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Arts & Culture

'First Person Singular' Asks A Lot Of Questions — But Shies Away From Answers


Haruki Murakami is a master of the mesmerizing head-scratcher. His fiction, whether long or short, highlights life's essential strangeness and unfathomability. In book after book, his narrators (invariably male) draw us in with mystifying tales of odd experiences that even years later remain "permanently unsolved, like some ancient riddle."

The eight stories in First Person Singular,his first collection translated into English since Men Without Women(2017),are classic Murakami, filled with multiple recurrent obsessions — jazz, classical music, Beatles, baseball, and memories of perplexing young love. Cats are scarce, but a sophisticated talking monkey fills the feline gap.

The book, while emblematic of his short work in particular, doesn't break new ground like his recent novels, 1Q84and Killing Commendatore, but it's an enjoyable read that goes down easily. Ittakes its title — and overarching theme of disconnection — from the last story. "I hardly ever wear suits," the narrator begins. But he sometimes enjoys dressing up in his fancy duds, "just to see how they look." One spring night, although he's feeling vaguely uneasy, as if "somewhere I'd taken a wrong turn in life," he decides to head out for a walk in a snappy suit and tie. He stops for a cocktail, but is troubled that the reflection he sees in the mirror behind the bar "seemed like a total stranger"; it makes him feel like "a first person singular" — someone experiencing his life choices at a remove, as if they were dictated by a narrator. A bizarre, troubling run-in with a woman looking to pick a fight further heightens his sense of alienation.

Murakami's plainspoken short stories, like his more complex novels, raise existential questions about perception, memory, and the meaning of it all — though he's the opposite of heavy-handed, and rarely proposes answers. A perennial contender for the Nobel Prize, he enjoys a global popularity rare among writers, now extended to a new T-shirt collaboration with Uniqlo featuring graphics from his books and radio program.

Murakami's plainspoken short stories, like his more complex novels, raise existential questions about perception, memory, and the meaning of it all — though he's the opposite of heavy-handed, and rarely proposes answers.

Most of his nameless narrators sound alike — self-effacing middle-aged writers who have always preferred Schumann and Charlie Parker to the Beatles, who provided the "musical wallpaper" of their adolescence. Their stories often begin with rambling memories of a baffling relationship from their youth.

In "With the Beatles," the narrator reflects how a beautiful girl he passed just once in his high school hallway in 1964, clutching the eponymous album(released as Meet the Beatles in the States), somehow "came to serve as a kind of gauge" against which he measured other women's appeal. He met his first girlfriend a year later, but eventually broke up with her because she just didn't ring "that special bell" for him. Years later, he bumps into her older brother, who shares his own surprise at what became of the sister he realizes he barely knew.

What's it all about? Partway through this tale of happenstance, young love, and the unknowability of other people, Murakami interjects this observation, undercut by his typical equivocations: "I've heard it said that the happiest time in our lives is the period when pop songs really mean something to us, really get to us. It may be true. Or maybe not. Pop songs may, after all, be nothing but pop songs." Then, in the next line, he casually drops this: "And perhaps our lives are merely decorative, expendable items, a burst of fleeting color and nothing more."

Of course, the best Murakami stories lead to more than just "a burst of fleeting color." What is it all about, his frequently awestruck and befuddled characters wonder repeatedly — and contagiously. Sometimes, not quite enough. There are a few missteps in this collection, including a tedious disquisition on ugly versus beautiful women in a story about a friendship with a homely woman based on a shared musical passion. A surprising revelation again highlights how superficial our knowledge of most people is.

But "Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey" is a standout that will appeal especially to readers enchanted by Murakami's surrealist turns, which blur the line between dreams and reality. A writer staying at a decrepit inn in a hot springs town is amazed when he is expertly attended to by an elderly, eloquent monkey. The monkey says he was raised by a college professor in Shinagawa, Tokyo, which accounts for his sophisticated vocabulary and tastes, including a fondness for Bruckner's Seventh Symphony and a desire for women rather than monkeys. To avoid the "unseemly," the monkey explains, he developed a workaround — a bizarre protocol which I'll leave for readers to discover. Murakami's narrator is floored, and comes to wonder if he dreamt up the whole encounter. But then something happens years later that makes him question his doubts.

There's less uncertainty in "The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection," Murakami's whimsical history of his fandom for the losing local baseball team. He suggests this could constitute "a kind of concise autobiography," including details about his unfriendly relationship with his father (a diehard Hanshin Tigers fan). During lulls in mostly hopeless games, Murakami often "scribbled ... poem-like jottings," like his footnoted meditation on "Outfielders' Butts." But the Swallows, he writes, taught him an important lesson: "how to accept defeat with grace."

From his fans' perspective, of course, and on the further evidence of this winning collection, Murakami hasn't had to swallow much defeat outside his beloved Jingu Stadium.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.
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