PREVIOUSLY IN THESE PAGES, I wrote that reading a long Haruki Murakami novel is like spelunking. You journey down narrow tunnels of the mind until you come to enormous underground caverns full of magnificent rock formations — places that don’t seem possible. Reading a Murakami short story, by contrast, is like waking from a dream. There are fleeting images, people from the past, an uncanny situation — someone said something bizarre, or something fantastic happened. You take it in stride, accepting unreality as reality. Until you wake up and think, What was that about? Memories from the dream quickly evaporate, leaving you in a state of perplexity. This is the feeling I got after reading the stories in Murakami’s new collection, First Person Singular (published in Japan in 2020 and now out in a fine English translation by Philip Gabriel).
Some people think dreams have meaning, that their situations are symbols, portents. In certain cultures, dreams reveal important knowledge about the world we can’t get otherwise — knowledge about our future. But other people think dreams are merely the unscrambling of subconscious impressions and desires — the mind processing its day. I think it’s safe to say that Murakami is fascinated by dreams, and also that he’s of the latter group. Dreams, for him, seem to be less about meaning and more about feeling. Or at least this is how he describes the surreal elements of his stories. Because as Murakami has aged (he’s 72), he has turned toward implicitly guiding readers on how to engage with the more mysterious aspects of his work.
Let’s start with the opening story, “Cream,” in which a middle-aged man tells a friend about an uncanny situation that happened when he was a teenager. Most of the stories in the collection follow this model: they’re narrated by a self-described bland, unspectacular, middle-aged man looking back on an incident that occurred during college or high school, in the 1960s or ’70s. When the narrator of “Cream” was 18, a former female acquaintance invited him to a piano recital at a venue on a mountainside in Kobe, Japan. But when he takes a bus to the address, there’s no one there. The building is dilapidated, abandoned. Perplexed, the boy suspects the invitation was a hoax, and he has a panic attack. Then he sees a strange old man, who delivers an abrupt, cryptic remark: “A circle with many centers.” They have a brief exchange, and just as abruptly as the old man had appeared, he disappears.
After hearing the story, the narrator’s friend is understandably perplexed. “[W]hat did it all mean? And why did it happen?” The friend asks. But the narrator says he doesn’t understand it himself. “It was permanently unsolved,” Murakami writes, “like some ancient riddle.” Confused, the friend asks, “Are you telling me that there’s no need to know what it was all about?” He asks this on behalf of the reader, because we also want to know why things happen. If we are left in a state of ambiguity, it bothers us. But, the narrator explains, “Things like this happen sometimes…” He continues, “Inexplicable, illogical events that nevertheless are deeply disturbing.” In other words, Murakami is saying, Let’s just agree to be disturbed. Let’s find the pleasure in perplexity, in ambiguity. Let’s agree to not try to understand, okay?
It’s a bargain as refreshing as it is frustrating. Because when reaching the end of Murakami’s novels — such as Kafka on the Shore (2002), The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1995), or 1Q84 (2010) — I was irritated that he never explained why the fantastic events were happening. He didn’t wrap things up. It took me a while to understand that his point was to make us eager to turn the pages, not to tie all the loose strings together. In life, loose strings are often left untied. So, there’s a logic to leaving out logic. But this approach to storytelling has opened Murakami to criticism, for writing stories that don’t have a plot or theme, much less that make sense. And you can tell that this criticism has unnerved him a bit, because he addresses it in a few of these new stories.
One is “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,” which, like “Cream” and “With the Beatles,” originally appeared in The New Yorker. (The story “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova” first appeared in Granta, and “On a Stone Pillow” in Freeman’s.) In “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,” the narrator stays at a shabby hot-springs inn — an onsen — and while he’s relaxing in the bath, a red-faced monkey comes in and begins speaking with the “clear, alluring voice of a doo-wop baritone.” The monkey scrubs the narrator’s back — apparently, that’s the monkey’s job — and later that evening they chat over beers. In the morning, there’s no trace of the monkey, and the narrator considers if he should write about the experience. If he wrote about it as fiction, he thinks, the story would lack “a clear focus, or a point.” He imagines his editor reading the manuscript and then asking, with a puzzled expression, “[W]hat’s the theme of this story supposed to be?”
Then, in “Carnaval,” one of the collection’s three previously unpublished stories, Murakami reveals an insight into his own work. The story may be alienating to many readers — especially women. And Murakami knows this. We know because he says so. Why alienating? Because the story begins with the sentence, “Of all the women I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest.” The narrator goes on to ruminate on this woman’s unattractive appearance. He explains,
I could use a euphemism, of course, and say least beautiful in place of ugly, which should be easier for readers, especially women readers, to accept. But I’ve decided to go with the more straightforward (and somewhat brutal) term instead here, for this captures more the essence of who she really was.
If you can get past this, the story flips on itself, because it turns out that the narrator is attracted to the woman. They meet at a classical music concert and become friends, mainly because they both love piano solos above all else. And if they had to bring one album to a deserted island, each would choose Robert Schumann’s Carnaval.
I also love solo piano music, so I’m into their conversation about Chopin, Mozart, Bach, Brahms, Beethoven, Debussy, and Schubert and why Schumann is the pinnacle of the piano repertoire. But the discussion isn’t merely music-nerd talk. There’s a point here. And the point, the narrator explains, is that Schumann didn’t follow the classical forms, like the sonata. As a result, Schumann produced work that many peers criticized as “rambling,” “starry-eyed,” “whimsical composition[s].” They “thought his work was eccentric, lacking a solid foundation and content.” But the result of Schumann’s refusal to follow classical forms, of his “bold eccentricity,” was the birth of the Romantic school of music.
Reading this, I couldn’t help but see Murakami talking about his own work: Yes, I don’t follow classic forms, and yes, I’m eccentric. Yes, my stories may be whimsical and rambling, lacking a solid foundation and content. But I’m giving birth to something new. I’ve birthed a new school of writing. And yet, despite Murakami’s celebration of the wayward imagination, we can’t say he’s a Romantic writer. And despite his incorporation of the fantastic, he certainly didn’t start the school of magical realism. But in terms of Japanese culture, Murakami definitely birthed something new.
In fact, while reading First Person Singular, I noticed how strikingly un-Japanese Murakami’s stories are. His work is nothing like that of his 20th-century predecessors, novelists like Yukio Mishima, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, and Yasunari Kawabata, for example, or even his contemporaries, such as Minae Mizumura. Their work feels deeply Japanese, like the films of Yasujirō Ozu or Akira Kurosawa. We can’t account for the difference by saying that it’s now the 21st century and Japan has changed, because, as mentioned, most of these stories take place in the 1960s and ’70s — as does Murakami’s breakout novel Norwegian Wood (1987). And the sense of difference is not due to an absence of kimonos, tea kettles, saké, and sliding doors; rather, it’s an absence of giri — the Japanese sense of duty, of social obligation, of familial interdependence. That is, a lack of the first-person plural — we.
All of Murakami’s stories focus on an individual — the first-person singular. The I. Not in a selfish way, but in a reflective way. Not “I!” but “I?” As in, Who is this I? As in Rimbaud’s phrase, “I is another.” Or, as Clarice Lispector asked, “Do you ever suddenly find it strange to be yourself?” Murakami’s narrators find it strange, and in the tales they tell, they reflect on an odd event that happened in their pasts, not because it significantly affected the direction of their lives, but simply because they’re perplexed by the memory.
Like Murakami, my father is in his 70s, and whenever I spend time with him now, he often brings up random incidents from his youth — memories of people and situations he’s never shared before. He doesn’t understand why, but as he’s aged, these trivial memories return to him. And when they surface, they perplex him and seem to have a profound power over him. The same thing happens to Murakami’s narrators: memories of insignificant events from youth resurface in middle age. “And when they do,” one of them explains, “their unexpected power shakes me to the core.” “For the moment,” another of his narrators declares, “a wave of bewilderment and confusion swept over me, swept any sense of logic away.” This is what these stories do to us; they’re little waves that sweep over us, leaving us in a state of perplexity. Just like waking from a dream.