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‘First Person Singular’ a magical mystery tour of the self

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One could argue that all literature has the writer opening themselves up to the reader. And that’s probably true as far as it goes. But very few writers can truly invite the reader in, laying bare everything and inviting our examination.

Haruki Murakami invites you in.

His latest is “First Person Singular” (Knopf, $28), a collection of eight stories that are all told – you guessed it – in the first person, tales of absurdity and magic and passion. Whether we’re getting accounts of talking monkeys or sweetly weird looks at first love or poems about baseball, it all springs from the same never-ending font of humanism, melancholic though it may sometimes be.

These are stories about being apart, being other. They’re stories offered up from the perspective of eight similar-but-different characters, only one of whom cops to the name that in truth they all fundamentally share – Haruki Murakami.

“Cream” features a man telling a tale from long ago, sharing an inexplicable experience that he can neither rationalize nor forget. It’s a story of what it means to accept the fact that sometimes, the only answer is “I don’t know.” Next is “Stone Pillow,” another look at memory, only this time, it’s an account of young love that has since faded away. It explores the power of our minds to take us back to memorable times, even if our current circumstances are happy ones.

Next up are two music-related pieces, though their respective relationships to music are very different. In “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,” a jazz enthusiast finds himself at a crossroads of sorts involving parallel universes. Specifically, one world where Charlie Parker dies in 1955 (as he did in ours) and one in which the saxophonist went into hiding, only to emerge with the record that shares its name with the story’s title – a sort of Schrodinger’s Bird, if you will.

“With the Beatles” is more a story of infatuation writ large, but that story is bound inextricably with the narrator’s first (and ultimately only) encounter with the object of his affection – an image of her rushing down a high school hallway in 1964, a copy of the album “With the Beatles” clutched tightly to her chest. That encounter in turn influences the direction of our narrator’s first tentative steps into the romantic realm.

“Confessions of a Shingawa Monkey” is precisely what the title purports it to be. It’s an excellent piece, easily the most overtly weird of the bunch, yet it still slots in nicely. I’ll leave the details for you to discover yourself. “Carnaval” is a tale of both passionate connection and the dawning realization that even the passionately connected often don’t know one another’s full truths.

My personal favorite might be “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection.” It’s the most obviously autobiographical of the pieces, a sort of metacommentary on a book of poetry about his baseball fandom and his beloved Yakult Swallows. The poetry itself is good, but it is Murakami’s renderings of how he arrived in the place to write it that shine. As a lifelong baseball fan myself, it’s easy to recognize the clear love of the game – his passion rings true.

The book closes with the titular story, digging into the notion of identity and how ultimately fragile our sense of self-perception can prove to be. The efforts we make to keep up appearances, to present the face we choose to the world, regardless of how accurately that face reflects our true selves. All thanks to wearing a suit to the wrong bar at the wrong time.

“First Person Singular” is the product of a master at work. Haruki Murakami is one of the finest examiners of the human condition of his or any other literary generation. The fact that he folds those examinations into tales that are quietly magical or broadly absurd or both only enhances their impact. This is a man whose prose is exquisitely crafted and whose ideas are beautifully formed – how many writers can match that? Not many. That’s for sure.

The remarkable thing about Murakami – well, one of the many remarkable things, anyway – is his ability to evoke the mysticism and mundanity of life at the same time. These are delicate provocations of the imagination, stories of quickly-consumed deliciousness that somehow continue to expand even after you’ve gone on. These are stories that linger in the best possible way, with flashes of imagery and snippets of dialogue continuing to reappear in your perception even after days have passed.

Who we are is defined by many things. Where we come from and where we are going. How the world sees us and how we see ourselves. In “First Person Singularity,” Murakami once again proves masterful at capturing the ephemeral nature of identity; despite the seeming disparity between these stories, they all have that fundamental question at their heart: Who am I? It’s a question that Murakami never definitively answers, but that he has nevertheless invested a great deal in asking. Another remarkable book from a remarkable writer.

Last modified on Tuesday, 06 April 2021 08:12

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