Friday, October 4, 2013

A Third Down, Two Thirds to Go

1Q84: A (Very Long) Novel by Haruki Murakami

Part I: 387 pages

Part II: 352 pages

Part III: 417 pages

I first purchased the 1100-page one-volume edition of Haruki Murakami's latest novel, but it was too cumbersome so I traded it in for the nifty three-volume set, paginated as indicated above--plump little paperback volumes that were not aggressively large.  They fit one's hand, have beautifully mystifying covers (twin moons and a woman's eye, both derived from the plot), and a clear slip case.  I suspect that Random House-Vintage was emulating the success of FSG's three-volume slip-cover edition of Bolano's 2666, but that was Bolano and the moment his masterpiece was published I bought the one-volume edition in hardcover, no questions asked.  Nobody makes a nicer book these days than Farrar, Straus, and Giroux--the binding on 2666 cracked after two readings, but the paper is slickly heavy and the cover art and book design are astonishing, and I once again wondered at the poverty of Kindle-reading, but didn't give it much thought in the same way I wonder why anyone would drink Budweiser instead of real beer but in the end don't really care about the answer. Anyway, Vintage went the distance for 1Q84--the endpapers are black and white sky scenes (clouds, moon) and the book's designers packed in as many adulatory blurbs as they could knowing that a thousand-plus page novel was going to be a hard sell, especially from a Japanese writer who is, let's face it, hardly a household name.  If Dan Brown were to write a thousand pages at least ten million people would eagerly plop down the now-standard $27.95 that a big commercial book costs; but $30 for Murakami requires the hard sell: "A grand, third-person, all encompassing novel..." (NYT).  An odd remark: what does "the third person" have to do with anything?  But the best comment, as one would expect, came from Charles Baxter, a writer who knows a thing or two about storytelling: "[1Q84] is generous in the way that Philip Roth is generous; you get the feeling that everything Murakami has thought, and felt, and experienced, is out there on the page.  Nothing gets held back, not even the ugliness--especially the ugliness..."  [my emphasis] I'm only one-third of the way through the book, and not sure I'll press on, but this observation seems exactly right--nothing is held back, and that can make a novel compelling (Proust!) but it can also turn a story into a slog (The Recognitions).  Which is 1Q84? Let's think about this for a minute.

If you've been to Tokyo you've seen a street like the one above--a narrow defile flanked by gaudy neon signs lettered in katakana, stylish young men and women, boisterous sounds of video arcades (I haven't been to Tokyo in a while and I suppose the arcades are gone), noodle shops, bars and sushi restaurants.  In other words, the sort of lively urban spaces that make Tokyo an exciting, if daunting place to visit.  I don't wish to be glib, or to diminish Murakami's extraordinary accomplishments--he is, I understand, on the short-list for this year's Nobel Prize--but he has always seemed to me to be the poet of this world--not at all a pop writer of erotica and drugginess like Ryu Murakami (Almost Transparent Blue) and not a novelist with the stature of Yasunari Kawabata or Jun'ichiro Tanizaki, but a hip, smart, inventive and perceptive chronicler of an odd-ball segment of Japanese urban life.  His novels are full of coincidences, off-beat characters, and situations that express the slippery unreality of everyday life.  I am especially fond of After Dark, Kafka on the Shore, and Norwegian Wood--the first of his books to make a splash in the West.  I am entranced by the unusual way in which, from nearly nothing, Murakami can cobble together a compelling story of outcasts in a world whose existence I can't even imagine.  Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, I must admit, was my first failure with Murakami: I began the book with high hopes, wondering at the tightrope he was walking,  but was defeated as the story's cogency began to dissipate amidst dense paragraphs of what seemed to be irrelevant musing on tangential topics. WUBC provided a foretaste of my puzzlement with 1Q84 and, I now have come to feel, with Murakami's work in general.  I love big books, but I don't love self-indulgent books.  Or, I don't feel compelled to push through novels that seem more interested in the writer than in the reader. 

The third of 1Q84 that I have finished today has the following plot: a young Japanese woman named Aomame is an assassin who specializes in killing men who abuse women; she teaches martial arts; she lives alone but would very much like to find a man to fall in love with--meantime, she sleeps around.  Her story alternates with that of a young man named Tengo who would like to fall in love, who aspires to be a writer and who has been enlisted by an unscrupulous editor in a plot to win a major literary prize for an all-but-illiterate girl who, we are supposed to believe, is a preternaturally gifted storyteller.  That's about it except for one important point: both Tengo and Aomame (who will, I'm pretty sure, meet and fall in love in volume II) feel as if they have "slipped" into another temporal dimension.  It's hard to characterize this feeling that they have, though I understand it.  One does sometimes feel that one has fallen into a temporal black hole, or that there has been a slippage in one's life--things are not quite as they used to be and yet it is impossible to say exactly how they have changed.  In Murakami there's always this sense of unreality in the lives of his characters--salarymen or street folks, old people or young, everyone behaves as if the world were off-kilter, and this unsettling existential vertigo is both one of the great charms and deep frustrations of his books.

But what is more difficult for me is what Charles Baxter points to in his remarks on Murakami's writing--the lack of apparent discrimination between what is essential to the story, what is ancillary to the story, and what has nothing to do with anything (we learn, for example, exactly what everyone eats--I mean exactly).  Of course in a long book like 1Q84 we are being led down a rabbit-hole; many trivial events probably have a deeper resonance--the look in the eyes of a little girl on a train who reminds Tengo of something he can't recall, or the rather tedious details of the "Dowager's" life--all of this will probably mean something, but I know from Murakami's other books that this expectation might be disappointed; the piling on of details may lead to nothing at all and I will be left to wonder at the expenditure of time and energy that has gone into my reading of this (very long) novel.

And yet: there is something compelling in the thing.  First of all, the size of the book is irresistible: who wants to read novellas and short stories when the world is full of Infinite Jests? I thought about my Murakami problem quite a lot during the past week and spoke to my colleague Peter Nash about it.  Peter thinks there's a glitz and attraction in Murakami that entices us to give him the benefit of the doubt; the style is glib, easygoing and quite easy to fall in love with; but, in the end, (Peter and I both thought) there is a feeling that we've been enticed to pass a long night drinking and carousing, singing karaoke and knocking back shots of sake, but, when it ends, we're stuck on the same neon-lit street, a bit woozy but no wiser than when we began.

Dear Talented Readers, what do you think?  Should I go on or turn back?  The summit lies far in the distance, shrouded in moonlight and wispy clouds; love affairs, murders, and plagiarism stand between me and Mt. Murakami.  And, worst of all, there's a pile of books here on my desk that I am eager to take up--novels by Amouar Benmalek, Leon de Winter, and Cees Nooteboom impatiently tap their fingers on my computer wondering when in hell I'll finally renounce this oddball concoction of noir thriller and sci-fi mystery--a book written, as it were, by Doris Lessing and Stieg Larsson, right down to the martial arts heroine.  What to do?

Any advice would be welcome.

Published by Vintage in paperback (3 volume edition).
Chipp Kidd designed the book--its lovely.  Here is Mr. Kidd on the process--

George Ovitt (10/4/13)


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    1. Thank you Sarah Lee for you comment and I hope, if you decide to go the distance with 1Q84 you enjoy the novel as much as I did. There are some dull patches, but nothing that can't be negotiated.


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