2 min read

Review: "The Elephant Vanishes"

Another short story review. This time it's "The Elephant Vanishes" by Haruki Murakami. It's a really interesting short story. It opens with a mystery, given by the title, and evolves from there.

I won't say more — ideally go and read it.

So, the actual review now.

"The Elephant Vanishes" revolves around exactly the event you'd expect form the title. I like the way it sets up this premise but then delivers on it in a surprising (but inevitable?) way. The theme of the second half I found really interesting, I think more so than I'd have liked a straightforward execution of the premise.

The basic premise had me hooked -- okay, a whole elephant just disappears, how'd that happen? The whole first half (almost exactly -- about 7 pages of 13) of the story is dedicated to building up the mystery around this question, showing the backstory of the elephant (interesting!) and how the community failed to find it.

The story thoroughly lays out the facts of the elephant, its disappearance, and the attempts to find the elephant. It explains how the elephant came to be in the town. It describes a visit to the elephant and a "day to day" of the elephant's life as seen from the outside. It describes the disappearance. It discusses and dismantles the town's theories (plural!) about what happened -- the newspaper writer's, the police writer's. It's unusual the way this works -- the story literally lays out numbered lists and "structured nonfiction" type text at times, giving us "body paragraphs" with topic sentences that dive into the details of the theory's problems: "First, there was the problem of the steel cuff that had been fastened to the elephant's leg." It's a perfect way to set up for the second half of the story -- it establishes character and suggests his experience wasn't a hallucination.

That aspect feels like the part of a Sherlock Holmes novel where Sherlock explains why everyone else's theories are wrong and what logically had to have happened. That's got to be on purpose -- one sentence reads, "Actually, it was a pretty strange article -- the kind that might excite Sherlock Holmes." Because it's in first person, it reads like the protagonist is making his case to us -- which sort of ties into the next half.

The second half is completely different: Immediate and personal. It's the protagonist talking to a woman at his job, then going on a date with her after work. There's a subtle twist here -- we find out what happened with the elephant, but not how or why. He has this specific experience that doesn't make any logical sense when he tries to explain it, though he can be a very logical guy as the first half shows -- and that's what makes the story interesting. He's making our case to us because he hasn't been able to make it to anyone else, as shown in the ending. It's a well-executed twist. I didn't even see it coming. An odd thing is that the protagonist already knows "the twist" -- and the "surprise" already happened, so it's more of a twist in our unfolding understanding of what's going on in this story.