There comes a point in life when one of your favourite writers stops being your favourite. That doesn’t that stop you from reading him – in fact, a new book is always received in anticipation. But in distancing yourself from the admiration that may have clouded your judgement of his prose, you’re finally able to identify what works and what doesn’t.
Haruki Murakami’s latest collection of short fiction, First Person Singular, has just been published in English. Neatly translated into English by Philip Gabriel, the collection comprises eight stories, completely unrelated to one another, each of them narrated by a thirty-something Japanese man in the, well, first person singular.
Seven of these eight stories have been previously been published, some of them also in English translation. Ardent fans who follow his work closely would have read some of these stories in The New Yorker and Granta, but that probably won’t stop them from buying a copy of the book because, well, it is the latest Murakami. And hence this clever publishing tactic – pick a bunch of previously published stories, throw in a new story as a tease, et voila!
How long before it starts making sense?
Murakami’s greatest strength as a writer is his ability to bewilder his readers with strange, out of the ordinary events – climb down a basement bar while it’s still spring but trudge up after an hour and you’ll find that it’s winter outside already; encounter talking monkeys in motels who’ll offer to scrub your back and even share a beer with you. All of this is bizarre, but it’s also beautiful. His eccentricity does not border on the ridiculous and that’s what readers enjoy.
But the thing about having read a substantial amount of Murakami’s work, both fiction and non-fiction, is that one can measure his mojo in any given piece of writing. It’s easy to tell, for instance, if he was being lazy, which appears to be the case in several of the stories in this collection. What doesn’t quite work is when his narrative borders on the banal, and it all seems like one big ramble.
Cream, the first story in this edition, is an introspective story that at first seems to be leading somewhere, only to leave you wondering “what just happened” in the end. Your brain is made to think about difficult things, to help you get to a point where you understand something that you didn’t understand at first. And that becomes the cream of your life. The rest is boring and worthless– only appearing to convey that however difficult a situation may seem, it always gets better.
The following story, On A Stone Pillow, is a less complex one and somewhat reminiscent of Norwegian Wood. There is a lot of reflection on relationships, love, and there’s a fair bit of tanka (a thirty-one syllable classical Japanese poem) too for kicks. It has some great love-ridden lines—Loving someone is like having a mental illness that’s not covered by health insurance—but that’s just about it.
The title story, First Person Singular, begins interestingly only to end abruptly on an incomplete, incomprehensible note. It is almost as if suddenly Murakami realised he was done for the day, that he’d reached his daily word count. Philip Gabriel’s lucid translation makes for an uninterrupted reading experience, but waiting for Murakami to spin something spectacular leaves one exhausted.
But not all is lost yet
A good deal of Murakami’s fiction is driven by memories and this collection is no different. That he can write a full-bodied short story using a fleeting memory from high school as a peg is completely believable.
“A dimly lit hallway in a high school, a beautiful girl, the hem of her skirt swirling, With the Beatles.”
This vision of a beautiful girl carrying an LP of With the Beatles becomes the prompt to one of his stories (With the Beatles). An epiphany that the narrator wants to relive, but isn’t able to. And so he lives with the feeling of longing in his heart, nurturing it carefully all through his adult life. The irony, however, is that the story isn’t about the girl at all – this is Murakami’s fan-boy ode to the English rock band and their evergreen music.
Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection, the penultimate story, is a pleasant surprise. Not only are we introduced to Murakami’s humble poetry here, but we also see him donning the cap of the narrator. He reminisces about his 30-year-old self in the year 1978, when his favourite baseball team Yakult Sparrows won their first league championship in the twenty-nine-year history of the franchise. A miraculous year, because that same year Murakami wrote his first novel, Hear the Wing Sing.
Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey appeared for Murakami’s English-speaking audience in June 2020, a time when the pandemic was at its peak in the world. The story – magically realistic and all things absurd – was a temporary and welcome relief from the ugly reality unfolding in the real world.
Another recurrent theme in Murakami’s fiction is the self-awareness of the mediocre-looking male protagonist. His plain, run-of-the-mill looks come in tow with ordinary grades at school and an ordinary job that he’s almost never excited about. While it’s natural to look up to characters who exude beauty, intelligence, empathy and heroism, this is a combination so rarely found in real life that is on the verge of being fanciful.
So, the ideal protagonist, the epitome of perfection, disappears when you wake up and smell the coffee (after making it). Perhaps that is why Murakami creates characters closer to home. Plain-looking men riding the subway, holding 9-to-5 day jobs – is this his deliberate attempt to design realistic and acceptable mediocrities in people?
“To avoid any misunderstanding, I’d like to preface this by saying that I’m not good-looking and was never a star athlete, and my grades in school were less than stellar. My singing left something to be desired, too, and I didn’t have a way with words. When I was in school, and in the years after that, I never once had girls flocking around me. That’s one of the few things I can say with certainty in this uncertain life.”
Murakami has written a lot of short fiction, but not all the stories stay with you. Some of his old stories are striking and memorable like Town of Cats, Samsa in Love, Kino and Scheherazade. This collection is distinctly repetitive, and yet it is more than welcome in a world that’s turning out to be more absurd than Murakami’s fictional universe.
First Person Singular, Haruki Murakami, translated by Philip Gabriel, Harvill Secker.