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.

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