3.75/5 stars
Rating: 3.75/5

Haruki Murakami is one of Japan’s most prolific writers with over fifty short stories, fourteen complete works of fiction, and four nonfiction books. He was born and raised in Japan, where Westernization and modernization over the 20th century heavily influenced his work and continues to do so. The overlap of Murakami’s obsession with American and European rock and roll, jazz, and classical music is a prominent subject in his writing. Murakami includes pop culture references relevant to the time, transporting the reader to Japan in the 70s, 80s, 90s, etc. At times, his narrator will casually put on a Joni Mitchell album or make sure to note the background music at a bar. His most recent work of fiction, First Person Singular, is told in the point of view specified by the title: eight short stories full of the pronoun “I” about reminiscing, memory, and nostalgia. 

There is something magical about reading Murakami’s work.

There is something magical about reading Murakami’s work. It would not be difficult to complete this book in a cafe in a couple of hours, or read one story every night before bed. There is a simplicity to his style that accentuates the originality of topics: a talking monkey, an imagined Charlie Parker Bossa Nova album, and a character named after Murakami who is obsessed with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows. The nostalgia the narrators feel, since they are telling stories from their youth or past, make the characters more genuine and in conversation with the audience. It feels like talking to an old friend over dinner in a dim restaurant, romanticizing the past, staying long after the meal has been eaten, and embellishing the truth for the sake of a good laugh.  

 The other stories are equally as intriguing and entice the reader with their casual eccentricity. Murakami’s work is often described as magical realism, and this book certainly makes the magical real. As a Shinagawa monkey confesses his attraction to women, Murakami makes us able to imagine these events as normal, as truly happening. His attention to detail is pristine: the narrator notices teeth marks on a towel, the way the sky looked when he was sixteen, and the eyebrows of an older man he sees in passing. 

Because Murakami often translates his own work from English to Japanese and then back to English, this process creates an intricate style that I have not read from any other author.  My favorite stories were “Confessions of Shinagawa Monkey” and “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova.”  The first story is bizarre – the narrator recounts meeting an older talking monkey at the hot springs in Gunma Prefecture. The monkey scrubs his back and informs the narrator that he was brought up by a physics professor, who loved Bruckner and Richard Strauss. Whenever music is mentioned, which is often throughout the book, it makes the characters feel more genuine. Although this is probably Murakami himself influencing the text, it is still fun to imagine a professor from Tokyo Gakugei University, obsessed with classical music, raising a talking monkey. 

 Murakami’s imagination is playful, and it offers an alternative reality for a couple of hours, in which the absurd is normal and casual. 

 Murakami’s imagination is playful, and it offers an alternative reality for a couple of hours, in which the absurd is normal and casual.  The second story, “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,” is slightly manic. The ability for someone to create a fake album, give it an A side and B side, name all the tracks, and then go on to describe the tracks demonstrates the worlds Murakami creates. Lovers of music, especially of the strange and eclectic, would enjoy this imagined Charlie Parker story.  

However, the titular story – and perhaps the strangest – lacks the nostalgia that runs throughout the course of the book. The narrator is approached by a stranger and told that he has done something horrible, but the narrator has no memory of such an act. Although not much is known about the direction of the plot or the narrator’s objective, the story is still captivating.  Murakami’s attention to detail transports the reader to the character’s room, playing with all the senses. One can see the Paul Smith suit on his bed, hear Joni Mitchell’s voice, and look through the full length mirror at the narrator. There is no reason to read on other than to appreciate the intense attention to his mundane surroundings. If the prose is enough to keep the reader’s attention, they’ll make it to the bar scene. After aimlessly wandering, the narrator decides to have a drink when a woman approaches him. She is evidently upset with him and tells him that she is a friend of a friend of his, and this friend is angry with the narrator. Although it is slightly confusing with the lack of names and the narrator’s lack of memory, the ending offers some clarification – or perhaps – leaves the reader with more questions than before. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” the woman says, and with that concluding line, the story ends, as does the book.  The narrator does not react, and he simply feels remorse for something he doesn’t remember doing.

In its disregard for nameless women, this story could be connected to “Carnaval,” the seventh story. The narrator goes on a date with the “ugliest” woman he claims to know and names her F*. Reading this story is uncomfortable – the woman is normal, kind, shares the same music taste as the narrator, and they discuss concerts, performances, and classical music. The title of this story is in reference to Schumann’s Carnaval, as F* explains: 

“All of us, more or less, wear masks. Because without masks we can’t survive in this violent world. Beneath an evil-spirit mask lies the natural face of an angel, beneath an angel’s mask lies the face of an evil spirit. It’s impossible to have just one or the other. That’s who we are. And that’s Carnaval. Schumann was able to see the many faces of humanity—the masks and the real faces—because he himself was a deeply divided soul, a person who lived in the stifling gap in between the two.”

F* offers beautiful insight, talking about the superficiality of beauty and connecting it to their shared interest. But instead of taking a moment to reminisce, as the other narrators do in the previous stories, the narrator ignores the profundity of her statement and applies it to her beauty: “an ugly mask and a beautiful face beneath it—a beautiful mask and an ugly face.”  He does not hesitate to continuously make remarks about her physical appearance. Although he is having an affair with this woman and goes on to see her for a couple of years, he never gets over how “unattractive” she is to him. Despite the disturbing treatment of F*, this story is worth reading for its surprising ending – a sudden turn of events that suggests this was the woman that is upset with the narrator in the final story. The way that this woman is wronged in a puzzling, unexpected way would justify a friend being angry on her behalf.    

Perhaps these stories can be read as journal entries, all connecting. Most of these narrators are not given names except for the narrator in “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection,” which is named after a real poetry collection by Murakami and also features a narrator named after Murakami. Fiction and reality are mixed, and a lot of Murakami’s life is integrated into his stories. Therefore, it is difficult to distinguish what his true opinions are and what is fictional. This becomes especially problematic when his writing concerns women, their experiences, and his lack of developing their characters.

It sometimes is best to separate the art from the artist, but Murakami’s personality shines through in his writing. Music connects these stories, characters, and narrators, and it demonstrates Murakami’s knowledge and enjoyment of media. If we consider this a large part of his personality, then the objectification of women must also be a large part of him. The recurring themes in his novels are not limited to his interests—First Person Singular and any of his works should be read with this in mind.  

There is, though, a certain expectation of his treatment of women when reading his work. Because a lot of his works connect through masculine perspectives such as music, books, sports, male-dominated locations, and even exclusively male narrators, it can be predicted that Murakami is going to inaccurately present the female population of Japan. The women in these stories are told through a very critical yet romantic male gaze – going back and forth from objectifying and sexualizing them to obsessing over the memories the men have of these women. Murakami seems to have the ideal woman in mind when he is writing, holding women to an impossible standard. We could justify this as an accurate portrayal of a man’s perspective but the fact that Murakami has not changed this tone throughout his career, makes it seem like it is his own opinion of women, too. 

Murakami has a record of sexualizing his female characters, leaving them underdeveloped, and if they were films, his books would not pass the Bechdel test.

Murakami has a record of sexualizing his female characters, leaving them underdeveloped, and if they were films, his books would not pass the Bechdel test. Anyone who is familiar with Murakami’s work has probably felt the need to disconnect from this constant theme. To explain: “I love Murakami, but the way he writes women is horrible.” And it is horrible. All the narrators of these stories are middle-aged men, often looking back at their past relationships with women and—in a way—it is easy to read these stories as partially autobiographical. 

Author Mieko Kawakami, another prominent contemporary Japanese writer, interviewed Murakami in 2020, offering a feminist critique of his writing. She explains how relatable some female characters are, such as Yuki in Dance Dance Dance, or May in the Wind Up Bird Chronicle. However, Mariye in Killing Commendatore is heavily sexualized. She is very young, and when she is given attention in the book, it is to discuss her breasts. Murakami responds that “the woman functions as a kind oracle, in that she’s made to act as a medium of fate (…) There are many cases where women are presented as gateways, or opportunities for transformation.” 

This is the inherent problem with Murakami and what I find most troubling about his writing. Because he sees his female characters as “oracles,” “mediums,” and “gateways,” they are never allowed to develop into actual characters. Their characters depend on the male protagonists: none of the stories are told through a female perspective, nor do the female characters mentioned get their own side of the story. Murakami is aware of this, and he explains it in a way that he believes is positive for the writing of his male protagonists, making it obvious that he does not necessarily see the problem with this strategy. If men need women to change the trajectory of their lives or the plot of the story, the male characters are not fully developed themselves. Women should not just be written for the benefit of men – to help them in a manic-pixie-dream-girl way. I don’t want to read about a character complaining to a man about the size of her breasts. It is unnatural, objectifying, and considering her age, uncomfortable to read.

 Overall, First Person Singular is an entertaining, quick read and a good introduction to Murakami’s style and writing. Anyone who wants to read more translated literature, or wants to get into his writing, could start with this book. The stories don’t necessarily connect, and if there is a story that is uncomfortable or unpleasant to read, it can be easily skipped. First Person Singular is not representative of all literature from Japan, nor are Murakami’s ideas about women representative of the female population. Haruki Murakami is Japan’s most famous contemporary author, but his popularity does not make him immune to criticism. Since reading First Person Singular, I have learned about a small baseball team based in Tokyo, who Art Pepper was, and what “middle class music” was in the 60s. To get to these enjoyable, ephemeral bits of information, one must also read the “mediums of fate” and remember that some of the female characters, unfortunately, will lack depth and development. 

 For those who are not willing to read his writing because of this trait, Mieko Kawakami is an amazing female author, who is also a writer of short stories.  Breasts and Eggs and Heaven approach the topics of womanhood, classicism, and bullying with subtlety and depth. She produces wonderful female protagonists, is poetic in her style, and, coincidentally, is Murakami’s favorite young novelist. The field of translated literature is growing and there are always new voices to explore. 

—Cassie Rivera, Fall 2022 Staff

Haruki Murakami was born in Kyoto in 1949 and now lives near Tokyo. His work has been translated into more than fifty languages, and the most recent of his many international honors is the Jerusalem Prize, whose previous recipients include J. M. Coetzee, Milan Kundera, and V. S. Naipaul. Translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen.

First Person Singular can be purchased here.

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