Book Review:  First Person Singular: Stories by Haruki Murakami

I have read several of Murakami’s books, including the novels Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage and Kafka on the Shore and his short story collection Men Without Women. Murakami has a distinctively spare style, a sort of matter-of-fact approach that leads you along until you plummet into one of his unique surrealistic rabbit holes. So it is with several of the stories in this collection.

As the title indicates, all of the stories in First Person Singular are told by a narrator who seems to be none other than Murakami himself. Sometimes he even identifies himself by name. This reminds me of the approach of none other than Jorge Luis Borges; in many of his stories there is a narrator (often named Borges) who is more or less an observer to the character or characters and the story as it unfolds.

In this book of Murakami’s, at no time do any of the narrators of the stories deviate from the rather abstract voice of the observer. In several of them, the narrator is out doing something or other and comes across an individual who then tells him a story. In “Cream,” it is an old man sitting on a bench in a park who attempts to explain life as a circle with many centers. In “On a Stone Pillow,” it is a one-night-stand lover who sends him a volume of her self-published poetry. In “With the Beatles,” it is a girlfriend’s brother who experiences intermittent memory loss. In “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,” it is an aged, intelligent, talking monkey who tells the narrator his life story. In “Carnaval,” it is an unattractive woman who shares the narrator’s taste in classical music. “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection” seems to be a straightforward memoir about Murakami’s attraction to baseball, except that sprinkled throughout are poems that he wrote while sitting in the stands watching games. In the title story, “First Person Singular,” the narrator describes how he sometimes gets the urge to dress up in nice suits and take walks; by the end, though, he meets a strange woman in a bar and Murakami drops readers into one of those dimension-shattering rabbit holes.

This is a fairly short collection and a fairly easy read. It is as if you are relaxing with the narrator and he is telling you tales of interesting people and unusual events from his past. The voice does not change from one story to the next, but it is a pleasant voice, absorbing, enthralling, and easy to listen to. I mentioned Borges earlier, but though these stories sometimes dip into the surreal, they do not have the metaphysical complexity of Borges’s tales. Instead, they maintain a veneer of the mundane and simple aspects of everyday life and merely hint at the unsolvable conundrums and poetical significances that lie beneath. As for the constant voice of the narrator, he is every person – or any person – taking his journey through life. On the way, he often encounters that which is strange and fascinating, and when he does, he tells us about it – not only to clarify it in his own mind, but also so that we as readers can share in his sense of wonder.

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