Review: “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” (Harry Potter #8) by J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne

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What should you, the Muggle book-buyer, make of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? To begin with, if you were expecting the eighth Harry Potter novel, you might be surprised to hold instead the script of the two-part play now running on London’s West End. You might then be alarmed to notice that Cursed Child‘s author is not, in fact, J.K. Rowling, but the playwright Jack Thorne, working on a story by Thorne, the director John Tiffany, and Rowling.

Such is the pent-up affection for these characters, though, that I imagine most adult fans will grit their teeth and read their first stage directions since high school. (Could some enterprising business reporter figure out if, upon the instant of its release, Cursed Child became the best-selling playscript in publishing history? Maybe it still trails, like, Hamlet.)  As happy as I am to see people digging into a play, I’m not sure that this is the one to reintroduce readers to the wonders of the published script. As a delivery device for extremely informed Potter fan fiction, it’s adequate. As a reading experience, it’s terribly undramatic. If Cursed Child is, as I suspect, the first play an entire generation of children will read, theater might be in for a rough couple of decades.

I’ll do my best not to spoil the book’s plot in this post. But it’s not a spoiler to say that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child begins precisely where the seventh novel, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, left off—two decades after the primary action of the series. Harry and Ginny are on platform 9¾, bidding their son Albus goodbye as he heads off for his first year at Hogwarts. Harry’s scar has not hurt him for years. At that moment, Rowling told us then, “All was well.”

Many readers rolled their eyes at that pat ending, and Cursed Child reveals that needless to say, all is not well—and though Harry does feel that scar prickle again, the real conflict is between Harry and his troubled son. Rowling and her collaborators have made the surprising and interesting choice to explore not only the future of the wizarding world, but also the ramifications of Harry Potter turning into an awkward and flawed middle-age dad. Once the golden boy of Hogwarts, now Harry is a parent struggling to understand a very different kind of son—a Slytherin, to start with.

But, powerful as Harry’s and Albus’ filial battles are, that’s about the only fresh twist in a book whose plot feels disappointingly beholden to familiar events, twists, and villains. Through dreams, flashbacks, and other machinations, we spend much of Cursed Child revisiting the past, re-encountering characters both beloved (Snape!) and shrugworthy (Ludo Bagman?!). Albus and his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy, are fourth-years at Hogwarts for most of the play’s action, but they—and the story—are mostly concerned with the events of Harry’s fourth year as chronicled in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The book’s plot, meanwhile, is a mix of Prisoner of Azkaban and Back to the Future II.

That’s not to say the book doesn’t have momentum; Rowling is as good as ever at setting a plot ticking, and the fact that Cursed Child is a play means most readers can knock it out in a couple of hours. But reading a Harry Potter story in script form turns out to be a disappointing experience, one that helps clarify what was so pleasurable about Rowling’s novels. Gone, yes, are the limitless adverbs, the filler sentences of people going up stairs or packing away their books or telling the Fat Lady the new password to the Gryffindor common room. But gone, too, are Rowling’s inventive descriptive passages, the ones that gave the wizarding world magical life, the ones that fueled the imagination. Here, Thorne’s stage directions are resolutely unspecific, hinting at moments that are surely astonishing onstage (the West End production is, by all accounts, a dazzling achievement) but are fuzzy and uninspiring on the page.“This scene is all about magic,” we read early in the book; later, as two characters face off, we’re tipped to the scene’s import with an italicized anvil: “There’s real emotion in this room.” Oh, real emotion? Terrific.

We’re left with dialogue. In Rowling’s novels, characters deliver a mix of clever repartee and thudding exposition. Here Thorne, writing dialogue meant to urge forward a complex plot in a production more dependent on technical wizardry than character development, defaults to the latter. The result is a play that fails to utilize the most elementary of playwright’s tools: subtext. Characters say exactly what they feel, explain exactly what is happening, and warn about what they’re going to do before they do it. “I got his nose, his hair, and his name,” Scorpius says about his father, Harry’s nemesis Draco Malfoy. “Not that that’s a great thing. I mean, father-son issues—I have them.” Leave aside that an 11-year-old is theoretically saying these words—no character in a play should talk like that. And it’s a shame because Scorpius and Albus, best friends and troubled sons, are well-considered creations, potentially interesting characters who lose our interest the more they talk about their feelings.

So is Cursed Child a waste? No, not for a determined Potterphile on the hunt for small, gratifying details. For example, we learn that Hermione, in the position of power devoted fans have always yearned for her to hold, also kept her name. And Rowling seems to have seized the opportunity to correct several inconsistencies or film-related alterations to the rules of her magical universe, ones that have long irritated die-hards: In Cursed Child, Polyjuice Potion definitively does change your voice, and magical duels do not consist of wizards shooting colorful bolts of light at each other. In one electrifying sequence late in the book, Rowling and her collaborators paint a chilling portrait of Hogwarts under the influence of evil and deliver an inspiring scene of familiar characters given surprising new depths battling that evil. To say more would be to spoil it, of course, but the moment makes this flawed play quite worth the time, even if, in the end, it’s less a book than an advertisement for a magical night at the theater—a night most of us Muggles won’t be able to experience for a long, long while.

P.S. I know I repeatedly said I would not be reviewing this book. So, I dedicate this post to the person who changed my mind. Don’t you dare gloat.

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Review: “The Summer Prince” by Alaya Dawn Johnson

The Summer Prince

In the 17th century, fugitive slaves founded a free community in the mountains of northeastern Brazil. They called it Palmares. Contemporary accounts describe the courtyards and the fountains, the churches and council meetings of that sprawling settlement, which survived for decades before a concerted military effort by Portuguese colonists wiped it out in 1695.

Fast-forward several centuries, past a nuclear apocalypse that has scrambled climates and countries, and we come to the founding of Palmares Tres, the great pyramid-shaped city on a Brazilian bay, where author Alaya Dawn Johnson sets her new young-adult novel, The Summer Prince. Founded and ruled by women, the city ascends in tiers — from the algae-farm slums at its base to the queen’s quarters at its tip — and it runs on a rich, strange mix of nanotechnology and archaic ritual.

The first queens of Palmares Tres devised a unique system of transferring power: Each woman can rule for up to two five-year terms. Every five years, the city elects a Summer King, who rules for one year with all the charisma of a rock star — and then dies in bloody sacrifice, choosing the next queen with his dying breath; a dying man’s choice is thought to be incorruptible. As the book opens, the city is preparing to elect a new Summer King, and teenager June Costa recalls the first time she saw the sacrifice. “When I was eight, my papai took me to the park to watch a king die,” she says. “Queen Serafina stood in a stark room of wood and stone – the high shrine. I liked her because her skin was dark and glossy and her hair silk-smooth. I had even gotten a Queen Serafina doll for my birthday last June. But today her face was fierce and still; today she held a blade in her hand.”

June, our heroine, is likably complex. She’s headstrong and confident, frequently referring to herself as “the best artist in Palmares Tres,” but she’s also believable as a slightly naive kid who hasn’t had to look outside the bubble of her privileged life as the stepdaughter of a government official. That life, of squabbling with her mother, working on cheeky performance-art stunts and hanging around with her best friend, Gil, changes dramatically when Gil falls in love with the newly elected Summer King Enki, a young man from the algae-farming slums.

It’s an unexpected twist in a novel full of them. Yes, this is a YA-dystopia-love-triangle story, but how unusual it is to see the heroine become the third wheel to a sensitively depicted gay relationship. And how deliciously unusual it is to read a YA dystopia that’s comfortable with ambiguity and nuance. This is a book that doesn’t condescend. Gil, June and Enki find themselves having to tread carefully as they work out their own answers to a host of questions about love, art, technology, tradition — even sex. Slightly bratty teenager June matures noticeably over the course of the narrative, becoming much more understanding of the adults in her life and what drives them. And even though one of the central conflicts in the book is a standard faceoff between the youth of Palmares Tres and the somewhat ossified ruling class, even the villains come off as understandable in the end.

With all this going on, Johnson doesn’t ignore her world-building. With grace and precision, The Summer Prince walks the line between literary lyricism and good old-fashioned science fiction storytelling. Johnson has created a city that lives and breathes on the page, its samba rhythms and sea breezes balanced by algae stink and rusting spiderbots. Palmares Tres pulses with a vibrant mix of high tech and Brazilian tradition. (Seriously, I want this book to be made into a movie, and I want Bonde do Role to do the soundtrack.) By the time June and Enki pull off their final work of art, you will love the city every bit as much as they do.

Review: “The Devil’s Consort” by Anne O’Brien

Devil's Consort

So, funny story. I bought a copy of The Devil’s Consort without looking at the synopsis and the cover (local indie bookseller recommendations FTW), thinking it’s another Philippa Gregory. Instead, as you can see, the cover said, “Better than PHILIPPA GREGORY” like it could read my mind. Mildly apprehensive but buoyed by the tagline of “England’s Most Ruthless Queen”, I settled in to read a book where I knew I wouldn’t stop making comparisons. Despite my negative (and totally wrong) preconceptions, I found it to be action-packed, full of intrigue and emotional drama, very similar to chick-lit but with greater impact because it’s loosely based on historical fact.

For those of you who are as ignorant as I was on the subject of the European monarchy in the Middle Ages of the non-Tudor variety, Eleanor was a pretty powerful lady; Duchess of Aquitaine (a sizeable region of France) in her own right, she was also the only woman ever to have been queen of both France and England. Documenting the early part of Eleanor’s life, the first person narrative of Devil’s Consort keeps the reader privy to the Duchess’s most intimate thoughts throughout her disastrous marriage to King Louis VI and the initial years of her relationship with King Henry II. Those amongst you who don’t consider yourself history buffs should feel a little more well-educated on the subject of Eleanor of Aquitaine after reading this book, thanks to O’Brien’s in-depth portrait.

A former history teacher, the author has obviously used her passion for the subject to drive her writing, although in places it seems like O’Brien has been so desperate to display her knowledge surrounding the subject that it detracted from the flow of the book.  In particular, parts of Louis’ Crusade were so drawn out that just reading these sections felt slightly like a crusade in itself. Like most historical novels, Devil’s Consort probably takes a fair few liberties with the truth by filling in the blanks in order to make the story as interesting as possible, but from reading around the subject it seems O’Brien managed to stay fairly true to historical accounts. Whilst Eleanor is not the easiest character to love, I did empathize with her frustration at the misogynistic laws which rendered her largely impotent in comparison with her male counterparts.

Devil’s Consort’s main fault lies in its length and the author’s sense of timing.  Over the course of the novel the narrative varies from covering a few days in several pages to many years in one page, and there doesn’t seem to be a good balance. As O’Brien has chosen to document a real person’s life which readers may already be familiar with (even those who aren’t are greeted with an Aquitaine family tree before starting the story), I would have preferred a little more emotion and excitement into the writing in order to truly grip the reader.

Sadly, Devil’s Consort is not quite captivating enough to obtain the affections of those who don’t have the best relationship with historical novels. Overall, it was a decent read, particularly as the reader’s guide at the end gives you further suggested reading to delve more deeply into the historical background and more factual research into the character of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I am particularly excited to read more on what happened to Eleanor and Henry after the novel drew to a close.

Review: “The Invention of Fire” (John Gower #2) by Bruce Holsinger

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John Gower, unsuccessful poet, blackmailer, and a reluctant investigator is not an easy man to like. A court official who knew London well and a good friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, he became closely associated with the nobility and even professed an acquaintance with King Richard II. His potential to be a fictional ‘trader of secrets’ in a city of shadows, fear and filth was compelling, and one seized upon with imagination, relish and consummate mastery by Bruce Holsinger, an award-winning scholar of the Middle Ages.

Last year’s stunning debut, A Burnable Book, introduced us to Gower, part-time poet and full-time dealer in the clandestine, operating in a kingdom ruled by a headstrong teenage king and haunted by the double threat of a French invasion and growing unrest amongst the barons.  That Gower was really losing his sight by this time – famously describing himself as ‘senex et cecus’ (old and blind) – only adds pathos to these exhilarating, intelligent thrillers which brim with atmosphere, authenticity, danger, and mystery. (Read my review of A Burnable Book here)

For a man who lives metaphorically at least by sifting dirt, this story has a fitting opening. Sixteen bodies are found in a London midden. No one knows the dead men, the way they were killed or who could be responsible – and the authorities, both the City and the Crown, seem reluctant to pursue the matter. At the same time, however, they seem desperate to recapture a man and woman who have escaped from jail in Kent, where Gower’s friend Chaucer is a magistrate. Only one thing is clear. Whoever threw the bodies into the sewer knew they would be found – and was powerful enough not to care.

Soon we meet Stephen Marsh, the city’s most creative metalworker, who is recruited by the king’s armorer to come to the Tower and develop ever more lethal “handgonnes,” as the emerging weapons were called; they’re desperately needed to defend against the feared invasion. It becomes clear that handguns were used to kill the men, but the identity of the victims and their killers remains a mystery, despite Gower’s determined sleuthing.

Hampered by his ‘creeping blindness’ and challenged by deception and treachery on all sides, Gower battles to unearth the truth in an inquiry that takes him from the city’s labyrinthine slums to the port of Calais and on to the forests of Kent. As Gower strives to discover the source of the new guns and the identity of those who wielded them, he must risk everything to reveal the truth and prevent a more devastating massacre on London’s crowded streets.

London itself plays almost as much a part as do the characters. Real people like Chaucer, London Mayor Nicholas Brembre and various members of the aristocracy mix with fictional ones, to fill half a dozen different plots. Holsinger recreates the sights, sounds, and even the smells and combines them with a complex story of multiple murders, intrigue, pilgrimage, the law of sanctuary, religious hermits – and an amazingly accurate technical description of the development of a new weapon which was to change the face of war.

This is history and mystery in perfect unison, a gripping whodunit set amidst the grinding, grimy reality of everyday life in medieval London and a charismatic, thinking man’s detective driving all the action.

Historical fiction at its best.

 

Review: “The Family” by Mario Puzo and Carol Gino

The Family

Let me begin by saying that I am a die-hard Mario Puzo fan. Unlike a lot of people, I was introduced to his writing through The Dark Arena and The Fortunate Pilgrim. However, nothing could have prepared me for the sheer brilliance of The Godfather, a book so insanely popular it created an entire subgenre in American literature. Culturally speaking, it was one of the most influential film series until a young English boy arrived at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Nevertheless, here I will be talking about Puzo’s last book, The Family, which was completed after his death (July 2, 1999) by his longtime companion, novelist Carol Gino. It is the part adventure saga, past historical romance that Puzo reportedly spent the last 15 years of his life researching. Unfortunately, while the research is excellent, the novel is not.

The story centres on one of history’s most fascinating families, the Borgias. It begins in 1492 as Rodrigo Borgia, utilizing the bribery and political intrigue that were to subsequently mark his reign, becomes Pope Alexander VI. Quickly, Alexander moves to consolidate his family’s power, and thereby its future, by placing his four illegitimate children in positions of authority and privilege. The children, Cesare, Juan, Lucrezia, and Jofre, are simultaneously spoiled and corrupted by their father, who is portrayed as a forerunner of the Mafia dons Puzo had previously written about.

Yet neither the Pope nor his children ever realize their full potential as rich historical characters. Although all of them played prominent roles in Italy’s history, none of them rose above cardboard stature in the novel. Their lives, which were dominated by murder, intrigue, war, rape and even incest, are presented in The Family with soap-opera dialogue in scenes that become increasingly repetitious. At no time do the characters come alive; at no point do they take over the novel. In an effort to portray the historical richness of the Renaissance, the book is stuffed with unnecessary details. Time after time, scenes are presented that add nothing to the central characters or the story itself other than to accommodate the appearance of such historical figures as Michelangelo, Machiavelli, da Vinci and the fanatical Florentine monk Savonarola. Regrettably, the novel fails at even this level.

The Family does not read like a Mario Puzo novel, even a lesser one. A work of such historical depth requires strong, interesting dialogue and even stronger characters to deliver it–the very qualities that always raised Puzo’s work to a higher plane. Neither exists here.

So we are left with two questions. How much of this novel did Mario Puzo actually write? How badly did his talent atrophy during the years of illness that preceded his death? In a touching afterword, Carol Gino writes lovingly of her long relationship with Puzo. She also informs us of his longstanding fascination with the Borgias and the years of research he devoted to what he hoped would be his finest novel. On the final page of the book, Gino tells how she came to complete it.

Two weeks before he died, though his heart was failing, Mario was completely lucid. And one day, as I was sitting in his study across from his desk, he reached down and pulled a bunch of pages, handwritten in red felt marker on yellow lined paper, from the bottom drawer of his desk. I thought it was something from Omerta, but it wasn’t. “Read it,” he said, and handed it to me.

And as I read I began to cry. It was the last chapter of the Borgia book.

“Finish it,” he said. “Promise me.”

And so I did.

I feel like a complete bitch saying that Mario Puzo would have been better served had Gino returned those pages to the desk drawer. But yeah.

Review: “10:04” by Ben Lerner

10 04 Cover

Ben Lerner’s critically acclaimed new novel, 10:04, opens with the narrator walking along High Line Park in Manhattan with his literary agent after having shared a meal of baby octopus “massaged to death” in salt, and he experiences a “succession of images, sensations and memories” which don’t belong to him, but to the octopus: polarized light, a “conflation of taste and touch as salt was rubbed into the suction cups“. After this extremely empathic occurrence, the narrator clarifies: “I am kidding and I am not kidding.”

In retrospect, this line was like a warning shot. 10:04 is a novel which lies in the gray area between kidding and not kidding in the sense that it is not strictly a work of fiction or non-fiction, but a metafiction which is fixated with the mysterious transformation which makes life into art. Doubtless, it is a brilliant novel, but after I finished the book I couldn’t help thinking if I was the victim of a joke of some sort. So I ended up reading Lerner’s other book too and a whole lot of his essays.

Ben Lerner himself is a poet who grew up in Kansas, attended Brown University and travelled to Madrid on a Fulbright scholarship. His debut novel, Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), is about a poet called Adam Gordon, who grew up in Kansas, attended Brown and is living in Madrid on a fellowship. Variety. I like it. Here, Gordon is supposed to be working on a research-intensive poem on the Spanish Civil War but instead, he roams around, visits museums and gets high. Gordon worries that he is a fraud–and maybe he is.  He makes things up to manipulate those around him and is somewhat in awe of seemingly authentic people who appear capable of unstudied and genuine feelings. Theme-wise, Leaving the Atocha Station is adolescent and Gordon reminded me a bit of Holden Caufield. (Refuse to explain. Read Catcher In The Rye) However, the way Lerner probed into Adam’s awkwardness, plus his complicated sentences, makes the story so much more than the Y.A.-fiction it might be mistaken for.

My point is that while Gordon bears a ‘passing’ resemblance to Lerner, you can still make out that he is a fictional character. The narrator of 10:04, Ben, totally seems like a stand-in for the author, partly because, unlike Gordon, who busies himself not writing, Ben does write: he writes 10:04.

Ben is a poet from (guess where?) Kansas who published a successful first novel and receives a six-figure advance for a second novel on the strength of a story that he wrote for The New Yorker. He promises his agent that he will work on expanding thew story during an artist’s residency in Marfa, Texas. While in Marfa, he decides “to replace the book I’d proposed with the book you’re reading now, a work that…is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but a flickering between them.” This ‘flickering’ makes the novel feel structurally unstable, as Lerner jumps from one literary level to another.

"Escher's Relativity". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Escher%27s_Relativity.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Escher%27s_Relativity.jpg

“Escher’s Relativity”. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia

I divided the story into 3 levels. On Level 1, Ben has been diagnosed with a heart condition and consider’s impregnating his platonic best friend, Alex,”not in copula because fucking you would be bizarre but rather through intrauterine insemination“. In one of the funniest scenes in the novel, Ben compulsively rewashes his hands, scared of containing the sample, before masturbating into a plastic container. Meanwhile, his ailing mentor, Bernard, has named him his literary executor. In the midst of all this, Ben decides to write a story involving “a series of transpositions“. He’ll shift his medical problem to another part of his body and call Alex ‘Liza’. Instead of becoming a literary executor, he’ll be approached by a library about selling his papers. He’ll call himself “the author“.

Level 2 is the story, which was actually published by Lerner in The New Yorker and appears as the second chapter in 10:04. Level 3 is the novel that Ben from Level 1, after publishing the story in The New Yorker, begins writing but ultimately abandons: A novel in which an author–the one from Level 2–“tries to falsify his archive, tries to fabricate all these letters–mainly e-mails–from recently dead authors that he can sell to a fancy library.”

To complicate things further, Lerner scrambles the chronology. Ben describes his advance on the second page of the novel and then goes back in time to explain how he came to write the New Yorker story. He writes it, publishes it, again describes his advance and his celebratory octopus-consuming dinner with his agent, flies to Marfa, decides to write 10:04, and returns home to New York. This circularity doesn’t make the novel difficult to follow–though it is quite difficult to describe.

Even when the narrative moves in a linear fashion it does not feel linear since Lerner repeats himself–purposefully, of course. Toward the beginning of the novel, Ben and Alex prepare for Hurricane Irene. Toward the end they experience Hurricane Sandy, an echoing event. The Michael J. Fox movie, Back to the Future, is mentioned several times throughout the novel. In fact, 10:04 is the time when lightning strikes a clock tower, powering the car that takes Fox’s time-travelling character back to “the future”, his present: 1985.

BACK_TO_THE_FUTURE-5

Lerner doesn’t leave it to the readers to make the connections between his fictional and temporal experiments. In Marfa, Ben announces that he’ll write “the book you’re reading now,” he elaborates, ‘I resolved not to dilate my story not into a novel about literary fraudulence, about fabricating the past, but into an actual present alive with multiple futures.” It is very difficult to summarise what Lerner is trying to do. In my opinion, he means that the process of turning life into fiction is like going back in time. While writing fiction, the author feels, like Fox’s character in Back to the Future, that he could make different choices, making a subtly different present.

It is also not strictly accurate to say that “Lerner is driving at” something. Maybe Ben in the story is saying something and Ben Lerner, the author of the book, would argue something completely different, though it’s completely understandable if you conflate the two, and not just because the two share basic life-stories. Ben Lerner’s work in The New Yorker and other journals and magazines have been attributed to Ben, the protagonist in the novel.  It is looking at these insertions that made me think if the novel was a joke. That, like his protagonist, Lerner felt compelled for several reasons to write a second novel and decided to do this by joining already-published work with already expressed ideas, figuring he could justify this process by making it a part of the story. This is an old literary trick: masking laziness with ‘knowingness’.

The Marfa section, in which Ben describes his dull daily life there–eating, sleeping, writing–aggravates the feeling that Lerner does not have that much respect for his readers; that he’s a poet who condescends to write novels, and thinks too highly of his ability to convert whatever he happens to think or experience into narrative. For instance, he describes young Mexican men labouring on his roof and then he describes turning them into characters in his poem. And yes, in case you’re wondering, Lerner was indeed a writer-in-residence at Marfa.

That Lerner sometimes lets the reader in on his meta-fictional jokes does not lessen the feeling that he is trying to get away with something. At the celebratory dinner, Ben’s agent offers him advice on how to write a commercially viable book which will be his “opportunity to reach a much wider audience“. However, Ben does none of that and I think Lerner certainly expects readers to notice this omission as a wink and maybe, in noticing, to excuse any other flaws as intentional elements of a novel meant for a select, rather than “wide”, audience.

If these criticisms sound like whatever the opposite of a backhanded compliment is, then my goal here has been achieved. Lerner has written a rich, sophisticated novel, and maybe he’s not wrong to assume that he can write just about anything on the page and succeed, or that maybe the readers will forgive his repackaging of his own poetry, stories and ideas–especially since it works. However, I don’t believe it will gain him many new fans.

This is not a book that I would recommend to readers in general. But if you have read Leaving the Atocha Station and liked it, you will find 10:04 to be a quite satisfying second effort.

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Okay. So I made a mistake. This should NOT have been my first Murakami. My roommate is happy saying “I told you so”. But since that’s done, I will now try to make sense of the fuck-all (IMHO) that was Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. I think it’s only appropriate I am writing this listening to Leos Janacek’s Sinfonietta (the music that was instrumental in transporting our protagonists to this alternate world).

 Cover

1Q84 is a surreal romance, spread over 3 books and 1300- (very) odd pages, with the first two books being translated by Jay Rubin and the third by Philip Gabriel. Set in Tokyo over 8 months in 1984, it alternates between the perspectives of its two lead characters: Aomame (Japanese for “green peas”), a female gym instructor who avenges victims of domestic violence; and Tengo, a burly maths tutor who ghost-writes a novella about a girl who is visited by the weird gnome-like creatures called the Little People. When they were ten, at school in Ichikawa, Tengo and Aomame once held hands. In that fleeting touch, they each felt urgently drawn to the other. In one sense, 1Q84 simply sets up the conditions for a second encounter. The question is “Will they ever meet again?”

In its early chapters, 1Q84 is like a cross between Steig Larsson’s Millennium trilogy and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (review coming soon). Aomame, stuck in a traffic jam, is about to kill a wife-beating oil broker with an ice pick. Driven by the memory of her childhood friend, who committed suicide after marrying a similar asshole, she carries out such murders on the instructions of a wealthy dowager who runs a women’s shelter. Tengo does odd jobs for this cantankerous editor called Komatsu, who wants him to rewrite an addictive but inelegant novella titled Air Chrysalis submitted for a new fiction prize. The real author, a beautiful and dyslexic 17-year old girl called Fuka-Eri, has been raised as the daughter of a cult leader on a rural commune. There, hippie communism and the cultivation of organic vegetables have degenerated into the fabrication of a full-blown charismatic creed: god-like leader, mind-games, thuggish security, child abuse, sinister incinerator – the works. Fuka-Eri has escaped into the care of Professor Ebisuno, a disenchanted former associate of “Leader”. Now her story, which is both autobiography and science fiction, wins the prize and plunges Tengo into danger.

Two Moons

After this, the story becomes even weirder. When miniskirt hoisted, Aomame had shimmied from the expressway and down into an emergency stairwell on her way to the kill, she had entered a different reality. She first notices it because the cops have swapped their old-fashioned revolvers she thought they carried to bulky semi-automatics. Now, two moons hang in the sky: the normal, original one, and a smaller, lopsided, greenish twin. (At which point, Aomame proceeds to obsess about her own asymmetrical breasts. Coincidence?). In this world, the Little People operate in fact as well as fiction. Gradually, Tengo and Aomame’s tales begin to converge. She is tasked to assassinate the Leader of Sakigake (the cult from which Fuka-Eri ran away) because he is a child-rapist. Meanwhile, enforcers for Sakigake target Tengo as the leak who exposed their secrets through Fuka-Eri’s novella. By the end of the second volume, after a beautifully written assassination scene, Aomame spots Tengo in a suburban playground, gazing wistfully at the twin moons. The third volume, though equally well-written, seems more like an afterthought or an anti-climax. Here we meet Ushikawa, the appallingly ugly outcast who listens to Sibelius Violin Concertos while soaking in the bathtub. People cringe at his approach. Even his children avoid him. An entertainingly satanic figure, he sees it all; nothing escapes him, especially his own repulsiveness. He serves as the novel’s diabolical antagonist, the enemy of love between Tengo and Aomame, and he is quite wonderful to contemplate, up to and including the unforgettable scene in which he meets his nemesis, the dowager’s murderous gay bodyguard.

One of the biggest problems with the book is that too many recaps just slow the motion of the story. Tonally, the entire book feels like it is cluttered with too many details, almost as if Murakami had hoped this oversaturation would remind readers that his story is functioning in an alternate reality. For example, when Aomame gets a very important phone call towards the end of the book, I don’t need to know that she was “seated on a yoga mat, legs wide apart, stretching her iliopsoas muscles, which is actually a much more strenuous exercise than it looked”.

Another problem I had was Murakami attempting to overlay all his threads and themes into one single system. There are pockets of the novel that function so beautifully on their own (for instance, the story of Tengo’s father) that they begin to feel cheapened when Murakami tries to explicitly connect them to other, more theoretical points in the novel. It’s like instead of making thematic discoveries of my own, I have to interpret the connections only in the way he made them.

As for the title, it alludes to George Orwell’s 1984 (my review here) and plays with words (the English ‘Q’ and Japanese ‘9’ are homophones), and the Little People represent a modernized Big Brother. But where Orwell gave us a bracing parable about the horrors of totalitarianism, 1Q84’s ethos was not something I could comprehend. There’s much talk about ‘evil’ in the book, but it boils down to the belief that iniquity is either in the eye of the beholder (moral relativism) or a stabilising force in society (sales pitch for the dark side). I guess it makes sense that in the entire book there is never any sense of real wrongdoing or real pain. In 1984, the story gives you new ideas about power, injustice and cruelty, which are just elements used to service the story in 1Q84. As a consequence, in the book, no matter how appalling an act may be, its moral status remains ambiguous, even irrelevant.

The last thing I am is a moral absolutist, but I was still troubled by Murakami’s willingness to use the rape of children as a mere metaphor and by the general ethical impassivity which pervaded the entire book. While I appreciated the frank and idiosyncratic way his characters experienced sex or dealt with violence, I felt there was something cartoonish and even leering about much of it. For example, when the ostensibly straight Aomame mourns both a victim of domestic violence and a friend strangled by a stranger during sex, she mainly seems to grieve for “their lovely breasts—breasts that had vanished without a trace”. I don’t know if it’s offensive, unrealistic or just insane but then that can be said of the entire book.

For me, 1Q84 was psychologically unconvincing and morally unsavoury, full of lacunas and loose ends, stuffed with unnecessary details but not a coherent story. A large part of me wanted to ask Murakami what he was smoking when he wrote this, but a smaller part acknowledges it as a more than decent book. In the end, Tengo puts it best. “You could pick it apart completely if you wanted to,” he acknowledges. And yet, “after you work your way through the whole thing, with all its faults, it leaves a real impression—it gets to you”.