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Book Review (Part II): 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1Q84 (Vintage International): Haruki Murakami, Jay Rubin, Philip ...

Sorry, but I have to come back to 1Q84 for  moment. I feel like a 1200 page novel deserves a better review than what I gave it in my last entry. It's just really difficult to get a handle on why I enjoyed this bizarre novel enough to stay with it for the hours and hours it took to finish it. I haven't even read War and Peace or The Count of Monte Cristo because the sheer volume (the sheer weight) of those books makes my spine shiver. And yet...I read a novel at least as long as those by a 21st century Japanese writer whose novels -- 10 years ago -- I could barely stand. Why?

First of all, it's something about "mood." From the very opening pages of the book, Murakami creates an eerie feel. He has a way of tapping into the weirdness of every day life, and staying with it, giving the reader just enough information to be intrigued, but not enough so you can see where the story is headed. The opening scene, for example, takes place on a heavily jammed Toyko highway overpass in the late afternoon, and we watch as our first main character, Aomame, gets out of a cab -- in the middle of the traffic jam -- and climbs down a utility staircase on the side of the highway. Not in-and-of-itself such a weird scenario, but we've all been stuck in traffic jams, staring at the median strip, or the access points on the side of the road, wondering where they lead, etc. Murakami goes there. Or rather, he takes us there, and shows us what the results could be like in our imaginations, not what would actually happen.

Secondly, it's the way Murakami plays with memory and nostalgia. The other main character, Tengo, has a memory from his childhood that he replays over, and over, and over. It's of his mother kissing a man that was not his father, as he himself -- as a baby -- watches from a nearby crib. Since it's his first memory, he replays it over and over to himself throughout his life -- even on a daily basis -- trying to understand it and the mystery it contains. Since his mother died when he was a kid, he can never know what the memory means. Was that man actually his father, and the man who raised him just a surrogate? Or, has the memory been distorted in some way so he just thinks it was a different man? Did the memory even happen at all? The memory haunts him, and even ultimately has implications on the plot of the book. We all live with this kind of uncertainty, about our past and even about the present. And while we don't all have first memories quite this salacious, we all have memories, even daily incidents, that we turn over and over in our heads, trying to make meaning of them. And for some reason it's irresistibly intriguing to watch a character do this.

Thirdly, it's the way Murakami gets inside each of the character's heads. It's funny, because I disliked the novel Anna Karenina for exactly the same reason. It seemed way, way too obsessed with what each character was thinking about every little detail of their world. Somehow, maybe by focusing on a different character for each chapter, Murakami makes this technique work. Also, there is a strong, driving, mysterious plot that helps make this more tolerable. Whereas -- as I recall, at least -- Anna Karenina is a bit more of a domestic, drawing-room, soap-opera type drama; a type of book I'm not super into. Something about watching Murakami's characters go through their decision making process always makes you wonder, "Is that what I'd do?" Maybe it is or maybe it isn't, but by doing this you really get to understand and love the characters, because you can understand their points of view. Even the characters that aren't so nice.

Fourth, it's the plot and setting of the story. I've never been to Tokyo, and I was a young kid in 1984, so I only have a vague memory of what it was like. Thus the novel might was well be set on Mars, giving it an escapist element. Furthermore, Murakami's Japan is not the stereotypical Japan you might expect. Again, it's a world very foreign and yet very familiar. Certain details of it are exactly like what we might find here in North America, certain are not. But Murakami gives you just enough detail -- say, the style of uniform that a policeman wears, or the type of bar that exists in a small, rural, seaside town, the habits of fee collectors who come to people's doors collecting money for the NHK (Japan's BBC, apparently) -- and just the right amount of detail, so you feel like this is a true picture of that world. Whereas if I tried to write a book set in Japan, people would be drinking sake, eating sushi, and watching sumo wrestling, etc. there is none of that kind of "kitsch" in 1Q84. It is a solid, believable, well fleshed-out but not overly fleshed-out world.

The plot is like a mash-up of a graphic anime novel, a noir detective story, and David Lynch film. All I will say is it involves a conservative religious cult, a female assassin who hunts down and kills sex offenders, a 17-year old literary savant, a 30-year old math teacher / novelist, a conniving literary agent, a gay body-guard, a rich old woman who sits in a greenhouse all day, an alarmingly ugly but effective P.I., and a few other incidental characters here and there. The 17-year old literary savant is an escapee from the religious cult, who has written a prize-winning novel that Tengo, the math teacher / novelist, get the chance to "edit" but which he really ends up re-writing. When the book gets released to the public, it triggers a chain of events which unfolds, bringing Tengo and his long-lost childhood love -- who turns out to be the female assassin -- on a collision course, as they both end up in the cross-hairs of the religious cult, but for different reasons. Add to this a fantasy element that I'll not delve into, but which, in my opinion, is the only real weak spot of this book. In 1200 pages, Murakami doesn't find the time -- or find it necessary -- to fully explain the fantasy parts of the book and how they function. They just kind of exist without much context or explanation. In case you read the book, I'll just leave it at that.

Again, I would not necessarily recommend jumping right into 1Q84. It took me a while to come to appreciate Murakami enough so that I was able to dive in happily to this tome; however, I had no trouble finishing it. So if any of the above sounds interesting, I would recommend you find some of his short stories in The New Yorker or elsewhere. Read a couple of those. If they click with you, then maybe consider giving 1Q84 a try. I myself just ordered a couple of Murakami's novels, his first two, actually. Because I want to start at the beginning, after being immersed in so much of his later work.

I hope this review makes up for the "light skim" that I wrote last week on this blog (see previous entry). Sometimes it just takes a while to digest what you liked or did not like about a piece of fiction.