While Wind/Pinball is a Murakami fan’s dream come true, it won’t do much for the casual reader.
If you’re unfamiliar with Haruki Murakami’s work, Wind/Pinball isn’t the best place for you to start. If you’ve given any serious thought to the importance of cats, jazz or vanishing women in Murakami’s novels, then you are in for quite a treat. Wind/Pinball collects Murakami’s first two novels, Hear the Wind Sing (1979) and Pinball, 1973 (1980) into one tiny volume that will delight, bewilder, frustrate and shed light on the beginnings of Murakami’s nearly legendary literary career before even he himself discovered who Haruki Murakami is as a writer.
Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are two terribly elusive novels. You can certainly search for the original English publications, but you’ll either be hard-pressed to find them, or sorely disappointed with the asking price. Murakami himself had even at one point said he would rather not have these two novels reprinted because they can’t offer what he believes is the true experience of his writing. Whether he cracked and wanted to give his readers a window into his former self, or he was offered a big bag of money matters not. Wind/Pinball gives readers that aforementioned glimpse and more.
While introducing these novels in the opening pages of the omnibus, Murakami discusses his decision to write a novel as an idea that simply came to him one day. Reading his reasoning for yourself is far more enchanting and endearing than anything that can be offered here, but he does provide some insight into his influences and early writing processes that can be summed up nicely. In a brief retelling of his initial struggles with his first novel, he reveals that he couldn’t find his voice while writing in Japanese. So, as an experiment, he decided to write a draft in English in order to translate it to Japanese upon its completion. Considering his love for Western writers, specifically Kurt Vonnegut and Raymond Chandler, this fascinating little tidbit sheds some light on how he was able to capture Western writing styles while developing a distinct voice that is a complete amalgam of Japanese culture and Western postmodernism.
Hear the Wind Sing is a short novel that follows an unnamed narrator and his friend the Rat as they drink beer, smoke cigarettes, listen to jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, discuss literature and have some sex with handfuls of women. The novel is rather disjointed. It weaves in and out of a plotless story and quick diatribes on music and books. And even jumps into a random radio broadcast, for whatever reason. Yes, it’s rather strange and seemingly does nothing other than present the cast as feeling somewhat different than they had before the novel began. But the real joy of reading this little book is not for the story, but the ways in which Murakami can create dreamlike, hazy scenes that take place under mundane circumstances—the likes of which his better known novels do so naturally that nothing feels grounded or real, but everything feels familiar. Hear the Wind Sing is clearly a first outing for Murakami. That’s not to say it feels amateur, no. But it just feels incomplete in comparison to his more polished work.
Pinball, 1973 is the spiritual sequel to Wind. And, despite being published merely a year after Murakami’s debut, it is lightyears more focused and mature. Another novel featuring an unnamed narrator, the Rat, jazz music, women and, this time, pinball. Structurally, however, this novel is vastly different from Wind. Chapters are dedicated to the listless Rat struggling to assign reason to anything and everything in the world. Others are focused on the narrator living with a mysterious set of female twins who enter his life as enigmatically as they exit it, as he lives his workaday life as a translator while seeking out a pinball machine he lost his battle with obsession to years earlier. This is a ghost story without ghosts, a coming of age novel centered on regression and the attempt to learn about life and coming away with no answers. It also has a wealth of pinball facts that are more interesting than you could possibly imagine. The novel pulses with magical realism without ever elaborating on the mystical feelings it invokes. Alone, Pinball, 1973 could satisfy a casual reader—not to the extent of say Norwegian Wood (1987) or After Dark (2004)—but, presented together with its predecessor, it holds much more value.
Wind/Pinball’s reading experience shouldn’t be exclusively discussed in literary terms. Murakami himself would champion the idea of this book being viewed through a lens typically reserved for music criticism. It feels very similar to going back through the earliest entries of your favorite band’s catalog to delve into the primordial ooze of where the earliest ideas of their sound originated. Murakami’s apprehension to release these novels is not for nothing. They’re rough, patchy, a tad disjointed. But, despite their flaws, they’re good novels. Really good novels. It seems that Murakami has reached a point in his career where these aren’t just weak early attempts at greatness. They’re the seeds from which he learned to weave magic and reality into a cohesive whole. The more perplexing works of his career—A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) and Dance Dance Dance (1988)—now make more sense—they’re given context. And considering the complexity of those novels, a little context can go a long way.
While Wind/Pinball is a Murakami fan’s dream come true, it won’t do much for the casual reader. This book is a B-side or a love letter to fans. So if you’re strolling through a bookstore and happen across Murakami’s extensive body of work, do yourself a favor and leave this one there for now. It won’t give you what Murakami’s more recent work will. Reading Wind/Pinball out of context may even sway you away from reading further. But circling back to it after you get some other Murakami novels under your belt will be well worth the wait.