Friday, January 06, 2012

[Books] Book Look: 1Q84

Book Look: 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami: Well, 900-ish pages on and I still don't know why I like Murakami but I do. His stories are riddled with long but incomplete explanations (one character even gives voice to this: "If you can't understand it without an explanation, you can't understand it with one." Uh, what?) He is given to occasional literary name dropping. He uses entire chapters to say what could be said in a few paragraphs. He is relentlessly sentimental. And, as has been commented on in many quarters, his prose style feels out of sync. English speakers can pass this off as an effect of translation, but native Japanese speakers often claim that his original prose reads like English that has been translated into Japanese. Really, what is the attraction? If the mystery of Hemmingway was how he expressed such complicated emotions from such simple language, perhaps the mystery of Murakami is that he can create such a vibrant, engaging, affecting story when he seems to just be pulling stuff out of his butt. But I did like this book. It was a good story and it held my interest for the entire 900 pages, even when I was squinting at the style with suspicion.

The core of 1Q84 is a dead simple love story. Our first protagonist is Aomame, a full-time fitness instructor and part-time assassin. She only kills bad guys who are known perpetrators of violence against women, doing so at the behest of a wealthy widow. Our second protagonist is Tengo, full-time a math teacher at a "cram school" and aspiring novelist who gets involved in a scheme to secretly re-write a strangely compelling novel by an unearthly seventeen year old girl.

The protagonists have been, both directly and indirectly, connected since childhood. Tengo's father was a bill collector who used to force Tengo to accompany him every weekend as he made his rounds, kids being more difficult to refuse. Similarly, Aomame's parents were devout evangelical Christians and Aomame was forced to participate fully in the proselytizing. The result of this was an emotional caution and a sense of isolation that vectored them off into what might be considered somewhat cold and lonely lives as young adults.

The direct connection is that they were peers in elementary school and as 10 year olds they shared a bonding experience. A brief moment wherein they clasped hands -- a moment so charged with meaning that not only did they never forget its visceral power, it convinced both children that each was the only one the other could ever love -- a conviction that they continued to hold firm into adulthood despite not having seen or heard of each other for twenty years. You see what I mean about Murakami's sentimentality.

The bulk of the pages are filled with pure Phillip K. Dickery: conspiracies, hidden dangers, and malleable reality -- although from a fantastic angle instead of scientific. There are strange little people who build cocoons out the air and a bizarre and vengeful religious cult that worships them. There are assassins and shady operatives. Spirits of the dead; psychic connections; a virgin pregnancy -- just a gumbo of unreality.

Yet through it all there is the simple, rather sweet story of Aomame and Tengo coming to terms with their deeply stifling upbringings and clinging to that one moment of childhood emotional connection they found in each other. It is, in a way, an epic love story.

Should you read 1Q84. I can't imagine why not. It is dauntingly long, though. (In Japan it was released as a three novel series, so you can think of it as committing to a three novel series.) In an interview, Murakami stated that 1Q84 is essentially an extended version of the short story On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning he wrote from the sohrt story collection The Elephant Vanishes. Since it's just a few hundred words, it might be a good place to start.