Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Haruki Murakami's 1Q84

Haruki Murakami's novels often read like a collaboration between Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick. A Wild Sheep Chase, Hard-Boiled Wonderland & The End of the World, Dance Dance Dance, Kafka on the Shore, After Dark, and his latest novel 1Q84 all feature laconic, self-sufficient but emotionally incomplete protagonists, indifferent to or alienated from worldly measures of success, who find themselves unexpectedly thrust into the role of detective when they come into contact with a dreamlike alternate reality.

1Q84 follows two characters (Aomame and Tengo) who shared a brief but intense moment of connection in childhood, and as adults separately find themselves in the world of "1Q84"—a slightly askew version of 1984 Tokyo. The two begin to search for one another in this odd new world, while both are being pursued in turn by Ushikawa, a detective hired by a vengeful religious cult.

The cult is concerned with Tengo because he has ghost-written a best-selling novel that reveals the cult's secrets and describes aspects of 1Q84. The ostensible author of the novel (entitled Air Chrysalis) is a beautiful teenaged girl who has escaped from the cult. The cult is also after Aomame, because she has murdered its leader, a serial rapist of underage girls. The cult leader is the latest and last of a series of killings of abusive men that Aomame has carried out at the behest of a wealthy woman called The Dowager who runs a safe house for victims of domestic violence.

The unusual details of the world of 1Q84, the multiple pursuits, and the novel's split structure (chapters alternate between Aomame and Tengo, with Ushikawa eventually added to the mix) make for compelling reading. And readers of Murakami's other books will recognize some familiar themes, such as lesbianism, an intensely erotic focus on women's ears, Western music (in this case, Janáček's Sinfonietta), and brand-name clothes, drinks and other accessories.

But 1Q84 shows signs of hasty translation. Awkwardnesses occur with dismaying frequency, especially in the portions of the novel translated by Jay Rubin. For example, when NHK and the Akutagawa Prize are mentioned in the novel, they are accompanied by explanations clearly intended for Western readers, and almost certainly not written by Murakami. Doesn't Rubin trust us to go to Wikipedia if a reference isn't clear?

Then there's the sentence "After leaving Komatsu, Tengo walked to Kinokuniya, bought several books, and started reading them over a beer in a nearby bar" (p. 174). Reading "them"? Personally, I've never been able to read several books simultaneously, but perhaps Tengo is more talented than I am. There are verb tense issues as well; on page 331 a lengthy description of two men in a room is followed by "When Tengo entered the room..." Everything that's been described up to this point in Tengo's chapters has been limited to what he has experienced, so it's jarring for the narrative voice to suddenly become omniscient and describe men Tengo hasn't yet seen. Perhaps the phrase should have been rendered "When Tengo had entered the room..."

This is not to absolve Murakami of sloppy writing. On page 87, Aomame has just begun to wonder about disturbing details that don't seem to match those of her familiar world. "Whatever might have happened, she would have to do something to make the world whole again..." This seems like a very premature thought for a character who is just beginning to suspect that something's wrong; she doesn't finally conclude that she's crossed over into another reality for another twenty pages (page 110, to be exact).

Then there are clunkers like "And his experiences...had changed Tengo profoundly" (p. 426)—isn't the very first thing beginning writers learn is that they must show, not tell? Late in the novel Aomame is holding a guarded conversation over the phone with The Dowager's assistant Tamaru in which both are careful to speak in code about her activities—until Aomame says, "He knew from the outset that I had gone there to kill him" (p. 880), and they both continue openly using the word "kill" for the rest of the conversation. So much for being careful. And there is Aomame herself: a beautiful bisexual miniskirted assassin with a designer wardrobe, sexy ears and an inexplicable lust for middle-aged men with receding hairlines. There just seems too much of an admixture of middle-aged authorial fantasy in this character.

Finally, there's the novel's schematic quality: if Chekhov's famous dictum (ironically quoted in 1Q84) is that a gun that appears in the first act will be fired by the third, then—spoiler alert!—two characters living their stories in parallel must ultimately meet. So while I was immersed in the book I found it difficult to put down, when I closed it after finishing the final chapter I felt vaguely disappointed. The novel seemed to be ending just when the most interesting part of the story—Tengo and Aomame's emergence from their emotional shells—was about to begin.



Janáček's Sinfonietta (excerpt)
Nederlands Dans Theater; choreographed by Jiri Kylián

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