Review: ‘1Q84’ by Haruki Murakami

1Q841Q84 by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

According to my Goodreads log, I started the 1,157 paperback-bound pages of Haruki Murakami’s “1Q84” on July 14. Last night, on November 27, I finally finished it.

In the four months, 13 days, 2 hours and 31 minutes it took me to read the book, a solar eclipse worked its way across the United States; Glen Campbell died; hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria struck the United States and Caribbean; Hugh Hefner died; 58 people were killed in a mass shooting in Las Vegas; Fats Domino died; 26 people were killed in a mass shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas; and Prince Harry got engaged. Donald Trump was in his 27th year as president.

Also, I read a handful of other books, including Joshua Green’s “Devil’s Bargain,” Andy Weir’s “Artemis” and George Orwell’s “1984.” It was Murakami who inspired me (and my book club) to pick up Orwell again. It was a nice respite while it lasted.

Well, a lot happens when you’re trudging through nonsense.

I will say, unlike so many other events of the past few months, “1Q84” didn’t leave death and destruction in its wake. However, it did keep me from reading at least four other books and a stack of New Yorkers.

The story does start out with a bang. In the year 1984, Aomame is a pretty young fitness instructor on the cusp of 30 who has a job to do: kill a man. On her way to her assignation, she gets out of a cab and, upon descending a freeway staircase, she enters another world – one almost exactly like this one except it has two moons.

(Oh, and the parallel Earth is apparently controlled by the Little People. But I’m getting ahead of myself.)

The other main character is a math teacher on the cusp of 30 named Tengo. He teaches to make ends meet; his real focus is writing. His publisher puts him together with a teenager named Fuka-Eri, who has written a raw manuscript called “Air Chrysalis.” Tengo’s job is to polish the book. He, too, crosses over into the world that Aomame calls “1Q84” (the Q is a pun in Japanese) and gets entangled with the cult that Fuka-Eri escaped. (“Air Chrysalis” also contains references to the Little People. This is significant.)

There’s an eerie connection between Aomame and Tengo. When the two were 10 years old, they were two lonely children at the same elementary school, and — for a brief moment — held hands. This is an experience neither has ever forgotten, and both are convinced that the other is The One. For the next 1,000 pages, they will attempt to reconnect, and then the world will end in an orgasm of explosive passion.

Well, no. You’re not really sure what’s going to happen when they meet, or if they’ll meet, or what their meeting will mean. But essentially, the attempt to reconnect is the plot driver. And as a driver, it’s the equivalent of an Uber guy taking you all over town before getting to your destination, which he finally approaches doing 10 miles per hour.

Fortunately, as you’d expect with Murakami, there are also lots of other plots, some unusual – a ghostly NHK fee collector who harasses people, a creepy private detective on the trail of Aomame and Tengo – and some straight out of a thriller.

Perhaps the best involves the cult, Sakigake, that Fuka-Eri has escaped and Aomame used to belong to. A sequence in which Aomame is tasked with killing the Sakigake leader becomes both a master class in suspense and a philosophical argument about responsibility. Another section, in which Tengo goes to a small city to care for his distant, dying father, is a moving meditation on regret.

And then there’s the private detective, Ushikawa. He’s a former lawyer with a misshapen head and an outwardly odious appearance, and early on, he’s no more than a Peter Lorre character, offering Tengo hush money and quietly threatening him. But in the last third of the novel (which was published as three books in Japan) he comes into his own, rationalizing his work as he comes closer to unraveling the Aomame-Tengo mystery. He’s fascinating, repulsive, and worthy of his own book.

But that’s the thing about “1Q84” – there are LOTS of books within its pages. I wish Murakami would have chosen one and streamlined the rest, or somehow made the whole thing more picaresque. Instead, it’s every bit as baggy as its 1,100-plus pages would have you fear. There are musings on food, blind alleys on the characters’ backgrounds (what DID happen to Tengo’s mother? Your guess is as good as mine), lots of lush copy on breasts (“Aomame thought again of Tamaki. She remembered her smooth, beautifully shaped breasts. So different from my own underdeveloped chest, she thought. But those beautiful breasts are now gone forever”), and virtually no explanation of the Little People.

The Little People can apparently get bigger once they crawl out of people’s mouths. And they say “ho-ho” a lot, like Disney’s Dwarves. They also build air chrysalises. I don’t know their thoughts on breasts.

There were many times during my months of reading I put on my old English major hat in attempts to figure out “1Q84’s” depths. Is Murakami making comparisons to Orwell’s “1984”? If so, it’s only in the sketchiest ways. What is the symbolism of the two moons? Seemingly nothing more than a way to separate Earth 1 from Earth 2. Why is Ushikawa’s tongue a mossy green, like the second moon? Maybe he didn’t brush his teeth enough. That’s my theory, anyway.

I had high hopes for “1Q84.” I loved “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” which packed powerful tales of the 1930s Manchurian war into its broader plot. And there’s no question Murakami is a talented writer, capable of turning a phrase or sustaining the thrills of his off-kilter worlds. But the jumbled “1Q84” really could have used an editor.

It’s ironic. “1Q84” wants to be, among other things, a book about the power of storytelling, about losing yourself in another world. And, certainly, there are some books in which you reach the final page and then exhale, as if you’ve just come up for air. But upon finishing “1Q84,” I knew two things: Donald Trump was still in his 27th year as president, and I’d rather visit Orwell’s Room 101 than slog through “1Q84” again.

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Todd plans, God laughs

I’m typing this on my phone, so forgive the lack of links and polish.

The reason I’m typing it on my phone is that I have no wifi. Even if I did, I wouldn’t be able to type it on my easier-to-type-on iPad because I can’t find it. I think I left it in my overnight bag back at the hotel — this after checking the room at least twice to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything after a week’s stay. 

I should back up. I’ve moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to take a job with Lutron, the lighting control technology company. My last weeks in Atlanta were hectic and anxiety-ridden, not least because I was leaving a place I’ve called home for most of my life, and also because — despite being quite conscious of my decisions — realizing how little control I had over the situation, emotionally and otherwise. I was at the mercy and schedule of movers, realtors, bankers and Georgia State University, where I was teaching. About all I could do was make sure the cats were squared away, keep my wife (away on a fellowship) informed, and hold on. 

Time was going to move whether I liked it or not.

So I gave my final, I let the movers do their thing, I closed on the Atlanta house, I picked up the cats and headed north. I had decent weather and the cats were well behaved. I got here last Saturday and checked into a Staybridge Suites in advance of my first real week at Lutron. (I actually started in March, but knew I was headed back to Atlanta for six weeks.)

The work was fine. But I also closed on my Bethlehem house, a twin built in 1907. It’s been well cared-for, but you still can’t compare it with a modern residence built in 1992. We had an amazing and large kitchen in Atlanta; here there’s barely enough cabinet space for glasses and plates. Our master bedroom had plenty of space and an adjoining bath; this four-bedroom place has one bath, total. (We’re planning/hoping to add a second, but see the title of this post.) We chose it for location — it’s walkable to downtown — and knew what we were getting, but still …

Anyway, aside from the mountains of boxes, the house has taken on a smell. The next-door neighbor says a skunk must have gotten under the porch, or maybe he got in a fight there. Either way, the stink ranges from annoying to bad. I called a pest control guy, but he can’t get here until Friday. I’d open the windows, but the skunk mating (presumably — apparently this is the season, and if the female doesn’t like the male …) has coincided with a cold snap.

Meanwhile, I can’t find the green bag that contains the iPad. I could swear I threw it in the car, but I don’t see it in the house, and I put everything down in the same area. There’s a possibility it’s buried, but I’ll bet I left it — which means, goodbye, iPad. (Yes, “Find my iPad” is activated, but it only works if it’s online, which it’s not.)

And then there’s the endless unpacking. I haven’t even started on the books yet. I swear this time I’m going to get rid of most of them. Moving is hard enough without toting around dozens of boxes of books you’ve read — or may never read. I’ll let the libraries take over.

Anyway, I’d say things can only get better, but I’m Jewish, so I’ll assume nothing. (Next steps include changing my car license and registration, but Pennsylvania’s car registration rules are onerous — a non-laminated Social Security card? I’m lucky I know where my SS card is! Fortunately, not with the iPad bag.)

The cats are enjoying things, though. And they’re a joy to watch. And next week Sarah will be here — as will the ISP guy. 

Incidentally, isn’t it time we make internet as easy a utility as water or electricity, in that you just call and they just switch the name?

Addendum, Sunday, 11:01 a.m.: I found the bag! It was, indeed, buried — and in a corner where it hadn’t been before. Yes!

The first day of spring 

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Yesterday in Atlanta dawned chilly, but by midday the sun was streaming in all its glory and the temperature was in the 70s — a perfect, shiny day.

I spent the morning in a frantic race to finish grading papers before class and take care of paperwork on the house we hope to sell.

And then I went to visit Gillespie. I hadn’t seen him since I took him for boarding at the vet a little more than a week before.

They brought him out at Paws, Whiskers & Wags and placed him on a table. He looked so sad, his head poking out of a blanket, furry and quiet and lifeless.

Maybe the sadness was me. I burst into tears.

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In memory of Gillespie, 1999-2017

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Gillespie died Friday while I was away. He was 17.

He was about 9 months old when I got him in the summer of 2000. Thelonious had died suddenly a few months earlier, and though Queenie probably liked being an only cat, I liked having two. Sarah had a colleague whose daughter was giving away kittens, and though you’re always reluctant to take a new animal into your life, I couldn’t resist the shy, sweet feline Sarah had suggested — a “barn cat” whose whole experience in life was probably dodging cows. I imagine him as an awkward wallflower, letting his siblings pursue mice while he stood back, too kind to take part.

Why reluctant? Because you know they’ll find a way into your heart, and you also know full well you’ll almost certainly outlive them and there’s nothing you can do about it. So you love them and wag your finger at them and feed them and play with them and love them, and they join you in bed and wake you up at 5 a.m. because they’re hungry and bat the Cat Dancer and, it appears, love you back.

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Gillespie update

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I dropped Gillespie off at the vet yesterday morning for x-rays, following up on his appointment earlier in the week. The results were some good, some not-so-good: For the most part, his internal organs — what could be determined by the x-rays, anyway — were fine. But there is a mass near his liver and his bile ducts aren’t working as they should.

What is the mass? Could be nothing. Could be benign. Could be, of course, not benign. The vet would like to do an ultrasound for a more precise diagnosis, since x-rays only tell you so much.

So now comes a host of decisions. He’s 17 1/2. Would knowing make a difference? What kind of treatment would he need, and how much would it cost? Does he have 6 months? A year? More?

What is the point of diminishing returns?

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A wish for a cat

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I’ve had Gillespie since the summer of 2000. I got him when he was 9 months old. He’s now 17 1/2.

He’s had a few problems — he had several teeth pulled a few years ago; he lost a part of his tail after Oscar slashed it and the wound wouldn’t heal; and for a time, he nervously bit at his fur — but for the most part he’s been a healthy kitty. He’s even doing OK with kidney issues, thanks to the fluids I give him.

So when I noticed he wasn’t coming downstairs to eat, I got concerned.

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It’s hard out here for a (new) cat

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Photo by Todd Leopold.
Every week or so, I volunteer at PAWS Atlanta, a local animal shelter. I spend some time with the cats, showing them a friendly human face and giving them some care and attention.

Inevitably, I fall in love with one of them, though I’ve resisted the urge to take it home to meet my other guys.

Until last week.

Meet Mulligan, the latest member of the clan. (Mulligan continues my wife’s suggestions for jazz-inspired names, after Thelonious [RIP], Gillespie and Oscar. Mulligan is for Gerry, of course.) He’s 3 years old, a long-haired mix of … well, something. (Probably a little Persian or Himalayan.) He’s also a sweetheart, with a purr that sounds like a well-tuned sports car and a willingness to cuddle in exchange for ear scratches, though he’ll leave your lap full of orange fur.

Cats being cats, however, the other guys haven’t been as friendly to Mulligan as Mulligan would like to be to them.

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Dogs understand you, cats don’t give a rat’s ass

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“I hear you loud and clear, sir.” Image from animalplanet.com.

From the AP:

Researchers in Hungary scanned the brains of dogs as they were listening to their trainer speaking to determine which parts of the brain they were using.

They found that dogs processed words with the left hemisphere, while intonation was processed with the right hemisphere — just like humans.

What’s more, the dogs only registered that they were being praised if the words and intonation were positive; meaningless words spoken in an encouraging voice, or meaningful words in a neutral tone, didn’t have the same effect.
Given that this study was conducted by actual scientists — neuroscientists, to be precise — I’ll assume that they came to their conclusion rigorously and logically, and not the way the more studied Gary Larson came to his:
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Still, all I can think of is my cats, Gillespie and Oscar. All they respond to is the opening of a can, the shake of a bag of a treats and me yelling, “Oscar! Get down from there!”
But as for actual language, if I want to make myself clear I have to make that throat-clearing “ck-ck” sound like they do when they’re curious.
In other words, I’m speaking their language.
Good luck, dogs.

Odds and ends: Beatles, Katrina, Beamon

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Image from macblog.macmaster.ca.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ final American concert, held at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park.

The 1966 tour hadn’t been a happy one for the Fabs — there was that international incident in the Philippines and the “bigger than Jesus” controversy. Moreover, with the early August release of “Revolver,” the group’s music had moved well beyond the relatively simple structures of the early Beatlemania days, but they were still playing the early catalog. “Eleanor Rigby” and “Love You To” never did get a live treatment from the Beatles.

Still, I know at least one person who was ecstatic to see them on that tour — at Shea Stadium, no less, thanks to an Army buddy of my father’s who worked for promoter Sid Bernstein. Lucky.

It’s also the 11th anniversary of the Gulf of Mexico landfall of Hurricane Katrina. I can remember sitting at my desk at CNN Center in Atlanta, incredulous that a Category 5 was going to smash into New Orleans, the city in which I was raised. (It was reduced to a Cat 3 just before landfall and hit just east of town, but was still incredibly destructive, of course.) My mother, who still lives in town, had decided to evacuate and came up to Atlanta that weekend, but she had to leave our cat, Nesbitt, behind. When we went back three weeks later, we found Nesbitt, but that was some of the only good news. Here’s a story I wrote about the experience, and here’s another I wrote last year.

Better yet, watch Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke.” Incredibly powerful.

Louisiana is now suffering the after-effects of the torrential rains that hit Baton Rouge, Lafayette and environs. If you’d like to help, here’s a list of ways to pitch in.

On a happier note, today is Bob Beamon’s 70th birthday. Let’s go out on one of the great sports achievements of modern times.