Book Review: Scale and Surreality in 1Q84 and Infinite Jest


When you make the decision to pick up a new book, you enter into a sort of a contract with its covers. That’s why an unfinished book looks at you so reproachfully, a path dwindling to nothing somewhere between its pages, a doorway that is entered but never left.

A book can be coloured by its context. If you’re in love, incapacitated or in turmoil at the moment of reading then it will influence the ways that your brain connects the dots to spot patterns in experience, takes a concept or a question and connects it to where and who you are, and the trajectory that a word will take to plunge into hallucinatory depths or simply glance off. The same sentence can reverberate with significance or ring flat depending on the equivalents available easily to the mind. If a sentence is considered to be great and universal then it is for its surprising generality, a note struck in the minds of many.

A long book has a long way to go. It must remain relevant and keep changing as the life and the mind of the reader does the same. A poetic book can suck a mind in to its embraces but return too many times to the same lover’s arms and you will find yourself crabby once in a while, or cold. A long book must travel and have a place along its path to accommodate many moods.

1Q84 has been hailed as Murakami’s masterpiece. Given the critical acclaim afforded to every pearl that emits from his orifices the one criterion which sets this book aside is its size. It is not only many pages but is even divided into three books, an epic form favoured by fantasy marathons of adventure. At this stage in his career, a work of this sheer size has to be afforded a certain amount of respect, an opera singer dressed in a visibly expensive suit. But this respect need not be equated with a value judgement on its contents, and I would hate to speculate on the value of the contents of an opera singer, suited or otherwise.

Murakami’s other books are dense, intense explorations of a world not governed by conventional logic. They centre around cats and deep holes, wood-panelled corridors and carefully prepared food. Characters are known by a particular social title and each sentence is purposeful. You know when you’re in Murakami’s universe.

Of course, a lot of that for the English-language reader must be taken with a hefty pinch of stylistic interpretation, given that that is what must be used by any translator. Even given a wildly particular situation to re-describe and fit into unfamiliar words, those words must be chosen by the translator based on a personal understanding and are miles out of context. We read with relish the meticulous preparation of food but we don’t instinctively know what kind of person would eat it, or the situations and contexts evoked by each exactingly chosen ingredient. Our English-speaking wonder is two-fold and that of an inexperienced child.

Space-time works differently here. An ear constitutes transcendence, time spent in a hole has a causal relationship with the comings and goings of a cat. Cause and effect are the real stars of these books, but not as we generally perceive them; a powerful statement is made about conventional expectations by their absence, a catalogue of characters barely perturbed as rationality fails to be relevant. But this is all a cultural perspective, based on a model of rationality seen as obvious and unequivocal only by those that examine it the least.

In fact, in the dingiest cloisters of the greatest church of rationality, cause and effect are known to be unknown and complex. Generalisations and statements of entitlement are the province of the feckless but the true scientist has a desperate love affair with rationality, the vehicle that has carried us even to the limits of its functionality. Quantum gravity and 9-dimensional thinking give us ample fabric to stitch together a universe where Murakami works, tucked away in some extra-spatial dimension.

The soldier fighting the fight for our beloved cause and effect is not science but the crushingly everyday. That model has its power because it is so fucking useful, in our interactions with gravity and coffee cups and bits of fluff and waves in the sea and quartz watches and just about everything that falls within a roughly human scale. We know that things get weird around the very large and very small but as a working model, in the sense of an approximation for practical application, it’s hard to beat.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace takes place at a very human scale. It’s enormous for a book. Ideas develop and grow, a seed of an incestuous explanation for a son’s disabilities is sowed and nurtured but then carefully debased by further information hundreds of pages later; no standard narrative arc here, no predictable development to allow the explanation of every event in terms of the development of the storyline, this book is full of blind alleys and incidental incidents just as our own lives are. in terms of the story there is plenty that is extraneous and without a narrative point (a CSI scriptwriter would weep) but this is where the meat of this meaty book lies, in its confused humanity. Infinite Jest is pre-editing room documentary, indeterminate and rich.

At that scale of human incident, of change and failure, Murakami tires. A Wild Sheep Chase can fit into the place that a dream does, strange but self-sufficient, burrow itself into the mind of a reader and remain there to show itself at strange moments for years to come. But 1Q84 in trying to expand is around for too long, like the firing neuron that is lit up for long enough to become conscious. The rational brain kicks in to have its say and where a flickering subconscious spark could slip past in its strange beauty, the conscious pathway finds itself subject to a much heavier set of guidelines and interpretations.

Even the fantasy universe must make a very straight kind of sense; though inhabited by gremlins and magic these are pre-defined by tradition or laws made logically explicit. It makes an internal sense that fits with the processes we must employ in the days between reading. As the third book begins we find ourselves understanding the 1Q84 universe in a much heavier way, frustrated rather than fascinated and bored of its beauty.

This is by no means supposed to be a universal review. Such experiences are by definition subjective and dependent on the surprises of an individual’s life during a certain time-period and the way that their particular brain deals with reality, or unreality. But for me, our understanding of a Magnum Opus needs refining. Not every biggest work is the greatest.



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