I mean, at the level of pages and characters I'm totally drawn in. I'm like "Ooh, there's an oddball girl with a weird name and now she's talking to the disaffected hero. What is her backstory? What is she going to say? I need to know now."
But at the level of the book, I'm often mystified and kind of blank. I'm wondering, "was there a point to that? Is the point the pointlessness itself? If I think that's annoying, am I a philistine? Am I just missing something?
I just finished Murakami's most recent three-volume novel, 1Q84. Right of the bat: as is made obvious, the title is an allusion to 1984, and thus in some way to Orwell's novel. So I'm asking myself: is this book supposed to be in any way related to, or a commentary on, 1984?
Wow, wrong question. Because who can figure that out? 1984 was about a horrifying future of totalitarianism and state control through The Party which is everywhere and all powerful -- going so far as to create reality to suit its needs.
1Q84 is about an alternative reality (maybe) and two characters who share a mysterious connection. There's a religious sect with weird beliefs which might be true. There's a world with two moons. There's a math teacher. There's a female assassin. There's a sinister detective-type guy. There are complex musings on metaphysics.
So: Is Murakami saying that religious sects are dangerous the way totalitarianism is? Murakami did also write a book on the 1995 sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway, carried out by the cult Aum Shinrikyo, so it's not farfetched. Or is he making a larger point about the nature of good and evil, implicitly disagreeing with Orwell's blanket condemnation of some characters and some behaviors? Is the idea that God or his agents are, like the Party of 1984, always in control so that we, like poor Winston, are just pawns?
I don't think I'm making a controversial claim when I say that there is no way this book intends anything so straightforward. It may not intend anything on these topics. It may not intend any particular thing at all. You might have to take it at face value. There's a religious sect. There's a math teacher. There's a female assassin. Stop.
The reader in me feels -- well, she feels annoyed by this. So does Janet Maslin, by the way, who writes of 1Q84 the New York Times review:
"And is it actually about anything? Don’t be silly. Mr. Murakami is far too playful and allusive an artist to be restricted by a banal criterion like that one."
Obviously this is unfair, because a book can be about stuff without having some kind of message or unifying narrative. I'm sure there are about a million ways to talk intelligently about why and how this is so but perhaps the most obvious is this: life doesn't have a message or unifying narrative; why should literature? Isn't the best way of being true to reality to deny the tidiness of a story that ties together loose ends and shows how things are all connected?
Sure. Of course. That idea is intellectually unimpeachable.
And yet. I think there's something here that goes beyond the matter of narrative tidiness and loose ends.
Just before I read 1Q84 I reread Nabokov's novel Pale Fire. In case you haven't read it, the text of Pale Fire is structured as a commentary on a 1000 word fictional poem that forms part of the book itself. In certain ways, you couldn't ask for a book with more opacity, ambiguity, and general weirdness. Virtually every important question you could have about what is going on in the book is left, at the end, without a clear answer.
And yet, one never leaves Pale Fire with a feeling of confusion, uncertainty, or blankness. On the contrary. Speaking for myself, I finished Pale Fire with a swoosh of dread and a frightening exhilaration. I don't know exactly what "happened" -- or didn't -- in Pale Fire. But the book is definitely about some things.
One of the most powerful feelings I get reading Nabokov is that I'm being given the opportunity to encounter something genuinely heartbreaking about the human condition without just faltering in its face. Reading Nabokov is like passing through the hurricane of humanity with just the proper protection and supplies to know you'll make it to the other side. Tying up narrative loose ends isn't really a necessary part of that
Is there an analogue for 1Q84? I don't know. When I was near the end of it, I stayed up late to finish because I really really wanted to know what was going to happen. There was an oddball girl with a weird name, and a disaffected hero, and I was dying to know what was going to happen.
And then I finished the book. And even though the book had "an ending" in the clearest possible way, I was left with an empty feeling. A feeling of: OK, so that happened. OK.
In one way, I guess that's a lot like life, since most of life ends with "OK, so that happened." I guess for me it makes literature too much like life. I not only know that feeling, I'm kind of sick to death of that feeling. In literature I'm looking for something else.
Clearly Murakami is thinking about some of the same questions. In 1Q84 there's a character who is a novelist, and there's a review of a book he's worked on, and the review says in part:
"As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end but when it comes to [certain crucial questions] we are left in a pool of mysterious question marks. This may well be the author's intention, but many readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of "authorial laziness " ... in the future [the author] may well need to explain [this] deliberately cryptic posture."
I'm sure Murakami does get a lot of reviews like this: reviews that whine about his refusal to tell us what is going on.
In 1Q84, he goes on to describe the fictional author's response: puzzlement, that a writer who "carried the reader along to the very end" could be considered lazy, but also uncertainty, about whether the critic might be right.
That phrase -- pool of mysterious question marks -- is beautiful and a perfect illustration of what I'm saying. It's just like real life. It's a little too much like real life, where we never know what is going on either.