Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

April 8, 2012

“Ho ho,” said the keeper of the beat

1Q84 by Murakami Haruki, trans. Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel (Knopf, 2011)



The novel is an art of recognition. So said Javier Marías, in conversation with Juan Gabriel Vásquez. As one reads the novel, one recognizes aspects of life that hovered at the back of one's mind and which now the novel served to uncover or awaken.

In the case of Murakami Haruki, ever so reader-friendly in 1Q84, the recognition was not slow in coming. He led the reader by the hand, pointing him to the right ideas.

"George Orwell introduced the dictator Big Brother in his novel 1984, as I'm sure you know. The book was an allegorical treatment of Stalinism, of course. And ever since then, the term 'Big Brother' has functioned as a social icon. That was Orwell's great accomplishment. But now, in the real year 1984, Big Brother is all too famous, and all too obvious. If Big Brother were to appear before us now, we'd point to him and say, 'Watch out! He's Big Brother!' There's no longer any place for a Big Brother in this real world of ours. Instead, these so-called Little People have come on the scene. Interesting verbal contrast, don't you think?"

As I'm sure you know. The speaker of the helpful commentary above defined the grand ambitions of Murakami's project: to supplant Big Brother with newly minted mascots, the Little People who "played some role in the sudden drastic change of Sakigake from an agricultural commune to a religious organization."

In the novel, sentences appeared bold and italicized to set them off and acknowledge their importance. They functioned as markers for the characters', especially Aomame's, increasingly distracted and bifurcating thought process. It was very kind of the novelist to do so, to aid us in recognizing the verbal contrasts and to highlight the sentences. Lest the reader had trouble recognizing what the fine print was saying, he had to be reminded for his own good and for his own sake. It was a safeguard against misreading.

As I'm sure you know.

The novelist relied on repetitions to emphasize his ideas. It also signaled sharp movements in the plot and illustrated the agitations of characters. The way repetitions were handled here, however, was rather lame. Aomame, for example, had to ask herself four or five times why she was so concerned about the rubber plant. Why, of course, it was so important in the whole scheme of things. The plot development demanded that she repeatedly torture herself about her rubber plant because the next scene was quite the turning point in the story, featuring some more damning repetitions in boldface and italics.

(A Heart So White by Javier Marías, now there's a masterful example of repetition, a novel in which love was a totalitarian desire and flirtations with 'totalitarianism' didn't go to waste. In that novel, Marías allowed perfect and natural timing for passages to be repeated. They settled well in the reader's minds. Recognition came unaided and not facilitated. Recognition came from interpretation. In contrast to Murakami's, Marías's repetitions in his novel—incidentally, also a novel dealing with violence against women—were sublime, vouchsafed in various degrees of abstraction: repetition as delusion, as salvation, as an instrument of one's undoing. In 1Q84, repetitions were mere repetitions. The recurrence of passages, consecutive and artificial, was foisted on the reader.)

In describing Ushikawa, Tengo had to resort to an ad hoc survey to prove his point.

Around the borders of the flat, lopsided area of his head clung thick, black, curly hair that had been allowed to grow too long, hanging down shaggily over the man's ears. Ninety-eight people out of a hundred would probably be reminded by it of pubic hair. Tengo had no idea what the other two would think.

Surely the 98% of respondents was large enough to convince the reader of Ushikawa's shaggy hair? This survey had to be conducted with enough samples. 95% alone won't cut it.

In describing Ushikawa's manner of dressing, Tengo was dutifully precise with details, looking at every fiber of his interviewer's clothing. And he had to end not with punch lines but with punches.

The man’s gray suit had countless tiny wrinkles, which made it look like an expanse of earth that had been ground down by a glacier. One flap of his white dress shirt’s collar was sticking out, and the knot of his tie was contorted, as if it had twisted itself from the sheer discomfort of having to exist in that place. The suit, the shirt, and the tie were all slightly the wrong size. The pattern on his tie might have been an inept art student’s impressionistic rendering of a bowl of tangled, soggy noodles. Each piece of clothing looked like something he had bought at a discount store to fill an immediate need. But the longer Tengo studied them, the sorrier he felt for the clothes themselves, for having to be worn by this man. Tengo paid little attention to his own clothing, but he was strangely concerned about the clothing worn by others. If he had to compile a list of the worst dressers he had met in the past ten years, this man would be somewhere near the top. It was not just that he had terrible style: he also gave the impression that he was deliberately desecrating the very idea of wearing clothes.

The last two sentences were like two nails that crucified Ushikawa's fashion sense, after he was kicked and flogged all the way to Calvary. This representative passage—1Q84 was full of it—was poorly executed not because of the subject matter of ugliness, but because of the strained diffusion of poor details. As a stand-in novelist for his creator, Tengo was hardly the promising prose stylist. Murakami here calcified the application of his unrealistic approach to fiction writing, which he disclosed in his 2004 Paris Review interview.

I like details very much. Tolstoy wanted to write the total description; my description is focused on a very small area. When you describe the details of small things, your focus gets closer and closer, and the opposite of Tolstoy happens—it gets more unrealistic. That’s what I want to do.
...
The closer it gets, the less real it gets. That’s my style.

The effect, in this novel, was indeed as unreal as it gets. It was lousy writing. The prose was simply depauperate.

Near the end of his encounter with Ushikawa, Tengo had to sum it up: "Ushikawa's oddities were an unending source of fascination." And the incredulous reader had to take Tengo's word for it. Surveys and worst dressed lists were the ever reliable indicators of the truth of his claims. But if we're not yet convinced, here was Tengo's parting shot to a secretary right after Ushikawa left the premises.

   "I always tell myself not to judge people by their appearance. I've been wrong in the past and had some serious regrets. But the minute I saw this man, I got the feeling he couldn't be trusted. I still feel that way."
   "You're not alone," Tengo said.
   "I'm not alone," she echoed, as if to confirm the grammatical accuracy of Tengo's sentence.
   "That's a beautiful jacket you're wearing," Tengo said, meaning it quite honestly. He wasn't just flattering her. After Ushikawa's crumpled heap of a suit, her stylishly cut linen jacket looked like a lovely piece of fabric that had descended from heaven on a windless afternoon."
   "Thank you," she said.

Like a lovely piece of fabric descended from heaven on a windless afternoon. One had to admit it was nice verbal contrast to Ushikawa's "deliberately desecrating the very idea of wearing clothes." Thank you. Now we're totally convinced. 100%. Cue the Little People.

“Ho ho,” said the keeper of the beat.
“Ho ho,” the others chimed in.

4 comments:

  1. Ushikawa was my favourite character.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I find he was heavily caricatured though. It was laid on too thick on him.

    ReplyDelete
  3. That gave him the comic book appeal, at this point in the book the lead protagonists were looking a bit vague wishy washy & were starting to annoy me, he made me grin.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yeah, he's quite a 'character'.

    ReplyDelete