First Person Singular

Haruki Murakami

Harvill Secker, £16.99

Review by Stephen Phelan

IF you were in your 20s in the 2000s, maybe you went through a Murakami phase. Having become a literary pop star in his native Japan a decade or so earlier, the author was deep into middle age when he broke through internationally, but his characters and readers tended to be much younger. Even in translation, his fiction seemed aligned to the drift of the post-college years, and attuned to the twentysomething’s half-formed sense of self.

Sex and music were more than incidental to his dreamy plotting, which made no distinction between the quotidian and supernatural. His heroes’ lives, and therefore yours, might equally be changed by an earthquake, a mysterious disappearance, or a gnomic encounter with a ghostly stranger. This reviewer ate up Murakami’s books like spaghetti in those days. Then he became boring, or I did. I outgrew him, or he aged into a wearying schtick. The spell really wore off circa 2011 with his interminable epic 1Q84, his ever-passive prose voice now sounding merely flat and inert, his alternative realities coming off as wispy mysticism.

Another decade on, and Murakami seems to be repeating himself, thematically and even grammatically. The first story in this new collection, Cream, has an unnamed narrator recall a typically “strange incident” from his teens, when he received an invitation to a piano recital but found the venue derelict, and sat confused in a park on a lonely suburban hill.

“I couldn’t think of anything else to do,” he says, before adding in the next sentence that he had “no idea what to do”, then asking soon after, “what else could I do?” Whether this clumsy phrasing is deliberate, or possibly the fault of his regular translator Philip Gabriel, the reflexive response is: “Who cares?” Female readers new to, or tired of, Murakami’s tics may be further exasperated by the women described here in terms of their beauty, or lack of it.

“Of all the women I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest,” he writes in the opening line of Carnaval. Now 70, Murakami is surely aware that the culture has changed around him, and this could be some implicit statement of defiance. Wilful provocation has never been his thing, but he’s never come quite so close to autobiographical fiction as he appears to in these stories either. The recurring pattern of their telling is a Japanese baby boomer haunted by some distant memory, which often revolves around a particular record. (Murakami is a lifelong vinyl collector and former owner of a jazz club.)

With The Beatles is most emblematic, a melancholy story spun from the lingering image of a schoolgirl clutching a fresh-pressed copy of that titular LP in 1968: “I think what makes me sad about the girls I knew growing old is that it forces me to admit, all over again, that my youthful dreams are gone forever.” It is sad too that Murakami should turn to such banal expressions of nostalgia when he used to evoke loss and regret so much more obliquely.

This new near-directness works in places, though. The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection is hardly presented as fiction at all, its narrator “Haruki Murakami” recounting verses he wrote while watching baseball games as a young man. They’re not good poems, by his own admission, but they put you there with him in the stands on some long-ago afternoon, watching “the clear cut-shadow of a bird” passing over the field.

Last and best is the title story, First Person Singular, which has the author, or his spectral proxy, simply put on a suit and go for a cocktail, then with minimal, insidious prompting gives way to a vision of suburban apocalypse. At his strongest he’s like Kafka in Tokyo, and reminds the lapsed admirer what a weird power Murakami once had over them.