Review: First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami

Title: First Person Singular: Stories
Author: Haruki Murakami
Publisher: Knopf Publishing
Publication Date: April 6, 2021
Genre: Literary Fiction
Rating:  ☕☕☕☕ (4/5)
Content Warnings: *highlight to view* {suicide (recalled), alienation, death}

If you follow me on any social media platform, it’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Haruki Murakami. Sometimes, unnecessarily so. I can’t help it. Besides my experience reading his works usually coincide with very specific moments in my life, there’s just something about his writing that automatically attracts me. I decided early on that I will only read a Murakami in print. I was hesitant to get his latest offering, First Person Singular, when it was published just because the UK cover is more digestible for me (see, I’m not really a fan of of covers leaning towards reality – like this international cover). But one fateful day of visiting a bookstore after a while, my compulsion got the best of me. So here we are.

First Person Singular: Stories by Haruki Murakami

BLURB

A riveting new collection of short stories from the beloved, internationally acclaimed, Haruki Murakami. The eight masterful stories in this new collection are all told in the first person by a classic Murakami narrator: a lonely man. Some of them (like With the BeatlesCream and On a Stone Pillow ) are nostalgic looks back at youth. Others are set in adulthood–Charlie Parker Plays Bossa NovaCarnavalConfessions of a Shinagawa Monkey and the stunning title story. Occasionally, a narrator who may or may not be Haruki himself is present, as in The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection. Is it memoir or fiction? The reader decides. The stories all touch beautifully on love and loss, childhood and death . . . all with a signature Murakami twist.’ (via Goodreads)

THOUGHTS

First Person Singular: Stories is the first short story collection that Haruki Murakami after Men Without Women (2017) and his first book after his full-length novel, Killing Commendatore (2018). Translated by Philip Gabriel (a frequent translator of Murakami works, along with Jay Rubin), it features 8 short stories that, according to the blurb, may or may not be fiction – which was left for the reader to decide (which is *just* quintessential Murakami). Three of these stories are already published in The New Yorker: Cream, Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey, and With the Beatles (which, luckily, I haven’t read all 3 before going into this book).

“You got to the dark side of the moon and come back empty-handed.”

And what can I say? I thoroughly enjoyed burning through this. I wasn’t expecting much, because the recent reviews I read mentioned how the quality of his work is declining even back from when 1Q84 was published. But reading this book – I don’t know – it felt right. Maybe it’s the fact that I basically read this in a span of almost 2 days (which was fast for me) or the fact that I read it all during evenings on my front porch while the rain was falling. Murakami’s writing is a whole mood and he creates moments brilliantly. And though in his previous works that I’ve read it was not that apparent, this collection somehow worked his usual magic on me. And most times, while reading it, I wanted more. More moments. More stories. Just… more. I really adore it.

I was under the impression that the last 2 stories are non-fiction before I read the blurb. True to its title, all stories were written in first-person singular – which somehow lends some confessional quality to all of them. It felt intimate, like you’re in on a secret. Of course, there were a couple of favorites and there are misses as well. But, overall, I think this is a wonderful collection albeit short. I would’ve liked if this collection is combined with Men Without Women – just to get our money’s worth (these latest collections contain so few stories compared to his previous ones) – but I guess thematically speaking, it makes sense to separate them.


Below is a short review of each of the stories in the collection:

Cream – 3.5☕

There is a very eerie quality to the setup of this story – and familiar because it takes me back to the signature tone of his early works. What I can’t get over is the fact of how incredibly vivid the scenes in this story are. It painted a very clear picture in my head as if I’m living it (which was pretty weird) but it’s exactly why I read Murakami. That acid-trip quality of his works blurs the line between fantasy and reality. Anyway, this was a welcome start to this collection and it really set the tone for the whole book.

On a Stone Pillow – 4☕

The line “Like two straight lines overlapping, we momentarily crossed at a certain point, then went our separate ways.” specifically reminds me of the tangent quote from Sputnik Sweetheart, which was a welcome thing because it is one of my favorite of his. This is maybe the primary reason why I really liked this short offering more than the others.

Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova – 4.5☕

This was a fun and light-hearted story though a bit of a mindfuck if I’m honest. This was fully injected with magical realism and whimsy – and I loved it so much. Fun fact: for the US (?) and international editions, the hardback inner jacket is the Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova vinyl cover.

With the Beatles – 5☕

“But there was something else, something far bigger. And in an instant, that tableau was etched in my heart – a kind of spiritual landscape that could only be found only there, at a set age, in a set place, and at a set moment in time.”

I’ve always admired how Murakami can make a random, mundane moment special – as if it was magnified. In this story, the narrator recalls a vivid memory of a girl walking n the hallway with a Beatles LP clutched to her chest. The narrator also talked about his girlfriend back then and a curious encounter with the latter’s brother. This story centers around memory and the “fragility of life”. It is weird and there are random moments of emotional whiplash that really caught me off guard. There are multiple recalled suicides so some trigger warnings are in place. I also found myself recognizing bits and pieces of what I loved while reading his brilliant Norwegian Wood. This is probably my favorite among the stories in this book. Reading With the Beatles felt like coming home.

I found a brilliant analysis of this short story HERE and it’s been so long since I tried specifically searching for reviews for his stories.

Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey – 5☕

This was directly related to one of his short stories published in my personal favorite, Blind Willow, Sleeping Women – titled A Shinagawa Monkey. I kept thinking how much it sounded familiar and I only realized it once I read the summaries for BWSW again. Same as Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova, this blurs the line between dreams and reality. I was weirded out while I was reading it but what would I expect reading a Murakami short story?

Carnaval – 3☕

This was a great read in terms of general direction. But what really irked me was the emphasis on how “ugly” the narrator’s friend (known only as F*) was. Perhaps one issue I have with Murakami was the way he writes about women most times: making them always only a plot device and a bit obsessive with the physical. And this is one example of a case where it kind of ruin it for me. If anything, this made me listen to Schuman’s Carnaval on a late-night – just because of how deep and passionate the character’s discourse is about this piece. And when I scrolled through the comments of the video, it gave me immense pleasure that I was not the only one hanging out there after finishing the story and the book. I’ve always admired how Murakami always injects magical musical moments in his books. And for a story so grounded in it, there was a lot of haunting dialogue and an interesting analysis of how this piece and classical music mean to the characters – which also reflects Murakami’s deep-seated appreciation of the art.

The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection – 2☕

“When I write novels, I often experience the same thing 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.”

Sometimes, I feel like Murakami is a very niche author. His tones and themes are noticeably recycled throughout his works. He writes about very particular things with abandon: music, young love, running, and baseball. And while I love most of these, this story is my least favorite piece in this book just because I can’t relate to any of it – the baseball, I mean. He wrote about running in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running and he managed to make me care about the subject even if I don’t know anything about it – but with baseball, it didn’t really hold my attention even for a bit. This is a non-fiction piece, where he ponders on the first (and only?) poetry collection that he “published” long before his writing career took off (when his first novella sold and got published).

First Person Singular – 5☕

Another non-fiction (I think? honestly, I’m not even sure now) piece to close this collection, this could easily fit in any of his fiction works. It has all the elements of a Murakami story: music, a random encounter with a mysterious person, books, bars – only this time, it stars the author himself (for some reason, this is what was imprinted in my brain through it was not explicit in the story). I really enjoyed reading this and, by closing this collection with this, he seriously made me want for more.


OVERALL

I can’t pinpoint it but there’s really something about Murakami’s writing that I just instantly connect to. It’s a pretty special and unique feeling, what I experience whenever I read his works. It’s not even about the stories; he could write even mundane experiences and random encounters (and he does, from time to time) and still make it special for me. I haven’t read a lot of his books recently… but every time I do, I am reminded why I always feel like he’s one of my absolute favorite writers. It’s such a magical feeling to have.

As for First Person Singular, it seems that Murakami is now in memoir mode (again!), I hope. Or maybe a new full-length book? I don’t know, since most of his short stories end up becoming seeds of his novels – and I’m excited for any of my favorites from here to be expanded. Either way, I’m excited for his next offering. 🤍

RATING

GET THE BOOK>> Amazon | Indiebound | Book Depository Barnes and Noble | Fullybooked

About the Author

Murakami Haruki (Japanese: 村上 春樹) is a popular contemporary Japanese writer and translator. His work has been described as ‘easily accessible, yet profoundly complex’. He can be located on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/harukimuraka…

Since childhood, Murakami has been heavily influenced by Western culture, particularly Western music and literature. He grew up reading a range of works by American writers, such as Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan, and he is often distinguished from other Japanese writers by his Western influences.

Murakami studied drama at Waseda University in Tokyo, where he met his wife, Yoko. His first job was at a record store, which is where one of his main characters, Toru Watanabe in Norwegian Wood, works. Shortly before finishing his studies, Murakami opened the coffeehouse ‘Peter Cat’ which was a jazz bar in the evening in Kokubunji, Tokyo with his wife.

Many of his novels have themes and titles that invoke classical music, such as the three books making up The Wind-Up Bird ChronicleThe Thieving Magpie (after Rossini’s opera), Bird as Prophet (after a piano piece by Robert Schumann usually known in English as The Prophet Bird), and The Bird-Catcher (a character in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute). Some of his novels take their titles from songs: Dance, Dance, Dance (after The Dells’ song, although it is widely thought it was titled after the Beach Boys tune), Norwegian Wood (after The Beatles’ song) and South of the Border, West of the Sun (the first part being the title of a song by Nat King Cole).

Author Website


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Auditor by profession and a 'round-the-clock geek 🤓 from the 🇵🇭. I'm a coffee-holic INTJ with an unhealthy obsession with books and stationery. I word-vomit over at Twitter and posts book pics at Instagram: @pagesandcc . I also blog at https://pagesandcoffeecups.com/ .

7 thoughts on “Review: First Person Singular by Haruki Murakami

  1. I waited for this short-story collection for so long, and I loved it so much. It always feels as if Murakami writes especially for me. I bought the book in kindle version for my vacation time, and it definitely set the magical tone for my trip. I really loved the story “Cream”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m also a big Murakami fan. I listened to the audio version of “First Person Singular” and was entertained by the stories. Murakami has the ability to draw me into stories. You made a good comment about “he could write even mundane experiences and random encounters (and he does, from time to time) and still make it special for me.” Such was the case with “The Second Bakery Attack,” with the husband and wife’s conversation that makes up most of the story. I recently read “Kafka on the Shore,” and I’m still absorbing the weirdnesses of that story, and the transformation of the characters’ lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Glad to meet another Haruki Murakami fan here! I honestly haven’t read The Elephant Vanishes yet and I’m looking forward to reading the story you mentioned. Hope I could read your thoughts on Kafka. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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