The Illusionist as a Young Man: Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami

In April of 1978, Haruki Murakami went to a baseball game that would change his life forever. The facts of this story, like the preparations surrounding any stage illusion, are very specific. The story goes that during the first inning of the game, at the moment an American player, Dave Hilton, hit a double for the Yakult Swallows, “for no reason and based on no grounds whatsoever,” it struck Haruki Murakami that he could write a novel. This thought had not occurred to him before. He was 29 years old.

On his way home from the stadium, Murakami purchased some writing supplies, and, that very night, he began work on his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing. He produced a draft in four months, working at his kitchen table. When he finished, he sent the only handwritten copy of his manuscript to the Japanese magazine Gunzo, where, a little over a year after that baseball game, Murakami won a major literary contest, launching his career as a writer of fiction.

This year, for the first time in decades, a new English translation of Murakami’s first two short novels, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball 1973, will be back in print as a single volume simply titled, Wind/Pinball. In the new introduction, Murakami reveals never-before-told details about his beginning as a young and inexperienced writer. But frustratingly, these facts tell little about the man himself, and Murakami’s explanations only lead to more questions. This should have come as no surprise; after consuming fifteen of his books (including his memoir) and reading all of his published interviews, Haruki Murakami’s basic existence continues to baffle me — and I assume I am not alone here. While he is for the most part forthcoming about himself to the media, something about him feels distant and otherworldly. Who is he? Not even Murakami himself seems to have a satisfying answer.

Very few writers have an origin story as mysterious or compelling as Murakami. Being a great writer traditionally takes a lot of hard work and planning. Take Martin Amis, for example. Amis was, like Murakami, born in 1949; Amis did extremely well in school, went to work for the Times Literary Supplement, published his first book by the time he was 24 and, despite his father’s long shadow, reached international fame by the time he turned 35. Another example, T.C. Boyle, who is a year older than Murakami: Boyle graduated with a history degree, got his MFA in 1974 from the University of Iowa and followed that degree with a PhD in 1977 (also from Iowa). He published his first collection of short stories at the age of 31.

My point here is that, like most great writers, Amis and Boyle would seem to have come to their success honestly and gradually — by being talented, by working hard and by making a series of well considered decisions. Lots of other writers do the same and yet, for whatever reason, their work never become famous or financially solvent. Success, for writers — to speak broadly — is often slow and nearly always uncertain. Murakami’s success was not slow, and, according to Murakami at least, it was not uncertain. In the introduction to Wind/Pinball, Murakami writes that the morning after he discovered Hear the Wind Sing had been chosen as a finalist, he went for a walk with his wife. Along the way, as he was in the process of rescuing a passenger pigeon with a broken wing (another baffling detail), a realization again hit him: “I was going to win the prize. And I was going to become a novelist who would enjoy some degree of success.” For Murakami, this logic defying certainly was a natural truth. But how he came to this understanding remains a mystery.

The story gets even more improbable: According to Murakami, Gunzo did not, as a practice, return rejected manuscripts. So, if Murakami had not won the very first literary contest he had ever entered, the only copy of his novel would have been lost, and by his own admission: “I never would have written another.”

Something here stinks of apocrypha. The story feels too neat, too convenient. As much as I want to believe it, the cynic in me rises up, but it makes no difference whether Murakami’s origin story is as he presents it, or if it is, like his books, a carefully crafted illusion. What matters is that his story fits his fiction in a way that is undeniable — his life resembles his stories, and he resembles his characters. Haruki Murakami is the mysterious cosmic wanderer of his own fictions, blessed by circumstance and guided by magic. Whether you buy the origin story or not, it seems fitting that author and character should walk in step.

Whenever Murakami releases a new book, it has become a tradition to compare it with his other works — to search for clues, draw parallels, and cook up parodies. Anyone who played the New York Times’ interactive Murakami bingo last year will know what I mean.

As readers, it is nice to see something familiar and consistent in an author’s new work, but reading Murakami this way, we can end up reading ourselves in a kind of bland Murakami infinity loop, where all the men cook “simple meals,” all the women are precocious and magical and all the elephants just disappear. It’s all in good fun, up to a point I suppose. And if you are reading Wind/Pinball, hoping for the phone to suddenly ring, don’t worry, it does.

It is also worth remembering that Wind/Pinball, like each of Murakami’s books, is a singular work — actually two singular works in this case. Both novels are worthy of appreciation on their own terms, and they do not need to be forced into an awkward conversation with Murakami’s other books to be enjoyed. As one character points out in Hear the Wind Sing: “What would be the point of writing a novel about things everyone already knows?”

What sets these novels apart from Murakami’s later, longer titles is the manic quality of the pacing and the speed with which Murakami moves through dialogue, dreams, memories, anecdotes, and stories–within-stories. These components fade, resolve and bang against one another rapidly, only to fly off somewhere, never to be mentioned again. Particularly in Pinball, this is the case — possibly a purposeful stylistic choice, intended to mirror the title’s image, or, possibly, these are the marks of a young writer struggling to control a narrative. Regardless of the cause, the final effect is electric. Murakami uses white space like Raymond Carver, and, in general, Murakami’s literary influences (American noir particularly) loom a little larger in both Wind and Pinball than they do in his later works.

At times, these short novels feel more like linked collections of flash fiction (a term that didn’t exist in 1978) than they do novels. And while the restlessness of the narrative might frustrate some readers, I have always preferred Murakami in shorter, more concentrated doses. Murakami’s shorter works, like the stories in After the Quake or The Elephant Vanishes, seem more attentive to sentence-level detail, to paragraph structure, and are more prone to surprising lyrical twists. I have always thought of Murakami as a prose stylist, and while many people disagree with me — some complain about his clichés, some blame his translators — I would say, here, particularly because of the delicate nature of these novels, Murakami succeeds on the sentence-level. While I can’t speak to the accuracy of Ted Goossen’s translation, what’s on the page ranks with Murakami’s strongest prose.

In an odd turn, near the end of Pinball 1973, the story’s protagonist delivers a eulogy to a piece of electronic equipment, his dead telephone switch panel. He begins by quoting Kant:

“The obligation of philosophy…is to dispel all illusions borne of misunderstanding…Rest in peace, ye switch panel, at the bottom of this reservoir.”

I picked up Wind/Pinball, hoping to dispel the illusion of Murakami with some good, old-fashioned intellectual commentary. I wanted to “get to the bottom” of him — whatever that meant. Often an author’s first works are awkward and revealing, like high school yearbook photos. I wanted to look at these novels and find a new Murakami, someone a little more fallible, someone I could understand.

Certainly, these novels are a bit rougher than Murakami’s more recent works. Like a cartoonist’s early sketches, the form is complete, but less polished, the hand less sure. But, for me, these novels don’t solve the underlying mystery of Murakami. And they only enhance the illusion he weaves around himself. Who begins a writing career “for no reason and based on no grounds whatsoever?” How does a man apparently so guileless and straightforward produce fictional worlds that, for so many people, describe the impossible experience of being alive? I read the book, and I still don’t know.

I would submit, however, that, at least in this case, Kant is wrong. There is nothing to be gained by dispelling Murakami’s illusions, by digging deeper into his origins or by looking for the imperfections in his fictional worlds. On the contrary, the joy of reading Murakami has always been the joy of being hypnotized by a master. For that to happen, both writer and reader must choose to embrace the illusion together. The two short novels in Wind/Pinball are more than a sample Murakami’s early work — these short works are among Murakami’s most carefully crafted offerings, full of raw talent, energy and magic, and totally worth getting lost in.

Wind/Pinball: Two Novels

by Haruki Murakami

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