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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

First Person Singular

Murakami Haruki

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To purchase First Person Singular

Title: First Person Singular
Author: Murakami Haruki
Genre: Stories
Written: 2020 (Eng. 2021)
Length: 245 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: First Person Singular - US
First Person Singular - UK
First Person Singular - Canada
Erste Person Singular - Deutschland
Prima persona singolare - Italia
  • Japanese title: 一人称単数
  • Translated by Philip Gabriel

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nicely low-key and cohesive story-collection

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 28/1/2021 Ursula Scheer
The Guardian . 2/4/2021 David Hayden
The Japan Times . 5/4/2021 Nicolas Gattig
The LA Times F 1/4/2021 Hillary Kelly
The NY Times Book Rev. A 25/4/2021 David Means
The Observer D 12/4/2021 Rob Doyle
Sunday Times . 4/4/2021 Alexander Nurnberg
TLS . 14/5/2021 Bryan Karetnyk
The Washington Post . 12/4/2021 Leland Cheuk
World Lit. Today . Summer/2021 Erik R. Lofgren

  From the Reviews:
  • "(T)atsächlich ist schwer zu sagen, wovon die Erzählungen in seinem jüngsten Band handeln. (...) Was vordergründig daherkommt wie neun Erzählungen von eleganter sprachlicher Schlichtheit, die lose an das vertraute Konzept der Novelle um eine unerhörte Begebenheit anknüpfen, spürt ein ums andere Mal der bloßen Ahnung von Bedeutsamkeit nach. (...) Kaum einer spürt den Nichtigkeiten, in denen alles folgende angelegt sein kann, so meisterlich nach wie Haruki Murakami." - Ursula Scheer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The playfulness with the identity of the narrator might be more rewarding, were it not for the stretches of tepid, underpowered writing. The conversational style can be slack and cliched, speckled with reflections on philosophical questions about ageing, identity, memory and what it is to know oneself." - David Hayden, The Guardian

  • "(H)is new offering stands out from the crowd, sticking to his tried-and-true formula and retaining a disarming earnestness as he takes everyday moments and goes deeper. Always searching, always humble and with a sense of wonder as he veers into the mildly bizarre, Murakami gets philosophical without sounding pretentious." - Nicolas Gattig, The Japan Times

  • "The real question is: Does the reader care? Each story is like the greenery filler in a grocery store bouquet: stiff and charmless, background fodder, indistinct organic matter. They're like copies of copies of copies of Murakami's older work; all the specificity and vivacity is blurred out. The women are rubbed down into featureless nubs, the men deflated caricatures -- popped balloons. The only appeal left to make to the reader is the brand name on the cover. (...) The eight stories in First Person Singular share a deadening lack of curiosity. (...) But sheer snooziness isn't the collection's worst offense. Murakami's treatment of women is abhorrent. He disregards women as interchangeable and unremarkable for anything other than their looks: of all the women in these eight stories, only one has a name." - Hillary Kelly, The Los Angeles Times

  • "(B)rilliant (.....) Describing how these stories succeed is like trying to describe exactly why, more than 50 years later, a Beatles song still sounds fresh" - David Means, The New York Times Book Review

  • "I can divulge up front that his latest, First Person Singular, is not very good. (...) The book is not without its charms and Murakami's mild and affable authorial persona will please his fans. (...) While Murakami's more thrilling novels contain war crimes, sexual deviancy and other sinister elements, the abiding tone here is of grandfatherly niceness. It leaves you craving an edge (.....) (W)hat I find instead is lazy, halfhearted prose and what I've come to think of as Murakami's trademark banality." - Rob Doyle, The Observer

  • "(B)eautifully rendered by the Murakami veteran Philip Gabriel (.....) The tenor of the stories is what readers have come to expect of Murakami over the decades. Humdrum paths take unexpected turns, pedestrian reality appears to shift suddenly and kaleidoscopically, leaving the narrator never quite certain that his world is the same as that experienced by others around him. (...) (T)hese stories are permeated by a vagueness and languor that border on complacency. Promising ideas trail off with almost wanton persistence, dissolving in the real Murakami's own seeming apathy. (...) At its best, First Person Singular is limp, insipid and apathetic; at worst, it seems to express outright contempt for its readers." - Bryan Karetnyk, Times Literary Supplement

  • "First Person Singular will satisfy his fans and serve as a fine introduction to neophytes, echoing many of the uncanny scenarios of his earlier work. (...) The collection's Kafkaesque titular story is the strongest because of its notable timeliness. (...) The collection's Kafkaesque titular story is the strongest because of its notable timeliness." - Leland Cheuk, The Washington Post

  • "They are soft around the edges, light and delicate without descending into vapidity, and ask us to think about the unimportant, random events in our own past that have, nonetheless, remained inexplicably with us. In creating this dynamic, Murakami is well served by his translator, Philip Gabriel, who has translated many of his works into English. He brings his usual deft touch to the renderings of these tales, all of which read easily, settling into the reader's consciousness where their aftereffects linger pleasingly." - Erik R. Lofgren, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Like so many of Murakami Haruki's stories, those in First Person Singular tend to look back, revisiting an often long-past stage of or point in the narrator's life and a set of specific events or circumstances, bubbling up now years later. Typically, too, as he sums up and explains in the closing paragraph to 'Carnaval':

     These were both nothing more than a pair of minor incidents that happened in my trivial little life. Short side trips along the way. Even if they hadn't happened, I doubt my life would have wound up much different from what it is now. But still, these memories return to me sometimes, traveling down a very long passageway to arrive. And when they do, their unexpected power shakes me to the core.
       Even beyond mere time, Murakami often employs additional distancing effects, from a haziness of memory and specifics -- 'On a Stone Pillow' opens: "I'd like to tell a story about a woman. The thing is, I know next to nothing about her. I can't even remember her name, or her face" -- to the stories not being straightforward re-tellings, but accounts of re-tellings, as in 'Cream', which opens: "So I'm telling a younger friend of mine about a strange incident that took place when I was eighteen".
       The incidents are often fairly small and insignificant-seeming. The young friend he relates his story to in 'Cream' admits: "I don't really get it. What actually happened, then ?" and readers are often left similarly puzzled; Murakami's stories tend not to anything definite, often left, at least partially, intentionally open-ended: the narrator wonders, but does not pursue too closely, the question of: "Was the Shinagawa monkey back to his old tricks ?" at the conclusion of 'Confessions of a Shingawa Monkey', or for example, what became of the woman he calls F* in 'Carnaval', with whom he had shared a passion for the Robert Schumann-piece of the title for six months, despite it presumably being relatively easy to learn what became of her. Indeed, the tangible -- often connections to people -- is often left behind -- not intentionally, but in that natural drifting apart and entropic loss that comes as time passes (though the stories are notable for how often the narrator does not seek out information or people: he doesn't want to know the path of people and events beyond his memories, their here and now, preferring to focus only on his recollection and the foggy after-echoes of these memories on his present; so also some of the most jarring moments for him come when he does encounter people from his past (tellingly, also, he's never the one to recognize them; they recognize him)).
       Just how selective his memory also is -- how strong the preference for vague memory over any sort of physical reminder is -- comes in the one story where the narrator identifies himself as 'Haruki Murakami' (though the first-person narrator in all these stories can easily pass for him), the one that is also the most clearly autobiographical, 'The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection'. He describes his father taking him to an exhibition baseball game when he was nine, the St. Louis Cardinals playing against a Japanese all-star team, with the American players tossing signed tennis balls into the crowd before the game and one of them landing in his lap. This is nothing less than: "probably the greatest, most memorable thing that happened to me when I was a boy. Maybe the most blessed event I ever experienced". And yet he admits:
It took that treasured white ball back home, of course, but that's all I remember about it. Whatever happened to that ball ? Where could it possibly have gone ?
       Not only did the ball itself did not become the totem, it was readily cast aside; in Murakami's world, the memory of the moment and feeling is what counts.
       In explaining his presentation of one account about one unusual encounter, the narrator observes:
That said, if I wrote about it as fiction, it lacked a clear focus, or a point. I could well imagine, even before I started writing about it, my editor's puzzled expression after reading the manuscript, and the question that would follow: "I hesitate to ask you, since you're the author -- but what's the theme of this story supposed to be ?"
     Theme ? Can't say there is one.
       So also for the rest of these stories -- even as Murakami imbues them with the suggestion of meaningfulness. Murakami's trick -- and by this point in his career, used so often, it is hard not to see it as a well-honed trick -- is to emphasize the sense of suggestion rather than try to offer up some clear moral or meaning. Typically, even when he offers a grander pronouncement it's all hedge: "Happiness is always a relative thing. Don't you think ?" But mostly any meaningfulness remains couched in layers of uncertainty, as when he concludes about the unusual small incident from his youth at the heart of 'Cream':
     It was permanently unsolved, like some ancient riddle. What took place that day was incomprehensible, inexplicable, and at eighteen it left me bewildered and mystified. So much so that, for a moment, I nearly lost my way.
       Murakami likes to go off on what can seem like stray tangents, but ultimately even these tends to serve his stories' purposes, tied in loosely one way or another to them -- and, if nothing else, suggestive of the deeper meanings he hints are there. So, for example, in the particularly rambling 'With the Beatles' he gets a bit side-tracked in discussing the careers of Troy Donahue and Sandra Dee, concluding the section with the admission:
This is obviously totally unrelated to the plot of A Summer Place. And unrelated to my and my girlfriend's fate.
       But, of course, in Murakami's world(s), nothing is unrelated and everything is meaningful. (So also, there shouldn't be any reason to point out that these things were unrelated if that's what they actually were; it seemed to be self-evident -- until he pointed this out .....)
       Identities remain vague throughout the collection. The narrator is consistently a Murakami-stand-in, sharing much of his biography, while the characters he engages with go nameless, described as his 'wife', 'girlfriend', 'woman', 'friend', 'old man', 'girl'. He does give a name to the significant other in 'Carnaval' -- but it's not her actual name (and, indeed, not much of a name at all):
     I'm going to call her F*. There are a couple of reasons it wouldn't be appropriate to reveal her real name. Incidentally, her real name has nothing to do with either F or with *.
       There's a sense of many of the characters, described in these simple, generic terms are mere stand-ins of sorts. Yet even the ones he does describe somewhat more closely -- F*, or the girlfriend from 'With the Beatles', the rare other character whose name (Sayoko) is revealed -- prove to be unknowable: their fates are the ones he learns the most about, and yet how they came to wind up as they did remains entirely mystifying to him.
       'Confessions of a Shingawa Monkey' makes most explicit the significance Murakami attributes to naming. While the monkey itself remains nameless -- it explains it has: "no name, per se. But everyone calls me the 'Shinjuku monkey'" -- it has found a method of satisfying its otherwise unfulfillable desires for human females: stealing their names: "I make the name of the woman I love a part of me".
       It is a connection in the most abstract form:
It may well be the ultimate form of romantic love. But it's also the ultimate form of loneliness. Like two sides of a coin. The two extremes are stuck together, and can never be separated.
       First Person Singular is an easy-going sort of story-collection, the stories fairly straightforward -- though with little puzzling twists and elements, and a sense of some unspoken greater meaningfulness -- and even, at first glance, almost bland. In fact, there is considerable range to the stories, and while much does cover familiar territory there's enough novelty, in form and substance, to consistently engage.
       The most autobiographical piece, 'The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection', takes up Murakami's familiar love of baseball but also opens up surprising new vistas, not least in showing him try his hand at poetry. 'Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova' has a young narrator write a piece imagining Charlie Parker not having died in 1955 and having recorded an album of bossa nova in 1963 -- pure invention, even though the college student insistently closed the piece (the first he ever published):
     Can you believe it ?
     You'd better. Because it happened.
     It really did.
       (Naturally, in Murakami-world, many years later the narrator stumbles, briefly, across an actual physical copy of the imaginary record (though, of course, failing to grab proper hold of it).)
       Throughout, Murakami's breezy, off-hand approach -- reïnforced by a narrator and informal voice that remain constant -- allows him to smoothly slip in the occasional surreal elements (like a talking monkey) and for it to feel almost entirely natural, as he effectively weaves his familiar style of strangeness through many of the pieces.
       It can all feel very slight, and yet there's real resonance to the pieces and the whole. Not forcing too much here, Murakami also manages to convey a sense of an agreeably low-level and not insistent profundity. If this seems like low-gear Murakami, it actually works for the best: he's not trying too hard, and there's a lot to be said for that. First Person Singular is also surprisingly cohesive -- satisfyingly more so than his previous collections -- and while his strength remains the novel-form, this is a welcome addition to his œuvre.

       (Also worth a mention: the American hardcover edition (from Alfred A. Knopf, designed by Chip Kidd) not only features a fine dust-jacket cover but also a neat different cover underneath, playing off of the 'Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova'-story.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 11 April 2021

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First Person Singular: Reviews: Murakami Haruki: Other books by Murakami Haruki under review: Books about Murakami Haruki under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Japanese literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Murakami Haruki (村上春樹) was born January 12, 1949. He attended Waseda University. He has written several internationally acclaimed bestsellers and is among the best-known contemporary Japanese writers.

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