by Nathacha AppanahBuy at Powell’s »
March 12, 2012
4The Last Brother
When the box containing 1Q84 arrived in the mail I was wondering who got me a set of barbells for Chanukah.
Why is it so freaking long? First, it was published as a trilogy in Japan and I suspect it was easier sledding when divided into three discrete parts. Among the many literary allusions Murakami makes (Orwell, Shakespeare, Chekhov, Dickens) are ones to Proust. At one point 1Q84 heroine Aomame (her name means “green peas”) reads the entirety of the 4,000-page In Search of Lost Time. So, um, you know, hint-hint! And just as Proust’s characters spend pages making a cup of tea or savoring a madeleine, in 1Q84 people cook meals, watch the news on TV, drink cocktails, ride stationary bicycles, listen to Janacek’s Sinfonietta, take walks…and read Proust. Murakami earns his realism, and so does the reader, occasionally at the cost of his sanity.
That said, the narrative is dazzling. It is Tokyo, 1984. Aomame, the estranged child of religious zealots, is a fitness instructor and Robin Hood-style assassin, taking abject wife-abusers out of this world at the behest of a mysterious dowager and her erudite bodyguard/Man Friday. Aomame’s story alternates with that of Tengo, a gifted math teacher, former athlete, aspiring novelist, and chronic underachiever. Tengo is recruited by an overbearing Svengali of an editor to ghostwrite a strange tale penned by a freaky but gorgeous high school student, “Fuka-Eri,” who herself has been abused and traumatized. Fuka-Eri’s story, Air Chrysalis, is a surreal narrative set in yet another secretive religious community.
As time goes on, both Tengo and Aomame begin to experience subtle but tangible shifts in their realities; their world becomes less like 1984 and more like the parallel one Tengo has depicted in Air Chrysalis. To his enormous credit, Murakami manages to depict this shift in a way that never reeks of sci-fi cheesiness—almost never!
In large part he gets away with this because his prose is—I beg your forgiveness in advance—feng shui. While occasionally repetitious, Murakami is never opaque or pedantic. At one point, Tengo visits his cognitively declining father, from whom he is estranged and who he suspects is not his biological father, at a nursing home.
Tengo caught his breath. He could find no words. Nor did his father have any more to say. Each sat in silence, searching through his own tangled thoughts. Only the cicadas sang without confusion, at top volume.
He may be speaking the truth, Tengo thought. His memory may have been destroyed, but his words are probably true.
“What do you mean?” Tengo asked.
“You are nothing,” his father repeated, his voice devoid of emotion. “You were nothing, you are nothing, and you will be nothing.”
Thanks, Dad. Without exception, the major characters in 1Q84 are alone, if not explicitly alienated. When they try to connect with others, they usually fail. Thus, while the book can be light and even funny, there is a loneliness at its core that only the possibility of Tengo and Aomame getting together seems to transcend.
The last third of 1Q84 kind of falls apart. My unprofessional diagnosis: an acute case of Trilogy Disease. The Godfather, His Dark Materials, that Roddy Doyle Ireland thingy, and of course, Pirates of the Caribbean. 1Q84 introduces a modestly suspenseful noir-ish plot in the last reel featuring a Caliban-like mercenary private investigator who is fascinating and complex, sure, but so pathetic that when his story is finally resolved what the reader feels mostly is relief.
In the end, Murakami, the avid runner, limps across the finish line needing an IV. But his canvas is so broad, his imagination so deep and his cojones so big, you’ve got to hand it to the guy. 1Q84 is long, yes, but it presents a fully realized world, with two moons in the sky and sex, drugs, and Little People saying “ho-ho” on the ground. Tengo and Aomame are palpable, memorable characters waging existential struggles, both micro and macro. Could 1Q84 have been 400 pages shorter? Probably. But I’d say the same thing about War and Peace. And Proust.
The Last Brother is a different animal. Small and spare, it is beautifully written and almost unbearably sad. The narrator, Raj, is an old man looking back on a tragic and horrible childhood on World War II-era Mauritius, featuring an abusive father (if only Aomame could have whacked this dude), and the sudden loss of two brothers in a cyclone. After their deaths, the family moves across the island so that Raj’s father can work as a prison guard.
Into this desolate world arrives David, who, like Raj, is 10 years old and the product of devastating loss. David, an orphan, is being held at the prison that employs Raj’s father along with 1,500 fellow Jews on Mauritius after they have been turned away from Palestine by the British. This incident is rooted in fact, though Appanah writes with such lean authority that one never questions the story’s verisimilitude (a tip of the cap to translator Geoffrey Strachan).
I think that if I had been an ordinary boy with no history—by this I mean a boy who had not spent the first years of his life in a ramshackle hut, who had not lost both his brothers on the same day, a boy who had friends to play with and did not hide in holes dug in the bare earth or on the branches of trees, a boy who did not talk to himself for hours on end, a boy who, when he shut his eyes at night saw something other than his little brother’s body trapped beneath a rock—I would not have stayed there long, this bizarre prison would have bored me. But I was Raj and I liked dark corners and places where nothing stirred. And so I remained like that for a very long while, watching the prison, sweeping it assiduously with my gaze, from left to right, from right to left and so on.
Raj fantasizes about life with David as his new brother, though he recognizes the impossibility of this happening while still under the same roof as his violent, capricious, drunken father. And besides, David is now a fugitive. Raj hatches a plan for the two of them to escape their cruel realities together. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that this doesn’t go well.
To compare these two books is completely unfair and inappropriate. Sure, a Great Dane and a beagle are both dogs—with some careful choreography they could indeed mate and reproduce. But it ain’t likely. The Last Brother is poetic, wistful, and elegiac. 1Q84 is epic, ambitious, and metaphysical. The former offers a heartbreaking but gratifying story grounded in a tragic slice of history. The latter is a strange, multilayered narrative populated by a complex cast of characters at the mercy of time, space, and the tidal pull of two moons.
On their own terms, one could argue that The Last Brother succeeds where 1Q84 fails. It is taut and mournful where Murakami is expansive, restless, and occasionally ponderous. 1Q84’s reach exceeds its grasp.
Alas, I am a sucker for outsized ambition and extraordinary, noble failure.
By Kevin Guilfoile & John Warner
John: As you noted in our pre-game commentary, the doorstop entrants in the tournament tend to have an excellent early-round record. In fact, if my admittedly imperfect survey of previous years is at all accurate, being the longest book in the tourney is a virtual guarantee of an opening round victory. (Andrew Seal’s analysis from last year also shows that being a very short book ups the odds of victory in the opening round). All of the following were the longest books of their given year:
- 2005: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell Susanna Clarke (800 pages)
- 2006: The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (656 pages)
- 2007: Against the Day by Thomas Pynchon (1,085 pages)
- 2008: Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson (720 pages)
- 2009: Shadow Country by Peter Mathiessen (917 pages)—I’d previously identified 2666 as the doorstop of the 2009 tourney, but Mathiessen has Bolaño beat by five pages.
- 2010: Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel (560 pages)
- 2011: Freedom by Jonathan Franzen (576 pages)
Only The Historian failed to get out of the opening round, falling to the upstart (and eventual runner-up) Home Land.
Of the above, the best comparison for 1Q84 may be Shadow Country, which was also first published as a trilogy before being collected into a single volume. Instinctively, it feels like a bit of a cheat, comparison-wise, in that a trilogy presented as single entity gets three bites at the apple to a conventionally structured book’s one. 1Q84 gets to throw a lot of shit against the wall in the hope that enough sticks to constitute a full book’s worth of good material. Misha Angrist himself declares that the final third “falls apart” and the book “limps across the finish line.”
Angrist has nothing but praise for The Last Brother, but in the end, Murakami wins because of the perceived ambition. He gets a lot of credit for taking a big swing and quite possibly missing.
Is this fair? Who knows? Nothing about this or any other book award is fair. I know it’s interesting and curious, that many of us feel a lot of wonder and respect for the big dreamer.
I think it’s just as difficult, or even more so, to write a compact, emotionally wrenching novel like The Last Brother. As a diamond, it might be smaller, but its cut and clarity are top-notch. But I guess that doesn’t turn our heads like a larger, less-polished stone.
Of course, I’m only 20 percent of the way through 1Q84 (which is about the length of a regular novel), so it’s possible that I’ll come away feeling like it’s the Hope Diamond.
Kevin: I suppose it’s a good thing if our literary culture has a built-in bias in favor of ambition. Masterpieces only happen when a great artist overreaches, and if an author wants the Big Praise, she should have to look for it on the top shelf.
On the other hand, the big books aren’t always the ones that give us the most pleasure. How often in any year do you and I say to each other about one novel or other, “I admired it more than I liked it?” No doubt this accounts for the fact that the big ambitious books rarely win the ToB. Big novels are the most divisive—we rarely reach a consensus about which ones work and which ones don’t, at least in the short term.
So what does this mean for criticism? We want critics to hold writers to a high standard. But we generally resent it when certain critics—both amateur and professional—use some idealized war against mediocrity as a license to be aimlessly negative.
I might have told this story before on these pages, but one of my favorite reviews of my first novel was in a college newspaper. After a thousand words of more or less unqualified praise, the reviewer said something like, “Cast of Shadows might not be the best novel ever written, but if you’re looking for a good book, pick it up and check it out.” I really think that should be the new standard for reviewing. The last sentence of every review should begin, “Unfortunately, this is not the best book ever written, but…”
Of course, anytime a novelist crosses over and starts to challenge one of his critics, it gets a little dicey. I rarely recommend it. Some people aren’t going to like what you write—no one else cares, so get over it. But I thought you actually did it with a lot of grace last year when you invited one of the critics of your first novel, The Funny Man, to join you in a dialogue about this author-reviewer relationship.
As a novelist and also as a big fan of your book, I thought the whole thing was cathartic and illuminating and just the right amount uncomfortable.
John: Ambition is an interesting concept. To me as a writer, and even as a human in general, ambition is, in many ways, the enemy. Some of this is likely my Midwestern upbringing—to me, ambition is the coveting of achievement, a desire for recognition, which is something different from the actual doing that may lead to said achievement. Being Midwestern is a real handicap when it comes to being a successful writer because self-promotion and networking feels unseemly. In the Midwest, we are not raised to think of ourselves as special in any way, because why should we be?
At the same time, I think the Midwestern mentality is well-suited to the work of the writer. Spending many hours alone without being recognized as you toil at your labor is essentially S.O.P. It feels right and comfortable.
It’s been my ambition since I was 10 years old to write a novel, but, at least in my case, that ambition didn’t take any specific form, existing more as a general sense that this was something I could do and would like to do. It didn’t lead anywhere. The Funny Man took eight years to write, and I don’t remember feeling like I was being ambitious as I was doing it. In fact, the only thing that allowed me to complete the book was to drop any pretense of ambition and put my head down and just march one word in front of the other.
But then, isn’t all writing with the intent of artistic impression a form of overreaching? For me at the time, and maybe still if you agree with my above-linked detractor, I was overreaching in that I’d never written a novel that held together before.
Kevin: Writing any novel is hard. Or writing any novel you care about is hard. It’s like raising a child that way, I guess.
Writing a novel is an act of tremendous arrogance that needs to be undertaken with even greater humility. But when I think about “ambitious” books, they’re often the ones where humility is thrown out at an early stage. They are attempts at staying power, an author’s bid for immortality. And they almost always fail at that. But it is fun watching them try, right? It’s like going down to the fairgrounds to watch somebody jump monster trucks on a Vespa with a Gulfstream engine duct-taped to the back.
Except with a novel, man, if you make it? If you write a book that outlives you? In a way I think we all write on some level in order to achieve that, but few of us actually ever attempt it. And so we admire authors that go for it even when we don’t always care for the result so much.
John: In the interim between our backs and forths, I’ve now finished the first “book” of 1Q84, and while I’m generally enjoying it, having now read a text the same length as say, Freedom, I’m sort of stunned by how little has happened, how nothing much has been put on the page. (Though the finale of Book 1 does offer a very intriguing twist/setup for what comes next.) I’m not sure I’m seeing ambition in 1Q84 so much as a willingness to keep typing. It just doesn’t feel edited or selected in any way. For whatever reason, the book doesn’t feel ambitious in the same way as Infinite Jest or JR. Because I enjoy Murakami and his world and his style (or anti-style), I’m continuing on, but we’re going to have to stay tuned to see if that particular feeling holds.
Tomorrow a very intriguing matchup. First we have Bethanne Kelly Patrick, she of the #fridayreads creation and an executive editor at Book Riot, about as tapped in a reader as we have out in the larger social media community. The books themselves, The Tiger’s Wife and The Stranger’s Child, are two of the most crucially acclaimed of the year, serious books that have already been the subject of some serious discussion. Ms. Patrick has her work cut out for her.
Kevin:: And I want to say one more thing. I really believe that a few years ago, when we started adding a comment thread at the end of each decision, the Tournament of Books took a giant leap from being a novelty book award to one of the more interesting extended book discussions available anywhere. And in just the first couple days of this year's tourney, the folks in the comments are absolutely killing it. If you read this early in the morning and never come back, you are missing the red meat of the ToB. Follow the real discussion. And better yet, join in.