Monday, 28 November 2011

Bunch of Cults No.6: 1Q84

This is part of an ongoing series of weird and wonderful stories from off the beaten path. Others in the series can be found here.

This post is in two parts. Firstly a look at the latest book from Haruki Murakami, probably the bestselling ‘cult’ author in the world. And secondly a few thoughts on the power of story over technique. If you’re telling an engrossing tale, does it really matter how you go about it?

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami is a science-fiction story. Sort of. It’s set in a parallel 1984, that is more or less identical to the real 1984. Except for the two moons in the sky (that only a few people notice). It is about two people, a lonely young woman, and an aspiring novelist. And it is about a fantastical group of Little People who are trying to control the balance of good and evil in the world. 

(For a more detailed review of this book please check out my profile on Goodreads—anyone also a member of that site feel free to friend me, always looking for fellow readers to discuss books with).

The Hook
4 million copies sold in Japan alone. 

A thousand pages long with strong allusions to Orwell’s 1984 (instead of Big Brother this book has Little People), Proust, Dostoevsky and Jung, it’s a very ambitious work—both for writer and reader.

Live up to the hype?
As somebody who is a fan of Murakami’s surreal and often meandering style, I was certainly looking forward to reading what is considered his magnum opus. It is by no means an easy read, the pace is languorous, it repeats itself, goes off on tangents and lengthy asides. But it is wholly engrossing and purposeful (even if you aren’t sure what that purpose is).

A story about story that starts by telling you there can only be one reality, and then proceeds to show you the complete opposite.

As a writer, it reveals a lot of Murakami’s thoughts on the process of writing which is fascinating all by itself.

“Think of it this way, Tengo. Your readers have seen the sky with one moon in it any number of times, right? But I doubt they’ve seen a sky with two moons in it side by side. When you introduce things that most readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction, you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible. What you can eliminate from fiction is the description of things that most readers have seen.”

Or when in regard to a young writer’s unwillingness to explain what she’s talking about: ...many readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of ‘authorial laziness.’

Tengo cocked his head in puzzlement. If an author succeeded in writing a story “put together in an exceptionally interesting way” that “carries the reader along to the very end,” who could possibly call such a writer “lazy”?

Which bring me to the second part of this post:
Doing it the right way

It becomes apparent very quickly that this book is not what you would call a ‘well written’ book. Adverbs, clichés, pov glitches, pages and pages of thoughts about things of no relevance to anything, and a great deal left unexplained. But all of this is secondary to what is a fascinating series of events. The prose may not be very beautiful, but it is very precise. You get a very clear idea of what he means.

Here’s an example:
"Their role now was to locate this woman, after she had seemingly vanished into thin air. The order was out: leave no stone unturned until they found her."

"The wrinkles on the back of his neck moved like some kind of ancient creature." 

Doesn’t exactly leap off the page. But you never get the sense it is anything but intentional. The slow build up of meaning, and the familiarity with characters you get via this method is very powerful. And yet in the hands of a lesser writer, and by that I mean someone who does not have the content to back up the lack of style, it would read as very plodding and tedious.

In the end you know this is a masterful work because of two things. You want to know what happens next (even when it happens very slowly). And because of the immense emotional impact. In the end it isn’t sci-fi tale at all, it’s a love story. The yearning for something more. For something other. Something impossible. And the journey to another reality to find it. 

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Nancy Thompson said...

Sometimes a book is great because of the writing and sometimes it's great in spite of it. I just finished Hate List, and while the writing was not that great, the story itself was gripping. I even cried at the end. Not bad for a book that had me snorting for all its bad use of adverbs and lame dialogue.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

I wonder how much got lost in translation. However, based upon your recommendation both I and my father bought copies of this book on our kindles and are now reading it.

mooderino said...

@Nancy-I'd saythis book isn't badly written, the use of simpler, more direct language feels entirey intentional. From what I've read about the author his style is a direct reaction to the traditional, very elgant writing of Japanese writers. And he mentions it in some detail within the story (the fact a lot of the book is about a writer writing a book helps him fo this).

@Michael-I wondered that too. Supposedly he doesn't give translators much to work with in that regard. I hope both you and your dad enjoy the book. (No refunds).

Congratulations on becoming an expert critic by the way. I had no idea the promotion had come through.

McKenzie McCann said...

I do not understand why Murakami is so popular. Okay, he is a good writer (except for his endings, which are almost always disappointing) but he doesn't write accessible books. He writes these strange, theme-driven books and doesn't even do it right. Ever read After Dark? Ick. He ruined a really good idea.

But for some reason, even though his books should only appeal to such a tiny market, he sells millions of copies. I just don't it.

Lydia Kang said...

Thank you for discussing this book--I've been wanting to learn a bit more about it, not having read it myself yet. Great post.

Arlee Bird said...

I might like this--I like surreal. If he sold 4 million copies in Japan the book must have something going for it. I'll keep this one in mind.

Tossing It Out

Enjoy my delightful interview with Susan Kane on
Wrote By Rote Saturday 11/26

Laoch of Chicago said...

Good post: I am looking forward to reading this book now.

Suze said...

I tried to read this novel, but stalled. The commentary on the act of writing itself is what had me mostly gripped before I was unable to go further, which is not unusual for me-- I tend to stall, but am trying to move past that proclivity (in fits and starts.)

I was deeply annoyed by his handling of Aomame-- I feel Murakami 'masculinized' her too much (just made up a word, I think.) I was intrigued by Tengo, I was, by turn, intrigued and disgusted with Komatsu-- but found myself wanting to 'hear' more of what he had to say. And I felt a very odd hybrid of sympathy and intrigue for Fukaeri.

I wanted to read more but didn't trust Murakami enough not to lead me to places I didn't wish to go. What I did read, overall, had me enchanted-- I didn't notice the technical details you mention in your review-- but I stumbled, irrevocably, on (plot) particulars.

I did feel the immense emotional impact you describe.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

@Moody: Being an "expert critic" means that all of my opinions are without dispute.

Sarah Allen said...

Looks like an interesting book. I did read some other Murakami stuff, and I enjoyed it. I'll have to check this one out.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

mooderino said...

@McKenzie-I know what you mean, but it is the talent of some writers not to give you what you want, but to make you awnt to understand what they mean.

@Lydia-it's a great book, but not a very easy read. Certainly not for eeryone, the sexual content is probably going ot put a lot of people off, I imagine.

@Lee-yes, surreal is definitely where this is at. Much like his other books (apart from Norwegian Wood, which is very normal).

@Laoch-hope you enjoy it.

@suze-I think taking you where you don't want to go is the whole point of the book, so you were probably right to stop. The stuff dealing with underage sex, which isn't what it seems at first, is still quite harrowing.

@Michael-you're right, of course, as always.

@sarah-all his books are pretty off the wall (apart from the preciously mentioned NW) and this one certainly fits in with his canon.

David P. King said...

Sounds like a good read. Thanks for bring it to my attention. :)

Brent Wescott said...

I haven't read 1Q84 yet (here's hoping for a Christmas present), so I could be (just maybe) wrong, but I want to disagree with you about Murakami's prose being simplistic or "wrong." His stories are surreal and dreamlike, and his prose reflects that. I wish I had the Wind-up Bird Chronicles in front of me so I could quote a passage about the well the main character gets stuck in. It's great language, gripping narrative, and kept me reading, even though the ending, as has been said, leaves you wondering what was it all about. But I suppose that's your point, after all, that despite any challenges with the language, you still read a Murakami book with a sense of satisfaction.

I don't know if I just disagreed with you or not.

mooderino said...

@David-glad to do it.

@Brent-No disagreement here. My point is he doesn't follow the conventional techniques suggested to writers to make their writing fresh and original and flowing and vibrant. And yet his writing certainly is all those things.

Jenna Cooper said...

Was this originally written in Japanese? Because sometimes I wonder what translation does to a book, and maybe that's where the cliches and adverbs and such came from.

mooderino said...

@Jenna-it was written in Japanese, but Murakami speaks good English (he translates many books from English to Japanese for the Japanese market) and oversees his translations. It's been noted in articles that the translators are aware of the style he employs (intentionally) as a reaction to traditional Japanese writing which is very elaborate and beautiful.

I should point out that the fact the writing is not full of elegant sentences doesn't stop it from being extremely powerful and enjoyable to read.

Darlyn (Your Move, Dickens) said...

I am so looking forward to getting a copy of this book. The premise does sound weird, but it'll probably be weird in a good I-have-no-idea-what-I'm-reading-but-I-like-it way.

I've read Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore, and I think they were probably translated by the same person. You read the first page, and immediately get the feeling that both books were "written" by the same person, even if they were translated. There might be some cliches, but I found the dialogue pretty impressive.

mooderino said...

@Darlyn-I think he's a wonderful writer, his use of cliches and oddly flat language makes no difference to his work, it just becomes part of it. I wish I knew how he did it.

He has a regular translator who does all his books, although the third part of this trilogy was done be someone else. No one knew there was going to be a third book, he released it a year later with no fanfare. Took his readers by surprise.

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