Thursday, January 19, 2023

First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami

Is it reductive to say we're in the Era of Minor Murakami? I mean, I don't think 1Q84 is anyone's favorite novel of his, though I can't speak to Killing Commendatore (it's still lurking on my shelf, daring me to find two or three months to read it). And, for the second time this decade, he's put out a small book of short stories, which he apparently wrote as a batch to become a book.

First Person Singular has a lot in common with 2014's Men Without Women, not least that all of the narrators seem to be the same person, and that person is an only just barely fictionalized version of Murakami himself. (He even uses his own name in one of the stories here, as if he gave up on the dance halfway through.) But these stories are even more unified than the ones in Men were: they are all clearly stories told by the same person, in the same voice - all stories by an older man, a man looking backwards, to one thing and then another.

The title claims less than the stories themselves do: it just says they're all narrated in the first person. And maybe Murakami and his editors believe these eight stories are by or about different men. It's not impossible. But they read like the same person; they read like moments in the same life.

I suppose that's a bonus for the book, then? It's not just a batch of unconnected short fiction, but eight things that belong together?

All of the stories are short; all of the stories are literary. All more allusive and thoughtful than plot-driven. All about memories and things in the past, things brought back to mind. I'm not going to catalog them. Most of them are about women, though not as comprehensively or directly as the previous collection. (One is about a monkey, but it's still about women.) There are surreal or fantastika elements, but the strongest, most major one is an uneasy element on the very last page of the book, in the title story - it feels almost like something that was going to be a novel, but didn't, so Murakami pruned it back to a short story and left it (and the book as a whole) to end in that thorny, uneasy, eruptive moment.

Murakami is a fine writer, as always. Or maybe I mean translator Philip Gabriel makes him into a fine writer in English - but Gabriel is the third major translator in Murakami's career, and all three have presented the same voice in English. At this point, I have to believe they're doing the core job of a translator: taking what is specific about the original language and finding ways to replicate that in the new language. That this, more or less, is what Murakami sounds like in Japanese.

I still think it's minor Murakami. But minor work by a major writer is...I'm not sure of that calculus. Still worth reading, I suppose. Yes. I'll go with that. 

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