A Sophomore Slump?

In the world of artists, including singers and writers, is an ominous term: sophomore slump. It is a universal truth that readers and listeners set high standards and expectations for writers and singers who have experienced surprisingly stellar debuts. Others fear that after these successful debuts, the performance of these writers and singers will decline. It has since become a tradition for readers and music listeners alike to watch out for the second book, the second album to confirm if they have lived up to the expectation. It is also a form of validation if indeed the writer or the singer is the real deal. It is also because of this reason that while second works are often looked forward to, some pundits don’t put much weight into it, cognizant of the pressures of following up successful debuts.

Meanwhile, Japanese writer Haruki Murakami was seemingly unperturbed by this. In 1979, he made a successful entry into the world of literature with his debut novel, Kaze no uta o kike (風の歌を聴け, Hear the Wind Sing). It was critically acclaimed and an immediate success that marked the rise fo a new literary star. It didn’t take long for the widely popular Murakami to come up with his second work, Sen-Kyūhyaku-Nanajū-San-Nen no Pinbōru (1973年のピンボール), a book he published in 1980, a little over after his successful debut. While it was translated into English as Pinball, 1973 as early as 1985, it took some time before it was distributed to the rest of the world. Had it not been for Murakami’s recent meteoric rise, the book would have not reached as many readers as possible

Like its predecessor, Pinball, 1973 was a first-person point of view narrative by an anonymous character. As the title suggested, the bulk of the book’s action transpired in the year 1973. “My novel begins in September 1973,” the unnamed narrator pronounced. He and his friend founded a small translation company which eventually earned a decent profit. Their agency, however, does not specialize in literary translations, rather, their focus was on professional translations although the manuscripts they received were from a plethora of genres. Their translated works included an article about ball bearings’ resistance to pressure, an essay by William Styron, and a manual on the proper use and maintenance of safety razors.

“The tracks followed a row of hills in a line so straight it looked as if it had been drawn with a ruler. In the distance, like a crumpled piece of paper, I could make out a dark green thicket of trees. The rails gleamed dully in the sun all the way out to that point, then disappeared into the green. It seemed as though the landscape would continue like that for eternity, however far one went. The idea depressed me. If that’s how it was, give me the subway any day.”

~ Haruki Murakami, Pinball, 1973

The translation job was just the tip of the iceberg. It was one strand in a novel where many existed. This is, after all, the Murakami universe where the seemingly mundane transforms into the surreal with brilliant masterstrokes. The narrative takes a sharp turn when the narrator introduced the crux of the novel: his obsession with pinball. It has developed into more than an obsession as it grew into a fascination for the machine itself. This growing fascination eventually led him on a quest for one of the only remaining models of the pinball machine: the three-flipper Spaceship. It was not just an ordinary machine because this machine he set out to search for had some sort of sentimental value. It was the machine that he and his friend generally referred to as The Rat, played with at a bar owned by a man simply named J.

Yes, the presence of The Rat and J was no mere coincidence. Pinball, 1973 was not just Murakami’s sophomore work. A product of his ruminations in his kitchen following an afternoon at the baseball park, it was the second book in what would be now collectively referred to as The Trilogy of the Rat, a trilogy of Murakami’s earlier works mainly connected by tenuous similarities, an enigmatic character in the Rat, and a string of strange occurrences. His first two books, while successful in his native Japan, were not readily available to the anglophone world. Even the author himself was not expecting these books to be published globally. With Murakami’s skyrocketing popularity, these books were eventually made available in an omnibus translation by Professor Ted Goossen of York University.

While the environment and landscape were familiar, Murakami’s second novel had its own distinct completion. It was mainly driven by the heart of the novel, the unnamed narrator. The story was anchored to him as his voice stirred the story. Occasionally interjected into the story is the third person point of view of The Rat but the unnamed narrator remained the heart of the story. The unnamed narrator was the quintessence of a Murakami primary character: male, unnamed, and simply through life. Compared to Murakami’s succeeding works, his obsession with the pinball machine was not as surreal. The domesticity of his preoccupation, however, belied the deeper trenches of the human spirit that the story dived into.

Murakami’s first two books shared similar qualities, the most ostensible of which was their ruminations on love and loss. Both are the coming-of-age stories of two unnamed characters in the second half of 1900s Japan. Pinball, 1973, however, magnified the meaningless of life, with loss and love as subtexts. The main character found himself stuck in a cycle comprised only of his work and going home. Home meant being served by a set of female twins who, in one of the strange occurrences that abounded through the story, suddenly appeared. They stayed with him for months and were subservient to his wishes and desires. They made him coffee, cooked food for him and even bathed with him. Like the main character, they were never named. They also rarely spoke about themselves, as they were merely literary devices that provided sexual tension to the story.

I took a long look at my reflection in the window. My eyes were a bit hollow with fever. I could live with that. And my jaw was dark with five o’clock (five thirty, actually) shadow. I could live with that too. The problem was that the face I saw wasn’t my face at all. It was the face of the twenty-four-year-old guy you sometimes sit across from on the train. My face and my soul were lifeless shells, of no significance to anyone. My soul passes someone else’s on the street. Hey, it says. Hey, the other responds. Nothing more. Neither waves. Neither looks back.

~ Haruki Murakami, Pinball, 1973

On the surface, it was palpable that everything was going in the main character’s way. He had a secure job and he goes home without much to think about. However, this cycle has turned into an ennui. Simple tasks such as drinking and hanging out with your friends, spending time at the bar, and looking at one’s reflection in the mirror have become exhausting. The relationship he forged with the twins was bereft of emotions. Despite him being a participant, he was more of a stranger looking from the outside in. This lack of emotional investment was also palpable in how he looked at his work. His work partner did most of the hard carrying. Essentially a drifter, his fleeting obsession with pinball was a welcome distraction from this pattern of loneliness that has enveloped him.

The novel was brimming with ruminations. With The Rat and the unnamed narrator both outsiders, one of the most prominent ruminations was on finding the meaning of living. At one point, the unnamed narrator started asking himself: “Would I ever find a place that was truly mine? Where might it be? I thought and thought, yet all that came to me was the cockpit of a twin-seater torpedo plane. But that was sheer idiocy. I mean, those things went out of date thirty years ago, right?” Meanwhile, The Rat’s struggles with his own life continued. Both characters were living a reclusive existence, one that had no directions; both were feeling empty.

Through flashbacks, the unnamed narrator reflected on the source of his reclusive existence and the emptiness that has enveloped him. It primarily revolved around his relationship with his former girlfriend Naoko. Her sudden demise has greatly and adversely affected him. His quest for the pinball machine was him coming into terms with himself and his past. The pinball machine then takes the form of an allegory for lost love. His flashbacks also touched base with the Japanese university protests of the late 1960s. By traveling to the past, he was subconsciously trying to connect and comprehend the actions of others back then. History was a recurring theme, with a short discussion on the history of the pinball woven into the story.

Like Murakami’s debut novel, Pinball, 1973 had a thin plot. The rich layering of the plots of his succeeding novels was a skill he honed over time. But while his debut novella, Hear the Wind Sing, birthed several inchoate ideas, his storytelling took a firmer shape in Murakami’s second book. The novel’s plot was slender but it took a firmer shape compared to the nonexistent plot of Murakami’s debut book. Reading his first two novels, a literary completist will gain an insight into the evolution of Murakami’s prose. Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, while not as complete as his succeeding works, were integral in understanding Murakami’s corpus.

“On any given day, something can come along and steal our hearts. It may be any old thing: a rosebud, a lost cap, a favorite sweater from childhood, an old Gene Pitney record. A miscellany of trivia with no home to call their own. Lingering for two or three days, that something soon disappears, returning to the darkness. There are wells, deep wells, dug in our hearts. Birds fly over them.”

~ Haruki Murakami, Pinball, 1973

What made Murakami’s first two books integral was their exploration of elements that would lay the foundations of Murakami’s entire body of work. This includes the recurring themes of loss, love, and sexual overtones. The novel contained Murakami’s fascination for music, particularly jazz. It is an element that is synonymous with his works. Stan Getz, a popular American jazz saxophonist was mentioned in the story. In the book’s latter pages, the protagonist played The Beatles’ album, Rubber Soul. The second track of the album was Norwegian Wood, which would be the title of Murakami’s breakthrough novel. The idiosyncrasy of Murakami’s prose was evident in the book. In one part, there was a discourse on the abuse of a cat. Cats are ubiquitous in Murakami’s universe, particularly in Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Another trademark of his work was the underdeveloped female characters, one that many a reader find a contentious element of his work.

Like Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball, 1973 was not a perfect work. It had underdeveloped characters and a thin plot but it was a fundamental work in understanding the evolution of Murakami’s whimsical universe. His first two novels set the tone for his succeeding works, from thin plots to richly layered plots, from one-dimensional characters to complex characters, and from short works to full-length narratives. Beyond the trademarks of Murakami’s fiction, both books stand out on their own. They were the stories of unnamed male characters who were drifting through life, lost, empty, and alone. The books’ philosophical intersections grappled with the very meaning of existence. In their midst is The Rat, equally enigmatic, equally struggling. In Pinball, 1973 and Hear the Wind Sing, we witness the humble beginnings of a writer that would take the world by storm.

The hum of pinball machines had vanished from my life. Ditto the thoughts with no place to go. There would be no Knights of the Round Table – like grand finale, of course. That was still far away. From now on, I vowed, when my horse was exhausted, my sword broken, and my armor rusty, I would lay myself down in a meadow of green foxtail and listen to the wind. I would follow the path I should follow wherever it took me, whether that be the bottom of a reservoir or a chicken plant’s refrigerated warehouse.

~ Haruki Murakami, Pinball, 1973
Ratings

64%

Characters (30%) – 19%
Plot (30%) – 
17%
Writing (25%) – 
18%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
10%

A Japanese literature month is definitely not complete without one book from one of its most popular writers, Haruki Murakami. He was a writer I discovered through a friend’s recommendation. It was sheer curiosity that made me immerse myself in his works. It did take a while to acclimate myself to his universe for he does have a different literary universe. I can still vividly recall the confusion and the quandaries I found myself in while reading my first novels by Murakami. Still, it was this curiosity that drove me to read more of his works, to satisfy perhaps my competitive and completist spirit. This eventually led me to his first two works. For a newbie, these two books would be akin to being splashed with a cold bucket of water. These books established the tempo of Murakami’s later works and I am still glad I read them. After all, they are quick reads than his more substantial and complex works. These books, nevertheless, filled me in with my dose of Murakami novels.

Book Specs

Author: Kenzaburō Ōe
Translator (from Japanese): Ted Goossen
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: May 2016
Number of Pages: 132
Genre: Magical Realism

Synopsis

Pinball, 1973 is the second novel by Haruki Murakami. Written at his kitchen table in the hours before dawn, this intoxicating short work – a wonderfully strange story of alienation, infatuation, and obsession – helped launch the career of one of the most acclaimed authors of our time.

Set three years after Hear the Wind Sing, Pinball, 1973 finds our unnamed narrator living in Tokyo with identical, indistinguishable twin sisters. Listless and unsatisfied, he renews his old fascination with pinball and embarks on a quest to locate the legendary pinball machine he’d played on at J’s Bar years before: the three-flipper Spaceship.

A mind-bending work that showcases all the qualities of Murakami’s later books, Pinball, 1973 is an electrifying tale by one of our most essential writers.

About the Author

To know more about widely popular Japanese writer Haruki Murakami (村上 春樹), click here.