“First Person Singular,” Haruki Murakami’s new collection of stories, marks a blazing and brilliant return to form. His last novel, “Killing Commendatore,” was saggy and baggy, overwrought and undermined by pretentious, half-baked musings and a relatively awkward handling of the humor/poignancy blend so characteristic of his work. But here we have a taut and tight, suspenseful and spellbinding, witty and wonderful group of eight stories, most of them published over the last two years. All are told in the first person, most by narrators looking back from the vantage point of middle age on youthful experiences, obsessions, or encounters. And there isn’t a weak one in the bunch.
The stories echo with Murakami’s preoccupations. Nostalgia and longing for the charged, evocative moments of young adulthood. Memory’s power and fragility; how identity forms from random decisions, “minor incidents,” and chance encounters; the at once intransigent and fragile nature of the “self.” Guilt, shame, and regret for mistakes made and people damaged by foolish or heartless choices. The power and potency of young love and the residual weight of fleeting erotic entanglements. Music’s power to make indelible impressions, elicit buried memories, connect otherwise very different people, and capture what words cannot. The themes become a kind of meter against which all the stories make their particular, chiming rhythms.
The reading experience is unsettled by a pervasive blurring of the lines between fantasy and reality, dream and waking. The narrator of the titular story’s “vague sense of unease... that something wasn’t quite right, was slightly out of joint” applies to the reader as well. Many of these narrators have uncanny or bizarre experiences they can’t fully account for or explain. Sometimes that is played for humor, as in two tour-de-force stories: “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,” in which a college student writes a review of a fictional album only to stumble across it in a record store, and the Kafka-esque “Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey,” where a congenial primate pours out a strange tale to a spa guest. At other times, the phantasmagoric creates a sense of foreboding. In “Cream,” a teenage protagonist is invited to a pretty girl’s piano recital only to find himself alone in a bleak, unfamiliar landscape with Christian messages blaring from a car’s loudspeaker and an eccentric old man attempting to teach him arcane riddles. In “First Person Singular,” a man puts on an expensive suit and tie and feels alien to himself; later, he is accosted at a bar by a strange woman who claims he has done a terrible thing to her.
The opacity of other people, the difficulty of making definitive judgments about them, is another Murakami concern. In “On a Stone Pillow,” a man’s impression of a nondescript woman with whom he had a “chance hookup” is upended when she sends him her arresting book of tanka poetry, filled with violent, original images and suffused with passion. In “Carnaval,” a married man is shocked when his unattractive yet amiable friend turns out to have a “staggeringly attractive” husband and a surprising involvement in “asset management fraud.” “With the Beatles” is narrated by a rueful middle-aged man reflecting on how his kind and reliable teenage girlfriend grew up to be a depressed, dark person and her brother, once mad and menacing, ended up with a conventionally successful life.
Most of the narrators foreground the act of telling and ruminate on the intention behind and effects of disclosing secrets, putting inchoate impulses, fears, or yearnings into clear, logical prose. Are there some things that escape, evade, or transcend the written word, these narrators wonder? What are storytelling’s powers, and what are its limits? Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, these speakers are compelled to share their stories, and like his Wedding Guest, we “cannot chuse but hear.” But unlike the Mariner, who offers a beneficent moral at poem’s end, they don’t provide tidy ways of summing up their experiences. They insist again and again on the fundamental unknowability of other people, the mystery at the heart of life. They refuse to offer pat solutions or easy answers — indeed, their refusal to settle for available explanations becomes an independent, and often an overriding, impetus to mental action. They are typically perpetuating an analytical mode rather than — even as a substitute for — solving problems of living.
The collection, with its emphasis on riddles that remain “permanently unsolved,” put me in mind of Donald Barthelme’s celebration of mystery as central to works of art. “In the competing methodologies of contemporary criticism… a sort of tyranny of great expectations obtains, a rage for final explanations, a refusal to allow a work that mystery which is essential to it,” he wrote. “I hope I am not myself engaging in mystification if I say, not that the attempt should not be made, but that the mystery exists. I see no immediate way out of the paradox — tear a mystery to tatters and you have tatters, not mystery.”
Murakami and his narrators refuse our desire for final explanations and resist the impulse to tear mysteries to tatters.
This mesmerizing collection would make a superb introduction to Murakami for anyone who hasn’t yet fallen under his spell; his legion of devoted fans will gobble it up and beg for more. The narrator of “Carnaval” says of the pianist John Rubinstein, “his playing gently, lightly wafts through the interstice between the mask and reality.” To read these stories is to realize how much we need this deft and delicate refusal to determine.
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.’'
First Person Singular: Stories
Haruki Murakami (translated from Japanese by Philip Gabriel)
Knopf, 256 pages, $28