“When I write novels, I often experience the same feeling as that young man. I want to face people in the world and apologise to each and everyone, “I’m sorry but all I have is dark beer.”
So writes Murakami in ‘The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection’, an ostensibly non-fiction piece that sits within what is ostensibly a short story collection, First Person Singular. ‘The Yakult Swallows…’ is about baseball, which Murakami likes a lot. Regarding the quote above, Murakami always likes to drink dark beer, and by the time he usually attracts the attention of a beer seller they always approach apologetically because all they have left is dark beer. It’s just a bonus that dark beer is what Murakami likes. He mentions it in regards to his novels which, as you can see, he issues with the same apologetic feeling as the beer seller. Thankfully, I guess I like dark beer too. Or at least Murakami’s writing at any rate.
If you’re a fan of Murakami, and if you have ever expended even a modicum of thought in wondering what we mean when we say something is ‘Murakami-ish”, then First Person Singular gives you much in the way of proverbial grist for your mill. There are strange stories here, to be sure. Stories in which opposing realities rub up against one another. Take the title story for instance which closes out the book in which a man in a suit gazes into the mirror behind a bar and stops recognising himself moments prior to a woman he has seemingly never met before having a row with him. When he leaves the bar, in a hurry, it “was no longer the street I knew” and “thick, slimy snakes wound themselves tightly around the trunks.” In ‘Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey’ (which will have you wondering who was the first to conceive of a back and forth with a monkey, Murakami or David Lynch?), our narrator is confused:
“I felt like bits of reality and unreality were randomly changing places. But I had definitely shared two bottles of Sapporo beer with the monkey as I listened to his life story.”
There is even, in ‘Cream’, the story that opens the book, a sense of Murakami grappling with the obscurity that sometimes annoys less forgiving readers. The narrator is invited by a woman he never really got on with to a recital in the mountains that isn’t actually happening when he arrives. He sits in a park and an old man appears and presents him with a conundrum. Telling the story to a friend who wants to know what it was all about, the narrator explains:
“Back then it bothered me too. A lot. It hurt me too. But thinking about it later, from a distance, after time had passed, it came to feel insignificant, not worth getting upset about. … Inexplicable, illogical events that nevertheless are deeply disturbing. I guess we need to not think about them, just close our eyes and get through them. As if we were passing under a huge wave.”
There are slight niggles here and there. Murakami can be impossibly vague at times, both in the set-up and in the resolution of his stories. In ‘With the Beatles’, for instance, one of the longest stories here, he tells us:
“There’s one girl – a woman who used to be a girl, I mean – whom I remember well. I don’t know her name, though. And, naturally, I don’t know where she is now or what she’s doing.”
Similarly, ‘Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova’ ends with:
“Can you believe it?
You’d better. Because it happened.
It really did.”
To return to that title story again, as the detail shimmers about the narrator, he says, “The parts were clear, yet the whole wasn’t in focus.” That, more than anything else, sums up the slight niggles.
Niggles aside, however, if you were to ask me whether I liked the book, I’d say I did. I was reminded, at times, in the preoccupations with jazz and with young women, of Woody Allen, another ageing artist (and there were times when I tried to read the stories as if they were being read by Woody Allen – it’s an interesting game). It may be, if you are not a fan of Allen or Murakami (particularly if you detest both) that this book is powerfully not for you. But the Allen / Murakami comparison is a good one nevertheless. There are overlaps certainly.
Of the eight pieces contained herein, I’d say at least six of them are satisfying additions to the Murakami back catalogue. I could have done without the baseball piece (I just don’t do sport, even if it’s Murakami talking about sport) and ‘Carneval’ is slightly ramshackle and comes to seem like nothing more than badly stitched recollections (here’s another unattractive woman I went out with – yuk). Of the rest, they more than adequately performed the trick of lifting me up from my life, transporting me elsewhere and taking my mind off my worries for a bit. To close out in a Murakami-ish way, you can’t say fairer than that.
Any Cop?: Whilst it isn’t quite as cohesive as either Men Without Women or After the Quake, it’s still a very enjoyable collection of (mostly) short stories.