Monday, January 30, 2012

The Wisdom or Madness of Haruki Murakami

I just finished book one of Haruki Murakami's 1Q84 (he was a contender for the Nobel Prize in literature in 2011). I'm really enjoying this science-fiction novel (a big one when you consider that there are three books in one and thus over 1000 pages total), even though the "science-fiction" aspect of it seems to be at this point, specifically limited to two moons in the sky for one of the main characters, while the other, a writer, appears to be firmly rooted in the "real" world.

One of the characters, Tengo, is a writer, and he participates in publishing fraud by rewriting a brilliantly plotted novel whose idea originated in the mind of a girl who is illiterate. The other main character is a woman named Aomame who reveres her body as a temple, is bisexual, and has the skill to kill evil men with an icepick so that the deaths look natural. The story revolves around a bit of philosophy: If our collective memory is taken from us--is rewritten--we lose the ability to sustain our true selves. So Tengo rewrites a story of a teenage girl's and inadvertently she loses the ability to sustain herself.

Now, the story goes back and forth chapter by chapter between Aomame and Tengo. I have no idea if Aomame is the character being written about by Tengo (she seems just as real as Tengo to me but is living in a world with two moons), or how she ended up in the world with two moons other than the conscious decision to leave a taxi during a rush hour (a world with one moon), to climb down a utility ladder from the elevated expressway, and all so that she could meet a deadline in order to kill a very bad man. I find the fact that the taxi driver knew that her getting out of his car would change the universe in which she lived somewhat eerie. But I doubt if Murakami will ever return and explain how the driver knew anything at all much in the same way that J.J. Abrams provides very little as far as answers to fans of the television series LOST.
Aomame sees two moons in the sky. She is afraid to point it
out because she doesn't know if others in her world have
noticed or if she is the only one, and what exactly that might
mean. She is aware that the world is different.
One of the things that I find most intriguing about book one of 1Q84 are all the statements that Murakami makes about the profession of writing through the point-of-view of Tengo or through Komatsu (his unscrupulous editor). Here are some of them:

"It has absolutely none of the usual new writer's sense of 'I want to be another so-and-so'." <== interesting observation on all new writers, or no?

"Good style happens in one of two ways: the writer either has an inborn talent or is willing to work herself to death to get it."

"When I'm writing a story, I use words to transform the surrounding scene into something more natural for me. In other words, I reconstruct it. That way, I can confirm without a doubt that this person known as 'me' exists in the world."

"He selected his words with all the care of a craftsman choosing the perfect piece of tile to fill a narrow gap in a bathroom floor...The slightest difference in nuance could bring the passage to life or kill it."

"The exact same text was subtly different to read when viewed on the printed pages rather than on the word processor's screen."

"[Editors] like [Komatsu] are looking for just one thing, and that is to find, if only once in their lifetimes, a work that is unmistakably the real thing. They want to put it on a tray and serve it up to the world."

"The conclusion of things is the good. The good is, in other words, the conclusion at which all things arrive. Let's leave doubt for tomorrow."

"When you introduce things that most readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible. What you can eliminate from fiction is the description of things that most readers have seen."

"The point of [writing about] a world that isn't here is in being able to rewrite the past of the world that is here."

What do you think of the statements Murakami makes about the business of writing and/or editing through the voices of his characters?


  1. I would tend to agree. I once heard a quote that said writing requires the focus and patience of a child stringing beads onto a string - one at a time. That has always been the way I view writing, a careful, methodical process. That's not ALL there is to it, of course. Somewhere in there is also craft and that special magic that makes a compelling story, but the act itself feels methodical. And that reminds me of the quote about the mosaic, although that analogy has the benefit of incorporating the care for just the right tile (as opposed to any bead will do).

  2. I'm quite intrigued by the second quote... and I wonder if anyone is born with a writer's talent, or something they develop and learn through their experience, books they've read etc. I'd have to say here I fall into the working myself to death to get the style...:)

  3. The second to last quote stood out to me. I have to remember that.

  4. I tend to agree with all of them. Of course, one could probably write book about the magic of writing, or of the observations you could make about writing. That's all very good stuff.

  5. I think he makes some pertinent points. I particularly like the one about description - don't waste words on stuff people know, use them for what they don't.

  6. The plot sounds a bit confusing, but I love the quotes.

  7. "He selected his words with all the care of a craftsman choosing the perfect piece of tile to fill a narrow gap in a bathroom floor...The slightest difference in nuance could bring the passage to life or kill it."

    I liked most of the quotes, but this one made a lot of sense to me.

  8. That's probably the kind of book where I'd want to look at the Cliff Notes so it might make some kind of sense.

  9. Really interesting post and observations.

    Choosing the right words and building unique descriptions resonate with me so much. Sometimes I think that's why editing takes me sooooo long.

  10. Verrrry fun. Totally not my thing book wise--I think--but I enjoyed the quotes. I have huge respect to authors who can world build--and I've only found a handful that I think have done it successfully. Love the last quote about the writing the past.

  11. I think most of those statements perfectly describe the world of writing and writers. Personally, I don't want to be another "so-and-so". I could respond to every quote, but I won't. :) This book has interested me but not enough to buy it yet.

  12. I've read a lot of mixed reviews about this book. I can't decide if I want to give it a try or not.

  13. What an interesting story. I can see why it's up for awards. I've always wondered what it's about. The quotes from the book are very good. It's similar to how most writers feel when they write a book. Thanks for this review.

  14. Wow. That's pretty powerful observations there. Especially that last one resonated with me. It's the main reason I write "speculative" fiction in an alternate history - rewriting the past of our world. But I never thought about it that way. Very cool.

  15. I remember reading "Kafka on the Shore" and being both baffled and pulled in. Even now, my memory of it is of specific scenes that I call up with little to no reason why I remember them. His books are like that: I think they make the most sense when you pull back and consider them after having finished them all, like looking at individual pieces of a mural before stepping back across the street to see the whole.

    I liked this quote:

    "When you introduce things that most readers have never seen before into a piece of fiction you have to describe them with as much precision and in as much detail as possible. What you can eliminate from fiction is the description of things that most readers have seen."

    Although I don't totally agree with it. Sometimes, the point of view of the character requires describing things that readers may have seen. But mostly, it's good advice.

    What I found most interesting about this is Aomame's reaction to the two moons: she's afraid to talk about it because everyone else seems to accept it. That's such an incredible insight into people's lives: How many things are there that we see every day and nobody mentions because we're not sure what everyone will make of our mentioning it?

    I wrote a book in which one character constantly worries about his life and his body and his illnesses, and doesn't go to the doctor for them, but instead, secretly wonders whether everyone else has the same problems he does or if he is alone in having them. He doesn't want to seem hypochondriac, but yet, doesn't want to go on having all these little things seemingly go wrong with him.

    Aomame is, in a larger scale, just like that -- and that touches something I think is fascinating in all of us: the part of the world that WE experience but which we never comment on to someone else because we're not sure what they'll say about it.

    You might have just sold me on this book, which I wasn't going to read. So Murakami gets the Offutt Bump!

  16. @Skye: Thanks for visiting and sharing the quote about the child stringing beads. It definitely is appropriate and along the same lines.

    @tfwalsh: I was intrigued too.

    @Cindy: There are so many good ones. Another one that he wrote was "if you include a gun in a story, you are obligated to use it."

    @Rusty: Me too.

    @Sarah: I liked that one too (obviously).

    @Matthew: The plot isn't so much confusing as it is kind of dry in spots, but the writing/translation is so good that I'm enjoying it. He spends a lot of time describing sex, nipples, penises, etc.

    @L.G.: Yeah. That's the editing part because he's rewriting the girl's work to make it better.

    @Grumpy: I hadn't thought about seeing if there were some Cliff's Notes for 1Q84. However, I like to think I'm a smart enough reader that I'll pick out what is important in the reading without the benefit of Cliff's Notes.

    @J.L.: I think Murakami is a wee bit crazy.

    @Morgan: Yeah it's not everyone's cup of tea for sure.

    @Brinda: It's definitely a departure from the YA genre.

    @Julie: To be honest, it's a pretty heavy read.

    @Clarissa: Murakami gets a bit dense at times with his philosophy.

    @Jay: I agree. Murakami has a powerful mind.

    @Briane: Murakami needs no bump from me. He sells millions of books and is close to winning a Nobel.

  17. I needed a deep thinking post this Monday morning! Thanks for the wake-up call, Michael.
    I agree with the style quote. BTW, I'm the woman working herself to death to get it. Ha!

  18. The book sounds confusing.
    The quote that the words appear different on the printed page from what is on the screen is accurate. That's why I always print out my work to edit and don't do it on the computer. I also remember one editor telling me a couple years ago he could tell if a book had been edited on the computer. (Now that's called power of observation!)

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  20. "willing to work herself to death to get it."

    Yep. That's me. The "himself" version.

    Very interesting. Need to see if I have room on my list of "to read" for this novel. Thanks for telling us about it! :)

  21. The story sounds fascinating to me. The quotes were intriguing. Thanks for sharing. Great post.

  22. I love Murakami. I can't help but smile whenever I read any of his stuff. His quotes about writing reflect his overall conceit about creativity. So many of his characters, whether they be writers or not, are struggling to make something to rise above the flat landscapes of their lives.

    What I like about Murakami's writing is that it reflects this very paradoxical relationship he has to his own existence. I think in these words he puts into his book, he's trying to grapple with why he himself is writing.

    In interviews, Murakami has stated that he didn't have an inclination to write until he was watching a baseball game. At some point during the game, he got a flash of insight to go home and write a book. So he did. Many years later, and many acclaimed books later, I wonder if he looks back and says, "What the hell happened during that game? What did it mean? What does it mean now?"

    Just some thoughts. Thanks again, Mike, for the insightful post.

  23. I really liked his thoughts on the writing process. I think he was making very personal observations, but still very profound.

    It's not an easy book by any means, but well worth reading. The way he ties things together is really amazing.


  24. I liked reading about writers even before I was one. My favorite Stephen King books were about writers. I'm going to bookmark this page to re-read these tips while I'm working on my WIP.

    Thanks for giving us some insight into IQ84. I've seen some of my smart friends talking about it on Facebook, and I feared it might be way over my head, but you make it sound fun!

  25. this book sounds amazing. I'm definitely going to have to read it this year

  26. he is very popular in my country as well, but here most of the Nobel prize winners are very popular.

  27. I had heard of this book, but I hadn't heard what it was about. it might be worth checking out.

  28. Sounds like an intriguing read. I'll have to add it to my list.

  29. I like what he says about choosing the right words and comparing them to bathroom tiles. But per usual, Mark Twain said it bettter: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." But I am intrigued by 1Q84 and will probably eventually read it.

  30. It sounds like a fascinating book.

    I would also say most of those statements ring true, although I think you can go into too much detail even about the things readers have never seen. Let the reader fill in things with their own imagination from time to time. :)

  31. I know it's terrible, but I haven't read any Murakami yet. This one sounds fascinating!

  32. Those are all good points to consider. Of course, using them reliably is the tough part.


  33. No comment on the quotes, but I might want to read the book.

  34. I agree with his quotes because the precision is what brings lucidity to a new world. Must be why my few journeys into science fiction fell somewhat flat.

  35. Am looking forward to reading this book!Thanks for the glimpses into it.

    Also, stopping by to welcome you on board the A to Z Challenge April 2012

    We shall have loads of fun exchanging comments and visits!

    Twitter: @AprilA2Z

  36. I love Murakami, although I've only ever read his short stories. Considering the majesty of his short works though, I would trust anything he has to say about writing. The man is a genius.