Meant to post this earlier, but I forgot to actually sit down and finish my thoughts. It's a long-ish read.
Anyway, I just finished reading the WUBC. Really great stuff. I agree with Matt above: 1Q84 stands head and shoulders above this one, but I wouldn't want to give the impression that I think this is a "lesser" book. I haven't read enough Murakami to decide for myself where exactly it stands, but it reeled me in just as far as the other stuff I've encountered. I like how unflinchingly Murakami portrays hard, cruel human behavior (Boris "the Man-Skinner," yikes), and I like how beautifully he renders the sad, damaged people who have no choice it seems but to go on delivering or alternatively suffering the violence he illustrates. He's brutally frank when dealing with violence and pain, and he's brutally frank dealing with sensuality too. Though the obvious point here might be how (relatively) sexually explicit his books can be, he also captures the moments of intimacy between humans that is not strictly limited to a sexual act or to time-worn relationships. The glance from a stranger walking down the street can trigger a fanciful daydream, human touch calls forth a web of complicated emotional history, and a simple conversation with a neighbor about death and hereditary baldness can be a bridge from lonely despair to profound human connection.
I think the difference for me between 1Q84 and WUBC is mostly just a matter of pace and style. Each of these books hit their own snags in the storyline where I just had to just sit dumbly, book in front of me, lost and wondering, "why the fuck are we going in this
direction?" But they both picked up (for me at least). It's just that 1Q84 hit that snag halfway through, whereas WUBC hit that maybe a third of the way through. 1Q84 is over 1,000 pages. That a book could hum along for more or less 500 pages without one bump along the way made for a ridiculously inviting read. That's basically 5/6 the length of the WUBC. Also, I loved the weird fairy tale shit running throughout 1Q84. Dark and upsetting folk and fairy tales have always been a really intriguing genre for me. The Little People was like a mix of Terry Pratchett and something that is disturbing and not Terry Pratchett. WUBC was of course dark and surreal and all over the place, but I think I preferred how much more profoundly significant the mystical aspects of the narrative were in 1Q84.
And there was actually a female narrator. A really welcome change. I don't know if Murakami has any other female protagonists, but my hunch would be he doesn't. The female characters in his books kind of remind me of the character Chameleon from the first novel in that awful series of books by Piers Anthony. Maybe that sounds dumb. Maybe you don't know who Piers Anthony is. You might not think he's awful. But anyway there are pretty much always female characters of a certain type: a young, innocent fantasy girl character who holds a sibling-like relationship with the main character, although there are some stray sparks of sensuality between the two; an older and more experienced woman of refined taste, stern-yet-tender demeanor, and a problematic past, who also elicits a minor sexual pulse in the narrative; a one-true-love who is so close yet so far away; and then typically a somewhat important woman who has frequent sexual relations with the main character. Aomame wasn't truly unique in terms of eluding familiar categories, but she was just as well drawn character as any of Murakami's other male characters, and I think that's an important thing in books, in general. Of course, these figures are tropes: they're meant to show up the way they do. I don't know why Murakami decides to write these kinds of characters (that's someone else's graduate thesis I'm sure), but I'm sure it's something he's conscious of. In fact I know he's aware of this, because he says as much in this really interesting interview
. But it's nice that 1Q84 tried to open up some different doors and step away a little from a set pattern.
Speaking of Murakami tropes, the pop-culture references might understandably get old to some readers, but I've enjoyed how they've enhanced the text for me. I never really thought it would be worthwhile to listen to classical music, but the way he embeds them so fittingly into the text is like when you read an interesting Wikipedia page and come across a link to yet another article and smile to yourself, "hey, I'd like to learn about that too." Click
. Now reading about the Battle of Nomonhan. Click
. Now listening to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Cool. Maybe I'll pick up a book on one of these topics and learn more about them. Yeah, that's a great idea. Come to think of it, that's a pretty concrete demonstration of how fiction can offer me something when I didn't really expect anything to begin with. I just wanted to read a good story and now I'm sitting here with this head full of ideas about how the heck humans bump around and make meaning out of their strange and heavily insignificant lives, and I've got a desire to read more about the different experiences humans can have, the things they can observe, the thoughts they can have, the ways in which they can express, etc. On this point, 1Q84 and the WUBC were pretty much equal. I think most of his books are at the same level in that respect. They just make me want to learn a little more, open up new connections to the world. I didn't mean to end my thoughts by responding somewhat to danzig's question above, but I guess I would have wound up here if I went on about reading fiction long enough. It's a bug. You get bit by something and then suffer this strange headrush of curiosity. Franz Liszt. Russian history. A former professor's published book. Your brother's boring and unintelligible lawyering job. I really enjoyed both of these books, and when I encounter truly great fiction it makes me want to reach out and touch more of the world. Or, in Murakami's case, taking a curious exit off the highway and stepping into a new world entirely.