Monday, April 23, 2012

Surrealism in Tokyo

A woman is stuck in a traffic jam on her way to an important appointment. She steps out of her cab and gets off the elevated highway by climbing down a secret staircase. This act, in the first chapter of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami, is apparently enough to knock her into a parallel universe - one where things seem at first to be only slightly different.

The woman who got out of the cab is Aomame, a physical therapist who has a secret life: she assassinates men who have gotten away with raping and abusing women.

 Aomame’s chapters are alternated with those of Tengo, a slacker whose easy part-time job leaves him plenty of time to work on unsuccessful fiction. Tengo gets roped into a scheme whereby he rewrites a brilliant but badly-written novel, which is up for a prestigious literary prize. The book, whose author is a teenage girl, describes the mysterious ways of the Little People, who came into her life through the mouth of a dead goat and began building an air chrysalis.

 There is a connection between Tengo and Aomame, but the reader doesn’t learn about it for another 400 pages.

I don’t think I can further summarize the plot, but I will say that it includes a secretive religious cult, a wealthy widow who runs an illegal secret organization, her gay bodyguard, a hideous private investigator, a fun-loving but lonely female cop, the doubling of the number of moons in the sky, and the possibly-sinister doings of the Little People.

There’s nothing madcap about any of this. The increasingly strange world in which Aomame and Tengo find themselves is presented with great seriousness.

1Q84 has its problems. While it is often fascinating, it is also a huge and rather slow-moving behemoth, with long portions in which not a lot happens. Some of the conversations are numbingly repetitive, and the author describes the size and aesthetic qualities of female characters’ breasts in far more detail than I thought necessary. And it’s really just so weird.

But I did become completely absorbed in 1Q84 - immersed in it, as though I had walked down a staircase into another world. I wanted to read more, instead of sleeping or going to work, and the weirder it got the more engrossed I became.

1Q84: it’s a big peculiar book, probably not for everyone, but certainly one I enjoyed. If you’re intrigued but don’t think you can take on a project of this size, I heartily recommend Murakami’s achingly beautiful (and much shorter) Norwegian Wood, instead.

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