meEight stories are told in the first person, and each narrator is a middle-aged man who shares interests, such as jazz and baseball, with their author. Only one narrator is given a name: “Haruki Murakami”. Murakami, on your own, you are less interested in creating complex characters than in the interaction your characters have with the world you imagine them in. Still, the women in this book are notably less complex, less individual than the men, existing primarily as a pretext for the male characters to find out, or not find out, about themselves.
The joy with the identity of the narrator could be more rewarding, if it weren’t for the lukewarm and unpowered writing stretches. The conversational style can be laid-back and cliche, peppered with reflections on philosophical questions about aging, identity, memory, and what it’s like to know yourself. In “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection,” it is hard not to read “It is true that life brings us many more defeats than victories” as merely trivial. When the situation of the old man is repeated, looking back at his youth, surprised by aging, and having learned very little (a rather acute observation), the reader also learns very little and might begin to conclude that these are tales of him slightly. remarkable, that one would not be tempted to read more than once.
In the second half of “With the Beatles,” the narrator reads aloud to his girlfriend’s brother the last part of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s great final tale, “Spinning Wheels.” After this, in a strange act of literary obsession, Murakami’s narrative seems to take on a depth and power that were previously absent. The language becomes much sharper and more vivid, before returning to the memory of “a lovely girl … the hem of her skirt fluttering,” whom the narrator once met in high school with a Beatles album.
There is a point in every story where the narrator scrutinizes and judges the attractiveness of a woman or girl with unsettling urgency and an unexamined sense of entitlement. Such a look is never directed at the narrator, and only rarely, and comically, at men.
“Carnival” takes a superficially thoughtful turn on this modality, beginning with several pages of easy comments on the ugliness and beauty in women: she was “the ugliest woman I have ever met,” but maybe that’s what made her “only”; beautiful women are “constantly tormented” by their “flaws.” The narrator continues to express surprise that an “ugly” woman can be pleasant, interesting, and good company.
The last story is the most tense and disturbing. The narrator meets a woman in a bar, with whom, it turns out, he shares a mutual friend. She accuses him of a serious but nameless offense against this friend. He is ashamed and cannot remember the woman or her actions. He’s leaving. The outside world has become hostile, terribly cold, half buried in ash, inhabited by slimy snakes and faceless people. In the last line of the book, the narrator remembers his words repeating, in a reproach to him, and perhaps to the previous narrators: “You should be ashamed of yourself.” In a collection so dominated by a masculine point of view, this striking and admonishing tone could be read as the key to the book.
• Darker with the Lights on, by David Hayden, is a Little Island publication. Haruki Murakami’s First Person Singular, translated by Philip Gabriel, is published by Harvill Secker (£ 16.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping charges may apply.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism