Eight stories are told in the first person, with each narrator a man in late middle age who shares interests, such as jazz and baseball, with his author. Only one narrator is given a name: “Haruki Murakami”. Murakami, by his own account, is less interested in creating complex characters than in the interaction his characters have with the world in which he imagines them. Even so, the women in this book are remarkably less complex, less individual, than the men, existing primarily as a pretext for the male characters to find out, or fail to find out, about themselves.
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. In “The Yakult Swallows Poetry Collection”, it is hard not to read “It’s true that life brings us far more defeats than victories” as merely trite. When the situation repeats of the older man, looking back at his youth, surprised by ageing, and having learned very little (an acute enough observation), the reader, too, learns very little, and might begin to conclude that these are tales of the slightly remarkable, which 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 from the last part of Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s final, great short story, “Spinning Wheels”. After this, in a strange act of literary haunting, Murakami’s narrative seems to gather a previously absent depth and power. The language becomes much more acute and vivid, before turning back to the memory of “a lovely girl … the hem of her skirt fluttering”, whom the narrator met once in high school carrying a Beatles album.
There is a point in each story where the narrator scrutinises and judges the attractiveness of a woman or girl with a disquieting urgency and an unexamined sense of entitlement. Such a gaze is never turned on the narrator, and only rarely, and comedically, on the men.
“Carnaval” takes a superficially reflective turn in this mode, commencing with several pages of facile maundering on ugliness and beauty in women: she was “the ugliest woman I ever met”, but maybe that’s what made her “unique”; beautiful women are “constantly tormented” by their “flaws”. The narrator goes on to express surprise that an “ugly” woman can be pleasant, interesting and good company.
The last story is the most taut and unsettling. The narrator meets a woman in a bar, with whom, it transpires, he shares a mutual female friend. She accuses him of a serious, but unnamed, offence against this friend. He is abashed and cannot recall the woman or his actions. He leaves. The world outside has become hostile, bitterly cold, semi-buried in ash, inhabited by slimy snakes and faceless people. In the final line of the book, the narrator recalls her words repeating, in a reproof to him, and perhaps the previous narrators: “You should be ashamed of yourself.” In a collection so dominated by a male point of view, this striking, admonitory tone might be read as the key to the book.