Today a household name on both sides of the Pacific, Japanese literary giant Haruki Murakami launched his smooth ascent to global renown with two novels — “Hear the Wind Sing” and “Pinball, 1973” — written on a whim.
In an introduction to “Wind/Pinball,” Knopf’s new English translation of his first two novels, Murakami describes his moment of writerly enlightenment at a baseball game: “In that instant, for no reason and based on no grounds whatsoever, it suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.” This nonchalance permeates the pages of “Wind/Pinball,” a meandering narrative that puzzles and pulls at readers in turn with its cast of lost boys: an unnamed narrator and his enigmatic best friend, the Rat, who star in parallel coming-of-age stories.
Though rough around the edges, “Wind/Pinball” is a sympathetic work that reads almost like a memoir. Fragments of story follow the existence of an ordinary protagonist caught in the transition between boy and man, and between adolescent fantasy and young adulthood. Numbered episodes in his life span from college romances to a first job to — in a dash of Murakami’s signature magical realism — a sleuth-like search around the world for a mysterious pinball machine.
For two lonely young men, pinball transforms from distraction to fixation. The game becomes a metaphor for addiction and loss. At the same time, Murakami runs the gamut of manic pixie dream girls, who break up the narrative arc. True to form, they wander into the plot at their leisure, only to leave heartbreak in their wake.
“The world awaiting him out there was just too big, too powerful; there seemed to be no place where he could burrow into it,” Murakami writes, his early prose echoing a sentiment that resonates with every generation’s youth. Replete with realistic scenes that encapsulate the early-to-mid-20s experience, “Wind/Pinball” follows two adrift and infuriatingly passive young men as they run and wreck their lives.
“Wind/Pinball” is a playful introduction to Murakami’s inventive style, tropes and all, shuttling the reader back and forth among characters’ observations of others, literary scaffolding (think excerpts from odes to pinball and science fiction shorts) and pockets of intimate self-reflection. Readers are taken on a freewheeling journey through record stores, bars, offices and apartments. Characters come together seemingly at random, sharing flickers of mutual understanding — call it love, call it friendship — before being pulled apart by forces greater than the individual.
Like objects floating in space, Murakami’s characters collide and then disperse, watching one another from afar. Take the narrator, who looks in on the directionless behavior of the Rat, hardly bats an eye at the nameless identical twins who turn up in his bed, holds an impromptu funeral for a switchboard and, in a bewildering turn of events, finds himself lost and pinball-obsessed. He seems resigned to the confusing medley of events that make up adulthood. His existence seems to say, “It’s OK to be unsure of yourself.”
Without a doubt, Murakami’s unapologetic characters speak for themselves. As such, it’s rare that he leans on lofty sentence constructions to make his prose shine, though the occasional overused metaphor falls flat. His early work bears distinct markers of the style for which he would come to be recognized: lucid, unaffected language pared down to the essentials; dreamy, surrealistic scenes of fantasy and wonder; and a penchant for homing in on the absurd as a way to acknowledge the improbable in the everyday.
The dual stories told in “Wind/Pinball” exude a relaxed quality absent in Murakami’s mature novels. Certainly “Wind/Pinball” features themes more juvenile than those of his later works, but as the beginning of an expansive oeuvre, the novel sets the groundwork for Murakami’s philosophical contemplations on time, memory and personal responsibility. With a funhouse twist, the casual adventures of “Wind/Pinball” impart a self-aware honesty that will serve as inspiration for any aspiring writer while acting as mirrors to the emotional landscapes of our lives.