“First Person Singular” is an enjoyable short story collection by Haruki Murakami, with whom I’ve had such fond experiences through his fiction. But the further I delved into the eight stories on offer here, the more I realised that my nostalgia for the past was fulfilling me more than the book in my hands. Which isn’t to say any of these tales, or the quality of their writing, is substandard — Murakami hasn’t suddenly devolved into a hack producing work for a spare dime — but there’s a definite sense he coasted through their creation.
A crowd-pleasing sense of familiarity is often enough for readers to coast through a novel, or short stories, on a sea of goodwill. But my barometer for any collection is my capacity to recollect specific stories (or at least moments from them) in the days after I’ve finished. There’s just not enough bite to “First Person Singular” for it to resonate.
The stories gently probe themes of youth, love and memory, and provide tender meditations on music, childhood and (in one of my favourite tales) baseball. Many of the stories are tinged with Murakami’s trademark surreality — talking monkey, anyone? — but they’re all framed through a homogeneous first person narrator, so they’ve blurred indistinguishably in my mind.
But even Murakami writing with his transmission lodged firmly in first gear provides indelibly graceful prose, and very occasionally, the glint of ingenuity. It’s a shame none of the stories sustained that magic for quite long enough. They’re all eminently readable, but their spark never ignites a flame.
Published: 6 April 2021
Imprint: Harvill Secker
I’m a late Murakami convert. My first sample of his work – 2014’s Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage – inspired a marathon of Murkami madness over the next eighteenth, solidifying my adoration of his imagination and his spare, unadorned prose. It lead to the devout proclamation: whatever Haruki Murakami writes, I will read. So when Men Without Women arrived in store, there was no pause for deliberation: I slapped my money down on the counter and slipped my copy of the short story collection into my bag. There was no doubt in my mind: my commute over the next couple of days would be a delight.
In the seven stories that comprise this collection, Murakami explores themes of adultery, friendship, alienation and sex through the perspective of emotionally isolated men. Perhaps they’re struggling in the aftermath of a faded love, unable to cope with their subsequent loneliness; perhaps they are men who’ve never experienced love, but are desperate for its touch; or men who are in love, but fear its loss, and how its annulment might ruin their lives. The women in these tales are never fully realised, almost entirely eponymous. They serve as potential saviours, or narrative devices, to demonstrate the stuntedness of the male protagonists.
Murakami’s prose is as delectable as ever, though it only serves to highlight the bleakness of most of these stories. Men Without Women is eminently readable, and rife with the author’s recurrent motifs, but lacks the sparkle, if not the general potency, of his other short stories. Of course, readers’ mileage may vary. One thing’s for certain: these are stories that beg for discussion. Add this one to your reading group list.
Format: Hardback (222mm x 144mm x 25mm)
Imprint: Harvill Secker
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Publish Date: 9-May-2017
Country of Publication: United Kingdom
The two Haruki Murakami novels collected in this edition – well, novellas, really – have previously only been available to English readers in obscure translations from the 80s, so it’s great to have them readily available for the first time, and newly translated by Ted Goosen. And though Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball lack that truly special and resonant something that makes the majority of Murakami’s work so profound, there’s still something artful and majestic about the Japanese author’s earliest work.
These two novels are the opening installments of a trilogy, which concludes with A Wild Sheep Chase (widely available in English, and has been for a long time). In Hear the Wind Sing, the unnamed narrator, a student in his early 20s, tells the story of his relationship with a girl he found unconscious in a bar. The narrator reflects on the nature of writing, pop music, death, girlfriends, and the transience of all things – the latter of which is a common theme in the author’s work. Pinball takes place years later, and sees the narrator recalling his obsession with pinball, and his determination to find the machine he used to play. Both books feature a character referred to only as the ‘Rat,’ who frequented the same pub as the narrator in their hometown.
Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball are fleeting, whimsical affairs, utilising Murakami’s lucid prose to wonderful effect. I tore through the collection over the course of a couple nights’ reading, and enjoyed every minute, was left feeling desperate for Murakami’s next novel; something to match the breadth and sheer audacity of IQ84, or the emotional heft of Colourless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage.
THE STRANGE LIBRARY is a thoughtfully designed and illustrated repackaging of a 2008 Haruki Murakami short story, previously available only in Japanese. It begins with an inquisitive and unnamed narrator who visits the library to return some books and find out more about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire. Greeted by an old, cranky librarian, a peculiar sequence of events leaves our young protagonist locked up in the library’s basement with instructions to read three selected tomes so that the old man can feast on his brain. After all, “brains packed with knowledge are yummy.” Allied by a ‘sheep man’ and a mysterious mute girl, the boy plans his escape; but nothing’s ever as simple as that.
Suzanne Dean helmed the UK adaptation, on which this review is based, and embraced the library conceit on the cover, while adopting a vintage style for its interior. The graphics respond literally to Murakami’s prose, often colliding; but the transition is never jarring. The narrative flows seamlessly throughout, even when the relationship between the text and the illustration isn’t immediately apparent.
Flourished with Murakami’s deceptively simple prose and brimming with imagination, THE STRANGE LIBRARY leaves readers questioning what’s real and what’s not. The author is not decisive about the novel’s occurrences; it’s up to the reader to decide. And thanks Suzanne Dean’s intriguing interpretation, there’s plenty of reason to revisit this short story again.
In response to the universal praise for Haruki Murakami’s extensive body of work (having never read a single word written by the man), following the announcement of its publication I made it my mission to read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage in its first week of release, before my thoughts could be distorted by expert opinions. Turns out I didn’t need a week; 24 hours was enough. I began Murakami’s novel on my way home from work on Friday, and was done with it by dinnertime on Saturday. Sure, that can partly be attributed to its relative short length, but much more than that, it’s a testament to the prose, and the absorbing tale that unfolds.
The title, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage, refers to the novel’s protagonist, who formed a tight quintet of friends at high school – two boys, two girls – whose names include a colour. Which made Tsukuru the outsider; his name isn’t representative of a colour, instead it means, “to create things.” Big deal, you might think; get over it Tsukuru! But he can’t – not when his four friends cut him out of their lives with painful immediacy. There was no warning, no foreshadowing; one day they were friends, and the next they’re not. This emotional trauma stymies Tsukuru’s emotional development; when we meet him, he’s approaching his forties, but the dark shadow of that day, when he was shunned by his four best friends, is black and oppressive.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage is a novel about friendship, wrapped around a central mystery: why did Tsukuru’s friends leave him? And will learning the truth lead to salvation – a relinquishing of the emotional burden he’s carried ever since – or is he doomed to suffer from its impact forever? Murakami’s writing is flawless; exposition combining with wonderful, emotive dialogue, but so concise, so economical. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage is a wonderful novel, one of the year’s best; I’m finally attuned to what readers have been telling me for many years. Whatever Murakami writes, I will read.