Saturday, December 3, 2011

Flabby Fantasy

This appeared in today's The Indian Express.

1Q84 Haruki Murakami

A female assassin wielding an ice-pick. Shadowy members of an underground, quasi-religious sect. A group of so-called Little People from a parallel dimension. Eerie doppelgangers emerging from an “air chrysalis”.  A tale of a town of cats. And a sky with two moons. Wrapped together in cool, affectless prose with references to jazz, classical music, Hollywood and George Orwell. Who else but Haruki Murakami could have the chutzpah to combine all of these into a three-part saga totalling almost a thousand pages?  Halfway through 1Q84, however, another question arises: has his reach exceeded his grasp?

This brick of a book tells the intertwined stories of Tengo, putative writer and teacher of mathematics, another one of Murakami’s confused loners, and Aomame, massage therapist and avenging angel. The two met briefly in school and now, years later in 1984, events are set in motion that have them circling around each other in Tokyo and its environs, wondering if they will re-unite.

Aomame, stuck in traffic in the back seat of a taxi on Tokyo’s Metropolitan Expressway, decides to take a short cut by walking through an abandoned turn-off. The taxi driver prophetically cautions her: “Things are not what they seem... But don't let appearances fool you. There is always only one reality”. From here on, she’s plunged into an alternative existence, one that she calls 1Q84 -- with the “q”, in English translation, standing for a question mark: “a world that bears a question”.

Tengo, meanwhile, has his own problems to grapple with. He’s tasked by an editor to rewrite Air Chrysalis, the manuscript of a 17-year-old named Fuka Eri with storytelling skills but a raw, unfinished style. Drawn to this enigmatic, other-worldly teenager, Tengo completes the rewrite and the book goes on to become a bestseller. The ghost writer now finds that he’s opened a Pandora’s Box, as Air Chrysalis may not entirely be a work of fiction, after all.

Twin-track plotlines, alternative realities, sundered sweethearts and the loneliness of those who find themselves unable to fit in: Murakami has used all of these devices and themes before, though 1Q84 is probably his most detailed exegesis yet. It’s clear from the start that he intends this to be 'bigger' than his earlier work. The characters' backgrounds, clothes, diet, cultural and sexual appetites are dwelt upon in some detail, and then, there are creaky efforts to incorporate facets of contemporary Japanese history. Tengo's father for example, flees to Tokyo from Manchuria after the Soviet invasion in 1945 and there are references to the student movement to protest against US-Japan security treaty in the Seventies. All of this, combined with repetition and overwriting, means that the book is much larger – though ‘flabbier’ is a more apt word -- than it ought to be. 

Though there’s an engaging flow to most of 1Q84, with a patterned criss-crossing of action and reaction, there are also several examples of clich├ęs and lazy writing. For example, on just a single page chosen at random, one finds Aomame musing that “what she needed...was to be held by someone, anyone”. A little later: “The gun had almost become a part of her body”. More troublingly, did we really need to be plunged into so much detail in the scene of intercourse with a pre-pubescent? (Bad Sex Award alert.)

The resonances with Orwell’s dystopia, too, seem alternately forced and underdeveloped. The virus-like Little People – a counterpoint to Big Brother, a malevolent version of the shoemaker’s elves – sometimes come across as more risible than menacing, especially when emerging from the mouth of a dead goat, uttering clunky dialogue. 

It turns out that at the heart of this bloated fantasy is a tender love story: “Tengo could hardly believe it -- that in this frantic, labyrinth-like world, two people's hearts -- a boy's and a girl's -- could be connected, unchanged, even though they hadn't seen each other for twenty years”. This, come to think of it, is an aspect that should appeal to those yearning for the Murakami of Norwegian Wood.

Perhaps if it had been published in three separate parts -- as was the case with the Japanese original -- the repetitions and recapitulations would not have grated as much. Murakami takes pains to point out on more than one occasion that Air Chrysalis, the manuscript that Tengo rewrites, is a mesmerising, vivid and taut novella. A pity, then, that 1Q84 doesn't quite share the same qualities.

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