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Book Review: Pinball, 1973, by Haruki Murakami (1980)

Wind/Pinball: Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 (Two Novels) (Vintage  International): Murakami, Haruki, Goossen, Ted: 9780804170147:  Books

I am working my way chronologically through Haruki Murakami's catalog. Pinball, 1973 is his second novel, published in 1980...

In the Wikipedia entry about Pinball, 1973 (yes, we here at The Grant Catton Blog always do at least 15 seconds of research before every post) it says that Haruki Murakami never even intended his first two books -- Hear the Wind Sing, and this one -- to be published outside Japan and they were, in fact, extremely difficult to get a hold of until 2009 when they were re-printed. I can completely understand why: both books are amateurish, self-indulgent, and virtually plotless (those could actually be thought of as synonyms). But, there is a significant jump in quality from Hear the Wind Sing to Pinball, 1973

Pinball, 1973 is a continuation of the story from Hear the Wind Sing which mainly involves a character called The Rat and entails a lot of sitting around bars; however, there is (at the very least) the addition of two interesting elements that work to drive this book a bit better than Hear the Wind Sing, which had almost no plot at all. For one, the main character in Pinball, 1973 is obsessed with pinball, leading him ultimately to search for one of the only remaining models of his favorite machine from 10 years before. Secondly, one day he wakes up with two beautiful twins in his bed, and they live with him for a few months, providing -- if nothing else -- some interesting sexual undertones and also a sort of mirror to reflect back some perspective on the narrator. 

This project of reading chronologically through all of Haruki Murakami's books is -- at this point (and no telling how far I'll actually get) -- somewhat an anthropological study. Maybe you'd call it "literary anthropology." I am not reading these purely for entertainment so much as to gain a deeper understanding of Haruki Murakami's work because, although I love it, the reasons why I love it remain a mystery even to me. There is that irresistibly intriguing "but what does it all mean" quality to Murakami's writing, and although it might not be possible, I seek to come as close as I can to some kind of an answer. 

So what does Pinball, 1973 do to augment that understanding? Not a whole hell of a lot except that we do start to see some themes emerge which, having read some of Murakami's more recent stuff, I know persist throughout his entire 40-plus year career as a novelist. Themes like nostalgia, loneliness, obsession with one thing that leads to a quest involving strange characters, simple characters who live alone, smoke a lot, and try to write books, and the power of memory -- particularly traumatic memory -- over our daily lives. Also, Murakami loves to have people show up in his books for no apparent reasons (such as the twins in Pinball, 1973) and hang around for no apparent reasons other than to provide the lonely main character someone to talk to, or add some color to the narrative. Hey...why not?

But even deeper than that, in Pinball, 1973 just like in Hear the Wind Sing, what you do start to see, even through the directionless and indistinct plot, is the young Murakami doing what novelists are supposed to do in addition to entertain: use the characters or the narrative to offer at least some relatable observations or wisdom relating to the human experience. These two early novels are shot-through with just a couple of these kinds of "deep" moments, but they're enough to see that maybe Murakami was not as concerned with plot because he was trying to get to these kinds of moments of wisdom or perspective...

"I was born under a strange star. Like I've always been able to get whatever I want. But each time something new comes into my hands, I trample something one believes me, but it's the truth. It hit me about three years ago. So I decided. Not to want anything anymore."

She shook her head. "And you plan to live like that forever?"

"Probably. Then I won't hurt anyone."

"In that case," she said. "You ought to live in a shoebox." 

If these kinds of passages resonate with you at all, and you are interested in Haruki Murakami, then I would suggest picking up Hear the Wind Sing / Pinball, 1973 which are sold as one book (both books are very short) in a really cool edition by Vintage Books (cover pictured). The two books printed "end-to-end" so that when you get to the last page of one, you see the last page of the other book upside down and you have to flip the book over in order to start on the next one (I think this is a Japanese thing). Otherwise, I can't in good conscience and unequivocally recommend either of these books. Not in a time when most people (even self-professed "big readers") struggle to find time to read amidst the myriad other forms of entertainment available today and we must choose our books carefully. 

The only way you'll likely ever "get around to" reading Hear the Wind Sing / Pinball, 1973 is if -- like me -- you undertake literary quests or if, sometime, you are trapped at my house and the internet is not working and you pick up the book and say, "Hmmm, might as well give this a try," and sink into it for a few hours. I feel like this book was written during a time when people did just that -- picked up books purely for entertainment and a way to pass the time -- and so (somewhat ironically) the author knew they had a bit more of a "captive audience." For that reason I think the young Haruki Murakami can be forgiven (and I'm sure he's been just waiting on me to forgive him) for writing these short, rambling novels without much structure or plot engine. I am glad I visited these lands, but I am also glad to move on to A Wild Sheep Chase...