First Person Singular: Stories
In “Cream,” the first of eight stories in Haruki Murakami’s delightful new collection, a grown man recounts a series of events that happened back when he was 18, which is, of course, a transitional age between childhood and adulthood. At that time, he had received an invitation to a piano recital to be held at a concert hall high atop a mountain in Kobe. The steep bus ride acts as another kind of transition, one from the known world to some mysterious unknown realm. “The higher up the mountain we went, the fewer passengers there were on the bus, and by the time we arrived at my stop only the driver and I were left.”
It’s a classic storytelling trope, one that F. W. Murnau used to great effect in Nosferatu, for example, when Thomas Hutter’s horse-drawn carriage breaches Count Orlok’s extra-real setting amid the Carpathian Mountains. In that scene, the film switches to a photo negative to make the crossing of that threshold even more spooky. That change is equally abrupt here in this story: “But the whole neighborhood was still and silent,” Murakami writes, “as if the dense clouds above had swallowed up all sound.” His characters are always willing to take that one more step that leads them the farthest away from home they’ve ever been. Longtime readers of his singular oeuvre won’t be surprised to learn that the adventure up the mountain ends up taking more than one unusual turn.
Similarly, to step into First Person Singular is to cross from our present moment and into a lost country demarcated by old memories. As the title would suggest, these stories are populated by narrators looking back at the events of their own lives, often with an indulgent, nostalgic bent for their student years. In “On a Stone Pillow,” a man reminisces about the time, at age 19, that he hooked up with a tanka poet. She apologized in advance for screaming another man’s name during sex and, he recalls so vividly, left bite marks on one of his towels.
“Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova” features a man recalling the time he invented a fictional album by the jazz legend and tricked an editor into publishing an article about it. Then, years later, lo and behold, he finds a copy of the album he had made up. “I stood there, stock-still, speechless, record in hand. It felt like some small internal part of me had gone numb. I looked around again. Was this really New York? Yes, this was downtown New York—no doubt about it. And I was actually here, in a small used-record store. I hadn’t wandered into some fantasy world.” Although he neglects to buy the record, he’s rewarded when Parker comes to him in a dream—yet another liminal space—to thank him. In “With the Beatles,” memory lane extends further back to high school.
I am, admittedly, a sucker for literature about talking monkeys, so the highlight of First Person Singular for me is surely “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey.” It begins: “I met that elderly monkey in a small Japanese-style inn in a hot-springs town in Gunma Prefecture, some five years ago. It was a rustic, or, more precisely, decrepit inn, barely hanging on, where I just happened to spend a night.” It’s a masterpiece that balances cosmic pathos and comic timing. The monkey, who works at the hotel and has a fondness for Bruckner’s symphonies, embodies yet another blurring of boundaries. He also has a shameless habit of stealing women’s names.
Any story would be bound to disappoint after “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,” which is as fun as anything I’ve read during this pandemic lockdown. There’s a reason, after all, that no one was foolish enough to take the stage at Woodstock after Jimi Hendrix. The title of “Carnaval” comes from a composition by Robert Schumann and in it the male narrator has a lot of ponderous ideas to share about women and beauty. Reading it felt a bit like listening to an out of touch uncle waxing philosophical over the dinner table: “Women who are born beautiful are always the center of men’s attention,” the narrator explains oh so helpfully. “Other women are jealous of them and they get coddled no end. People give them expensive presents, and they have the pick of men. So why don’t they seem happier? Why do they sometimes seem depressed?” Between us, I’d suggest skipping this one. Maybe take a breather with Mieko Kawakami’s novel Breasts and Eggs instead.
You’ll want to hurry back for “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection” and the title story, however. The former features a man named Haruki Murakami who goes to some lengths to detail his fondness for a particular—and not very good—baseball team. While at the stadium, he begins to write poetry. Like most baseball stories, this one provides a sweet look back at what we might think of as a simpler time. The collection ends, brilliantly, with an interrogation. A man sits at a bar and a stranger begins to berate him about an event he has no memory of.
For all our reminiscing, Murakami seems to say, it’s the things we don’t remember that might haunt us the most. After all, memory is itself another liminal space, one where we experience both now and then at the same time. Likewise, finishing First Person Singluar requires thinking back to everything we’ve just read about these characters’ lives, and to everything we didn’t.