Haruki Murakami has swept back into our lives this year to bring us a short story collection about memory and its impact on us despite its ephemeral nature. This is First Person Singular, and I really loved it.
It’s important to note, especially if you’ve never read any Murakami before, that you can’t really go into his books with the expectation that the plot will be explosive and action-packed. I find his writing to be exceptionally meditative. He writes about the human condition and the beauty of life’s minutiae in a way that feels easily relatable and simultaneously separate from reality entirely. He paints portraits of moments—regular, everyday events that for some reason strike his characters (and us) in such a way that makes them unforgettable. He introduces us to that moment and then lets us stay there a while.
“A dimly lit hallway in a high school, a beautiful girl, the hem of her skirt swirling, With the Beatles.”
With the Beatles, p.79
Murakami’s use of language is so masterful and poignant, that even though there isn’t much happening per se, I find myself savoring sentences individually. First Person Singular is yet another fantastic demonstration of his ability to manipulate words into vivid images.
This collection contains eight stories. It starts with Cream, in which a man tells the story of a strange experience he had when he was 18 and going to visit an acquaintance at her piano recital. (As the title would suggest, all of the stories are told by unnamed narrators, with the exception of one, in the first person).
On a Stone Pillow is about a man who meets and sleeps with a relative stranger who enchants him with a booklet of self-published tanka poetry. Her words have stuck with him all his life even though he can’t recall her name or what she looked like. This story was one of my favorites.
“Even memory though, can hardly be relied on. Can anyone say for certain what really happened to us back then?
If we’re blessed though, a few words might remain by our side. They climb to the top of the hill during the night, crawl into small holes dug to fit the shape of their bodies, stay quite still, and let the stormy winds of time blow past. Dawn finally breaks, the wild wind subsides, and the surviving words quietly peek out from the surface. For the most part they have small voices—they are shy and only have ambiguous ways of expressing themselves. Even so, they are ready to serve as witnesses. As honest, fair witnesses. But in order to create those long enduring, long-suffering words, or else to find them and leave them behind, you must sacrifice, unconditionally, your own body, your very own heart. You have to lay down your neck on a cold stone pillow illuminated by the winter moon.”
On a Stone Pillow, p.49
Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova is about a man who comes up with a fake album and publishes a review of it for a magazine, then ends up finding it one day in a record shop.
With the Beatles centers on the meeting between our narrator and his girlfriend’s older brother when he stops by for a date, and she isn’t home. It touches on themes of memory and grief in a way I found particularly profound.
“I’ve heard it said that the happiest time in our lives is the period when pop songs really mean something to us, really get to us. It may be true. Or maybe not. Pop songs may, after all, be nothing but pop songs. And perhaps our lives are merely decorative, expendable items, a burst of fleeting color and nothing more.”With the Beatles, p.89
Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey definitely boats Murakami’s penchant for magical realism. Although nearly all the stories in this collection have some aspect of the strange and fantastical, the is definitely the most “out there.” I’m always amazed at how he can take such a strange premise (in this case, it’s a man who meets a talking monkey who works at a remote inn and steals the names of women he’s in love with) but still keep it grounded in reality enough that I don’t find myself questioning it.
Carnaval discusses the tiniest happenings in life that shape us or otherwise take up space in our memory for whatever reason. It starts with a man befriending a woman that bonds with him over a mutual love of “Carnaval” by Robert Schumann and takes a strange turn after they lose contact with one another.
“These were both nothing more than a pair of minor incidents that happened in my trivial little life. Short side trips along the way. Even if they hadn’t happened, I doubt my life would have wound up much different from what it is now. But still, these memories return to me sometimes, traveling down a very long passageway to arrive. And when they do, their unexpected power shakes me to the core. Like an autumn wind that gusts at night, swirling fallen leaves in a forest, flattening the pampas grass in fields, and pounding hard on the doors to people’s homes, over and over again.”Carnaval, p.197
I think my favorite story in First Person Singular is the penultimate Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection. This one is particularly interesting because it’s told by Haruki Murakami himself. He muses on his time rooting for the baseball team The Yakult Swallows even though they were notoriously bad. I have no interest in baseball whatsoever, but I was so convinced by his love for it, that I found myself wanting to be in his shoes for an afternoon, sipping beer on the patch of grass in the outfield and watching a game. He talks briefly about his strained relationship with his father, and with his mother who suffered from memory loss in her old age.
“It’s true that life brings us far more defeats than victories. And real-life wisdom arises not so much from knowing how we might beat someone as from learning how to accept defeat with grace.”The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection, p.209
“Of course, winning is much better than losing. No argument there. But winning or losing doesn’t affect the weight and value of the time. It’s the same time, either way. A minute is a minute, an hour is an hour. We need to cherish it. We need to deftly reconcile ourselves with time and leave behind as many precious memories as we can—that’s what’s the most valuable.”The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection, p.224
First Person Singular is the namesake of the collection and the story that wraps everything up. Ironically, I found it to be the weakest of the bunch (not bad by any means, just overshadowed by the others) and I almost wish the last two had been swapped.
Altogether this is a fantastic addition to the Murakami oeuvre and I believe it will cement itself among some of his most solid short stories. If you are a fan of his work, I would have to strongly advise against skipping this one, and if you’re new to his work I think it would be a great place to start. As I said earlier, the magical realism is present but not as front and center as some of his other stories and novels.
First Person Singular provided me with a relaxing escape from some of my real-life turmoil and gave me a much needed reminder that happiness and enjoyment in life is sought out on purpose, in the average every day happenings, not waited for. I think I needed to hear that, and I’m happy to have been given that message through Murakami’s gorgeous writing. I think I’ll go listen to some jazz and pet my cat. I feel like that’s what he would want.