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Looking back on your life, do you ever feel certain parts were all a dream? We can look at our lives with nostalgia but often the results can feel a little too rosy, a little too unreal. That’s the sense Haruki Murakami, famed author of The Wind-up Bird Chronicles, IQ84, and Norwegian Wood, brings in his latest release, First Person Singular, a collection of eight short stories that takes us through Murakami’s life with a hint of nostalgia. When combined with his ability to weave in surrealism, it’s easy to question what you’ve gone through yourself.
The first story, “Cream”, is about an unexpected invitation from a past classmate to a piano recital. As with most Murakami stories, there are twists and turns leading to existential questions. “On a Stone Pillow” is about a convenient one-night stand that leads to the main character receiving a book of tanka poetry. Even he laments about the fallibility of our memories – can we really trust what we remember? For example, the main character remembers how his one-time partner bit a towel when she orgasmed. Again, can we trust the integrity of his memory or is it all his ego?
It’s fascinating how easy it is to trick your memory. In “Charlie Parker Plays the Bossa Nova”, the main character fabricates a story about Charlie Parker, a jazz saxophonist, recording a bossa nova album three years after his death. The funny thing is this ‘album’ appears in the main character’s life years in the future. “With the Beatles” talks about vignettes in your memory that stick out, and how even simple memories such as a young girl clutching a Beatles album against her chest while running down a hallway can remain in your memory for decades. Why? Who knows? Our brains love to store useful/less information.
The only story in the collection I really connected with was “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” (the inspiration for the cover, obviously). A talking Shinagawa monkey, taught by a professor and his wife, works at a small Japanese-style inn that houses a hot spring. Now, you’d think that would be a huge advantage, right? But by giving a monkey, an animal not known for being as intelligent as humans, the ability to talk only ostracized it, leaving the monkey to straddle two worlds where he’s not welcome in either. The only way for the monkey to handle this is by stealing women’s names. This is the surrealism I’ve come to expect from Murakami and I wasn’t disappointed.
“Carnaval” explores what lies beneath the façade we portray in the world. It’s pretty common for people to create a persona that can be seen and accepted into society, with social media making it increasingly easy to do so. And we do so because we’re afraid of what people will think of our true selves. “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection” showcases Murakami’s love of baseball, writing about poetry dedicated to the art of the sport, and even about the outfielders’ butts.
The last story, “First Person Singular”, Murakami writes about sitting alone at a bar one night reading a book when a woman (possibly) mistakes him for someone else. Instead of standing up for himself, Murakami slinks off wondering whether he did the thing she accuses him of. It’s intriguing to think how easy it is to convince someone they did something wrong. Perhaps Murakami delves too deeply into the surrealist world to know what’s real at times.
In one respect, the stories collected here made me realize how often we rely on nostalgia to create a past world that may not have existed in the first place. Honestly, there are elements I didn’t like in this collection. I wasn’t impressed with Murakami’s writing, his misogyny is on full display, especially in the Carnaval story. He hits on existential points that could make anyone question their own sanity, but overall most of these stories lack the surrealistic spark one normally experiences in his stories.
First Person Singular is a semi-surrealist playground, almost begging you to question what you truly remember and what mask you’re donning in order to live in this world. Unfortunately, it’s not the author’s strongest work, either philosophically or in practice. Murakami tries to serve us with his typical dream-like stories only to fall flat. While by no means terrible, it’s almost as if he’s letting us see the ‘real’ him underneath the title of ‘best-selling author’ and I have to say, I’m disappointed by what I discovered.