Review: First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami – More of the Same from Japan's Best-Selling Author
First Person Singular has all the hallmarks of a Murakami book but fails to live up to expectations.
Originally released in 2014, Murakami’s excellent short-story collection Men Without Women was always going to be a tough act to follow. First Person Singular does not even come close.
The book features eight short stories, all told from the perspective of a first-person singular narrator. The whole thing feels formulaic, as though an inept ghostwriter were trying to replicate Murakami’s signature style by throwing in the usual suspects: passive, introspective protagonists, jazz and classical music, Tokyo in the 60s. All that topped off with Murakami's blend of Carveresque magical realism. Although, the latter has been significantly toned down compared to his recent works, with many stories barely hinting at the presence of the supernatural. Magical elements in Murakami's other books tend to feel gimmicky, serving as simple tools to resolve the narrative when conventional means fail. In First Person Singular they are often the highlights, offering a much-needed respite from the otherwise uninspired plots and one-dimensional characters. One cannot help but wonder whether Murakami is still able to tell compelling stories without resorting to the fantastical.
The stories blur the line between reality and fiction as the purely fantastical events are interspersed with autobiographical notes from the author's life. It is left to the reader to figure out how much of it is supposed to be factual:
Occasionally, a narrator may or may not be Murakami himself. Is it memoir or fiction? The reader decides.
The book presents an intriguing premise but ultimately fails to deliver. In the end, even the most devoted fans will find little incentive to try to separate fact from fiction.
The collection feels derivative of Murakami’s earlier fiction and lack the creative curiosity of his previous work. This is especially evident in the lacklustre Cream. Furthermore, Murakami’s portrayal of women, long seen as problematic, is likely to prove a contentious issue once again. Fortunately, the writing is great, if occasionally uneven. The sentences are well-crafted. The pacing makes it a joy to read and distracts from the fact that, for the most part, there is not much going on.
Since his debut in 1979 Murakami has written a number of bestsellers, including Norwegian Wood, Kafka on the Shore and 1Q84
The ‘poems’ in The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection–while hardly feats of literary virtuosity–evoke the more experimental style that characterised Murakami’s first two novels. It is perhaps no coincidence that the story itself bears many similarities to The Birth of My Kitchen-Table Fiction that Murakami penned as an introduction for the 2015 editions of Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973. Yet The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection also features the book’s most banal platitude: It’s true that life brings us far more defeats than victories.
Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey, a sequel of sorts to another Murakami short story featured in the 2006 Blind Willows, Sleeping Woman, is the collection’s most consistently good piece. It follows the narrator to a hot spring resort where he encounters a talking monkey who steals the names of the women he loves. The outlandishness of the whole situation is juxtaposed with the narrator’s very casual reaction: Honestly, it felt odd to be seated next to a monkey, sharing a beer, but I guess you get used to it. Murakami at his finest.
The titular story is standard Murakami fare until things take an unexpected turn towards the end. The finale is equal parts unsettling and refreshing–clearly, the writer still has the capacity to surprise.
Even at his worst, Murakami is thoroughly enjoyable to read and the couple of stories that stand out might justify giving the book a chance. Still, it's hard not to be disappointed by the unused potential.
Characteristically for his short stories, Murakami leaves the readers with few answers by the end of the book, perhaps with the hope that they piece it all together by themselves. Yet by the time I finished reading First Person Singular I only had one question: What was the point?