Murakami’s 22nd book is a collection of eight short stories, some of them more obviously fictional than others, all narrated in the first person by an elderly writer (who in one story is explicitly named Haruki Murakami). Among its themes are nostalgia, music and erotic reminiscence. The book is not without its charms and Murakami’s mild and affable authorial persona will please his fans. While his novels tend towards the baroque and the fantastical, First Person Singular works best when Murakami keeps it simple in stories that resemble memoir and recount affairs, friendships or one-night stands from bygone decades... To be charitable, we might put all this down to the late-career trailing off of a much-loved storyteller. The cynic in me wonders if the bizarrely limp style is a performance calculated to disarm: insipid Murakami the non-threatening crowdpleaser – the Forrest Gump of global literature.
This distillation of Murakami does not always serve him perfectly. As a collection, these stories highlight the homogeneity of his technique: the narrators are indistinguishable, all speaking in his trademark casually pensive tone. The compression of the form is noticeable too. Some endings are hurried, and the stories can feel stranger, or more frivolous, without more time to acclimatise to their particular versions of reality. They make you realise the spaciousness of the novels, and how well they suit Murakami’s style.
Personally, I never tire of re-entering Murakami’s world, finding his Proustian ability to convey the texture of memory exhilarating, and his fatalistic heroes and their deadpan response to the melodramatic and the outré soothing. There is a slightly annoying new tic in this collection, though: a tendency for the narrators to harp defensively on the defectiveness of their stories qua stories, to congratulate themselves on not providing proper endings or easily digestible morals. Perhaps Murakami is worried that his readers’ levels of sophistication are on the wane now that he is a worldwide bestseller, and is keen to point out that he hasn’t done these things by accident.
The last story is the most taut and unsettling. The narrator meets a woman in a bar, with whom, it transpires, he shares a mutual female friend. She accuses him of a serious, but unnamed, offence against this friend. He is abashed and cannot recall the woman or his actions. He leaves. The world outside has become hostile, bitterly cold, semi-buried in ash, inhabited by slimy snakes and faceless people. In the final line of the book, the narrator recalls her words repeating, in a reproof to him, and perhaps the previous narrators: “You should be ashamed of yourself.” In a collection so dominated by a male point of view, this striking, admonitory tone might be read as the key to the book.
Murakami’s protagonists tend to be introspective, ordinary men who find themselves confronted by women and unusual situations. It is as much their reactions to events as the events themselves that make his books so brilliant.
That, as well as the extended descriptions of banality and the long winding metaphors that paint pictures like little else. “Like an autumn wind that gusts at night, swirling fallen leaves in a forest, flattening the pampas grass in fields, and pounding hard on the doors to people’s homes, over and over again”.
There have always been bridges linking Japanese and western European/American culture. Sometimes the bridge is not so much fragile as incomplete, cut off before it takes you to the further shore. This, for instance, is what I always felt when reading or trying to read Yukio Mishima, once the Japanese novelist best known or most celebrated in the West; less so, when reading Shusako Endo, principally because of his Catholicism. I rather think that, even discounting his ability to give undemanding pleasure, the chief reason for Murakami’s worldwide success is that his work offers a bridge between Japan and the West that is complete, providing the reader with a safe crossing. This new book will surely please those who already know and delight in his work, and serve as an enjoyable introduction for those unfamiliar with it. Sometimes the faux-naif tone may be tiresome, but mostly he offers agreeable comfort reading. Some will read it as pure fiction, more perhaps as a lightly fictionalised memoir. It doesn’t matter which it is. The pleasures and occasional irritations will be the same.
The hallmarks of Haruki Murakami’s longer fiction are all here; an enigmatic eeriness which hints at the supernatural in everyday situations, a love of jazz and baseball, and the nourishing nostalgia of pop music, but there’s a less comfortable aspect to his whimsical, engaging storytelling: the queasy attitude towards the female characters.
In these eight stories, the women are disconcertingly judged by their appearance and seem to exist as mere touchstones to the narrator’s reveries.