"First Person Singular," by Haruki Murakami (Alfred A. Knopf)
Haruki Murakami has a new collection of stories told in the first person by an unnamed older man obsessed with baseball, music, and the porous borders between memory, reality and dreams.
He may describe himself as a "bland, run-of-the-mill guy," as in the story "Cream" — about a young man's encounter with an aging mystic — but Murakami Man is more like a walking encyclopedia who has a problem with women — mainly, that he can't seem to get past their physical appearance.
Thus, in "On a Stone Pillow," we have his memories of a melancholy poet and her "shapely round breasts"; in "With the Beatles," a first girlfriend with "small yet full lips" and a wire bra. (Both, by the way, are suicidal.) In "Carnaval," the one story where a woman has agency, we are told over and over how ugly she is.
The best story in the collection, translated from the Japanese by Philip Gabriel, is "Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova." It is built around the counterfactual premise that the legendary inventor of bebop jazz didn't die in 1955 at age 34 but lived into the 1960s, long enough to collaborate on a bossa nova album — a musical pairing as unlikely as that of the Carpenters and Cardi B.
At the end of the story, when Bird appears in a dream and performs "Corcovado" on his alto sax, the narrator is transported. It was music, he reflected, "that made you feel like something in the very structure of your body had been reconfigured, ever so slightly."
In "Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey," an unnamed narrator with the same flat affect as all the others befriends the titular monkey at a rural inn. After a long night of drinking beer and eating snacks — another favorite pastime of these loner men—the monkey tells him about the ruse he has used to satisfy his longing for female humans in a species-appropriate way.
At first, you are carried along in the slipstream of bizarre but plausible detail — a feat Murakami achieves through the use of banal, if not clichéd, language: "Honestly, it felt odd to be seated next to a monkey, sharing a beer, but I guess you get used to it."
But if you're not a fan of Murakami's dreamy vibe and magical realism, if you think that life is confounding and interesting enough without needing to add fairy dust, then this probably isn't the book for you. You might ask yourself, why a Shinagawa monkey and not a tiger or leopard? In Murakami World, the answer would seem to be, why not?