Haruki Murakami almost didn’t exist.
That is, international bestselling and prize-winning novelist Haruki Murakami almost didn’t exist. Without the crack of a baseball bat, he might have never written a novel at all. As he notes in the preface of “Wind/Pinball,” a fascinating and insightful look into his career and creative process, the sound of Dave Hilton’s double in a game between the Yakult Swallows and Hiroshima Carp awoke the latent novelist inside him: “In that instant, for no reason and based on no grounds whatsoever, it suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.”
This novel would become “Hear the Wind Sing,” which, strangely enough, he started writing in English. He wrote only one hard copy of his first novella and sent it to Japanese literary journal Gunzo, where they awarded it the Gunzo Literature prize. Without this success, Murakami says he likely would have never written anything else.
Collected with his second novel “Pinball, 1973,” “Hear the Wind Sing” is now widely available in English for the first time in the volume “Wind/Pinball.” Murakami litters his novels with oddities. His narrator dates a nine-fingered girl, has dreams about Trotsky’s reindeer, fucks on top of the Sunday Edition of a newspaper, becomes obsessed with a pinball machine — but fails to gather them into a coherent whole. However, Murakami is not a man to fetishize unity. And his apprentice novellas, like his later work, defy expectations of the realist novel.
“Hear the Wind Sing” practically has no plot. The anonymous narrator and his friend The Rat — and everyone in “Wind/Pinball” who is either nameless or has a nickname — travel through typical collegiate peregrinations of alienation and banality. They spend most of their days trying fastidiously to become alcoholics, engaging in fruitless sexual relationships (one of the narrator’s ex-girlfriends kills herself, and the more successful encounters end in post-coital notes saying, “Asshole”). They also listen to records from the West — name-dropping so many Western ephemera that one forgets the novel takes place in Tokyo — and read classic works of literature.
Murakami’s narrator is perfectly inauthentic and apathetic, interesting only in how uninteresting he is. He’s a Gregor Samsa plagued by an alienation so mundane that he doesn’t even have the benefit of an obscene transcendence. He often speaks in witless cliches, the kind of phrases that any M.F.A. teacher would eradicate. For example: “We were bored out of our skulls,” or “both of us were flat-out wasted,” or “It was a real scorcher of a night.” These inane phrases have the curious effect of simultaneously manifesting narrative voice and flattening it.
“Hear the Wind Sing” embraces its own banality but, like Lennie Small, holds on too tight. When Murakami reaches for moments of dramatic poignancy, he’s left empty handed. It’s difficult enough to affect the emotions of a reader with authentic, realist characters, but when he makes a formal point of wiping away individuation from his characters, it’s impossible. So, when one of the narrator’s girlfriends suffers through the emotional devastation of an abortion, it’s difficult to empathize with her because, imaginatively, she barely exists. His characters suffer in a vacuum. He sucks out their tragedies.
“Pinball, 1973” is a better novel than its predecessor. “Hear the Wind Sing” allowed Murakami to merely wet his feet, but he began to swim in “Pinball, 1973.” The postmodern pyrotechnics he experiments with in his debut start to function properly in his follow-up; they’re not spectacular, but the sparks are unmissable.
Once again, “Pinball, 1973” follows the now-separated narrator and The Rat. The narrator develops an obsession with a three-flipper pinball machine called The Spaceship, also known as “the machine of misfortune.” He works as a translator and lives with two nameless twins who move in with him unexpectedly and are only identified by the numbered sweatshirts they wear.
One can see the scaffold upon which Murakami would build his illustrious career. Most of the pleasure from reading his early novels stems from witnessing a deft writer learn his craft. They will delight devout Murakami fans, but it’s unlikely to give them new companions.