The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
Tsutsui Yasutaka

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was not what I expected. Somewhere I read that this is a tale of a girl who suddenly acquires the power to time travel and, eventually, learns Important Life Lessons. My wife told me that she vaguely remembers seeing an adaptation of this and thinking it has surprising lesbian overtones. In both cases, the first is more or less correct. The main character, Kazuko, does indeed travel through time, and this particular story has been adapted numerous times. The second half of both statements is wildly off-base, though not unreasonable. Girl was written for the YA audience, itself a frequent target of Important Life Lessons. As for the lesbian bit, well, this is Tsutsui, so I would believe just about anything.

In fact, Girl is not by itself a novel. It is a novella that anchors a collection by the same name that includes two other short stories. (Or novelletes, or possibly novellas. I’m not really sure.) The book is available in English, but I only have a Japanese copy, so that is what I read. It was a nice change of pace from some other stuff I have read; apparently YA is my comfort level in terms of kanji. (To give a comparison, I peaked at about 50 pages per day with Girl, almost double the speed of my last book.) Because I read this in Japanese, I am thankfully free of any obligation to critique Tsutsui’s writing. I feel happy to get through without too many dictionary forays, let alone digging into issues of style. I will say that the language often seemed stiff, but that may be because it is 1960s Japanese, or may be because Tokyo dialect always sounds stilted to my Kansai ears.

Girl is only nominally SF. Mostly it is about junior high school, which seems to be a major part of the charm. Both of the other stories also center on adolescents, with the second more of a light horror and only the third betraying Tsutsui’s usual black humor. He gets a lot of mileage from the nostalgia; it got to me a bit, even though my only connection to Japanese cultural memory is whatever I absorbed while living there in my 20s. The stories are nice enough. Girl takes a sudden turn towards the end that I didn’t see coming, then again in the final pages; it was oddly touching, but also somewhat disconcerting. I am curious to see how the movie adaptations handle things. There were no lesbians.

I wouldn’t call this an essential read. Much of Girl‘s popularity hinges on gauzy memories of 1960s junior high school experiences, which the Western reader isn’t going to share. It’s a nice story, certainly nothing I would warn anyone away from, but not a genre touchstone. On the other hand, it is a great place to start reading Japanese SF in Japanese, with a vocabulary and character set aimed at the YA crowd, but an adult intelligence. This is definitely something I’m going to give to my kids when they are a bit older.

Rating: The New Year’s high school soccer tournament. Perfect for reliving youthful memories, if not the most polished gem available.

1Q84: Book Two

1Q84: Book Two
Murakami Haruki

There are certain challenges to being a Murakami Haruki fan. In my case, there are select things in this life that have a mainline to my brain, like chocolate or Michael Brecker CDs. Murakami’s books are on this list; for whatever reason, they bypass most of the logical bits of my consciousness and plug straight into something more primitive. I’ve always been hooked on his stories and probably always will be, with a complete and shameless lack of objectivity. As such, I feel compelled to either defend Murakami against The Literary Establishment or assure everyone that I’m not one of those Murakami fans. Worse, my Inner Hipster wants to claim that I liked Murakami before he was big, but I’m not sure that’s completely true.

Unfortunately, I have no street cred with literary types, and the sorts of Japanese critics who raise a ruckus about him irritate me as well. (I love Japan, but there are reasons why I don’t live there now, besides back yard ownership.) So while I’m not the type of person who retraces Aomame’s footsteps through Tokyo and cooks all the dishes from Murakami’s books, my peculiar relationship with these stories makes it very difficult to distance myself for analytical purposes.

This brings us to Book Two of 1Q84. I said in part one that Murakami is showing absolute command of his writing. He uses the first third of the book to set everything up, introduce most of the major characters, weave in many of his usual themes, and have a little fun. When Book Two opens however, he opens up his twin suitcases of Darkness and Intensity. All of the groundwork laid in Book One starts to wind itself together, drawing together in a striking and powerful climax. The book ends with as many questions as it begins, but I had a difficult time pulling myself away from things. It’s hard to describe exactly what my reading experience was like, but there is a magnetic pull about Leader that affects not just the characters, but sympathetic readers as well. Everything that happens during the rainstorm called up by the Little People is pretty much seared into my brain, for better and for worse.

I don’t know if I can say that Book Two of 1Q84 is Murakami’s best work, but I think it is Murakami-ness in its purest, distilled form. Everything readers expect from him is there: weird alternate realities, mysterious women, cults and conspiracies, herbivore protagonists, awkward and uncomfortable sex, dark journeys of unclear purpose, the works, with nary an ounce of fat. I can’t think of another 300 pages of Murakami that so encapsulates his style. This is, of course, like quicksand to me. I don’t even try anymore and just give myself up to it. I came up for air when Book Two ended and staggered off, probably leaving a bit of my soul behind.

There’s a bit of higher level literature fun going on as well. Chekhov makes several appearances in ways that still make me question the baseline reality in the story. (Our narrators are not exactly reliable and the author is using all sorts of illusions and trapdoors in the book.) Tamura, who I enjoy a great deal, specifically name checks Chekhov’s gun, though I would like to propose a corollary to this called Murakami’s Chekhovian Boobs. In this case, much like the gun that must be fired, any time someone’s boobs are mentioned we can expect them to be uncovered and put to use later. (Sidenote: is it just me, or is the introduction of a gun to the narrative much more chilling in Japan? I think an American would have assumed that everyone is packing heat, but in Japan, even a small handgun feels deeply sinister.) Murakami also carries on an occasional dialog about writing and criticism. Sometimes it feels like he is speaking to his critics, but others he seems to undercut everything going on before. It’s an entertaining sideshow.

Do I really need to get into Fuka-Eri? I don’t know if I want to. I really can’t tell if her chest is Murakami’s id running wild or a devious way to implicate a certain percentage of his readership. She’s either hypnotic or off-putting, and I don’t know what that says about me or anyone else. Maybe best to just let this one go. (As a character, I like her. I think everybody does. Her role in the story though is … uncomfortable.)

One of the most interesting questions in Book Two (not answered in Book Three, by the way) is: Who is the agent of creation here? There are, if not hints, then at least vague suggestions that Tengo is the one creating the world of 1Q84. Fuka-Eri starts the story, but Tengo fleshes it out and bring it to life. The second moon, for example, is mentioned in the original Air Chrysalis, but it is Tengo that describes it in detail. Of course, the second moon that Aomame sees is exactly as Tengo creates it in Air Chrysalis. There are other bits and pieces, including Chekhov and the protagonists’ shared background, that subtly imply connections. I don’t think this is the case, but I can’t shake a lingering suspicion that Tengo is writing the whole thing as a way to create his own happy end. That, or it’s just a really whacked out love story where a vengeful assassin and a cram school teacher bond over the destruction of a supernatural cult.

And that brings us to the end of Book Two. I have read that Murakami initially planned to end it there, which would have been utterly typical of him, but decided to press on. This is best addressed in part three however, so let’s talk more then.

1Q84: Book One

1Q84: Book One
Murakami Haruki

Read along partner this is how she fight start describes our current joint project as “briefly awaited and barely anticipated.” That’s probably about right, though I have it on good authority that at least two others are reading, or at least trying to read, along with us. Whether this will result in a flurry of intelligent and witty blog banter remains to be seen. (I advise the gentle reader not to hold his or her breath.) For now, I recommend reading kamo’s first post (linked above), as it sets the stage nicely for what will follow. My own musings are going to follow mostly off of his initial talking points, with some additions as I am further along now than he was then. Though at time of writing I am approaching halfway through, I will also mirror the three volume breakdown of the original Japanese. Note: this post is wholly spoiler free. That may not continue in others, so I will report accordingly in the introduction.

One mundane bit before diving into literary hoo-haw: I have the Knopf hardback edition of 1Q84, a Christmas present from my dad a couple years back. It is one of the most beautiful books I own, with the tissue-like dust jacket, the covers, the mirror-image page numbers, etc. I am most impressed with it. At the same time, I mostly own paperbacks for a reason: Price and weight. Well, two reasons: Price, weight, and storage considerations. Er, among the reasons I have paperbacks are price, weight, storage considerations, and that tacky living-in-mom’s-basement look that comes from a wall of creased and cheap SF editions. At the moment, weight is the big concern. This tome is way too heavy to be taking on buses. I am probably risking nerve damage in my wrists, but such is the price we pay.

On to literature. In many ways, magical realism is the hardest genre to come to terms with for grizzled Hard SF veterans. The author is allowed to drop in whatever surreal weirdness fits the mood, but is under no obligation to provide rigorous underpinnings for any of it. This can be frustrating for a reader trained to expect explanation and logic for whatever handwavium may appear; it is a running battle I face with this sort of story. 1Q84 is arguably the most science fictional book Murakami has written however, with at least a modicum of cause and effect in place. There are reasons why Aomame and Tengo find themselves in the reality that they do and mechanisms that get them there. It’s not Hal Clement, but I find myself more satisfied with the narrative progression than I have in the past.

In fact, I have been impressed with the control Murakami has over this book. I have pretty much loved all of his novels, but admit that there are long stretches where imagination and momentum bridge the gaps between comprehension. I won’t even pretend to understand everything that happens in these books, often closing them at the end and wondering what just happened. (In an interview I cannot now find, Murakami recommends serious rereading and says that, even as the author, he turns up new connections each time he reads his texts for editing. I have yet to try this.) 1Q84 is a bit different. Whether he knows he has the page count to be specific, is making a conscious effort to be more transparent, has honed his skill enough to know exactly how much to say, or is just letting things flow this way, I get the overwhelming feeling that each word, each thought, and each plot point is exactly the way he wants it.

How many times to we read a book and see the seams where the author knows he has to get from Point A to Point B, but doesn’t quite know how? How many endings do we read where the author scrambles to put things together or to escape a self-inflicted jam? How often do we let flair and exuberance cover a plot that is slightly out of control? I’m not trying to be a jerk here – as a musician I freely admit to finessing my way through tight spots and BS’ing tipsy crowds. It happens. But so far in 1Q84, it hasn’t happened. I don’t know why characters speak and act the way they do yet, but Murakami exudes the confidence that everything has a purpose. Yes, even the drunken buggery.

It’s a good thing too, because 1Q84 is an unending parade of bait and switches. It is, for example, supposed to be a love story. Well, that’s easy, one might say, these two characters are obviously going to be it. Wait, now this other person has been introduced and there’s some tension, it must be them! No, well, now it seems the tables have turned. This is the sort of internal dialogue going on through the entire book so far. By the end of Book One, I can already see several paths that things could take, all of them logical, but none more likely than the others. My perceptions of Aomame got flipped on their heads three or four times in the first fifty pages, then again several times after that. Murakami is clearly winding things up, but I can’t tell if they will continue to their logical conclusion, or if he will spin them off in a whole new direction.

This has been a bit vague. Book One largely just sets the stage though, with most of the really crazy stuff dropping in Book Two. Thus, like the novel itself, my reactions are largely laying the groundwork for more detailed posts to come. There will be plenty to elaborate on soon. (Also plenty to spoil, which is another reason I’m not being too detailed right now.) Stay tuned for more.

1Q84 Read-Along Starter

Read-Along Starter

It is sometime in the fall of 1998 and I am standing in the M aisle of the fiction wing of the Idaho Falls Public Library. I am recently back from an uninterrupted two-year stint in Northern Japan, my first taste of life outside the I-15 Mormon Corridor. I have missed the start date for fall semester at Utah State, virtually no friends remain in college-less Idaho Falls, and I am brutally homesick for the city of Sendai. This being Eastern Idaho, there are of course no Japanese people to talk to, very limited (and low quality) Japanese food available, and a rental video selection consisting almost entirely of The Seven Samurai and some pornographic anime. The manga/anime boom that kicks off with Dragonball and Pokemon is a couple years away.

Even worse, the internet in 1998 is mostly blinking text and slow-loading jpegs of supermodels. I have yet to learn about chat clients and language input modules. Streaming video is not even a twinkle in someone’s eye; most of us are still on dial-up anyway. My only connections to Japan in these dark, boring days are infrequent emails and letters, some now embarrassing J-Pop CDs that I brought back with me, and whatever books I can rustle out of the library. Unfortunately for me, any knowledge I have of Japanese literature basically starts and stops with James Clavell’s Shogun, which I read within a few weeks of coming home. If there are resources and recommendations online, I haven’t found them.

So there I am in the M’s, because I vaguely remember from somewhere that Murasaki Shikibu wrote something called The Tale of Genji, which seems as good a place as any to start. Instead, I see the name Murakami attached to several books. One, A Wild Sheep Chase, has the sort of name that appeals to me, so I take it home. A day or two later I come up for air, with my brain still sizzling like bacon in a frying pan. Between that day and the beginning of winter semester, I read every Murakami Haruki book in the library.

Over the next few years, I keep up with his new books, build up better Japan networks, and eventually make it back a couple of times. It isn’t long before the pipeline connecting me and Japan is a superhighway rather than a single thread, but I keep reading. I even start buying Japanese copies of the novels. Once I find myself with a string of Japanese girlfriends, I introduce each of them to Murakami’s books. Without exception they are hooked. (This includes my wife, who has long since passed me in total Murakami consumption.) Because I am young and foolish, I project myself into the stories and identify with his often unnamed narrator. For reasons that may be similar, my girlfriends also project me into the books, though never the same ones as me or each other. (Between us, we account for five or six, though memories are hazy of who said what.)

* * * * * *

I bring this up here, at the start of my 1Q84 read, not just because I enjoy talking about myself, but to give some background for what will likely be an obsequious and fanboy-ish post. (Or posts. Not sure yet.) I’m sure I would have enjoyed Murakami’s books whenever I first discovered them, but the combination of his writing, my tastes, Japan, and a particularly impressionable time in my life created a potent literary addiction. Even now, an older, more stable, and more cynical me feels a slight thrill of anticipation knowing that I will start into a new novel tomorrow. I still remember reading Kafka On the Shore and being unable to disengage from that world, despite the demands of work and family.

Now, looking at the 900+ pages waiting for me, there is a whiff of trepidation in the air. This is a big book during a busy time, and I have a history of sinking further into Murakami than is wise. I hope to churn out a couple of backlogged posts in the next week, as well as dealing with the usual family and music duties while I read. We shall see. For now, if I eventually dribble off into the rantings of a half-mad sycophant, please understand the history I have with this author. He was a lifeline in bleak times, so I feel no shame for my craven discipleship.