In “Cream,” the opening story of the collection, a lovesick young man goes to a piano recital located in the mountains of Kobe, only to find no one there. In unsettling episodes that one might find in a Flannery O’Connor story, he encounters a car broadcasting a Christian message that everyone will die and be judged harshly for their sins, before meeting an old man who simply utters, “a circle with many centers.” From his novels “A Wild Sheep Chase” to “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” Murakami has used this simple plot often: An ordinary urbanite journeys to a rural area looking for answers, only to find more questions.
The specter of mortality looms larger in “First Person Singular” than in Murakami’s other work. In the stories that relive defining incidents from a narrator’s youth, Murakami’s characters no longer wonder what might have been.
Instead, they anticipate the shorter road ahead as in this elegiac passage from “On A Stone Pillow”: “Strangely enough (or perhaps not so strangely) people age in the blink of an eye. Each and every moment, our bodies are on a one-way journey to collapse and deterioration, unable to turn back the clock. I close my eyes, I open them again, only to realize that in the interim so many things have vanished. Buffeted by the intense midnight winds these things — some with names, some without — disappear without a trace. All that is left is a faint memory. Even memory, though, can hardly be relied on. Can anyone say for certain what really happened to us back then?”
In the essay “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection,” Murakami writes about how much he loves going to Jingu Stadium to see his favorite baseball team; he even self-published a book of poetry about them several years before “A Wild Sheep Chase” was sold. His intense love of the experience of baseball fandom reveals how an older Murakami, now in his 70s, views time in relation to worldly accomplishments.
“Of course, winning is much better than losing . . . But winning or losing doesn’t affect the weight and value of the time . . . A minute is a minute, an hour is an hour. We need to cherish it. We need to deftly reconcile ourselves with time, and leave behind as many precious memories as we can — that’s what’s the most valuable. ”
The collection’s Kafkaesque titular story is the strongest because of its notable timeliness. A man who almost always dresses casually decides to put on a suit. When he looks in the mirror, he feels an unexplained sense of guilt, like a person who “goes through life having embellished a resumé . . . You know it’s wrong . . . yet you can’t help yourself.” He goes to a bar where he’s approached by a woman who tells him that she’s a friend of a friend and that she knows about the “horrible, awful thing” he did to her and that he should be ashamed of himself. The narrator doesn’t recognize the woman and has no recollection of what he might have done. This reader couldn’t help but think of the #MeToo movement and all the powerful men who seem to have so much trouble remembering their misconduct.
The story can also be read as how Murakami might have experienced the feminist critique of his work in recent years, most notably by “Breasts and Eggs” author Mieko Kawakami, who pointed out to him in an interview that most of his female characters seem to exist as sex objects and/or catalysts to a male protagonist’s self-realization. Indeed, this weakness appears in these stories. “Carnaval” begins inauspiciously with: “Of all the women I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest.” Within a few pages, he’s observing a “gorgeous” woman’s lengthy earlobes — the female ear being one of Murakami’s long-held and peculiar fixations.
These eight stories, all told in first person, are unapologetically Murakami. Whether its talking monkeys or reverential passages on Charlie Parker or Beatles albums, “First Person Singular” doesn’t break much new ground, but it will remind readers why Murakami’s work is singular.
Leland Cheuk is the author of three books of fiction, most recently “No Good Very Bad Asian.” His work has appeared in publications such as NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle and Salon.
First Person Singular
By Haruki Murakami
Knopf. 256 pp. $28