When great authors are not that great

Publishing is a seasonal job. Everything big and noteworthy gets crammed into fall, leaving summer slow and slim on new releases. This summer has been particularly sluggish, judging by the slew of unpublished/posthumous/discovered books publishers threw in our direction in the past couple of months: Harper Lee, Dr. Seuss, Shirley Jackson, Ayn Rand, a bunch of grumpy Bukowski’s writings. The only previously unseen title that seems to be getting great reviews is Clarice Lispector’s complete short stories. The rest of them might as well have been left in the archives.

windpinballI briefly succumbed to the previously unpublished manuscripts reading frenzy and finished Wind/Pinball, which contains the first two novels Haruki Murakami wrote in 1978 at his kitchen table (Hear The Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973). I like Murakami. He is great. I don’t love everything he has written, but there has never been a falling out between us. That said, those two first works? They are not that great. They are obviously novels by an author learning to talk about people’s internal lives, learning how to make a story. It even seems he is less concerned with the story itself, particularly in the second novel, which jumps around from Saturn and Venus to train stations to abandoned fishing villages. There is some good material in both of these to make a few neat short stories, but as novels they just don’t work.

Murakami seems to be writing for himself (which is what you should do anyway, according to Stephen King), and he doesn’t seem confident that he can pull it off. Both novels are meta to an extent. The first one mentions a not particularly good writer. The second one is permeated with a certain lack of self-confidence and doubt: ‘I still couldn’t get a handle on how to deal with myself’.

And yet there is something appealing in these two short works, something that makes you stay with them even though they feel very unpolished, meandering, not done. There are seeds of later, familiar Murakami in them — references to music, certain oddness, unreal being presented as ordinary, ordinary as unreal. They are also quite inspirational. By being not particularly brilliant or polished, they convince you that you too could sit down at your kitchen table and write a novel.


  1. I recently purchased Wind/Pinball for some vacation reading. I knew full well that when I bought this volume I would not be getting the Murakami that I’ve grown to love. I expected something a little more crude or raw. Your post pretty much confirms my suspicions. Nonetheless, I can’t wait to dig in. Great post!

    1. FWIW, I’ve read some good reviews. I think I liked the first novel better than the second one. My Murakami experience is in general uneven.

      1. I’ve only had positive experience thus far, but I’ve only read 5 of his novels. So my opinion will have to wait for just a little while longer.

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