that I’ve read this story, but you may be right about the male kangaroo…

    Also, Dale read this same story for Deal Me In, only he read it last year. His thoughts are at

  2. I urgently have to get in a Paley car and visit one of her towns. I actually have her collected stories but so far i haven’t read any of her stories – but i keep planning to!

  3. Murakami has been on my to-read list for a long time. Interesting observation about his characters; I’m not sure I’d mind either. Any recommendation on where I should start with him?

    1. Honestly, grab whatever’s nearby. Kafka on the Shore and Wind-Up Bird are excellent and in the more magical realism side of his writing. Norweigian Wood is more realistic. You’ll probably know right away if he’s someone you’ll enjoy or not.

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