Unsettled Memories: First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami

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Almost from the first word, you know something’s off-center about each story in First Person Singular. True, the narrator often establishes the mood right away: “So I’m telling a younger friend of mine about a strange incident…” “I met the elderly monkey…” But mainly, when you’re reading the work of Haruki Murakami you know things are likely to start off odd, get pretty weird, and finish in an unsettling, or at least perplexing, manner. (With plenty of references to music, across all genres.)

Most of the stories in this new collection revolve around chance encounters: a talking monkey; an unexpectedly hostile woman; an old, wise (and/or unstable?) man on a park bench; a girlfriend’s brother with intermittent amnesia; the return of (dead) sax player Charlie “Bird” Parker. The person (or monkey) drops briefly into the narrator’s life, then disappears. Sometimes the narrator (and the reader) wonders if the encounter actually took place. Yet the memory of it imprints the narrator’s psyche, compelling him to recount it, sometimes decades later.

The narrator is always a man. He’s not necessarily the same person from story to story; sometimes he’s past youth, sometimes near or well into middle-age, other times elderly. Only in one story, one time, does Murakami mention himself by name. Even then—though the mention at first seems to be an admission that it is really he, Murakami the writer, who is telling the story—doubts set in: it could be that Murakami, the writer, is merely intervening in the narration. Author and narrator, fiction and memory, never settle comfortably into their proper places.

Whether the memory that centers each story occupies a firm place in reality or evades verification, it represents a psychological apex or nadir for the narrator; whatever path his life takes afterwards, the feeling that comes through in the telling of it is regret, a sense of failure, as if some vital signpost were ignored, or not even noticed, or the sign was too cryptic to be followed.

The stories nearly always revolve around women. Though sexual intimacy is primary, rarely does emotional intimacy come into play. When the narrator thinks about their lives apart from himself, it’s with a sense of curiosity, even wonder.

Does this mean that, in the stories, “unrestrained male lust is glorified under the guise of existential loneliness and female characters serve as mere vehicles for the fulfillment or denial of male longing,” as suggested by Shoshana Olidort in reviewing Murakami’s previous collection, Men Without Women, for the Chicago Tribune? I don’t think so, either in First Person Singular or in Men without Women. Sex plays a major role in Murakami’s stories. His protagonists are male heterosexuals;  women are, inevitably, lusted after. But lust is neither glorified nor unrestrained; often, the opposite is the case. And, the women are not without agency.

The women who seem to have the least consequence tend to be those with whom the narrator(s) could be said to have succeeded—wives, former girlfriends with whom the breakup was fairly painless. Their slight presence can be deceptive; they can cast long shadows into the stories. The women who count are more fearsome, though they’re not necessarily demonesses or succubi. In some way, deliberately or not, they wound or maim the narrator’s psyche. A few present a fleeting joy which, though momentary, leaves a memory that stains the present, the way a flashbulb going off in your face leaves blot-out blobs of negative-light everywhere you look.

The story “On a Stone Pillow” starts, “I’d like to tell a story about a woman. The thing is, I know next to nothing about her.” After one night together, they never see each other again. It’s in this story that Murakami shows his ability both to undermine his narrator’s reliability and to draw us in to a strange state of mind, in this case instigated by a slightly unusual but not way-out-there one-night stand.

“I can’t even remember her name, or her face,” the narrator claims. Yet he retains vivid visual impressions of their encounter: she’s wearing a “light green coat that had seen better days” and on “the rounded collar” sits “a silver broach shaped like a lily of the valley.” He even remembers how the brooch “glistened in the sunlight that was streaming in through the south-facing window.” She had “strong, healthy-looking teeth,” she was “small, bony, with a not-so-great complexion,” with a “mini constellation of two small moles beside her nose.” So, we really can’t take it literally when he asserts, again, “I… hardly remember her face at all.”

More remarkable is that the narrator memorized eight poems from her self-published, limited edition, hand-bound collection of forty-two poems. She had mailed him the book, written under the pen name Chiho, after their liaison. The poems are tanka, a classical form of five lines with 5, 7, 5, 7, 7 syllables each, for a total of thirty-one syllables. The eight memorized poems are given in the text (the translation does not maintain the traditional form). Tanka poetry was widely used to express emotion, especially romantic love; to the narrator, Chiho’s poems are about death, or endings, with decapitation as the means.

“Many years have passed since then,” he says, many years during which he absorbed the poems, made them his own outlook.

The motifs in “On a Stone Pillow” permeate the entire collection of First Person Singular. The chance encounters: “Like two straight lines overlapping, we momentarily crossed at a certain point, then went our separate ways.” The transformation of once-enthralling life events into their ghosts: “All that is left is a faint memory. Even memory, though, can hardly be relied on. Can anyone say for certain what really happened to us back then?” Long-lost objects merge with forgetting or reemerge in remembering; kept objects preserve a sometimes beloved, sometimes unwelcome memory. Or maybe what “On a Stone Pillow” is really about is words: the chance a writer takes in consigning themself to words, mere words more likely to find oblivion than fame:

If we’re blessed, though, a few words might remain by our side… For the most part they have small voices—they are shy and only have ambiguous ways of expressing themselves. Even so, they are ready to serve as witnesses. As honest, fair witnesses. But in order to create those enduring, long-suffering words, or else to find them and leave them behind, you must sacrifice, unconditionally, your own body, your very own heart. You have to lay down your neck on a cold stone pillow illuminated by the winter moon. Aside from me, maybe there’s not another soul in this world who remembers that girl’s poems, let alone someone who can recite them. With the exception of number 28, that slim little self-published book, bound together with string, is now forgotten, dispersed, sucked up somewhere into the benighted darkness between Jupiter and Saturn.…

The story in which Murakami identifies himself and mentions his own works, “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection,” happens to be the most humorous in the collection—the only outright humorous story. It’s titled after a self-published, long-ago collection of light verse about his favorite baseball team, the Yakult Swallows. From an ode to their butts: “I enjoy gazing at the butts of outfielders… / “The butt of the Hiroshima Carp’s player Shane / Is deeply thoughtful, cerebral. / Reflective, you might say.” (This story, too, or that poem, rather, is the only time an idle question arises about the narrator’s sexual orientation, which is unquestionably straight in the other stories.)

Maybe “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection” is a counterbalance to “On a Stone Pillow,” the other story in which a self-published poetry collection figures. A profound poetry collection falls into “benighted darkness” on one hand; on the other, the narrator’s youthful “poem-like jottings” now “fetch unbelievable prices” because of the author’s subsequent fame.

“The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection” is also unique in that it doesn’t revolve around a chance encounter; one could say that the narrator’s encounter is with his past self, or with time. In rooting for a team that’s been, in stretches, nearly as hapless as Charlie Brown’s, he reflects:

Of course, winning is much better than losing. No argument there. But winning or losing doesn’t affect the weight and value of the time. It’s the same time, either way. A minute is a minute, an hour is an hour. We need to cherish it. We need to deftly reconcile ourselves with time, and leave behind as many precious memories as we can—that’s what’s the most valuable.

If the collection ended there, we could put it down feeling cheered, even uplifted: let’s resolve to deftly reconcile ourselves with time, and get those precious memories lined up for our heirs. But as the Yakult Swallows fan buys a beer from a vendor who sells only dark beer:

I imagine this young vendor will have to apologize to lots of people this evening. “I’m sorry, but all I have is dark beer,” since most people at the stadium probably wanted regular lager… When I write novels, I often experience the same feeling as that young man. I want to face people in the world and apologize to each and every one. “I’m sorry, but all I have is dark beer.”

The title story, which follows the baseball story and ends the collection, is dark indeed, not a beer but a gimlet.

In First Person Singular and other works by Murakami, it’s as if he took the horror genre, carefully extracted the horror, and left us with what makes the best of the genre engrossing and disquieting. We go along with what is unbelievable, drawn into unplaceable moods. We find it doesn’t matter “what really happened… back then.” The real story is in what really happened to the narrator—what he tries to explain but cannot quite put into words.

Jean Huets is author of With Walt Whitman, Himself, acclaimed as “a book of marvels” by poet Steve Scafidi and “a true Whitmanian feast” by scholar Ed Folsom. Her writing is in Kenyon Review, The Brooklyn Rail, New York Times, The Millions, North American Review, The Rumpus, Ploughshares, Civil War Monitor, and other journals. She cofounded Circling Rivers, which publishes literary nonfiction and poetry. Visit www.jeanhuets.com for more. More from this author →