Descriptions of Japanese fantasist Haruki Murakami's mind-bending work always border on the absurd; his fiction mysterious and evanescent explores the loneliness of spaghetti, man-eating cats, romantic alienation, and eyeless, cake-obsessed crows. In Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, the 25 stories juxtapose the deeply bizarre with the mundane to evoke fleeting moods of sadness, hope, nostalgia, and dread. In the unsettling ''Crabs,'' a tourist and his girlfriend find a cheap Singapore restaurant specializing in crustaceans. They gorge every night, congratulating themselves on their discovery, until the shellfish become through an abrupt twist that is both banal and horrific the instrument of their alienation from each other.
Murakami is fascinated by the fragility of human connections, but they can be made as easily as they are lost. In ''Chance Traveler,'' a piano tuner reading Dickens in a café meets a housewife, also reading Dickens. She confides she is about to be tested for breast cancer, and he notices a mole on her ear that reminds him of his long-estranged sister. He decides to call his sister, who reveals she has breast cancer, and while he never again sees the woman from the café, he and his sister reconcile. In Murakami's world, this amounts to a deliriously happy ending.