The Short Version: Two short novels of a young man in Tokyo, just before and just after college. He and his friend the Rat drink at J’s Bar, have variable luck with women, and ultimately try to figure out what to do with their lives – but that’s a taller order than they anticipated.
The Review: It’s always intriguing, from an anthropological kind of standpoint, to discover a beloved author’s earliest work after you’ve already become familiar with their collected oeuvre. There’s a difference in reading The Bluest Eye first or coming back to it after you’ve read four or five Morrison novels, for example. A few years ago, I dove into Murakami as part of The Ten Year Catch-Up and had just a delightful time – but I discovered that it was, at that point, impossible for me to experience Murakami’s earliest works. The duo of short novels that had been his first works had only been translated into English once and they’d long since been out of print – and so I was particularly excited to see that they were finally coming out again. I knew, from the get-go, that they couldn’t possibly provide the wonders that one has come to ‘expect’ from a Murakami novel – but I wanted to see where the man got his start.
He takes a moment in his foreword to this edition (both the US and UK versions collect the two novels into a single volume) to note how strange it is to be bringing these books back out into the world, so much later in his life and his career. He calls them “irreplaceable, much like friends from long ago”, and the reader can sense his slight discomfort with the idea of these novels, rough and unpolished and not-fully-formed as they are, being in such demand purely because he wrote them. But he acknowledges their importance, certainly, and I don’t think these novels are just for the Murakami completists. In fact, I think they might serve as important a role as the books that we always mention like Norwegian Wood or Kafka on the Shore.
For one thing, they show a novelist-in-development. Murakami is not Haruki Murakami here; he’s just a guy writing and finding his voice. Hear the Wind Sing, in particular, feels more like an author drawing on the influences of his contemporaries than it does someone speaking in their own fully-formed voice. There are echoes of everybody from Vonnegut to Joan Didion in this novel – and yet we also see the early trappings of Murakami Bingo, including a single page that manages to include nearly every possible Murakami trope from jazz records to cooking spaghetti. There’s a joy to be found here in the sheer youthful presence of these things that we now all know well enough to comment on wryly.
Both books also speak to a time that is lost, which might be different for each of us – but the spirit is there, the spirit of looking and trying to figure out how a person has managed to arrive at the particular moment where they find themselves. Hear the Wind Sing operates in the same vein as Less Than Zero: a college student returning home for a break and not quite finding themselves where they thought they would be, but instead recognizing a kind of limbo. Pinball 1973 has a more elliptical story, but the plot (the two characters from Hear the Wind Sing separated, but each drifting through their lives without much agency) wouldn’t seem out of place in a Ben Lerner novel. These are tales not of the fantastic but of the completely mundane. What does it mean to outgrow your hometown, your relationships, your work? Such questions are not new, but they are evergreen in their relevance and I was delighted to see Murakami’s take on them.
From a personal standpoint, I read these two novels over a period of a few days where my girlfriend was out of town – the first time we’ve been apart for more than ~36 hours since moving in together. This book was a perfect companion piece to that time, to the strange discovery that solitude does not quite mean what it used to mean for me. The unnamed narrator of these two tales drifts, looking for companionship but never quite understanding what that pursuit means – and I recognized a sort of historical version of myself in his drifting. Much as Murakami himself recognizes the strangeness of returning to these novels now, when so much has happened in the intervening period of time, I cannot help but recognize a similar strangeness: was that me? How can I reconcile that person with the one I am now? What, exactly, happened in the intervening period? I know that I would not be anything like myself, had I not lived through that stretch of time – and this can be said for any stretch, I suppose – but I find that my self looks back on that time as another country, another universe, a place where things were different from how they are now. As such, I’m not sure that I could’ve found a better substitute companion for a long weekend alone than these two novels.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Hear the Wind Sing is a remarkable debut, even as it clearly shows Murakami testing the waters and discovering what it means to be a writer. Pinball, 1973 is a rather more curious work, one that doesn’t cohere as well as its predecessor and that feels, at times, like drafts of backstory for a future work. Perhaps A Wild Sheep Chase – Murakami’s third novel, the one that he cites as the true beginning of his being an author and the ‘final’ part of the ‘Trilogy of the Rat’ – will be a richer experience knowing what happened here. Or perhaps I won’t need to’ve read these at all, other than for a completist’s sense of a beloved author. But I think that last thought can’t be true: these novels, raw and rough though they may be, are still magical – and whether you’re coming to Murakami for the first time or just looking to fill in the gaps, they’re absolutely worth the read.