Friday, January 27, 2012

1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

This is the review of this audiobook put forth by the good people at in their recent round up of recommendations:

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is definitely one of my top 5 books of all time! The author and three outstanding narrators take you on an unexpected journey that you never want to end. The book is expertly written with a mini-cliffhanger after each chapter. I love a book that draws you in from the first few minutes and keeps you captivated until the last second. The numerous characters are introduced in a logical manner that doesn’t distract from the overall story. Although this book is over 46 hours, it’s worth every second. This is an excellent example where the audio version adds so much value to the overall experience of the book. (Gary, Customer Care)

I don't know your life, Gary, Customer Care, but I pity you anyway. Because 1Q84 is so far from being one of my top books that it isn't even visible with a telescope. I am on chapter 6, and I hate it. I hate the writing. I hate the translation. I hate narrators. I hate the plot and I hate the fact that this downloaded in four parts and I'm less than a third of the way through the first part, which means I'm only about 8% through the whole book and I hate it.

So--shall I tell you how I feel about it?

Honestly, I can't tell what the source of the problem is, but I really don't like this book. I only got it because it made so many Best of 2011 lists. Trust me, I read a LOT of those lists, because I have so much trouble finding books I like. I'm even back at school getting a master's degree in English lit, because it is so hard to find a book worth reading these days. So when a lot of book reviews that I like said this one is worth reading, I believed them and got this book. I got it in audio because I had some credits I need to use up, and because it would give me something to listen to as I trudge through the lousy winter to my classes.

This is a book that is the aural equivalent of trudging through a lousy winter. It amplifies the trudging. It possibly even makes trudging through a lousy winter seem like an improvement over reading this book.

I hate winter. This is not an endorsement.

So what is the problem? Where to start? The plot thus far involves two unrelated people. Aomame ("green peas" in Japanese) is a bored and snotty young woman who deploys miniskirts and lacy push-up bras in order to murder a wife-beater without leaving a trace. She then redeploys said clothing in order to intimidate a hapless 50 year old traveling businessman into having meaningless sex with her, so she can get over the fact that she is a snotty paid assassin. While doing this, she worries over the class anxiety of possibly being confused with being a prostitute, so she lugs around big books about railway development so she won't be mistaken for a whore.

Meanwhile, Tengo is a mild-mannered math tutor who writes fiction on the side. While reading submissions for a magazine fiction prize, he comes across a novella that sticks in his mind despite its obvious flaws. The magazine publisher suggests that Tengo should revise the manuscript and they should submit it for a bigger prize. Tengo has ethical concerns--and the scene where he discusses this with the editor reads like he's a reluctant nephew getting pulled into Uncle Tony Soprano's money laundering schemes.It's not a fucking RICO conspiracy to collaborate on a book, to edit it or re-write it. Honestly, nobody cares.

So, the plot thus far minimizes the possible points of interest--why does Aomame assassinate? Where did she learn the skills?--in favor of obsessive details about mundane elements of the surroundings. Aomame ruins a pair of pantyhose by walking without her shoes, so she goes to buy new ones, and then finds somewhere to actually put them onzzzzzzzzz--oh, did I fall asleep? What did I miss?

Equally, Tengo goes to buy a word processor so he can re-write the novella, and then he types for a while, and then he prints it out and makes corrections and then he makes those corrections on the word processor and then he types some more. Srsly?

While the plot is failing to be interesting, the writing style is not making up for it. This could be intentional, this could be Murakami's style, or it could be the fault of the translation--I don't know, but the prose is brutal. Aomame sits at the bar and looks at the man she is brow-beating into sleeping with her. "He wore a dark blue suit. His tie was blue, with red stripes. His shirt was also blue. He unbuttoned the top button of his shirt. His tie was slightly loosened. He was not quite bald. His thinning hair was combed over to one side." The dreariness of it! Flat, pointless detail piled on top of flat pointless detail. If this is literary style, I don't need it--I have enough opportunities in my life to experience flatness and pointlessness--I don't need to import it.

The narration reinforces the dreariness. The narrators read carefully, precisely, articulating each syllable without much variation in pitch, tone, speed or emotion. The series of sentences above about the blue suit might be tossed off, glossed over. It's easy to imagine a Sam Spade type narration speeding through the details, reinforcing the "blue" repetitions to create a poetic image of a monochromatic (and thus negligible) man in a bar. Instead it reads like an inventory, and who reads those in their leisure time?

Not making me happy. And the larger plot promised in the reviews, about how Aomame has slipped into a parallel world is so far signaled only by the fact that the police officers seem to have different uniforms and carry Berettas rather that old-fashioned revolvers than she remembers. There have been two long discussions about the nature of the guns and the amount of starch in the new uniforms. I wish I were kidding. It's as though Rain Man rewrote Stieg Larson.

Perhaps part of the problem here is that Murakami is stuck in the recursive trap of writing a book of fiction about the nature of fiction writing. Tengo is a writer, and Murakami shows us what it is like to write. Aomame has slipped into a world which is almost but not quite identical to the world she came from--a world which appears to be real but isn't, not quite. So all the pages devoted to the politics and ethics of a fiction prize is writing about writing. Tengo's purchase of a word processor is writing about writing. Aomame's experience in an alternate world is writing about the nature of fiction. So perhaps all this exhaustive accumulation of detail is in service of the point about how a writer creates a world, and how much detail is necessary for something to seem real enough. Which is all very intellectual and smart, but not a lot of fun to read.

Will I abandon this? At this point, I am going to go back and read some reviews and see whether there is anything in them that makes this book seem worth any additional slogging. Unless I find something that makes this book sound more compelling than my experience so far, this one is going to go unfinished.

EDIT: Janet Maslin at the New York Times has written a review that has convinced me that I don't need to discipline myself to keep going. Thanks, Janet! After all--there are so many books, and no one can possibly read them all, so I don't feel even a little bit guilty about abandoning one I don't like.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Jacob's Room, by Virginia Woolf

Let's start the new year with a run of Virginia Woolf readings! Because nothing says "2012" like the writings of World War I avant garde!

Yes, I am taking a course in Virginia Woolf next term. It's going to be a Bloomsbury kind of year!

The Publishing Details:
Jacob's Room  was written around 1922, and may be based on the life of Woolf's younger brother, Thoby Stephens, who died at 25. It is also an early foray into the stream-of-consciousness/psychological writing that Woolf continued to hone through more famous works like To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway. I thought perhaps as an early effort, it might be easier to follow than those works, but I don't think that is true. There is certainly a lot going on in this book, and it's clear that VW had a lot of ideas about literature and its limitations.

The Structure:
The book follows the life of Jacob Flanders in slices: his childhood in Scarborough, his education at Oxford, his adult life in London, his flirtations and affairs, a trip to Greece, and ends with a short piece after his death. Each chapter takes place in a different time and place, and in Woolfian (Woolvian?) fashion, you have to puzzle for yourself where and when. While Jacob is the center of the novel, there is no real attempt to narrate him for the reader. He rarely speaks, his thoughts are not presented through an omniscient narrator, and even the point of view is rarely his. VW is in effect presenting his life from the outside, through the impressions he makes on those around him.

The Literary Effect and Analysis:

Woolf can be quite hard to read, and I find the pleasure less in the reading, and more in thinking about what she was trying to do with literature. Or, as VW makes clear in the course of her writing, since we cannot know what another person is thinking, my pleasure comes from what I find myself thinking about the limitations and strengths of literature--ideas that are sparked by wading through her works.

To begin with, VW's fiction is not terribly inviting. Jacob's Room starts with a family outing at the seashore, with most of the narrative focused on the thoughts of his mother, Betty Flanders. (And it is with that surname that Jacob is obviously destined for death in WWI, although VW doesn't engage in the ominous portentiousness of Edith Wharton in House of Mirth). VW fills the chapter with images that might be read to signal Jacob's destiny--a small crab in the bottom of a child's bucket, trying with its "weakly legs" to escape its confinement, falling back and trying again and again; the two "enormous" people Jacob sees lying on the beach, immobile and disturbing; the misidentification of a rock with a nanny; the skull lying on the beach. Yet VW is decidedly not Victorian, and as much as these images are actually present, they don't really seem to be used as signals of Jacob's future, since they are mixed in with equally vivid, non-morbid imagery, including the "courtship" of Captain Barfoot, the nonsense about Mrs. Flanders forgetting the meat for dinner, the women sitting together after the boys have gone to bed.

Subsequent chapters show Jacob boating with his friend Timothy Durrant to the Cornish coast, where we see as much about random Cornish housewives as we do of Jacob. He returns to London after graduation, falls a little in love with a prostitute named Florinda, and experiences heartbreak when he sees her with another man--he had built up an idealized image of her, which was contradicted when he saw her behaving as she always did, but with someone else.

One could be peevish and complain about the utter randomness of VW's writing--the images and moments she has selected to present to the reader do not serve any larger artistic function that we are used to. Trained as we are by the Victorians to view every detail as significant, VW is frustrating since so much of the book seems to be nothing but details, and they don't add up. I think that is the point, however. VW is using the form of the novel to make the argument that what we think we know about others is really our own projections--not necessarily accurate in any way. And so Jacob is presented via the impressions he makes, and what other people think about him based on those impressions.

An novelist whom I love, Faith Sullivan (The Cape Ann--drop everything and go read that if you haven't already) gave a talk about writing fiction. When writing fiction, you have to choose your details, and there is meaning in what you choose. If you were writing a biography, and the subject wore red shoes, you would put that into the book, because that was the color the shoes were. In fiction, however, the shoes could be any color at all, and making the choice to say they are red is to make a significant choice--a choice that means something, precisely because the author could have made any other choice.

My experience of reading VW is that she is demonstrating that all those choices exist, but they don't necessarily constitute meaning, in any profound way. Many incidents in life just happen, and sometimes a person will interpret those incidents and assign meaning that can't be verified. So Clara Durrant, sister of Jacob's school friend Timothy, falls in love with Jacob. Yet what can she possibly know of him? He is handsome (distinguished looking, VW reiterates), he has been to university, but his actions are opaque, his conversation extremely limited. In some ways VW uses Clara to show us the folly of our trying (as readers) to know any character, since in many ways Clara's infatuation with Jacob is obviously the product of her own projection of characteristics onto him. He never acts contrary to her projections, at least in her presence, and so her fiction of him is preserved--but that in no way means it is accurate.

Similarly, Jacob believes he has a special affinity--an uncommon understanding--with the ancient Greeks. While hiking with a friend, he announces that they are probably the only two people in the world who understand what the Greeks were about. Yet VW is careful to say that their declaiming would not be comprehensible either to actual ancient Greeks or even Greek professors. The supposed affinity is entirely in their own minds, and could never be absolutely verified. In the same way, readers may think they understand who Jacob is, but VW has made it the work of the novel to prove that assumption to be false.

In some ways, Jacob's Room isn't fiction as traditionally understood, so much as it is a kind of fictionalized biography. There are some bare facts of "Jacob's" life, and VW doesn't really embellish or speculate on what might be going on inside the subject's mind. This is not because VW is limited as a writer--in fact, she manages to sketch vivid characters in only a few lines, and has some wonderful sections on the internal states of others, so it is apparent that she has chosen to limit her speculation about Jacob deliberately.

It's an interesting reaction to the sprawling omnipotence of a Dickens, for example, this precise limiting of what might be viewed in real life by an outsider. It's a bit tart, actually, reading this book. Not one for sinking into and wallowing in--rather a novel for precise consideration. Did VW think of herself as a novelist, or was she trying to develop something new? Does VW actually inform how fiction is currently written--or is she a dead end in literary evolution? She might actually have had a bigger impact on biography than fiction--one can imagine she would be right at home in a genre called "literary non-fiction."