First Person Singular has been my first foray into Murakami as a writer of short stories. I was somewhat wary. Having read and enjoyed his longer fiction (1q84, Kafka on the Shore, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage) and his non-fiction (What I Talk About When I Talk About Running) I wasn’t sure how he could condense the magic, the mystery and the Murakami weirdness into a shorter format successfully.
All but one of the eight stories in this collection have been published elsewhere at different times. The titular story is the only new piece. The other seven stories in the book were first published in the literary magazine Bungakukai between summer 2018 and winter 2020. Several stories in the book were also previously published in English in The New Yorker and Granta.
‘So I’m telling a younger friend of mine about a strange incident that took place back when I was eighteen.’
After the first story, Cream, I wasn’t sure. It seemed a bit too simple and didn’t have a huge impact on me.
Or so I thought.
As life would have it, it took me a couple of weeks before I could read the second story. To refresh myself, I glanced through Cream, only to realise that it was the story, or at least part of it, that had been haunting me during the previous fortnight. There was something deeply moving about the first person narrator turning up for a music recital in a strange town, at the invitation of a slight acquaintance, only to find that the music hall was locked up and empty. His sense of insecurity and confusion was palpable. His vulnerability struck a deep chord. More so than the unexpected meeting with an old man philosopher in the park afterwards. Since the title of the story came from this meeting, I suspect it was meant to be more significant than I found it. Yet it was the mystery of the invitation to an abandoned lot that stayed with me.
‘I’d like to tell a story about a woman.’
On a Stone Pillow is another Murakami story about memory, time and old love.
It also features some tanko poetry (poems that follow a syllable pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. The initial 5-7-5 is known as the kami-no-ku or upper phrase, and the second half, 7-7, is known as the shimo-no-ku or the lower phrase. A turn or transition separates the two, where the initial experience is responded to by the second phase.) Obviously, it is not easy to translate tanko exactly.
You and I are we really so far apart? Should I, maybe have changed trains at Jupiter? When I press my ear against the stone pillow The sound of blood flowing is absent, absent
By the end of this story I was seeing some common Murakami themes developing. The importance or impact of the people who pass through your life briefly. The power (or not) of our names to shape our identity. How certain (insignificant) events in our early lives end up being ones that shape our futures. The impact of chance meetings and unexpected encounters. The power of reflection and hindsight on the way we (re)tell our stories.
However, On a Stone Pillow was another story that left me wondering what all the fuss was about.
‘Bird is back.‘
The third story, though, was the one that really caught my attention. Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova was a playful re-imagining of a world where Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker did not die in 1955, but lived on to create a bossa nova album. It turned out to be a story within a story and employed many of the Murakami themes that I love – time, memory, music, history, truth, belief, loneliness, alienation and death, all tucked into the mundane details and rituals of everyday life.
It also helped that I have a friend who is obsessed with Baroness Nica, a daughter of the famous Rothschild family, who fell in love with Thelonious Monk’s music and ran away from her husband, the Baron, to hang out in seedy New York jazz bars, sponsoring jazz musicians like Monk and Parker (who ended up dying in her apartment in 1955, aged only 34).
“Death always comes on suddenly,” Bird said. “But it also takes its time. Like the beautiful phrases that come into your head. It lasts an instant, yet those instants can draw out forever. As long as from the East Coast to the West Coast— or to infinity, even. The concept of time is lost there. In that sense, I might have been dead even as I lived out my life. But actual death is a crushing. What’s existed until then suddenly and completely vanishes. Returns to nothingness. In my case, that existence was me.“
‘What I find strange about growing old isn’t that I’ve got older.’
With the Beatles is one of the longer stories in the collection. It encapsulates memory loss, chance meetings, past loves, death, music and metafiction. The nostalgia of an older protagonist looking back on his life is shockingly disturbed by the three suicides revealed as the story unfolds. Do our lives mean anything at all? What role does chance have?
Interesting in parts, a bit dark with a beige finish.
‘I met the elderly monkey in a small Japanese-style inn in a hot springs in Gunma Prefecture, some five years ago.’
Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey, is an homage to Franz Kafka (one of Murakami’s heroes), especially Kafka’s A Report for an Academy, written and published in 1917. In the story, an ape named Rotpeter (Red Peter), who has learned to behave like a human, presents to an academy the story of how he effected his transformation. Murakami situates his version in a typical Japanese setting – a ryokan. Again, he brings up the power of names and naming – how they inform memory, our identity and our humanity.
I enjoyed the literary visit to a quiet ryokan as it reminded me of our own ryokan stay in remote Takaya a few years ago, where we were the only guests during our first night there.
I’m sure Murakami was saying something important about our humanity but it felt a little laboured for my tastes.
‘Of all the women I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest.’
Carnaval is one of those stories that I could have had a major problem with, if I were to only read with a feminist lens. I don’t have a problem per se, with a discussion about ugliness and beauty, about it being in the eye of the beholder and a personal opinion or aesthetic. But Murakami’s I-narrator, wonders why beautiful women do not derive any pleasure from being beautiful. He actually hits upon the reason why without realising it, ‘women who are born beautiful are always the centre of men’s attention. Other women are jealous of them….’ No.
Any woman who knows a beautiful woman is not jealous of them, they commiserate with them instead, because women who are born beautiful are always the centre of men’s attention and usually it is UNWANTED attention. Even just your average pretty woman is often subject to the unwanted attentions of men. That is why many beautiful women are unhappy and do not enjoy their beauty. Murakami’s lack of awareness around this issue was annoying, to say the least.
I do find it rather surprising than an intelligent, well-read male writer in this modern era has failed to engage with the gender question in any conscious way. It feels like a bit of a cop-out to say that he sees both genders as human first, male or female second. It’s something only a man could say.
I don’t think any of my characters are that complex. The focus is on the interface, or how these people, both men and women, engage with the world they’re living in. If anything, I take great care not to dwell too much on the meaning of existence, its importance or its implications. Like I said earlier, I’m not interested in individualistic characters. And that applies to men and women both…
To be honest, I don’t understand this idea about there being any kind of pattern. We can talk about the women in my novels as a group, but to me, they’re unique individuals, and on a fundamental level, before I see them as a man or woman, I see them as a human being.A Feminist Critique of Murakami Novels, Lit Hub, 7th April 2020
‘I’d like to make this clear from the start: I love baseball.’
The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection was totally unmemorable. I am not a baseball fan. Ridiculously, all I could think about as I skimmed this story, was those little sweetened yoghurt drinks we have in Australia with a similar name that I used to buy for B20 when he was younger.
‘I hardly ever wear suits.‘
First Person Singular had a meandering, easy style. Simple (sometimes too simple), unassuming and at times banal. Banality is often the point of Murakami, but sometimes it just felt lazy in this collection rather than purposeful.
Sadly, this collection did not light my fire. As I started to look around other reviews, it seems that I am not the only one to wonder what happened here. The small nuggets of Murakami magic were too few and far between. Enough to keep a hopeful fan going all the way to the end, but ultimately disappointing.
If you are new to Murakami, DO NOT start here.
The real question is: Does the reader care? Each story is like the greenery filler in a grocery store bouquet: stiff and charmless, background fodder, indistinct organic matter. They’re like copies of copies of copies of Murakami’s older work; all the specificity and vivacity is blurred out. The women are rubbed down into featureless nubs, the men deflated caricatures — popped balloons. The only appeal left to make to the reader is the brand name on the cover.Los Angeles Times 1st April 2021
In these underpowered short stories, the female characters are mere pretexts for male epiphany.The Guardian, 2nd April 2021
Also reviewed by Simon @Reader, Writer, Bookseller.
Book: First Person Singular | Haruki Murakami Translator: Philip Gabriel ISBN: 9781787302600 Publisher: Harvill Secker Publication Date: 6th April 2021 (first published in 2020) Format: Hardback