Personally, I anticipate the release of every Haruki Murakami book, with a curiosity that is otherwise deserved for rare and unique occasions. The enthusiasm that gripped me prior to the release of “First Person Singular” was thus, no exception to the norm. Regrettably, the newest book by the much acclaimed Japanese writer, containing a collection of short stories narrated in the first person, has left me feeling more dejected than delighted. While “Men Without Women” meditated on the litany of woes plaguing men shorn of the company of women, “First Person Singular” ruminates on the qualitative and literal attributes of a woman’s beauty (or a lack of it to be precise), to a degree, that is condescendingly jarring.
Each story is narrated by a man whose interests range from jazz to baseball. These men also inform their readers about seemingly ‘ordinary’ women whom they have either dated, or met in the past. For example, in “Carnaval”, a man while introducing a woman with whom he was briefly associated in the past, comes up with a disquietingly uncharitable opening. “Of all the women, I’ve known until now, she was the ugliest.” Incidentally, and dispiritingly, he also prefers to address her merely as “F*”, while at the same time scornfully admitting that “her real name had nothing to so with either F or with *.” Immediately after this cringe worthy beginning, the protagonist feebly and almost facetiously attempts to ‘atone’ for this impunity by wading into an agonizing monologue touching upon paradoxical notion of ugliness and beauty in women.
The opening and closing stories of the book commence and conclude with a bang, with a lot of whimpering in between. “The Confessions of a Shinagawa Monkey” deals with an elderly monkey that has an extraordinary gift of talking in the human language. “Employed” in a run down boarding house, the monkey is also not averse to sampling Kirin beer and holding forth on the music of Anton Bruckner and Richard Strauss. This, however, is not the only story where the reader is driven to tedium with elaborate discussions on the technical nuances and intricacies embedded in music. “Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova”, the late American Jazz saxophonist and composer, Charlie “Bird” Parker appears in the dream of the first person narrator and plays the ‘bossa nova’, a type of samba developed in the late 1950s and 1960s in Brazil. As a prelude to this scene, the central character, goes on and on about an imaginary roster of musicians jamming with Charlie Bird Parker in tandem. “Who would have ever imagined an unusual lineup like this – Charlie Parker and Antonio Carlos Jobim joining forces? Jimmy Raney on guitar, Jobim on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Roy Haynes on drums – a dream rhythm section so amazing that it makes your heart pound just hearing the names.” Not that amazing when a poor reader does not possess a fuzzy rodent posterior’s clue on the pioneers and performers of the jazz world.
There are innumerable passages that suddenly segue into long and complicated treatises relating to music and sport. Robert Schumann, Mozart, Nat King Cole, and a plethora of similar musical luminaries waft in and out of stories with irritatingly regular frequencies.
A refreshing departure is “With The Beatles”. The narrator, upon visiting his girlfriend’s house, is invited in by her brother. Upon learning that the girl is not at home, the narrator attempts to leave only to be reigned in by the brother. The narrator is then made to read aloud the concluding portion of Japanese author Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s dark and bleak story “Spinning Wheels”. Immediately after finishing this story, Akutagawa took his own life. “With The Beatles”, personally for me, is one shining light in an otherwise dull and flaccid book.
French writer and feminist, Simone de Beauvoir, at her searing best put gender inequality in its most appropriate context. “Humanity is male, and man defines woman not in herself, but as relative to him; she is not regarded as an autonomous being. He is the Subject, he is the Absolute – she is the Other.’ As a fan of the wonderfully gifted Haruki Murakami, I sincerely hope that he does not subscribe to the radically atrocious view about which de Beauvoir expressed her angst and chagrin.
“First Person Singular” – singularly dampening.