Monday, October 28, 2013

A World with Two Moons

By Lisabet Sarai

For the past three weeks I've been immersed in a single book: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami. Lest you think that I'm a terribly slow reader, let me inform you that this novel, Murakami's most recent, is approximately 1150 pages long. Furthermore, this is not a tale to be rushed, but rather, to be savored. I'm currently on page 743, at the start of Book 3 – “October-December” - and I'm buzzing with pleasant anticipation as I contemplate the next week or two.

Murakami has been one of my favorite authors since I encountered him back in the eighties. I believe I've read all of his novels prior to 1Q84. His stories highlight the isolation and anomie of modern urban life, yet are spiked with a distinctively Japanese magical realism that I find addictive. Practically every character he creates is passive, alone, drifting aimlessly through his or her drab life, oppressed by a vague sense that something is missing. Then the impossible, or at least the unlikely, intrudes and impels the characters to action. In acting, they change. They may connect with other equally lost and lonely souls, though often in a transient fashion that begs any conventional happy ending.

The last Murakami book I read before this one was the slim and elegant After Dark. If you've got the time, you can check out my review on Goodreads: In that review, I commented that After Dark really has no plot, that it's like a curl of smoke or a riff of jazz, beautiful and haunting but without the constraints of novelistic structure.

If After Dark is jazz improvisation, the meticulously plotted 1Q84 is more like a symphony. Every movement, I believe, is carefully planned. Separate themes emerge as solo voices, then converge in choruses of the synchronicity that distinguishes Murakami's fiction. The scenario becomes increasingly fantastic and compelling as the book continues.

I don't want to give away too much of the story, because discovering the twists and turns as the author gradually reveals them is part of the joy of reading. However, I can sketch out the initial events that set the tale into motion.

In the first two thirds of the book, alternating chapters present the perspectives of two seemingly disconnected characters. Aomame is a determined, disciplined woman with a secret profession. Desperate to escape a traffic jam on the freeway that will prevent her from making a critical appointment, Aomame exits from her taxi and climbs down an emergency ladder to street level. Only later does she come to understand that this radical departure from the norm has left her stranded in a subtly different world, a world with a different history and two moons in the sky.

Thirty year old mathematics prodigy Tengo teaches at a cram school and aspires to write fiction. A manipulative editor colleague pressures Tengo into revising a fascinating but disturbing novel by a seventeen year old girl, in order to enter the book into a literary contest. Once he has read young Fuka-Eri's strange tale, he cannot resist temptation. He polishes it into a fictional gem; it becomes a best seller. Gradually he discovers that his creative act has set dangerous forces in motion, that he too has been drawn into a new and disorienting universe that challenges his familiar assumptions.

That's all I'm going to say about the events that propel IQ84 forward. I'll just reiterate that reading it is pure pleasure. The book is written in simple but evocative prose, with a certain distance from its characters that does not prevent you from empathizing with them. Like most of Murakami's books, this one concerns itself with the nature of reality and the malleability of human perception. It's a mystery, a love story, a fantasy, a horror tale, a voyage of self-discovery for its characters. I have no idea how it will end. I consider that high praise.

Here's a bit from one of my favorite sections, describing Tengo's experience as he works on the revisions to Fuka-Eri's manuscript.

He printed a draft, saved the document, turned off the word processor, and shifted the machine to the side of his desk. Now, with a pencil in his hand, he did another careful read-through of the text, this time on paper. Again he deleted parts that seemed superfluous, fleshed out passages that felt underwritten, and revised sections until they fit more smoothly into the rest of the story. He selected his words with all the care of a craftsman choosing the perfect piece of tile to fill a narrow gap in a bathroom floor, inspecting the fit from every angle. Where the fit was less than perfect, he adjusted the shape. The slightest difference in nuance could bring the passage to life or kill it.

The exact same text was subtly different to read when viewed on the printed pages rather than on the word processor's screen. The feel of the words he chose would change depending on whether he was writing them on paper in pencil or typing them on the keyboard. It was imperative to do both. He turned the machine on again and typed each penciled correction back into the word-processed document. The he reread the revised text on the screen. Not bad, he told himself. Each sentence possessed the proper weight, which gave the whole thing a natural rhythm.

When you analyze any particular paragraph, Murakami writing is quiet, without rhetorical flourishes or excessive emotion. Yet somehow he manages to evoke an intense sense of loss, of desperation or of wonder, depending on his intention. I'm certain the author is describing his own writing process in the passage above. The final resulting prose shows exactly that sort of obsessive attention to detail. As a reader, though, you're not really conscious of the craft, because of the way it pulls you into the story.

I'll stop here. I've got to go exercise, and then make dinner. Later, I'll settle into bed for what may be the best part of the day – a few more chapters from this compelling novel.


  1. Well, Lisabet-
    You have certainly whetted my taste buds for Murakami and 1Q84. I really do like to get into longer works. It's like taking a vacation. And what a great pick of a clip of his work, considering the personnel here.

    1. I actually started reading this on the 15 hour plane ride back from my recent trip. I also love really long books (if they're good of course). I recommend The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters - sensational and about 800 pages, if I remember correctly.

  2. this sounds fabulous. i loved the Wind Up Bird Chronicles but that's all the Murikami i've read.i'm also intrigued by After Dark. i have a poetry manuscript with a jazz tone to it. it could use a bit of flavour still.

  3. One thing I find interesting about Murakami is his consistency of voice from one work to the next. If he were a poor writer this might be boring, but given his talent, this doesn't bother me.

    I recommend KAFKA ON THE SHORE, another long tale (though not as long as this one), very weird. And A WILD SHEEP CHASE, one of his early books, extremely strange.

    He has two non-fiction books, one a memoir that I hope to read at some point.

    1. thanks for the recommendations. a friend of mine read his book on running & instantly took up running :) yes, consistent voice is normally something i avoid, but you make this sound like a positive thing...

  4. What Lisabet says about consistency of voice reminds me of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. Three of the four novels are written in Durrell's gorgeous dreamy prose, but the third in the series, "Mountolive" is in a pragmatic, almost stilted voice. It wasn't until I read the last in the series to understand that "Mountolive" was the key novel to the quartet.

  5. Hi Lisabet!

    I've heard about Murakami many times from people who are deeply impressed by him. I've glanced at his writing a few times but never quite gotten there yet. I need to keep trying. Magical Realism, especially as written by latino writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez is my favorite genre. I love its dream like quality and as a writer I love having that creative freedom of not being limited only by what is possible.

    I do also love that well chosen passage which is a good example of craft work for any of us.



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