1Q84 – Haruki Murakami

January 28, 2012 Leave a comment

It took me three attempts over four months to get past the first few pages of this book. Once I finally got into it, it didn’t leave my hand for an instant.

1Q84  is another slab of icy-cool weirdness of a flavour that only Murakami can cook up. Set in Tokyo in 1984, it’s written as two separate, alternating stories of people having their lives invaded by weirdness. Tengo is a typical Murakami character, a bookish loner and a terrific cook. He’s invited to participate in a get-rich-quick scheme: a 17-year old girl has written a fantasy novel called Air Chrysalis and Tengo’s friend in the publishing industry wants Tengo to anonymously rewrite it. Which Tengo does and they all make a pile of money, but Tengo starts to realise that the original book might be more grounded in reality than he thought.

Meanwhile, Aomame is a sports therapist and part-time assassin, who specialises in making her murders look like heart attacks. Her victims are all violent husbands and sex offenders, and she’s all geared up to take on a high-profile pedophile but for one concern: Aomame is utterly certain that she has been transported into a parallel universe. She admirably sticks to her normal routine of star jumps, sit-ups and stabbing blokes, while trying to figure out how she left 1984 and ended up in 1Q84 (the Q stands for Question mark, y’see).

There are also evil gnomes in this book.

So. Those are the details of the plot. But it’s a Murakami novel, so don’t expect any kind of resolution. Indeed, at one point Tengo finds himself reading reviews of Air Chrysalis which all say that it’s beautifully written but why oh why doesn’t the author ever explain what the hell is going on? If it was a movie, Murakami would at that point have leaned into the frame and given a big wink.

This is probably why so many people have been unsatisfied by 1Q84. It’s got one of the most compelling plots that Murakami’s done, with some Dan Brown-esque twists and turns: evil cults, deadly assassins, beautiful women, private detectives and all the rest. Even the most devout fan of obtuse Japanese metaphysics could be drawn into reading it as a pulpy sci-fi novel.

But it isn’t. It’s a weird, impressionistic fable about love, fiction and the act of creation. The space between parents and children, husbands and wives, authors and novels; somewhere in that space is the location of 1Q84. It’s not just a question of Tengo & Aomame escaping back to their own world; they must learn to engage with a world outside themselves for the first time in their lives.

And if that last paragraph has put you off reading it, then you probably shouldn’t. Seriously, it is just 900 pages of people wondering about stuff.

A lot of people seem disappointed with 1Q84 but personally I loved it. In terms of texture and characterisation, this even beats The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. And while it’s probably not as mindbendingly original as that novel, it’s certainly got more new ideas than most writers manage in a lifetime.

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Blindness – Jose Saramago

January 11, 2012 Leave a comment

In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Blindness sees Nobel laureate Saramago take that old proverb out for a spin, as the unnamed inhabitants of an unnamed city are struck down with a disease that turns their vision milky white, rendering them effectively blind and trapped in eternal sunlight. All except for one character, known as the doctor’s wife, who retains her vision throughout for reasons unknown.

Most of the novel takes place in a quarantine camp set up by the government who are a bunch of sadistic bastards with a fairly loose grasp of epidemiology. Rather than treating the illness and testing them for possible vaccines, the infected are given regular supplies of food and left to fend for themselves. How does that work out for them? About as well as can be expected for inhabitants of a dense metaphor on the nature of capitalism written by a rabid Communist.

(i.e. not very well)

It’s like Animal Farm and Lord Of The Flies, in that the social allegory is always front and centre, although plot and characterisation are pretty sound too, as you might expect from someone who’s earned a benediction from the Nobel committee. Actually, what’s probably most striking is Saramago’s use of language, with character names and recognisable punctuation thrown out the window. A whole conversation can happen in one sentence using only commas, really, yes, isn’t that annoying, no actually you get the hang of it after a while.

The thing it most seems to be inspired by is Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man and there’s the same sense of humanity being slowly eroded as disease, hunger and anarchy start taking over. The filth is the most striking thing: the rotten food, excrement, corpses and other signs of decay that everyone can smell but only the doctor’s wife can see. This misery, while brilliantly rendered gets a little choking at times and can make your skin feel all sticky and dirty.

The last third of the book is set outside of quarantine after blindness has struck the entire city. It’s kind of a very long epilogue and doesn’t have the same narrative drive as the rest of the book, although these is some brilliant writing including a fairly unforgettable glimpse of hell, and another of heaven.

All in all it’s a profound little parable written by a true master, although it will probably make you want to have a long shower afterwards.

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Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

October 25, 2011 Leave a comment

I had never read this book before and it’s the first full novel I’ve read on Kindle.

And it’s…good. I have some criticisms of it. I think it’s a bit too long, and I think there’s a lot of repetition in it. It’s lost a lot of its outrageous edginess since it was first published, I think.

I have a problem with stuff that’s “groundbreaking”. Breaking ground is a very now thing. Once the ground is broken, it’s really not that impressive to point to a pile of rubble and say, “I remember when that t’were all unbroken ground”. Occasionally the avant garde spirit of something will live on, like in a lot of silent cinema where you still get a sense of the joy and exuberance of unfettered creation. I read Catch-22 being familiar with some of the novels that followed it (especially Slaughterhouse 5) and couldn’t love it simply for being different from everything before it.

But I did love bits of it. The central idea of a sane man trapped in an insane war is still fresh, some of the characters are really vibrant and Heller can do things to a sentence that I never dreamed possible. Individual paragraphs fizz off the page like fireworks. One of the chapters towards the end (where an AWOL Yossarian is wandering the streets of Rome) is one of the single best passages of writing I’ve ever read. Ever.

A definite classic, but not one I overwhelmingly connected with. Yeah, basically, I’d say that my main problem is that it’s not Slaughterhouse 5.

Categories: Book reviews