Review of First Person Singular: Stories by Haruki Murakami

Not a good entry point for new readers. Along with his last collection, Men Without Women, in a lot of ways, it feels like Murakami is riding his own coattails.

To sum up my thoughts: This collection doesn’t enhance Murakami’s reputation, neither does it compare to his first 3 great collections in English.

I’m not a Murakami basher. I would much rather melt Updike, Mailer, Roth, and Auster with the magnifying glass. If you are a true Murakami fan, there is enough in this collection to warrant a purchase.

The first problem I had with the collection was that more than half the book’s length was available through the New Yorker and Granta. Murakami has described his American agent as greedy, for pestering him into selling stories to the New Yorker. He claims she would just sell all of his laundry lists to them for a quick buck – And they would buy them. (I’m paraphrasing). Those stories are:

“Cream”
“With the Beatles”
“Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey”
“Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova” (Granta)

These aren’t bad per se, but they led me to believe he was scraping the barrel for leftovers. We all know the author is obsessed with music. That was amply demonstrated by his book Absolutely on Music, along with the motifs found through his entire oeuvre, but the theme appears here at the expense of other concerns. “Confessions…” immediately put me in mind of his story “A Shinagawa Monkey,” from Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman. It was entertaining. An homage. A return to the whimsy we have come to expect. A whimsy missing from every other story in this book.

Much of Murakami’s charm lies in his quiet reflections, the conversation between oddball characters, and internal monologues flowing through his meandering plots like cream through coffee. In the end, I found that the bulk of this collection tasted bitter. The main characters all felt the same – they are all first person singular narrators, borrowing heavily from Murakami’s autobiographical reminiscences. I get that this was the connective tissue of the collection, but again, it wasn’t particularly moving. Most of the stories revolve around an epiphany, lack magical realism, smack of commentary, and go down dry and scratchy.

Nonetheless, like Cortázar or Bolaño, I often feel like I could read anything – even laundry lists – from these authors. The minor works are still worth having. All their interviews and conversations are interesting. They invite the reader into their presence. They have a warm and welcoming tone. Murakami’s cryptic, passive-aggressive tweets, as infrequent as they are, also seem to have an ominous power for some reason. There is a mystique, half of which may be imaginary, or the product of wishful thinking. We all want another large, impressive novel from Murakami, but I’m beginning to doubt we will get one. Rather, the marketing team seems more interested in spoon-feeding us these slim collections, tapering us off the Murakami addiction with diminishing returns.

The other stories here are:
“On a Stone Pillow”
“Carnaval”
“The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection”
and “First Person Singular”

Of these, I only found the first one of the four compelling. “On a Stone Pillow” along with the Yakult Swallows one, contain poems. Adding poems is a new device for him. The stories are slow, melancholy, nostalgic, but a bit bland. I probably suffer from overexposure at this point.

When are we going to get official translations of his earlier stories? – I’m thinking of “Lexington Ghosts” and “Donutization” and dozens of others – there have been bootleg translations floating around for quite some time. What we really need is another fat novel to boost his standing, showcase that imagination he has been hiding, and justify the author’s claims that he spends several hours per day writing, between his daily marathon run and 12-hour jazz-record binge.

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