Monday, June 13, 2016

Review: 1Q84

1Q84 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As I see it, magical realism works from a basic premise. In its most famous form(s), in Garcia Marquez or Bashevis Singer for instance, it takes the “real,” – the experience of our everyday -- crosses it with the imagined or impossible, and explores a middle ground of almost-possibility. The story happens in that middle ground (or twilight) between what we know and what we imagine. It’s a great technique, and there’s a reason it generated as many Novel prizes as it did.

In Haruki Murakami’s best work – Kafka on the Shore, Hardboiled Wonderland, or Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – he does something different. He also starts from two places and works toward a middle ground, but neither is in and of itself real or magical. Instead, each thread of his stories is already a combination of the real and the magical. He famously braids two lines of narrative, but what strikes me as his “formula” (a word I do not use pejoratively) is to demonstrate that everyone’s situation is already ‘magically real.’ His middle ground is the space in which two characters, each already confronting the impossible and magical, have their stories overlap.

In other words, he takes the traditional magical realism method to the second power. He is “squaring” the destabilizing effect of the genre, not giving us a stable place to recognize as “the normal,” and, instead, inviting us into a large and swirling experience of strange and unsettling images. That formula may sound easy – and I thought it was when I first read his work – but if it really is easy, then show me someone, anyone, who can do it half as well. It works because Murakami has the deepest imagination of any writer alive.

That’s a long prologue, but it lets me say that, as much I do enjoy this book, I think it falls short of Murakami at his best.

First, it simply has a lot of redundancy. The two threads here – the Tengo story and the Aomame story – are each intriguing, but Murakami is uncharacteristically clumsy in resuming each one. That is, we’ll get a Tengo chapter followed by an Aomame chapter, but then we’ll get a recap when we get back to Tengo. There is a charming “In our last episode…” quality to it, but it also feels a bit condescending and a lot time-wasting. This is almost 1000 pages long (and they’re long pages), and those recaps feel like unnecessary filler.

Second, part of what makes Kafka at the Shore or Hardboiled Wonderland so great is that they feel like separate novels. You simply don’t know how those different threads will connect, and that’s largely true even at the end, when, even if the separate worlds touch, there’s an incompleteness to their merger. That fundamental mystery feels almost theological, and it shows Murakami at his most magical (at his most magically squared?). In this case, we know from the start how Tengo and Aomame are connected. It’s as if, in this, his longest novel, he telegraphs a key element of the ‘ending.’

With that, Murakami is more explicit about his inquiries here, too. We get more explanations from all-knowing characters (like Leader, Fuka-Eri, or even the Dowager) than usual, and the metaphysical terms seem to be on the table more than usual. In addition to the great imagery we’re accustomed to – the idea of a “cat town” from which no trains depart, of a world where two moons hang in the night sky, or of a concept as compelling as an ‘air chrysalis’ – we get a lot of explanation about what Murakami thinks he’s doing. As one character puts it, “There is nothing in this world that never takes a step outside the human heart to be seen in the evening sky.” I find that a gorgeous line, but I also find it a bit condescending. It feels like our author is explaining his method at the same time as he is demonstrating it. I prefer the unexplained magic of his other work. As another character puts it toward the end, “It’s very difficult to logically explain the illogical.” Agreed. And that’s why the explanations we do get diminish the power of the illogical at the heart of this.

I don’t want to go too far in carping about this, though. In many ways, it’s the best love story I’ve seen from Murakami, and there is a maturity here beyond something like Sputnik Sweetheart, an earlier novel where he seems to be just figuring out how wide he can spread his magical net. There is something moving about Tengo’s stolid commitment to doing what he does well. And there is a compelling righteousness in the way Aomame refuses to watch women be battered. This is set not in our own history but in 1Q84, but it feels like an examination of our world, particularly in its echoes of the Aum Shinrikyo subway attack. In that light, Murakami refuses to condemn or to embrace traditional theology; rather, as he so often does, he gives it a magical weight and lets it be a further variable in his study of what is real and what lies just beyond the bounds of the real.

If you’re new to Murakami, I suggest starting elsewhere. If you’ve read your share, then go for it knowing that this has many of the virtues of his best work but that it’s not quite as nimble, not quite as magically fragile as his best.

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