Acclaimed Fantasy author Neil Gaiman teaches in his Masterclass course on The Art of Storytelling, that a writer and a reader should assess a story by asking specific questions about the story.
This led me to reconsider and change my point of view of First Person Singular, by acclaimed Japanese author Haruki Murakami.
Published in English on April 6, 2021, it is a collection of eight strange short stories, one of which is of the narrator having a few beers and a long philosophical chat with a monkey bath attendant at a spa. I did not find it easy to make sense of it. However, Murakami is an important enough author that I am putting my mind to properly analyzing this book in a series of three posts.
First Person Singular is the latest work by Murakami. It was published in 2020 in Japanese as Ichininsho Tansu, and translated into English by Philip Gabriel. Released just last month, it is a glossy, small format book which consists of eight short stories, some longer than others, a couple of which had previously been published individually in English magazines in 2019 and 2020. These are:
– On a Stone Pillow
– Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova
– With the Beatles
– Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey
– The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection
– First Person Singular
Murakami’s previous book is Killing Commendatore, which I reviewed. That novel was complicated, contained many references to music, and was ultimately extremely puzzling.
After I read it, I wondered if my lingering dissatisfaction with it was due to Japanese fiction conventions, the narrative itself, or the translation. I have read a few Japanese authors and poets in translation, classics by Murasaki Shikibu and Matsuo Bashō, but mostly the work of post-WWII authors like Yukio Mishima and Natsuo Kirino. But I can only ever read these works in translation and, not being Japanese, will probably never grasp the subtleties of the characterization, settings and cultural references. The same must be said of Murakami – I have to look at this novel within the parameters of my limited exposure to Japanese literature.
Start by asking a question – What is it about?
My first impression was that I was bothered by First Person Singular; I felt there was something strange about it but I couldn’t put my finger on what it was. I felt that, while it had plenty of mysteriousness and was dreamlike/nightmarish-like, it was sometimes simply incomprehensible, messy, so to speak. I wondered what caused this impression.
To find out why, I asked, What is it about?
First Person Singular could be about Haruki Murakami’s youth, his career as a writer, and his love life. It is written in the first person form (that’s what the title means: “I” – the nominative form of the pronoun) and it could be that the narrator, “I”, is the author, Murakami. But this is not something you can take for granted. It is not always the case. However, there are hints throughout the book that this is the case. For example, in The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection, he writes about seeing his name, “Haruki Murakami”, repeated on each copy of the poetry book that he is having printed.
In another, Charlie Parker Plays Bossanova, the narrator is confirmed as being Murakami when you remove the dust jacket of the book itself, and it is revealed that the hard cover is printed to look like the vinyl record sleeve of the imaginary LP, “Charlie Parker Plays Bossanova” (as in the story’s title). And the “LP sleeve” has “A Murakami Records Production” logo on it and a “catalogue number” – which is actually the book’s ISBN number. This is a clue that the author and narrator are probably one and the same.
Another indication is that many of the stories are about being an author, a music aficionado and a baseball fan – all of which Murakami is.
I accept that the stories are personal and likely the author’s actual recollections from his youth. They are about writing novels and poetry, about being a novice author, about being young, about music, poetry and women. Those are the obvious subjects of the stories.
But on a deeper level, the stories are about intangible, abstract things.
The stories are about dreams, fantasies, and the tricks that your memory can play on you. They are about façades, mistaken identities, and hallucinations.
They are about loneliness, mental problems and suicide. They are about living in the real world and living in a world where nothing is as it seems.
They are about falling into the schism that divides reality and dreams and being unable to move on, or never realizing it, just experiencing it as a disconnect to the world.
Women, in particular, are portrayed as mystifying, obtuse creatures. In each story where a woman is a character, the narrator is puzzled by them. They are revealed to be not who he thought they were, but if he had been paying attention he might have seen that coming. Like in Murakami’s earlier novels, the narrator comes across as being young, shallow, selfish and misogynistic, obsessed with dating beautiful rather than ugly women, and puzzled that an ugly woman can be smart and charming. He never quite gets what the woman with whom he is involved is really thinking and feeling. The descriptions of women – their lips, legs, hair, dresses, manners, and how they behave in bed, often made me cringe. Biting holes in a towel during sex? That is so 1970s-erotic-romance.
This is another example of disconnect or alienation in the stories – the women come across as so strange that they may as well be from a different planet than the narrator.