Some thoughts half of the way through 1Q84-
With a writer like Murakami, you have to adjust your standards, and, not only that, but your definition of standards. You must understand that symbolism will set heavier than gravity on one particular scene, two characters holding hands and looking exactly into each others’ eyes, while whole swaths of text filled with they’ve-just-got-to-be symbols (the presence of a second moon in the night sky, a recurring musical piece, the murder of a trusted dog) are not. Simply, are not. You must also allow that characters will speak their emotions (“I am surprised,”) rather than feel them. Murakami has a brilliant way of making all of his characters, across all of his books, robots half-disguised as people. They are rational to a point of absurdity, and use memory in the same way a computer would; as storage. Occasionally, characters in Murakami’s work will say (or have grafted onto them) they are haunted by the past. However, you get the sense that it is meant in a very literal way; past events will spring to mind more often than a character would like (extending the robot/computer analogy, perhaps these robot/computers are so compelling because they are broken, have viruses, are somewhat out of date), but these events, aside from appearing in a character’s mind, do not have much of an impact. They are mosquito buzzing around an unlit room.
And don’t even get critics/haters started on, as mentioned in the NY Times review of 1Q84, Murakami’s compulsion for describing intense detail of ordinary things- every item of food eaten for a meal (complete with spice and temperature), every article of clothing adorning a person, every single piece of accoutrements on a wall in a room mentioned once and never to be thought of again. This annoys the hell out of a lot of readers of Murakami, and goes hand in hand with the argument about symbolism. When intelligent writers spend real periods of time on a topic, the idea is they are doing it for a reason. It is also, in relation to 1Q84 what have lead many critics to call the work inherently sexist. The book contains innumerable instances of sexual violence against women, yet these instances take up less space than Murakami’s descriptions of what his female characters wear on dates. In addition, whenever a male character meets a female character in 1Q84, her breasts will be described, reviewed even, within a page. The book has more than a male gaze; at its worst, it has a male leer.
Likewise Murakami’s books, as tightly controlled as they are, have a shockingly quiet and shallow moral compass. Murakami would agree that our society is sexist, he would agree that sexual assault is horrific, but he doesn’t quite know what to do with these ideas, other than to have characters think them after they witness acts of sexism and/or sexual assault. It is true that almost every act of sexual violence leads to an act of vengeance against the perpetrator, but it seems, then, that these instances of rape and sexual abuse are merely in the text to show how evil the evil characters are. The sexual assaults are, in general, made reference to more in terms of the perpetrator and how they’ll get theirs in the end, than about the victim (and you can be certain, in Murakami’s world, they are victims, not survivors). If one can, momentarily, ignore the fact that sexual assault should never be used as a literary device (I state that as a general rule; the people who are good enough writers to pull it off are the type to specifically break such roles), that person are still left asking, well, what kind of device? What purpose does it serve? Could this story be the same story without these elements? This is problematic stuff.
If you can accept Murakami’s characters as semi-sentient being, his use of symbolism as consistent as a drunk driver’s use of lane dividers, and the ambiguity of his moral compass, there are remarkably invigorating trains of thought that can come out of his books. There must be one more caveat, but it is, in addition to a warning, also something to be celebrated. Murakami can be a fucking terrible writer. He really can. “After distorting her face for a while, Aomame made an effort to relax each of her facial muscles until she had resumed a normal expression.” (105) “When he woke up at eight o’clock the next morning, Tengo realized that he was a brand new person.” (426) “She wore a thin crew-neck sweater of pale green and white jeans, with no jewlery or makeup, but still she stood out.” (45) These are egregious, and most of the book is not. But with instances like this, his writing can be so bad that it turns back around to being good. Maybe that’s a poor excuse, and one that won’t work for most people, but it sure keeps me reading.
What ALL of this doesn’t take into account, though, is that this is the authors voice. Asking Murakami to write less stilted dialog, less-meticulous descriptions, deeper female characters or more emotional protagonists is something he will never be able to do. Maybe it’s a thing about Japanese novelists (Kazuo Ishiguro and Kenzaburo Oe are very much the same), but these are books which demand to be met on their own terms.
So then, if one can’t look to Murakami’s books as a source of compelling characters, or brilliant writing (and I will revise my point as I’m making it; just as Murakami can writer stinkers, he can also absolutely write beautiful passages, even in the increasingly critically- maligned 1Q84), why the hell are people still reading this guy? The answer, my answer, is twofold. First, the boring part, which I will say briefly because it is non-controversial and doesn’t need to be expounded upon- Murakami is a great storyteller. The plots of his books hold readers like that thin white string hold the yoyo. You will not leave.
The more interesting reason for why people read Murakami is that he complicates things. He is pushing buttons. The things we hate about him are intentional. We have trouble settling into his books because we cannot relate to his characters, cannot subscribe to his moral vision, but that doesn’t matter; off we go. And the truth is, every single Murakami novel will devolve from the world it initially inhabits into something fuzzy, something less real (the white room of After Dark, the well of The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles, The underground world of Hard Boiled Wonderland). And perhaps those two worlds will collide or intersect, or perhaps they will not. And perhaps readers can guess why characters drop or rise from one world into another, or perhaps they simply follow this change as though a character went from a dining room to a kitchen to get more salt. One thing Murakami’s books are not, at all, is self reflective. There is no point where Murakami will say “how crazy is this?” or “What I’m trying to get at here…” or “why don’t you compare this to my life story?” For him, the story begins at page one and ends on the last page.
But this stuff it too weird to leave at that; readers go back and struggle, they go back and look for things which aren’t there. They go back to the problematic elements and try to see what he’s done with them, and the answer is probably nothing. Here’s the point, and it is one you simply must accept in order to enjoy, or, better, to understand why you enjoy Murakami’s books- they are out of this world. His stories have elements of Japanese culture, they have a fetishisation of American culture (find me a Murakami protagonist who doesn’t put on Coltrane/Dylan/Cole Porter records and drink single malt scotch/whiskey/gin), but they inhabit neither of these worlds. Even before Murakami introduces the otherworldly element into any of his stories, they are not set in a world we can understand or live it. This is tricky, because we almost can, we almost can say “this character is in mourning” or “this character is in love,” but Murakami’s characters never experience love, mourning, or anything else in a way that is supposed to correlate to how people in our world would react. These books are science fiction because these characters are All. Fucking. Aliens. So, although Murakami’s books are set in places we could go visit, people go back to Murakami, people love him, because they’re not our world, exactly. Murakami books, they’re half a mirror.
The truth is, this is exactly, to a T, how I feel about St Vincent. Nothing feels real, but everything is a catalyst. Strange Mercies is an exceptional album that you will have an infinitely hard time coming to terms with.
Also, last night was so cold and dark that, before I could do anything else, I had to get drunk to Dwight Yoakam. On Repeat.
Also Also, The Evens are releasing a new album!
Also Also Also, it is mid-November. That scares the color out of me. I promise one more post, at least, before my faves of the year.