Eight Ways of Looking at Haruki Murakami

FIRST PERSON SINGULAR
Stories
By Haruki Murakami
Translated by Philip Gabriel

Magic

All fiction is magic. That’s the thought that occurred to me often as I read “First Person Singular,” the brilliant new book of stories by Haruki Murakami, author of international best sellers.

The freezing man in Kafka’s “Bucket Rider” floats above icy streets in a bucket, asks a couple for coal and then flies away when he is refused. In Langston Hughes’s neglected “On the Road,” a homeless Black man who is denied help by a white pastor grabs the stone pillars of a church and pulls it down — and we accept it. As long as we’ve been properly grounded by a careful set of instructions, we readers will have visions.

Whatever you want to call Murakami’s work — magic realism, supernatural realism — he writes like a mystery tramp, exposing his global readership to the essential and cosmic (yes, cosmic!) questions that only art can provoke: What does it mean to carry the baggage of identity? Who is this inside my head in relation to the external, so-called real world? Is the person I was years ago the person I am now? Can a name be stolen by a monkey?

The Bridge

Murakami is wildly popular around the world, which makes him somewhat suspect in literary circles. Because his style has supposedly drawn too much from the West, some Japanese critics have labeled it batakusai, which translates roughly to “stinking of butter.” His reputation, by his own admission, is better internationally than it is in Japan.

His novels — the astonishing “Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” the sprawling “1Q84” — spiral like galaxies from central cores, but his stories are quasars, exploding with light as they reveal his themes. I’ve begun to think of Murakami’s works as teaching stories, like “Tales of the Dervishes,” by Idries Shah, or even the Parables. His great subject is ultimately the enigma of time as it relates to the inner self, to the musical mystery underneath everything.

In what feels like a classic example of the anxiety of influence, Murakami has long pushed back against the weight of Kenzaburo Oe, whose 1964 book “A Personal Matter” exemplified the Japanese I-novel, a form of autofiction before autofiction was even a word, and took the literary world by storm. But recently, in an introduction to “The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories,” he admitted that his I-novel allergy had become less intense. One can feel him easing up in the eight stories collected in “First Person Singular,” allowing his own voice — or what sounds like his own voice, wonderfully translated by Philip Gabriel — to enter the narratives, creating a confessional tone that reminded me of Alice Munro’s late work.

Murakami is not popular throughout the world because he consciously integrates Western ideas and language into his fiction, but because his work — fueled by a tension with his forebears — fuses cultures, or perhaps leaps over them, defying time, beating like pop songs, touching universal nerves.

Charlie Parker

Tom Waits once said that “if you want to catch songs you gotta start thinking like one,” and you could imagine Murakami’s process as an extension of this, catching stories via musical thinking, whether it’s jazz in “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,” pop in “With the Beatles” or classical in “Carnaval,” all included in this collection. There’s a constant interplay in the book between the way music works and the way narrative unfolds. (If you want to get a sense of Murakami’s physical relationship to music, read his wonderful, intimate discussions with the conductor Seiji Ozawa, in “Absolutely on Music.”)

In a recent radio interview he claimed that music was his writing teacher — just as he has said that his writing is informed by his distance running. (But that’s too simple. All writers attempt to find some hook to explain the unexplainable.)

“Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova” is a fanfic love song, powered by a compassionate desire to resurrect. It starts with a review of an imaginary Parker album, written as a lighthearted prank by the narrator when he was a college student. But years later, to his bewilderment, he spots this nonexistent record in a store on East 14th Street.

Murakami gives himself a chance to talk to Parker, through a dream his narrator has at the end of the piece. Bird speaks to us; he’s real. The story becomes a tender reclamation of the past, written with devotion and love, powered by a beautiful truth: that the artists we love are constantly resurrected by our experience of their work.

(Reading it, I got the same feeling I got watching the late Chadwick Boseman in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” and when I searched Spotify later, it made sense that someone had already created a playlist, an imagined album from the story, which made me think about the destabilizing forces that feed our visions: the shaky world of postwar Japan, perhaps, for Murakami, who was born in 1949 amid wreckage and a sudden infusion of new cultures, or a larger contemporary world in which cultures now destabilize one another, collapsing time and distance, creating wonderful new art — a Bad Bunny song, sung in Spanish, pulsing on a trap beat crafted in Los Angeles, drifting atop a roar of digital current.)

Reality

Sometimes I think we forget, or refuse to admit, that as soon as a story exists in print and is read, it becomes real. Maybe it’s time we simply retire the term “magic realism,” because all fictions are both realistic and magical.

There are two opposite tendencies in literature, according to Italo Calvino: “One tries to make language into a weightless element that hovers above things like a cloud. … The other tries to give language the weight, density and concreteness of things, bodies and sensations.” Murakami has found his own path — as light as a runner between strides, floating for a few seconds in the zero gravity of movement, and as heavy as the footfalls on the soles of his Mizuno running shoes. Like Raymond Carver’s work, Murakami’s stories — his early ones in particular — are guided by clear, strong voices that are deceptively easy to read, digestible but always leading to a precise pivot, from that seemingly smooth gloss of realism, toward a deeper musical wisdom.

The Beatles

“With the Beatles” opens with a young woman walking down a school hallway, clutching a Beatles album, and becoming an image the narrator will never forget (he never sees her again). The narrator — as observed by his older self — then remembers his first girlfriend and an autumn day in 1965, when he went to her house for a date, found her gone and instead spent time with her brother, who suffered from acute memory loss.

To kill time, waiting for the young woman to arrive, he read aloud the final section of the 1927 story “Spinning Gears,” by Ryunosuke Akutagawa. Later, when we leap forward several years to a chance encounter with the brother, up in the mountains of Kobe, and learn of a tragedy that recalls the fate of Akutagawa, who killed himself shortly after writing his astonishingly contemporary story, we see Murakami bowing to one of his literary ancestors. An indelible imprint, the narrative power of the past.

(Describing how these stories succeed is like trying to describe exactly why, more than 50 years later, a Beatles song still sounds fresh — the songwriting energies from the psychedelic John Lennon combined with the hard-core realism of Paul McCartney forming a singular vision. I’m tempted to say here that Murakami’s vast popularity comes from the fact that he’s a fusion of Lennon and McCartney (and perhaps Glenn Gould).)

Cream

Murakami forces us into our past, when we were young enough to believe in the old, hippie word “cosmic,” when we could all get high just by trying to imagine a circle with no circumference.

A teenager ends up on a mountaintop in Kobe, sitting in a garden, listening to an old man talk. “Your brain is made to think about difficult things,” the man explains. “To help you get to a point where you understand something that you didn’t understand at first. You can’t be lazy or neglectful. Right now is a critical time. Because this is the period when your brain and your heart form and solidify.”

Was the plot of this story, “Cream,” just a MacGuffin to get us to this scene? Maybe, but who cares? We’re right there with them in that garden, and we have learned again what it means to seek mystery. That’s how Murakami’s stories often roll, luring us into strange moments, making us ask the questions we once chewed on about life, about what it means to bear the burden of selfhood, about how time seems to bend around us like the wind around the trees — invisible but clearly active.

As a short story writer myself, I feel my own acute inability to urge the reader to spend time with this collection, to purchase a sequence of brief experiences that will not, as a novel might, immerse them in the hours of a steadily unfurling narrative. But these are flickering, quick times, and what a story can do that a novel can’t is pull us into the intricate motions of a single instant, expansive on both ends — the before of everything before the narrative begins, and the infinite future beyond the terminal sentences — and, like a song, or a poem, leave us wanting to reread, to rehear the voice, to relocate the pinpoint in the map of our lives.

The Stone Pillow

Let’s turn now to a one-time hookup (the translator’s word) and explore the nature of erotic bliss — the distance between touch and memory. The tone, as in all of the stories in this book, is autumnal, and failures of memory are openly admitted. A young woman writes tanka poems, and when she and her lover end up naked in each other’s arms, she warns him that when she orgasms, she will yell the name of someone else. He’s fine with this but he asks her to bite a towel because the walls are thin.

“Loving someone is like having a mental illness that’s not covered by health insurance,” she explains. (Again, we’re back to some place we’ve forgotten, young enough to seek, to feel the wildness of reality, just as we might feel listening to Patti Smith — perhaps Murakami’s most devoted fan — singing “Dancing Barefoot.”)

The story, “The Stone Pillow,” flows to a moment years later, when the narrator finds a tattered book, the young woman’s, and reads a few of the poems, opening up one of Murakami’s profoundly beautiful arias:

“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 quiet still, and let the stormy winds of time blow past. The 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 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.”

The Monkey

Perhaps the most revelatory story in the book is a sequel to an earlier, widely anthologized piece, “A Shinagawa Monkey,” first published in The New Yorker in 2006. In it, a monkey sneaks around Tokyo stealing names — literally stealing them, so that the victims can’t remember their own names. “It’s a sickness I suffer from,” the monkey says, when he’s finally captured and interrogated. “Once I fix on a name, I can’t help myself. Not just any name, mind you. I’ll see a name that attracts me, and then I have to have it. I know it’s wrong, but I can’t control myself.”

All of the victims are young women whom the monkey finds desirable, and given the criticism sometimes leveled at the male gaze in Murakami’s work, it can be tempting to read the follow-up, “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,” as an overearnest attempt at atonement, an assurance that the impulse was driven by sincere admiration — love — not lechery.

“I make the name of the woman I love a part of me,” the monkey tells the narrator, over cold beers in a hotel in Gunma Prefecture. It is “a completely pure, platonic act. I simply possess a great love for that name inside of me, secretly. Like a gentle breeze wafting over a meadow.” Still, he says, he has made up his mind to stop.

One senses a greater task for the author: probing earlier creative impulses, examining the relationship between his own life and the act of conjuring lives out of nothing. This is the current that runs through all fiction — the musical frisson between the real and the imagined. What better way to remake, without wholly rejecting, your past self than to re-evaluate your creations, your fictive ghosts?

This story isn’t an excusing of the past but a kind of reconciliation, and when, at the end, we realize that it’s highly possible that the monkey is still out there stealing names, unable to control himself, we feel that Murakami — older, wiser, faults acknowledged — is also out there, making up stories, imagining the other, making that leap over the chasm between real and unreal, thickening, with each tale he creates, the perplexity of his own art.

What does it mean to carry the name of a beloved inside you, the narrator wonders, after his encounter with the monkey. Indeed, what does it mean to carry my beloved wife’s name, Genève, inside me? The question amplifies the glory of life — the loneliness and joy of hauling around the baggage of my own identity, which I’m able to escape only when I’m bearing someone else’s story, dreaming my way in.

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