As with so much of Murakami’s fiction, the narrators of the stories collected in First Person Singular tend to be going about their mundane lives when there is suddenly a hallucinatory rupture in perception, a slip sideways into unreality. Although the settings are Japanese, the cultural markers skew Western: from Balzac to baseball, Schumann to Sandra Dee. Stories typically begin on one path and then fork – or slide – off onto another without warning, in a narrative syncopation that echoes the jazz so beloved by the author.
In “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey”, a man settles into a hot spring bath only to meet a talking monkey with an air of genteel melancholy and a tragic secret. In “Cream”, a boy is mysteriously invited to a concert and, upon discovering the venue locked and deserted, suffers an anxiety attack in a park and encounters a stranger who advises him to picture a circle with many centres and no circumference.
Humour, mundanity and the surreal fold in on one another like origami. Philip Gabriel’s translation reads well, its American flavour in sync with the many references to Americana. But what does it all mean? The narrators can’t tell. Maybe it means nothing. Life is just like that. In any case, as one suggests, looking for the meaning of symbols shouldn’t be “one of the goals of studying literature”.
The similar narrators all bear some resemblance to Murakami himself. There are elements of memoir in these stories, though the essay-like “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection” – about the joy of baseball fandom – is built around a fictional collection of poems. A recurring theme is the comforts and torments of memory, including its unreliability. In the titular story, the narrator is accosted in a bar by a woman he doesn’t recognise. She proceeds to reproach him for doing “a horrible, awful” thing he can’t recall to a mutual friend he cannot identify, on a holiday he is unable to remember. Other memories lie dormant like “a warm kitten, softly curled inside an oversized coat pocket, fast asleep”, awakening only to revive forgotten emotions and sensations.
First Person Singular is packed with heady and disquieting delights. At the baseball, Murakami tells us, dark beer is less popular than lager, but it’s what he prefers. He then confesses that he often wants to apologise to readers for only offering them “dark beer”. No need. It’s what they come for.
Harvill Secker, 256pp, $39.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 24, 2021 as "Haruki Murakami, First Person Singular".
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