A seamless melding of Japanese cultural nuances with universal themes--in a virtuoso story collection from rising literary star Murakami (A Wild Sheep Chase, 1989; Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1991). These 15 pieces, some of which have appeared in The New Yorker and Playboy, are narrated by different characters who nonetheless share similar sensibilities and attitudes. At home within their own urban culture, they happily pick and choose from Western cultural artifacts as varied as Mozart tapes, spaghetti dinners, and Ralph Lauren polo shirts in a terrain not so much surreal as subtly out of kilter, and haunted by the big questions of death, courage, and love. In the title story, the narrator--who does p.r. for a kitchen-appliance maker and who feels that "things around [him] have lost their balance," that a "pragmatic approach" helps avoid complicated problems--is troubled by the inexplicable disappearance of a local elephant and his keeper. In another notable story, "Sleep," a young mother, unable to sleep, begins to question not only her marriage and her affection for her child, but death itself, which may mean "being eternally awake and staring into darkness." Stories like "TV People," in which a man's apartment is taken over by TV characters who "look as if they were reduced by photocopy, everything mechanically calibrated"; "Barn Burning," in which a man confesses to burning barns (it helps him keep his sense of moral balance); and "The Second Bakery Attack," in which a young married couple rob a McDonald's of 30 Big Macs in order to exorcise the sense of a "weird presence" in their lives--all exemplify Murakami's sense of the fragility of the ordinary world. Remarkable evocations of a postmodernist world, superficially indifferent but transformed by Murakami's talent into a place suffused with a yearning for meaning.