Monday 24 June 2013

1Q84 Book Two

              “Who switched the tracks?”
              “Who switched the tracks? That is another difficult question. The logic of cause and effect has little power here.”

Just in case you were in any doubt.

Here’s the now traditional recap/spoiler buffer.

Pep’s intro and thoughts on Book One and Book Two.

My intro and thoughts on Book One.

Trains, then. Tracks and trains. Rainy season has belatedly kicked in in Japan, and as I found myself whiling away the commute on a delayed train I realized just how heavily they featured in this book. Almost as much as boobs and nipples, which I shall, somewhat unavoidably, be addressing later.

I realize I can be appallingly self-referential with the links I slap in these posts, but I really do think it would be of benefit here if you’d have a quick look at this, where I broach my theory that Japanese society is very much like a rail network. If nothing else it might help make what follows seem slightly less disjointed.

So what do we have regarding the trains? Aomame and Leader’s conversation above, obviously. Tengo decides – or rather he realizes he has already decided – to visit his ‘father’ whilst in a train station, and on the journey he reads about the Town of Cats (‘Lost cats?’ ‘Check.’), which is of course accessed only by train. And subsequent to Aomame’s appointment with Leader the thunderstorm disrupts the lines to the point where the regular denizens of Tokyo are stranded in a place where they are largely anonymous and unable to leave. Plus there are all the fun and games in the final two chapters.

The concatenation of time also lends itself (albeit a bit less convincingly) to the train track analogy. Time travels forward at a very uneven pace in each plot strand, like express trains on the same line passing each other at different stations. Aomame’s meeting with Leader only takes a few hours yet occurs in parallel with chapters spanning weeks of Tengo’s storyline, and it’s only the thunderstorm which anchors both in the same place at the same time. Kind of like both are finally arriving at a main hub station, if not a terminal.

And what occurs during the storm? Death and fucking, of course. What else could it have been?

I am going to defer comment on Fuka-Eri until I’m completely done with all three books, and possibly beyond. I’ve got no idea. Good art should confuse and unsettle, but I’m really not sure about any of this. Her conversation with Tengo about his dearth of ‘intercourse’ is quite hilariously awkward –

Fuka-Eri stared straight at Tengo again for some time. She seemed to be having some kind of thoughts about intercourse. What she was actually thinking about, no one could say.

And then we get the actual intercourse which… just…. I don’t…

You could, without stretching credulity too far, make a case that Tengo was raped. He’s paralyzed and unable to give consent. Raped by a sterile, pubeless, schoolgirl with ‘fully ripe’ breasts ‘uninfluenced by the force of gravity’. Shamefully, I think I’ve seen that movie. Or at least seen the cover; I doubt you’d have to expend too much effort to find examples of similar stuff in the ‘Adult’ section of any Japanese DVD store.

Which is why I said in my post on Book One that I hope this is, at least in part, a State of The Nation novel. It’s entirely possible that I’m looking to undeservedly excuse Murakami from some fairly unpleasant accusations, but the sexualisation of girls – and it is girls – in Japan is clearly all kinds of fucked up (disclaimer) and I’d hope that, in a way I admit to not fully grasping, that’s what’s being addressed here. I think Pep’s suggestion that Murakami is looking to make his readers complicit in this is definitely worth consideration.

Because here’s the really unsettling thing. If we are willing to accept that Tengo was raped due to his paralysis and inability to consent, then we should surely also conclude that, if we also believe what Leader says about his ‘condition’, the same is true for him as well. I have absolutely no idea how to continue following that train of thought, nor am I particularly sure I want to.

Moving on to the slightly lighter stuff, we have a couple of wonderfully pugnacious examples of Murakami getting his retaliation in first –

…we are left in a pool of mysterious question marks. This may well be the intention, but many people are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of ‘authorial laziness.’ …if the author intends to have a long career as a writer, in the near future she may well need to explain her deliberately cryptic posture.

And on that note, here’s a side-by-side of Tengo’s first conversation with Fuka-Eri. I would dearly love to believe that the Fuka-Eri’s shtick with the question markless questions exists pretty much solely as a preemptive dig at anyone who might complain that this book contains ‘too many question marks’. Hope the pictures are sufficiently HD for you to read, if you’re that way inclined. Click on them to make them larger.

And here, also by popular request, is the explanation for Aomame’s name in the Japanese version. The point at which she and Tengo start using each other’s names when thinking about each other – as opposed to just ‘the boy’ or ‘the girl’ – does seem to mark some sort of definite shift. I’m not sure of what, in just the same way I wasn’t sure whether Aomame is her given or family name (though in the Japanese below it’s made clear it’s her surname). Everyone else gets the full dose of both names, but still not her. More grist to the mill of the theory that Tengo’s writing this world, perhaps.

We also get Ushikawa, one the most obviously telegraphed agents of an unsympathetic power since Grima Wormtongue. His name is literally Bull(shit) River, and while he lampshades it pretty transparently it doesn’t lessen the effect.

Interestingly, Tamura and Aomame’s discussion about Chekov’s Gun has exactly the opposite result; the open discussion of the narrative device completely negates its impact. She has a gun, but whether she’ll use it or not is wholly up in the air in a way it wouldn’t have been in a more traditional story with less genre-savvy characters. And yeah, the introduction of a gun has significant implications. I’m British, so I still get slightly freaked out by the sight of uniformed police officers carrying firearms. Can’t help but feel that if that’s become both the norm and necessary then something’s gone very badly wrong in your society at quite a fundamental level. While that’s obviously a bit of a pop at our American cousins on my part it also ties into the weapons upgrade the police in 1Q84 got at the start of Book One. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

For all that it seems that I’m almost exclusively finding fault in these books it should be noted that when my train is delayed this is what I find myself doing; thinking about them and turning the angles over and over in my mind instead of playing with my iphone or reading my smaller, more portable ‘commute’ book. Many other people have previously used the immersive, coming up for air metaphor before in regard to Murakami and it is utterly, completely, entirely justified. On to Book Three…


  1. I think you can work out that Aomame is a surname in the English version because she says when she travels, she checks phone books for people with the same name. That'd be hell if it were a first name. It also made me think why doesn't she check google - but she can't because it's 1Q84. I don't know if it's because my brain can't conceive of a world without internet or if it's because the only reference to the time is the lack of technology.

    Does the dowager piss you off? I got very annoyed with her and also with the library guy/girl in Kafka because they both seem to be mouthpieces to voice rants on Murakami's behalf rather than real characters.

    1. Yeah, I'd pretty much figured it was her surname, but there's so much here that's some sort of feint I wasn't entirely sure this wouldn't have been another one. I'm almost halfway through Book Three now, so I expect I'll have more to say about names next time.

      The dowager doesn't piss me off so much as strike me as Murakami trying to have his cake and eat it. The sexual politics here are not without problems, as I think I've made fairly clear.

      Thus far there are three women in this book who enjoy sex - Aomame, Aymui, and Tengo's girlfriend. All three appear to need less than great relationships with men in order to have license to enjoy sex. Tengo's girlfriend is having an affair, but the really unpleasant thing is how the two young, single women who like fucking are implied to do so as a direct result of abuse. Because heaven forfend they just like sex for its own sake.

      The narrative treatment of Aymui is nothing short of appalling, and the dowager's fanaticism doesn't make up for it.

    2. 'Ayumi.' Goddamit. And 'any' and 'is' in the response to Chris below. Just couldn't type last night, it seems.

  2. Murakami can go ahead and sue you for damages because I am not reading this piece of shit.
    I think you are toying with yourself and not the book. Way way overrated or the name and the ripping off of other books then written by this guy has a buncha folks ignoring the spectacular average that is written all over it and in it?

    The last book I really read was by Chekhov. On the surface these two seem to be on different universes or I just really like Chekhov's writing style?

    1. I thought you were skipping the spoilers ;)

      It'd be a shame if I put you off reading this. I'm sure Murakami can cope with the drop in royalties, but I'd have enjoyed your take on it, if you'd have been inclined to share.

      "I think you are toying with yourself.."

      Always :)

      I'd defend him against charges of ripping stuff off. I've never read and Chekhov, so can't speak to that, but in general I think he's more sinned against than sinner in that regard. And even if he weren't I wouldn't mind so much as long as it's done well. Unoriginal I can deal with, boring I can't. I think the accusation that people get sucked in by the name if probably fair, though.

      It's also better than average, I'm just better able to express what I find awkward about it than what I like, as is always the way. Plus this is notionally a readalong, and conversations where everyone just loves the subject matter are dull. Being a little contrary is usually a better prompt to discussion, but I know telling you that is like selling snow to Eskimos ;)

  3. Happy to see that Book Two left you in the same state it did me. I just don't know where to go with some of these. Murakami claims in interviews that he merely roots around in his subconscious and writes whatever floats to the top, but that has to be BS as well.
    The complicit argument stems from a viewing of Kurosawa's Dodesukaden. The professor who showed it to us had everyone notice as Kurosawa's camera lingers on a barely concealed and clearly ravished nude body, before it pulls out and we see that she's been molested by her father. The teacher wanted us to notice how the first shot gets everybody juiced up before implying that the titillated viewer shares guilt with the dad. I have no idea if Murakami is doing this or if he just really likes Fuka-Eri's gravity defying boobs in his old age.

    The extended rain storm scene is intense though. I feel like it's seared into my brain.

    1. "...he merely roots around in his subconscious and writes whatever floats to the top..."

      Yeah, that doesn't really ring true, does it?

      Gravity defying boobs do have a lot to recommend them, I'd certainly agree with that. But there's a time and a place, y'know?

      A lot of the more generous interpretations I'm making here are down to the credit he built up with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. He really went to town on a lot of the more unpleasant aspects of Japanese society, so I know he can do it and is willing to do it and am thus more willing to believe that's what's going on here. I think if this was the first book of his I'd read I'd find it a lot tougher going.

      Interesting that you call the rainstorm section a 'scene'. I'm pretty sure it's almost half the book. I'd agree it exerts a very definite hold.

    2. I'm treacherously behind on posting and commenting. Gotta get Book Three written up here soon.

      Having finished it all, I'd have to sit down and ponder the commentary on Japan bit. I'm not sure. I've been pretty distracted lately and haven't had good thinking time.

      Yeah, I guess the rainstorm thing is a little more than just a "scene." In my defense, I think I read it all in a single sitting. It was just getting started when my bus pulled in, so as soon as the kids went to sleep I plowed (ha!) through.