Saturday, 29 October 2011

Book Review: 1Q84 (Book Three) by Haruki Murakami

Translated by Philip Gabriel

Human beings are, by design, not objective. Everything we do, from how we view the colour of the sky to whether we like or don’t like a film, is influenced by a conflation of factors that go together to make us who we are.

Our problem with objectivity is that our expectations of what something will be like tend to influence how we perceive it. There have been many names and studies given to this sort of tendency, perhaps the most notable being the placebo effect. If an individual expects a pill to relieve their headache, they are more likely to report a lessening of the headache whether the pill has anything in it or not. A review of studies on cough medicine recently concluded that around 85% of their effectiveness related to the placebo and only 15% to the active ingredient itself. Indeed, a doctor once told me that the majority of a doctor’s job is to convey an impression of capability while letting nature takes its course and makes the patient better.

I find the problem of expectations influencing my perception is most clearly displayed in reviewing books. What I take into a reading experience doesn’t necessarily determine whether I like a book or not, but it plays a considerable role in how I feel about it afterwards.

I went into 1Q84 (Book One and Book Two) expecting to love it. Murakami has, for years, been my go to author, the writer I pick up after a boring reading experience, the one who reminds me just why I love reading. Add in the media-hype surrounding this release and the privilege of receiving a pre-publication proof and I couldn’t wait to get started. Yet those who read my review of the first two books might have noticed that no matter how I tried to dress it up with analysis of the sociological issues it raised, I really didn’t enjoy the book. The level of disappointment I felt was directly related to the excitement I took with me into the book.

And this in turn carried over into my expectations for 1Q84 (Book Three). Whereas I took a level of excitement with me into Book One and Book Two, I approached Book Three almost entirely unenthused by the prospect. And I still didn’t enjoy the book. Yet as the excitement with which I approached Book One and Book Two influenced how I subsequently wrote about it, the boredom with which I approached 1Q84 (Book Three) has similarly influenced my this review.

Looking as objectively as I am capable of being (still subjective, I know) 1Q84 is a poor novel. Book Three has a new translator (Philip Gabriel this time), but it is the same tired, bland, repetitive prose. There are chapters where first one character thinks things through in a way that tells the reader exactly what they had already surmised, only for another character to do exactly the same in the next chapter. It’s tedious. I would go as far as to say that every single passage of reflection in the entire book – they are easily distinguished by being italicised and in the first person – could have been cut. They add nothing whatsoever.

There are other developments in Book Three: a new character, a detective named Ushikawa, joins the narrative cast and injects some life into the plot for a while, but cannot rescue the sinking ship. Supporting characters also come into their own, particularly Tamaru who by virtue of not having passages of rumination is one of the most interesting and likable. Otherwise the plot drifts onwards, apparently rudderless, and towards an entirely predictable conclusion.

In an interview with The Guardian in 2009, Murakami said he started writing 1Q84 with two thoughts in his mind: that the book would be about a man and woman searching for each other, and that he’d make “this simple story as long and complicated as possible”.

It rather seems that, in striving for the novel to be as long and complicated as possible, Murakami forgot to consider mundane factors such as the narrative arc, character development, or whether there is any point to it being long and complicated. Proust often appears in conversations, as though Murakami wishes to counter people who criticise 1Q84 for being too long, but it is a false comparison. This is not Proustian prose.

And on the other end of the scale, the book within a book, Air Chrysalis, is often described as a short novel, perfectly formed and lyrically written. In that sense it is like the best of Murakami’s works. 1Q84 is the antithesis of this. It groans under all its unnecessary weight, and the reader does likewise.

It is a conversation in Book One to which I return to sum it all up. When discussing Air Chrysalis, the editor says to Tengo: “People are left in a pool of mysterious question marks…Readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of ‘authorial laziness’.” Tengo promptly replies that, “If an author succeeded in writing a story ‘put together in an exceptionally interesting way’ that ‘carries the reader along to the very end’ who could possibly call such a writer ‘lazy’.”

I entirely agree with Tengo’s reply. But 1Q84 does not leave the reader with question marks. It answers everything at every step of the way and bores the reader by doing so. Nor is it put together in an exceptionally interesting way – it alternates between two and then three characters viewpoints as they don’t really try to solve a mystery – and neither does it carry the reader along to the very end. It is long and complicated. I had to force myself to keep turning the pages, less out of excitement than need for the closure of completing the journey.

1Q84 (Book Three) was first published in the UK by Harvill Secker on 25th October 2011. 368pp, ISBN: 9781846554056
1Q84 (Book One and Book Two) were published in the UK by Harvill Secker on 18th October 2011. 624pp, ISBN: 9781846554070.

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