Anytime I pick up a book by Haruki Murakami, I immediately accept the fact that there are some things about it that I am just not going to understand. And even though Wind/Pinball was first published in his early years, and contains his first two attempts at writing, the same rules apply and I still found myself embracing the confusion and enjoying the simple dialogue and wonderful descriptions.
The Situation: The narrator and his friend, only known as the Rat, spend a considerable amount of time at J's bar, drinking bear and smoking cigarettes. At least that is how it goes in the first story, Hear the Wind Sing. In Pinball, 1973, the narrator no longer hangs around J's bar, and even has a steady job making decent money for the first time in his life. The Rat, however, is still hanging around J's bar, and doesn't seem to do much else.
The Problem: From the outside, both men live fairly normal, average, middle of the road existences. But they are also both incredibly lonely, despite having people in their lives; and seem to lack either focus or purpose to do anything meaningful. In Pinball, the narrator has managed to move past spending all of his time in J's bar drinking beer. Now working as a translator, he has his own place, which he shares with twins, and simply lives his life. Meanwhile, the Rat is still in J's bar, and cannot seem to make himself move forward, despite his apparent inner resolve to do so. The two men are restless in a way that cause them to not actually do anything about it. Eventually, the narrator manages to track down an old pinball machine that he and the Rat used to play at J's bar. His obsession with finding the machine puts him on a quest that seems to give his life new meaning, if only temporarily, while the Rat continues to struggle with finding any motivation to do much of anything.
Genre, Themes, History: Wind/Pinball is really two novellas, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, put together under one title. Together they may up two-thirds of the trilogy of the Rat, with A Wild Sheep Chase as the third, and Dance Dance Dance makes a fourth. They are what Murakami call his kitchen-table fiction as he sat down at his kitchen table one day to write them after having a strange revelation that writing may be something he would like to do. In both stories it is easy to see elements of the Murakami-style of writing his fans have gotten used to reading. There is the lonely young man, or in the case of these books there are two of them, making a decent enough living but not exactly satisfied with the life they have created for themselves. There are mysterious women who the narrator does not know much about, and manage to exit his life just as quickly and easily as they enter it. There is an obsession that moves much of the story along and becomes a problem that the lonely young man has to solve, if only for himself. Many of the characters are nameless, or they have names such as the Rat and J. And there is even a cat. It isn't there for very long, nor is it at all important to the plot (I don't think), but it is there.
My Verdict: Once again, I will reiterate that there is a very real possibility that parts of both of these stories were completely over my head. When it comes to a Murakami story I am inclined to just enjoy the ride. But usually, the ride is a little more fun and not quite so dull. With 1Q84 and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I enjoyed the rise a great deal despite my confusion. There was mystery, there was adventure, and there was danger. While Wind/Pinball isn't without its interesting and fun moments, I found most of it to be pretty boring, and that is really saying something as the book is only a little over 200 pages. It is an interesting look into the beginnings of a great writer, but I am certainly ready to move forward to A Wild Sheep Chase, if only to see if this story eventually goes anywhere.
Favorite Moment: When the narrator flips the switch that allows 78 pinball machines, all lined up in a warehouse, to come to life all at once.
Favorite Character: The most constant character that does not seem to be moping around throughout either story is J. He is the bartender who serves up beer and french fries to his patrons while listening to their general complaints about life.
Recommended Reading: For a better introduction into Murakami, I recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. There is more story, better characters, and a better sense of just what kind of world Murakami is capable to making up.