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Capturing the familiar in new form in “First Person Singular”

Capturing the familiar in new form in “First Person Singular”

One of the blurbs accompanying First Person Singular, Haruki Murakami’s most recent short story collection, a follow up to his 2014 collection Men Without Women, comes from the novelist Steve Erickson, who writes: “More than anyone, Haruki Murakami invented twenty-first-century fiction.” Another, from Patti Smith, compares Murakami to The Beatles or now-Nobel-laureate Bob Dylan. These blurbs seem to follow him around from book to book now; but really, how would one top that? It doesn’t feel like a stretch to call Murakami perhaps the world’s most famous novelist; he certainly is a cultural event.

Across 14 novels, five short story collections, and various other writing across mediums and forms, Murakami has built up a near-cult-like following, as might be suggested by the blurbs above. And yet he remains divisive. In my experience, people tend to either disdain his work, or adore it; and I must admit here that I am indeed a card-carrying member of his fan club (or would be, should Mr. Murakami ever decide to issue them). For all his flaws, his writing remains deeply evocative and alluring to me, effortlessly conveying the sense of longing and listlessness, the power of memory and remembering, and perhaps above all the deep unknowingness of life in a way that feels perhaps closer to my own experience than anyone else has ever expressed.

First Person Singular contains eight stories, five of which appeared in various publications in the two years leading up to the book’s release. The stories here are perhaps looser bound to that perspective-based theme than to the eponymous throughline of 2014’s Men Without Women (though that theme is central to almost all of Murakami’s stories), but the stories still share enough similarities, given that Murakami’s fiction could practically be considered a micro-genre to itself. By my count, no cats this time around, but ample discussions of jazz, pop, and classical music, and plenty of anonymized male protagonists either in or remembering situations brought on by the women in their life.

The first story in the collection, Cream, is framed as a story the protagonist is telling us about having told to a friend, wherein he had accepted a postcard invitation to a piano recital from a girl he practiced alongside. It’s not that he was particularly close to this girl; in fact, quite the opposite. His most prominent memory of the girl in question was playing a duet of Mozart with her, and his ample mistakes; hardly the sort of thing that might endear you to someone. The invitation takes him to a concert hall at the top of a mountain, bouquet of flowers in hand, only to find the concert hall long-since shuttered and abandoned. At a loss, he stumbles into a park, where he hears what he imagines to be a loudspeaker car, playing Christian messages of salvation to the upscale community. He has something of a panic attack, and finds himself faced with an elderly man, who asks him to consider the koan-like idea of a “circle with many centers and no circumference.”

At this point, Murakami zooms out a level, back to the telling of the story rather than the story itself, and with his friend ponders the story’s significance. The elderly man had also spoken about the “crème de la crème,” perhaps in reference to the best or most essential parts of life. While the narrator doesn’t think this fits the bill, something about the events eludes him.

These sorts of endings, often abrupt and unresolved, are familiar to much of Murakami’s work, though he rarely highlights this aspect of them. It’s a bit heavy-handed, especially considering all the stories in which Murakami hasn’t felt the need to do this. Yet this story, like many among his other work and even a few others in this collection, does capture something of the essence of these sorts of stories that linger on in our memory for many years. I’ve had people tell me years later that some interaction with me, that I only had a passing memory of, had been a formative experience for them. We can’t always choose what will make a strong impression on us, or point to a specific reason why something has ingrained itself in our consciousness; but that doesn’t make these moments any less powerful. In fact, their mystery, their intrigue, often ends up lending them more weight.

Murakami uses this same re-framing technique in a few of the stories in the collection. In Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey, Murakami’s approach is even more meta-fictional; he imagines writing the story (about a monkey that works at a hotel in a hot springs town, who speaks, and steals the names of the human women he loves), only to turn it in to a perplexed editor he imagines asking: “I hesitate to ask you, since you’re the author, but—what’s the theme of this story supposed to be?”

Murakami plays a fairly out-sized role in this book. At times this is benign, through protagonists that are often writers (if not in title, at least people who happen to take copious notes), or in ways more explicit, like in Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey. This isn’t out of character for Murakami, as similar protagonists are found all throughout his catalog, especially in his earlier novels, written around his 30s. He discusses this period in his life, as well as the process of becoming a novelist in the most memoiristic piece in the collection, The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection.

In this piece, Murakami fully takes the reigns, describing his relationship with the Yakult Swallows baseball team, forever linked to his career as a novelist: both in part to the well-known and nearly-mythic tale of Murakami watching a Swallows game, and deciding to become a novelist after watching a player hit a double, as well as completing his first novel and winning a debut prize in that same year, as the Swallows went on to win their first championship. The poetry referred to in the title isn’t a joke, either; poetry written during the games is included between exposition, which as far as I can tell is the first time being printed in English, previously only appearing in his first collection, a collaborative book called Let’s Meet in a Dream, written with Hobonichi’s Shigesato Itoi. Actually, the writing in The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection feels more reminiscent of Itoi’s leisurely introspective prose as much as anything I’ve read from Murakami, only strengthening the connection between the two.

I think many die-hard fans of Murakami’s will already, in some way, know of this connection, and that feeling underlines how the book registers to me: primarily a collection for those who are already fans of his work. They’re familiar—cozy, even—stories to me, despite being new. Even so, Murakami is playing with tone here in a way he doesn’t always; for a writer whose tropes are well known, it’s refreshing to read pieces like The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection, as well as Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova, a story about a fictional review of a fictional album. I don’t think Murakami is exactly breaking new ground here, but he’s not stagnating, either. The stories here still capture how it feels to see a beautiful girl in passing, or hear a piece of music for the first time in years, or watch a baseball game—and suddenly find yourself plunged into the depths of memory, wondering how you got there, as the person you are now.

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Maybe no story in the collection captures this better than With The Beatles, in which our writer-protagonist remembers seeing a girl holding the eponymous album, which leads him to remember an afternoon spent at a girlfriend’s house, alone with her older brother. 

Expecting to pick up his girlfriend to go on a date, he finds the house empty except for her brother, who invites him in. The two sit in the living room, before the brother asks the protagonist to read aloud to him, from Akutagawa’s Spinning Gears, while they wait. The rest of the family never comes back, and the protagonist leaves, only remembering the afternoon after a chance encounter with the brother years later. In describing the memory of the girl with the Beatles album, Murakami writes, “All this took only ten or fifteen seconds. It was over before I knew it, and the critical message contained there, like the core of all dreams, disappeared. Just like most important things do that happen in life.”

First Person Singular: Stories
by Haruki Murakami
Published April 6, 2021

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