Book review: Murakami has nothing to be embarrassed about in Wind/Pinball

Shannon Pulusan

Graphic by Caitlyn Broyles
Graphic by Caitlyn Broyles

Each day was a carbon copy of the last. You needed a bookmark to tell one from the other.

(Pinball, 1973, Haruki Murakami)

An author’s first work is revered as a milestone, a beginning and a point of reference in a career. It is an author’s first attempt to make a name in the literary scene. It is their debut, and in most cases can be pardoned for some novice mistakes. For Haruki Murakami, the international best-selling contemporary author, his very first novel Hear the Wind Sing was written on a personal whim. Outlined in the book’s introduction “The Birth of My Kitchen-Table Fiction,” Murakami shares the key moments that made him the novelist he is today. Having no background or known talent in writing, the then twenty-nine-year-old Murakami wanted to cross ‘To Write A Novel’ off his bucket list, and that he did. His manuscript was awarded the Gunzo Literature Prize, which solidified Murakami’s intention of becoming a full-time novelist. Despite the book’s success, Hear the Wind Sing’s distribution had been limited to Japan by request of the author up until recently. Finally lifting that appeal, Murakami has made himself vulnerable to international readers with a compilation of his first two novels in Wind/Pinball: Two Novels, and judging by the quality of his work, the experimental author has nothing to totally be ashamed of.

The two short novels follow a nameless protagonist who is conventional in his life choices and struggling to write this story. In Hear the Wind Sing, he is a college student visiting his seafaring hometown for summer break. The nameless protagonist and his college dropout friend, the Rat, spend most of their time at the local J’s Bar going through rounds of beer and packs of cigarettes. The two philosophize about life, possible endings for imaginary novels and why rich people are the worst. Throughout Hear the Wind Sing, the nameless character recalls childhood therapy sessions and women from past romances. He becomes involved with a girl he nursed one drunken night, receives a mysterious phone call from a radio DJ and buys new vinyl records. When the summer comes to an end, he returns to Tokyo to never see the girl again or uncover the strange phone call’s purpose. Everything in his life is essentially fleeting.

Pinball, 1973 expands on the separate fates of the nameless protagonist and the Rat. After graduation, the nameless character takes a job at a translations firm and comes home to a pair of twins. The Rat falls in love with a girl who bought his old typewriter and he maintains the daily visit to J’s Bar and itches for a chance to move on from his life’s crippling cycle. Among the quirky scenes—conversing with aliens and holding funerals for inanimate objects–the novel focuses on the protagonist’s search for his favorite pinball machine. Upon reuniting with the beloved Spaceship machine that held his all-time high score, the nameless protagonist receives, more or less, a sense of closure to move forward and resolve his loneliness.

From the two early works, Murakami proves that he has always been consistent in both concept and voice. Murakami readers expect a protagonist lacking motivation or personality; someone who places the tales and nuances of their company over their own. The nameless protagonist is a listener; he is the ear in a conversation. As the supposed writer of these two novels—and the third installment A Wild Sheep Chase–the protagonist structures his and the Rat’s life stories in a series of vignettes that jump back and forth between the two friends. Arguably, these two short novels stray from a traditional plot and are structured to mimic how people come and go. Aside from the Rat, the protagonist and the bartender, the other characters seem to fade into history. This is Murakami being Murakami, with his prevalent motif of the disappearing girl act and how those ephemeral encounters shape the life of a vanilla character. Murakami also bombards the narrative with cultural references that fulfill the setting and time period. Though name-dropping doesn’t always succeed in Murakami’s other works, the details in his two first novels seem deliberate to the narrative. Most importantly, in Wind/Pinball, Murakami expands on characters’ consumption of media by supplementing actual cultural references with fictional references. In Hear the Wind Sing, Murakami crafts an entire career and bibliography for a make-believe writer named Derek Hartfield. Similarly in Pinball, 1973, he cites an imaginary essay on the essence of pinball. These sections may as well be the most compelling parts of the two novels, carrying a realism that convinces readers that these allusions exist beyond the work.

However, Wind/Pinball isn’t bulletproof, as the two novels exhibit unexplained inconsistencies in narrative and questionable style choices. Certainly young Murakami shied away from implementing chapters, resorting to choppy section breaks that, for the most part, disturb the narrative flow. There are also instances where “?” is an actual response in dialogue—call it juvenile or a shortcut to explaining a character’s confusion. Predominantly in Pinball, 1973, Murakami attempts to casually implement sci-fi into the narrative’s norm, for no reason at all but perhaps a sense of otherness. This handling of otherness blemishes the narrative–to have a friend from Saturn like it’s no big deal reads as a cheap shock factor. The same goes for the one random illustration and the unbelievable characters within the story—it’s trying really hard to be off-the-wall.

But like many of Murakami’s novels, the redeeming strengths lie in the theme of handling loneliness—a classic Murakami theme indeed. The nameless protagonist and the Rat question life’s purpose and uphold an almost nihilistic perspective. Far from Albert Camus’ existentialism, the two friends romanticize the boundlessness of loneliness as well as their displacement. They hold onto the potential to be in love with whomever or whatever for a little while as a means of distraction. In other words, for the time being these fixations allow for a false motivation to wake up in the morning, and less boredom. With this said, Murakami has made the game of pinball profound as “the whole aim of the game is to achieve a form of eternity.” His characters try to dodge death or rather numb the fear of death by getting by with their records, books, pinball machines and aspirations to write a novel. Unfortunately, this approach to easing isolation isn’t as captivating as later Murakami’s deftness in incorporating magical realism into the plot.

All in all, Wind/Pinball: Two Novels establishes the beginnings of Haruki Murakami as a novelist with creative muscle. The long awaited distribution may have been done as a well-timed sales decision, but the books were worth the wait considering they read like 2015 Murakami. From what readers know about the Japanese author during the novels’ conception, the nameless character surely shares many characteristics with Murakami: both are writers struggling to find the words, both spend a lot of time at bars and both own an extensive collection of vinyl records. These autobiographical details and the open distribution of the book itself complete the image of the best-selling author, adding another title to readers’ collection. But once again—and as expected—Murakami keeps loneliness unresolved, paving the way for future novels or permutations of the nameless protagonist seeking ways to fill the void. It’s what he does well.

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