ELLA KELLEHER WRITES (latest in her review series of new Japanese books) – This imaginative and captivatingly ambiguous recent release by Murakami reads like a game of two truths and a lie (in this case, seven truths and a lie). First Person Singular (2021) presents its audience with eight entrancing short stories that vary in their levels of magical realism. Ultimately, it is up to the reader to decide which tale is factual, which is not, and if a story becomes irrefutably real the moment it is printed and read.
Haruki Murakami, an esteemed literary hydra, departs from his masterful Oedipean drama in Kafka on the Shore (2002), and his brilliantly tragic adolescent romance in Norwegian Wood (1987). Murakami is instead subjected to the motifs of his own literary genius in First Person Singular. He finds himself stuck at the bottom of a well like the narrator in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1994) and drawn further into the ominous, forbidden forest that he includes in many of his works, a place where all self-understanding is lost. Murakami often inserts these portals in his stories which appear in the form of wells and formations of nature to immerse the protagonist in their memories and force self-reflection. First Person Singular is one such portal, a hypnotic journey through the deep and personal recesses of Murakami’s life that is wonderfully translated by Philip Gabriel.
Murakami begins on a more believable and atmospheric note with “Cream,” wherein a reclusive young boy receives an invitation from an estranged lady friend to attend a piano recital in a rural mountain town. The boy arrives, only to see deserted streets and an empty concert hall with no life in sight except for a missionary reciting gospel far off in the distance. When the boy realizes that he has been fooled by a spiteful past rival, he stumbles upon an old man who simply tells him to imagine a “circle that has many centers but no circumference.” The boy struggles and fails with this seemingly impossible thought experiment.
The old man then cryptically references the French phrase that connects back to the story’s title, “crème de la crème … The most important essence of life… The rest is just boring and worthless.” The old man, filled with years of wisdom and experience, relays crucial advice to this wandering, lost boy: focus on the intangible, non-quantifiable parts of life that are what makes living so magical – love, adventure, and friendship. With that, the young boy returns home, feeling even more alone than before.
Many of the other short stories in this collection follow young and middle-aged reflections of Murakami who bump into strange oddities in life, but promptly shrug them off. In “First Person Singular,” the final tale, the narrator is an older man who wears a suit for the first time in ages and feels like an imposter, unable to recognize himself in a mirror. At a local bar, he meets a peculiar woman who accuses him of having done a “horrible, awful thing [long ago] at the shore.” Murakami recycles this motif of the “shore,” a place that traps his characters in an ideological purgatory where everything they knew and understood about themselves and the world around them dissipates into the mist.
The older man leaves the bar, without answers or confrontation, and realizes that everything outside looks different and unrecognizable – as if he had been transported into a parallel world. Critics have argued that this story lacks substance and clarity, but could it be that Murakami is pointing to a larger question about identity? One that asks, “do we truly know who we are? Or are we simply putting up a façade that convinces us of our identity?”
The fifth story, “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,” is quintessentially Murakami in its mysterious and dreamlike allure, making it arguably the best in the entire collection. This short story chronicles a middle-aged man on holiday at an onsen (hot spring) in Gunma Prefecture, Japan. The man is shocked to find an eloquent, Japanese-speaking monkey as his bathhouse attendant. The man invites the enigmatic creature to his hotel room for a few beers and banter, only to find out that this monkey is afflicted by a curse: he is solely attracted to human women, who by nature, can never love him back.
Out of spite and covetous melancholy, the Shinagawa monkey explains that he takes an object with his female love-interest’s name on it, and “along with … willpower, [the monkey] steals their name.” The monkey had seven victims, each of which would sporadically lose memory of who they are, what they want, and what their name is. He justifies his thieving by explaining that it is the only way he can bask in his affections for the women whose names’ he had stolen without having sex with them. The monkey states that “it may well be the ultimate form of romantic love. But it’s also the ultimate form of loneliness.” The Shinagawa monkey lives out the rest of his days alone, hidden in the shadows.
In this tale, Murakami sheds light on an issue beyond animal misconduct – he focuses in on the loner experience: what it means to be outcasted by society, something that is becoming an increasingly important issue in Japan, especially considering the rise of hikikomori (shut-ins). The monkey, due to his personal eccentricities and lack of outward humanity, is relegated to working without pay at a run-down inn since “the larger, more upscale inns would never hire a monkey.” The monkey becomes a symbol for what it means to be different, a social pariah whose suffering is heightened in a society that favors conformity over individuality.
You may be wondering what the widespread criticism of this collection is about. For one, several critics claim this collection lacks tonal chutzpah and the necessary clarity to maintain the readers’ attention. The sleepy quality of some tales and the general ambiguity surrounding the protagonist is deemed a critical offense to some, especially considering Murakami’s track record of producing well-paced, gripping novels with idiosyncratic characters. Critics also argue that the lack of depth in Murakami’s female characters and the occasional undertones of misogyny in the male narrator warrants a substantial feminist critique. These critics tend to reference the sixth story, “Carnaval,” wherein the narrator refers to his female friend only as F* and describes his friendship with her with this simple statement: “of all the women I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest.” Multiple paragraphs are dedicated to describing F*’s unattractive appearance and eventually she meets a cruel end. The collection has been deemed “dismissive” of female dimensionality, while also hyper-sexualizing women characters.
As Murakami’s writing reaches for below surface-level meanings and ideas, the concluding review must fairly honor such complexity and consider the Japanese context that informs his work. Firstly, the mellowed tone of the collection, coupled with the somber and affectless narrator points to a larger issue endemic to Japan – the problem of ambivalence. Murakami’s confused and often misguided, unnamed protagonist is symbolic of the modern Japanese paradox: while tourists and foreigners visit the country and are in awe of its technological advancement and culture, the Japanese people exist in a post-bubble era emotional gloom that makes life lack any color and substance for the average worker.
As for the snubbing of female characters, Murakami alludes to the tradition of stripping women of their complexity in the Japanese literary canon – a practice that became somewhat accepted and institutionalized after the release of works by Japanese literary titans such as Yukio Mishima and Yasunari Kawabata. Murakami’s female characters are just as, if not more, intriguing and alluring as the male characters. The major difference is that Murakami does not allow his readers closure in knowing what happens to these female characters or what their full stories are. Could this be for a reason deeper than outright sexism?
My final verdict: read First Person Singular – not only for the strange yet mesmerizing plot lines, but for what they create when weaved together, a mystical and surreal literary quilt that makes the reader ask questions about the glory and loneliness of life.
Ella Kelleher is the book review editor and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International, and a recent graduate of LMU. She studied English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.