Review: 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

>>Published: October 2011

>>Finally got around to it: December 2011

1Q84—that’s what I’ll call this new world, Aomame decided.

Q is for “question mark.” A world that bears a question.

Aomame nodded to herself as she walked along.

Like it or not, I’m here now, in the year 1Q84. The 1984 that I knew no longer exists. It’s 1Q84 now. The air has changed, the scene has changed. I have to adapt to this world-with-a-question-mark as soon as I can. Like an animal released into a new forest. In order to protect myself and survive, I have to learn the rules of this place and adapt myself to them.

***

Parallel universe-crossed lovers Tengo and Aomame—him, a cram school math teacher and modestly successful ghost writer/wannabe novelist; her, an athletic instructor, personal trainer, and enterprising young assassin—are the twin protagonists for Haruki Murakami’s 925-page, three-part epic of magical realism, 1Q84.

One day, embarking on a routine hit, Aomame is delayed by gridlocked traffic on Tokyo’s elevated Metropolitan Expressway. Unable to be late for her “appointment”, she abandons the taxi she was riding in and crosses the lanes of traffic to an emergency stairwell that will take her off the expressway and down to the city streets, where she is able to catch the subway that will take her the rest of the way to her target. In another part of the city, Tengo—Aomame’s fated lover, a man she has not seen in twenty years—is being coerced into the role of ghost writer for an unconventionally brilliant book by a first-time author, the mysterious and enigmatic Fuka-Eri. The novel, Air Chrysalis, has captivated both Tengo and his friend Komatsu, though Fuka-Eri’s writing is stilted and lacking the depth to turn the book into the classic both men suspect it is capable of becoming.

By straying from their paths—in Aomame’s case, as she climbs out of one world and into another via the emergency expressway stairwell; for Tengo, as he invests himself in Fuka-Eri’s impossible-yet-entirely-real tale of possibly mystical-in-nature cocoons, religious indoctrination, and the little people that crawl out of the mouths of dead animals—Murakami’s protagonist quietly abandon the Japan of 1984 for what Aomame dubs 1Q84—the world with a question mark. For the pair, it is an uncertain world of two moons, phantom NHK fee collectors, and the occasional immaculate conception. How they have fallen into this parallel world, and how they expect to extricate themselves from their individual-yet-intertwined situations, is 1Q84’s focus.

More through the looking glass than down the rabbit hole, 1Q84 is both an exercise in literary re-interpretation and a culmination of Murakami’s many interests and obsessive quirks. There are undoubtedly parts of the book that feel cobbled together from narrative strands and character traits in Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. However, rather than feeling overworked or relied upon too much, these instances and many others—his obsessions with ears, philosophical literature, jazz and classical music, and the otherworldly influence of cats—are pulled together and expanded upon in ways that make some of Murakami’s previous works feel like working drafts of concepts not yet fleshed out. There is certainly a road-well-travelled feel to some of these underpinnings, but the narrative of 1Q84 remains fresh thanks to its protagonists.

Murakami’s approach to magical realism has always been perfunctory. Things simply are, no matter how weird or outside of reality they may appear to be. Convincing his protagonists of the mystical dual nature of their two-mooned world is something of a rote task by this point in Murakami’s career.

What separates 1Q84 from the rest of Murakami’s work is its somewhat obvious literary precedent: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Murakami holds a mirror up to Orwell’s dystopian future narrative. Big Brother becomes the Little People, an almost invisible force that may or may not impart a deified sort of wisdom unto a populace from within the carcass of a dead animal; the authoritarian political regime becomes a Jehovah’s Witness-style cult of dual-natured people—of perceivers and receivers; the two-mooned world of pursuing cult enforcers, false grant providers, and oversexed hospice nurses, is a prison of sorts for Tengo and Aomame and no one else.

It’s difficult not to wonder if some of the beauty of Murakami’s imagery is lost in translation, or if his abrupt descriptions of a world less than familiar to our own is simply his method of relaying the absurd and surreal with as little fanfare as possible. Because of this, some of his descriptions can feel anticlimactic or long in the tooth, but they paint an effective portrait of a world that is at once different and still very much the same.

1Q84 is a bit overwritten in parts, with deliberate language echoes and character repetition as garnish for the world outside of the norm. But what Murakami achieves in his otherworldly homage to Orwell’s masterpiece, Janácek’s Sinfonietta and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is an impressive feat of magical realism, social commentary, and long lost love. I can’t say whether or not 1Q84 lives up to the symphonic hype it accumulated in the months leading up to its release, but Murakami’s epic is a deep and compulsively entertaining work of fiction, with only the odd misstep in pacing and originality.

Review: Glass Boys, by Nicole Lundrigan

>>Published: July 2011

>>Finally got around to it: December 2011

Mrs. Fagan sighed. Somehow, this house, rickety and full of whispers, had become a home for herself and her son. Even though he was fully grown, he lived with her still. In the room he had occupied since he was a boy. When her older daughter was grown, Mrs. Fagan had rooted her out, and she would do the same with the younger girl, as soon as possible. But Garrett would stay. Garrett was a good boy, strange, yes, different, yes, but he was a decent son. Maybe she hadn’t loved him enough, or protected him from Eli. Maybe he had been damaged somehow, when lost under the ice pans for those long minutes. But what sort of son offers up a reward he has earned to his useless old mother?

She went to her son’s room, opened the door, and there he was, on his knees, spreading out a scrap of beautiful carpet. “Looks nice,” she said. “Might be hard to keep clean.”

“I’ll be careful,” he said. “I won’t make a stain.”

“No, you won’t,” she replied. “I’m sure you won’t.” Garrett Wesley Glass was a good boy. A good man. No one could tell her any differently.

***

Glass Boys, Nicole Lundrigan’s fourth novel, is a compelling family mystery set in the small everyone-is-in-everyone’s-business town of Knife’s Point, Newfoundland. When Eli Fagan discovers the unsettling secret his stepson, Garrett Glass, has hidden in an old pickle jar, an unfortunate and accidental death drives an impassable wedge between the Fagans and a neighbouring family, the Trenches.

Spanning several years—taking us from the death of Lewis Trench’s brother Roy, through his marriage to Wilda and the childhood and adolescence of Lewis’ two young sons, Melvin and Tobias—Lundrigan gradually exposes Garrett Glass’ dangerous proclivities, and how is inability to understand and contain such urges risks destroying the Fagans and the Trenches, casting dark aspersions over the small Newfoundland town.

Lundrigan’s approach is subtly non-linear. She whisks us back and forth on a whim, dovetailing threads in an effort to understand the various threads of mistrust and discontentment that have woven these families together, in spirit if not in reality. Her method, and the supremely lyrical quality of her writing, offers a series of impressionistic family portraits that neither ignores nor directly explains the intentions of her two families, relying instead on a naturalistic manner of exploring emotional self-examination and trauma un-tethered by attentive parental influence.

The overwhelming tenor is evocative of Grant Wood’s American Gothic; there’s a lifelessness and timid presentation to both Wilda and Mrs. Fagan, a muted sensibility that trickles down to their children—Wilda, incapable of giving herself over as a mother; and Mrs. Fagan, oblivious to Garrett’s unsettling idiosyncrasies—and invariably affects their growth. Conversely, Eli Fagan is, at first glance, an abusive, uncaring husband and father figure, and Lewis Trench is more than willing to assume the worst of Melvin, without truly understanding his son’s actions. It’s through Melvin’s younger brother, Toby, that these imperfections are made clear.

The faults and inaccessibility of their parents is cyclical—Lundrigan reveals their past miseries as points on the line of fate, dictating their inadequacies as parents before children were ever a threat to their futures. The X-factor, so to speak, is Garrett, and Garrett’s very specific secret which Eli would sooner forget than comprehend. And it is Garrett and Glass Boys’ uncomfortable examination of a young boy’s confusion developing into an adult’s homosexual and paedophilic tendencies that contrasts so alarmingly with Lundrigan’s effortlessly poetic diction.

Though my lack of small town maritime experience made Lundrigan’s work somewhat difficult to penetrate, her language and respectful, realistic depictions of people and place were far more captivating than I first expected. It didn’t take long for me to feel drunk on her descriptions of environments and interactions, like ice settled on a young boy’s eyelashes, or the way two figures embrace in an act of extreme violence, “hugging almost like old friends.” Glass Boys is unnervingly soft, its tenderness underlined by thick strokes of familial secrets and dark histories.

Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

>>Published: April 2003

>>Finally got around to it: December 2011

“I guess there’s only one question left, Kevin—the big one. Why’d you do it?”

I could tell Kevin had been preparing for this. He inserted a dramatic pause, then slammed the front legs of his plastic chair onto the floor. Elbows on knees, he turned from Marlin to directly address the camera.

“Okay, it’s like this. You wake up, you watch TV, and you get in the car and you listen to the radio. You go to your little job or your little school, but you’re not going to hear about that on the 6:00 news, since guess what. Nothing is really happening. You read the paper, or if you’re into that sort of thing you read a book, which is just the same as watching only even more boring. You watch TV all night, or maybe you go out so you can watch a movie, and maybe you’ll get a phone call so you can tell your friends what you’ve been watching. And you know, it’s got so bad that I’ve started to notice, the people on TV? Inside the TV? Half the time they’re watching TV. Or if you’ve got some romance in a movie? What do they do but go to a movie. All these people, Marlin,” he invited the interviewer in with a nod. “What are they watching?”

After an awkward silence, Marlin filled in, “You tell us, Kevin.”

People like me.” He sat back and folded his arms.

***

On the surface, We Need to Talk About Kevin is Eva Katchadourian’s life laid bare through a series of unanswered letters to her husband, Franklin, detailing the finer points of her life and their life together—both good and bad—and the events surrounding their teenage son Kevin’s decision to execute nine people—seven students, one teacher, and one wrong-place-wrong-time cafeteria worker—in his high school gymnasium on April 8, 1999.

Kevin’s actions—riding a growing wave of high school shootings and assaults in the years and months leading up to the Columbine massacre of April 20, 1999—and the fifteen years of coldness and disaffection that preceded the events of April 8, are the fulcrum by which Eva’s letters pivot. As much a dissection of her own selfishness, idiosyncrasies, and misgivings as it is an attempt to understand Kevin’s ambition for murder, We Need to Talk About Kevin paints an early, unforgiving portrait of a woman primed for anything but motherhood.

There is no way for me to accurately discuss this book without exposing my initial (and, in the end, unwarranted) judgement of the characters, the writing, and the narrative. To the point: for 380 out of 400 pages, I loathed this book. I fought to continue reading, determined to see it through to the end because of the recommendations of others—not because of any outstanding compulsion to understand Kevin or Eva or their unsettling family dynamic. I despised Eva, right through to her core. This is a woman that, for the majority of the book, seems to regret her role as a mother and as a wife. Though at one point she claims to have wanted, more than anything, to know and have the love of another, her actions and desires are so introverted and self-serving as to seem destructive and antagonistic to the very concept of sharing a life with someone else. Her ambitions for solitary travel and the coldness of her demeanour depict a woman who seeks companionship because she feels that she should want it more than she does.

By that same token, I hated Franklin almost as much as I despised Eva. Here is a man determined to stick his head in the sand, ignorant to the increasingly obvious divide between his familial wants and needs and those of his wife. He is as guilty of moving through the I-need-to-find-a-partner-to-be-whole actions as Eva. From minute one, Eva’s me-and-only-me selfishness is apparent, mirrored expertly in Franklin’s ignorance of every one of his wife’s true desires—ignorant because paying attention to them would mean accepting the truth: in many ways, he is a placeholder for her, something she can latch onto when “trapped” in the United States, a home she openly criticizes at every available opportunity between jaunts around the globe—research for her A Wing and a Prayer travel book operation.

Then we have Kevin and Celia. Yup. Despised them both. Kevin is an antagonistic little bastard—the apple of his father’s eye and the bane of his mother’s existence. Kevin is not right, from the minute he enters the world and into his mother’s icy grasp. The lack of an emotional core between them is apparent from Kevin’s earliest stages—though, in the end, this deficit of emotion becomes the most honest connection between any two characters in the book. For whatever reason (a question with extreme impact by the book’s finale), Kevin’s killing spree is choreographed from an early age, evident in the utter misanthropy with which he regards his family, his teachers, and the whole of society.

And last but not least, Celia, Kevin’s younger sister. Why do I hate this sweet, innocent, disarming child? Because of the selfishness of Eva’s desire to have her in the first place—because Eva’s need to feel some semblance of love in her household overrides her clear distaste for motherhood and the obvious threat Kevin’s presence provides. The malevolence of her eldest, the fear that instils in her, is what drives her to have a second child. She has Celia not because she loves being a mother and wants to experience it all over again, but because she is desperate to fill the void left by Kevin’s complete ambivalence. Celia is a reactionary move by a woman who’s wants, needs, and dreams are in conflict with one another, not in concert. I hated Celia because I pitied this character’s very existence—and because I feared so much for her safety.

The quality of Shriver’s writing threw me at first. Similar to my early concerns over the divergence between character and authorial voice that seemed evident in Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist, We Need to Talk About Kevin presents itself early on as an author’s showcase. The writing is exceptional, lyrical, and at first, distracting. Shriver’s ambitious diction doesn’t fit with the presentation—of letters from a wife to her estranged husband. There is such a strong, narrative-driven presence of mind to Shriver’s writing that the letter-writing structure seems, in the beginning, disingenuous. While the intellect on display offers an accurate glimpse into the obsessively proper, presentation-filtered thoughts of Eva Katchadourian, the narrative layering of events—withholding certain elements of the plot in an overtly authorial manner as if deliberately building to a climax—feels counter-intuitive to the reader’s ability to accept the first-person, soul-expunging intent of these letters. While Eva’s personality gradually crystallizes, as does her relationship to Kevin, our acceptance of the book’s narrative structure is tested.

As technically well written as We Need to Talk About Kevin is, these structure- and character-based stumbling blocks kept me at arm’s length for far too long.

Shriver, however, had a plan.

Without giving too much away, the final twenty pages of We Need to Talk About Kevin changed everything for me. With Eva’s final words, Shriver managed to alter everything I had thought or felt towards the rest of the novel. Without the abuse of an insincere twist or startling discovery, Shriver managed to inject genuine sympathy into both Eva and Kevin, cementing the uniqueness of their connection and her motherly qualities in a completely unexpected way. The change of tone, the ability to redirect the emotions I felt towards everything that had passed without once renouncing her characters’ obvious failings, is something Shriver earned with honesty and integrity. That may seem a strange statement given my earlier distaste for the entire family, but the distance between them—the seemingly obvious hatred and absence of respect felt for one another—becomes, in the end, their defining characteristic, and the element that bridges the emotional divide between them.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is not an easy book to read, and more than once I considered placing it on my shelf, unfinished, ignored as a piece of socially disaffected, malevolent trite. Having finished the book, I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone—with a simple caveat: let it breathe. Step back, walk away from it for a spell if you need to. But see it through to the final page. You won’t regret it.

Review: Enter, Night, by Michael Rowe

>>Published: October 2011

>>Finally got around to it: December 2011

The pain when he bit down was incredible, but it vanished almost before it had even registered. As he felt the blood drain from his body, Richard Weal felt himself pulled up into a swirling vortex of crimson and gold light. For the briefest possible moment, Weal caught a glimpse of a glittering necropolis of souls, a dimension of pure love and endless wisdom. Its inhabitants reached out, their arms outstretched to embrace him, to join him to them, to forgive him and to guide him and beckoning his soul to join the mass of others.

Not this! Make me like you! Make me like you! You promised! I want to live forever! This isn’t what I killed for! This isn’t what I died for! YOU PROMISED!

The crimson sky turned black and cold and violent.

***

I know what you’re thinking: a vampire novel in 2011 without glitter, shirtless-at-every-opportunity werewolves, and potentially dangerous messages about relationships and expectations for young men and women everywhere? Bullshit! But here we are with Lambda and Spectrum award-winning author Michael Rowe’s first novel, Enter, Night, and there’s not a loosely veiled Mormon abstinence tale in sight. Oh, happy day.

Enter, Night follows recently widowed Christina Parr, her daughter Morgan, and brother-in-law Jeremy as they return to the small northern Ontario town of Parr’s Landing in 1972, where Jeremy, Christina, and Christina’s late husband Jack grew up. The name Parr, as one might imagine, carries substantial weight in this small community, which is lorded over by the hate-filled, Sauron-like eye of Jeremy and Jack’s mother, Adeline. Persecuted for what Adeline perceived as unforgivable sins, Jeremy, Jack and Christina abandoned the Landing more than a decade prior to the start of the tale. However, due to Jack’s untimely death and insurmountable financial troubles that followed, Christina and Jeremy have been forced to return to Parr’s Landing and beg the help of the bitter and authoritarian Adeline.

Also returning to Parr’s Landing, for the first time since 1952, are two opposing forces: Billy Lightning, a professor who seeks the answers to his father’s recent murder; and Richard Weal, a presumed-dead man with a murderous, supernatural agenda. Both men are tied to events surrounding the excavation of a Jesuit settlement in Parr’s Landing and a mysterious, malevolent entity trapped within the site.

Enter, Night isn’t a typical vampire tale. It certainly pays tributes to tropes of old—stakes through the heart, immolation via sunlight, feeding on the blood of the innocent—but injects the element of colonialism into the mix. That the vampire at the heart of the tale is in fact a 17th century Catholic priest who sought to colonize the natives of the land is a detail perfectly mirrored in the book’s many disparate threads: the way gossip spreads through a small, deeply conservative town, instilling unshakeable prejudices; the manner in which a matriarch’s oppressive worldview and homophobia bleeds into the minds of her children, infecting them with a reactionary degree of fear; the racism and subjectivity of small town law enforcement with little to no outside-the-fishbowl experience. The viral aspect of vampirism—as a plague or parasite that can decimate an area—is at the core of Rowe’s narrative. That the vampire is a supernatural being is unimportant. What matters is what the vampire represents, as a concept and as a thing to be feared.

Not everything in Enter, Night is as effective as its tone. The book begins with a rather tangential subplot that, though it introduces us to the bastard Richard Weal, feels altogether unnecessary. Similarly, the final act—the unearthed transcription of Father Alphonse Nyon’s deathbed confessional regarding his confrontation with the vampire, Father de Céligny, at the site of St. Barthélemy—feels strangely misplaced. The content of this final act is captivating and is likely the strongest aspect of the entire novel, but it feels truncated, as if this small narrative within the text should have been expanded into a separate second book. As a consequence of this, the novel feels a little stuffed to the gills, as if Rowe wasn’t sure what to cut and what to keep.

Pacing issues aside (and some tonal problems with Finn, whose voice sometimes trips between that of a young child and someone with social and/or developmental problems… which may or may not have been intentional, I can’t say for sure), Enter, Night is a welcome shot in the arm for the vampire genre—because, apparently, it is a genre unto itself these days. Considering the glut of limp-wristed horror titles that want to address vampirism through forbidden love or unfortunate farce (see: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and all zombie, werewolf, and android related titles), Enter, Night has the potential to capitalize on aspects of the genre that have been forgotten as of late.