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michael dirda

If you’ve read Norwegian Wood, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Kafka on the Shore, After Dark, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, or any of his other novels and stories, you know what Haruki Murakami is about. For three decades he’s guided us through odd parallel universes and the underbelly of Japanese culture. You would not be surprised to find your protagonists walking through walls, talking with (not just to) cats, or visiting abandoned and dreamlike villages. Simple everyday people carrying out strange and extraordinary tasks for otherworldly agents, the completion of which carry emotional resonances that open your mind to the fact that you’ll never look at the ordinary world around you, the same way again. But Murakami, whom Michael Dirda calls a “brilliant practitioner of serious, yet irresistibly engaging, literary fantasy,” and whom Sam Anderson hails as the world’s “chief imaginative ambassador,” whose “addictive weirdness” has captivated college students and hipsters everywhere, has succumbed to an odd case of gigantism in his much-heralded, and long, twelfth novel (or twelfth, thirteenth and fourteenth novel, depending on where you live) 1Q84.

All the tasty bits of vintage Murakami are here: dull but steadfast male leads, hypersexual and hypersexy teenagers, strange conspiracies loaded with uncanny coincidences, and, of course, forays into parallel universes. He has a straight ahead style, and is an ace at making you interested in watching a guy drink a beer. Daily routines have never been so captivating. But it’s not until, in this case, you descend an emergency stairwell off the side of the highway or receive a request to rewrite a teenager’s novel that your whole world is thrown for a loop. This is something Charles Baxter has called “Unrealism,” a slightly altered state that mirrors the real world in odd ways, which “reflects an entire generation’s conviction that the world they inherited is a crummy second-rate duplicate.” Murakami therefore flirts with the hopelessly weird at every turn.  Problem is, he usually comes out of his considerably shorter novels relatively unscathed. Here, I’m left asking myself if Murakami has fallen into his own Bizarro World of self-parody.

The title 1Q84 is a translingual pun, the English syllable q indicating the number nine in Japanese. It is also a tip of the cap to Orwell, whose authoritarian world of 1984 is evoked here by a prevalence of religious and political cults, ominous shifts in natural phenomena, and a near total atmosphere of surveillance verging on downright omniscience.  The emergence of this vaguely odd but unmistakably different world of 1Q84 (there are two moons in the sky and folks called Little People emerge from the mouths of the dead, detonate animals from within, and perpetrate other illogical feats) is grafted onto the actual year of 1984 (and, conveniently, on to the consciousnesses of only certain characters), spawning a proliferation of pairs, doubles, mirrors, and the like. Seemingly everyone shows up somewhere else as someone else at some point in the novel.  Aspects of characters’ appearances and personalities resonate across generations and worlds. Memories of loved ones project new identities onto the people around you.

This is most clearly the case for our two protagonists Tengo and Aomame, the former a math teacher who writes fiction, the latter a fitness instructor cum assassin cum sex maniac, who fell in love in grade school, have been separated ever since, and now find themselves on a quest through 1Q84, and the sinister twists and turns within it, to reunite.  Thus the theme of the whole thing, articulated early on by Aomame: “If you can love someone with your whole heart, even one person, then there’s salvation in life. Even if you can’t get together with that person.” This trajectory toward redemptive love is told in alternating chapters, wherein each character inches tantalizing closer to the other. Murakami manages this overarching duality rather cleanly; the slow rise of background details to the foreground by the latter parts of the novel occurs organically enough. The suspense is real, and you root for the lovers.

But amid this relatively sophisticated complexity is an ultimately unsurpassable stumbling block. Murakami, seemingly desperate for simplicity, commits grievous stylistic errors that I encourage even my own students to avoid. Despite this book’s heft, and Murakami’s now famous work ethic, 1Q84 is a lazy novel, whose every page (all 923 of them) requires a scalpel at the very least, a chainsaw in most cases.

I’ll begin with the most noticeable transgression. Namely, in his attempt to depict the quotidian, Murakami lets us know exactly what our main characters are thinking, by putting their thoughts, which occur in complete sentences, in italics. If the fiction and poetry of the last century taught us anything, it’s that depicting the mind in the act of thinking is a terribly complex task, riddled with subtle demands. So I thought to myself, Murakami must be up to something. Is he playing with genre here? What is the purpose of purposefully bad prose? I’m going to get to the bottom of this.  See what I mean? This is the kind of slog that occurs page in and page out. It’s reminiscent of the hard-boiled American novels Murakami actively imitates, but these self-dialogues by and large reveal nothing important and deliver evaluations that are usually reserved for the reader to determine. We have to wait constantly for our protagonists to make the connections we’ve tidied up pages if not chapters ago. Consider:

It was the perfect moment for a man to approach a woman, and [Aomame] had created it. But this man said nothing. What the hell is he waiting for? she wondered. He’s no kid. He should pick up on these subtle hints. Maybe he hasn’t got the guts. Maybe he’s worried about the age difference. Maybe he thinks I’ll ignore him or put him down: bald old coot of fifty has some nerve approaching a woman in her twenties! Damn, he just doesn’t get it.

Or:

This was an easier death than you deserved, Aomame thought with a scowl. It was just too simple. I probably should have broken a few ribs for you with a five iron and given you plenty of pain before putting you out of your misery. That would have been the right kind of death for a rat like you. It’s what you did to your wife. Unfortunately, however, the choice was not mine. My mission was to send this man to the other world as swiftly and surely – and discreetly – as possible. Now, I have accomplished that mission. He was alive until a moment ago, and now he’s dead. He crossed the threshold separating life from death without being aware of it himself.

This mental rehashing of the painfully obvious and ethically simplistic persists into the most important parts of the plot, and we have to twiddle our thumbs while these protagonists densely process information and repeat it until they’re sure they’ve got everything. I initially tried to keep track of every time a character repeated and rephrased something that someone just said – “’So the German shepherd died, and the next day Tsubasa disappeared,’ Aomame said, as if to verify the accuracy of her understanding” – but this sort of thing occurs at almost every conversation. You really can’t miss it. The narrator even gets in on it: “The phone woke Tengo. The luminous hands of his clock pointed to a little after one a.m. The room was dark, of course.”

 

And then there are the metaphors:

“Aomame lifted her glass and took a sip of iced tea, tasting nothing, as if her mouth were stuffed with cotton and absorbed all flavor.”

“[H]er stylishly cut linen jacket looked like a lovely piece of fabric that had descended from heaven on a windless afternoon.”

“Tengo stared at the dead receiver in his hand for a while, the way a farmer stares at a withered vegetable he has picked up from a drought-wracked field. These days, a lot of people were hanging up on Tengo.”

“To himself he said, She was very good at it. Just as every village has at least one farmer who is good at irrigation, she was good at sexual intercourse. She liked to try different methods.”

“Her nipples showed clearly through the shirt, which could not help but revive in Tengo the feeling of last night’s ejaculation, the way a certain date brings to mind related historical facts.”

Okay, I’ll give you one decent one: “Ushikawa’s appearance made him stand out. He did not have the sort of looks suited for stakeouts or tailing people. As much as he might try to lose himself in a crowd, he was as inconspicuous as a centipede in a cup of yogurt,” which occurs alongside other creepiness, such as comparing a beautiful girl in the act of sex to an insect sucking nectar out of a flower, or the above character’s eyebrows to “two hairy caterpillars reaching out to each other.”

These comparisons are accompanied by and embedded within countless passages of needless description. These mostly are directed at the above mentioned Ushikawa, the primary antagonist who is, you guessed it, hideous:

The man’s gray suit had countless tiny wrinkles, which made it look like an expanse of earth that had been ground down by a glacier. One flap of his white dress shirt’s collar was sticking out, and the knot of his tie was contorted, as if it had twisted itself from the sheer discomfort of having to exist in that place. The suit, the shirt, and the tie were all slightly the wrong size. The pattern on his tie might have been an inept art student’s impressionistic rendering of a bowl of tangled, soggy noodles. Each piece of clothing looked like something he had bought at a discount store to fill an immediate need. But the longer Tengo studied them, the sorrier he felt for the clothes themselves, for having to be worn by this man. Tengo paid little attention to his own clothing, but he was strangely concerned about the clothing worn by others. If he had to compile a list of the worst dressers he had met in the past ten years, this man would be somewhere near the top. It was not just that he had terrible style: he also gave the impression that he was deliberately desecrating the very idea of wearing clothes.

But characters who appear only once are given similar attention:

The secretary was a capable woman one year older than Tengo who, in spite of her title, handled virtually all of the school’s administrative business. Her facial features were a bit too irregular for her to be considered beautiful, but she had a nice figure and marvelous taste in clothes.

This kind of inanity (not to mention a robust and almost juvenile interest in female bodies, especially breasts) is tolerable in small doses. But in a novel of this length, it becomes, ultimately, unbearable.  I tried, I really did, to rationalize. Okay, I thought to myself, the downright pornography of the first third of the book is meant to lampoon mainstream culture, right? Or, as Aomame indicates, it’s meant to balance the depressing humdrum of the rest of life. A ha! Balance, a major theme. I’m starting to get it. And the rest of these passages – the metaphors, descriptions, the self-monologue – these are aspects of popular detective novels, and Murakami is paying homage here. I’m meant to read this generically. But this novel’s nine hundred plus pages and constantly twisting plots somehow leave no room for self-consciousness and parody. For that, turn to David Mitchell, whose Cloud Atlas is a master work of stylistic and generic mimicry (not to mention of the type of mirroring plots Murakami goes for here).

But along the way, despite the incessant and annoying bad style, I cared. Tengo and Aomame, partly because you watch them clumsily process this new dreamlike world, and partly because you unavoidably spend so much time with them anyway, become real people, with normal, everyday desires and worries. This is refreshing for sure. Murakami revealed in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running that he rises at four in the morning and writes solidly for five to six hours. This novel feels like the product of such constancy, but without much retrospection. Interviews have revealed that he even intended to end the novel after Book 2, in a captivating and tragic moment, an apex of the structural trajectory, and an iconic image that perfectly mirrors the gripping opening scene of the novel.

But he decided to trudge on, and Book 3 delivers the redemptive love he probably thought his audience needed. I do agree with Charles Baxter, who wrote, “I finished 1Q84 feeling that its spiritual project was heroic and beautiful, that its central conflict involved a pitched battle between realism and unrealism (while being scrupulously fair to both sides), and that, in our own somewhat unreal times, younger readers, unlike me, would have no trouble at all believing in [1Q84].” But this addition of a whole new book dooms the novel via its dissolution of the tightness that propelled the first two installments and via the introduction of a plot thread that occurs just slightly behind the main one, temporally, requiring a recap of the main events every third chapter, so that one ultimately ineffectual character can get up to speed. In all, this is a rare case of a novel that would benefit from the work of an imaginative director, whose film version would necessarily do away with clunky metaphors and obvious and unrealistic interior monologue, whose visual rendering of 1Q84 and its quirky inhabitants would suffice for droning descriptions of it, who could deliver only the essentials of a suspenseful and moving human story.

A week ago I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran, at the Aspen Institute’s Cultural Diplomacy Forum at the Philips Collection. She was participating in a panel discussion with Michael Dirda about her work at Johns Hopkins and the role the arts can play in shaping foreign policy. Two days later, Mario Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize and became a permanent member of a triumvirate of South American fiction giants (along with Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Roberto Bolano). Both writers exhibit the type of friendly and meaningful dialogue proposed by the many noteworthy speakers at the Diplomacy Forum. I want to put these two figures into dialogue with each other, by speaking about Nafisi’s Reading Lolita and Vargas Llosa’s lesser-known work, The Storyteller.

My favorite line from Nafisi’s panel came from her anecdote about her arrival at Johns Hopkins. A colleague essentially said “Oh, good, we needed someone to do women’s studies and Muslim literature,” to which Nafisi responded, “Bloody hell, no! I want to study dead white men!” She elaborated, emphasizing the notion that if there is to be true dialogue, we must be able to step outside what we know and engage other forms, other cultures, with empathy.

This is the impetus of Reading Lolita in Tehran. Nafisi’s students (and Nafisi herself) deal with their plight as women in a Muslim theocracy by reading, among others, Nabokov, Fitzgerald, James, and Austen – curious, and at best tangentially relevant, seemingly. But this is the point. For these women, these “dead white men” take on utmost significance in their lives. Their novels illuminate the troubles of sexual abuse, notions of the American Dream, and “burden” (Bellow) of individual freedom in ways made relevant and meaningful by Nafisi’s teaching. (The classroom scenes are among the most powerful of the book, ranking along with Frank McCourt’s as some of the best of that genre I’ve read). What these figures have in common, for Nafisi, is their engagement with what she sees as the central issue of reading fiction at all:

Pity is the password, says the poet John Shade in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. This respect for others, empathy, lies at the heart of the novel. It is the quality that links Austen to Flaubert and James to Nabokov and Bellow. This, I believe, is how the villain of modern fiction is born: a creature without compassion, without empathy. The personalized version of good and evil usurps and individualizes the more archetypal concepts, such as courage or heroism, that shaped the epic or romance. A hero becomes one who safeguards his or her individual integrity at almost any cost.

Nafisi’s novel is filled with accounts of brutality against women in Tehran. She depicts this lack of empathy as the root of male oppression and violence in the “Muslim World” (Nafisi herself puts this term in quotes, attacking it as reductive). Hence the need to read “at almost any cost.”  The many female characters of Reading Lolita in Tehran embody this need with a zeal that can rejuvenate our own love for good fiction.

This type of empathy, as Bakhtin would say a traveling into the other and back again into an enriched notion of one’s own selfhood, is at the heart of Llosa’s The Storyteller. It is the story of an unnamed first-person narrator’s journey to know his friend Saul Zuratas. Known affectionately as “Mascarita,” he is a red-headed Jew with a grotesque birthmark that takes up half his face. His outsidedness from Peruvian normalcy compels him to identify with the Machiguenga tribe of the jungle.

He begins by studying them academically, only to reject the field of ethnology and linguistics as unethical. The rest of the novel after this declaration is a multi-text. Interspersed with the narrator’s account of the end of his relationship with Zuratas is a series of circuitous and labyrinthine tales from Machiguenga mythology. It is clear to the reader that Zuratas himself is telling these stories. He has completely joined the tribe; much more, he has become their bard, their hablador, their storyteller. A mythical figure in his own right, he is kept hidden from the academics and documentarians who come to the jungle. Over time the narrator comes to discover Zuratas’ new life, with profound effects on his own.

The story itself is powerful, but the work is enhanced by the point Vargas Llosa makes through his narrative strategy. The narrator’s story is one of trying to know the Machiguengas through standard Western academic practices. He thinks by studying them at the university, and by filming a sensitive documentary, he is doing the tribe justice to those who would re-educate them and steal their land. But next to the Zuratas chapters – what can be called nothing other than bits of magical realism – they seem insufficient and, yes, unethical. Zuratas, an outsider, has somehow – to the narrator’s bafflement at the end of the novel – been “able to feel and live at the very heart of that culture…having penetrated its essence, reached the marrow of its history and mythology, given body to its taboos, images, ancestral desires, and terrors…being, in the most profound way possible, a rooted Machiguenga.”

For Nafisi and Vargas Llosa, this type of – to use his word – “conversion” is entirely possible. It requires, first, this Bakhtinian idea of travel outside of the self. For both these excellent thinkers, that type of travel is rooted in storytelling, in great novels.