fiction

1Q84 - Haruki Murakami by Usamah Khan

I knew after reading "Norwegian Wood" that it wouldn't be long until I picked up something else from Haruki Murakami. I kept thinking about the simplicity in his style. It made that whole first reading experience so easy and it's what makes him so accessible as a writer. It's why, I believe, people who read him keep coming back. Definitely why I was so eager to read "1Q84". Once there, it didn't hurt that I was treated to an amazing display of imagination and storytelling on top of that.

I had no knowledge of what to expect this time round. "Norwegian Wood" had stunned me and I wanted to go in with a blank slate and see what other surprises lay in store. I had no assumptions except that there must be a reason his book was titled "1Q84" and I was to expect an Orwellian connection/evocation of some dystopian feel. Well..I wasn't wrong, but I guess I wasn't right either.

To build on this, I've found that recently I've enjoyed going into new books with no idea of plot or setting. Over the last few years, I've even stopped reading blurbs. Yes, it has it's drawbacks, but I've found it effective to work my way through genres, authors and eras by recommendations. I have a great group of well read friends, family and communities I follow so why not take advantage of that? I find I have less expectations, and reading through, I'm less likely to be influenced by my own bias. It's funny because this is just not how I operate in any other aspect of my life. When picking up anything new I scrutinize and research like my life depends on the decision I need to make. "The agony of choice" as it was put to me once. So I find it liberating that, if only just for books, I go in with no assumptions or expectations and just roll with it.

Starting out, Aomame's story set the tone much like the beginning of other crime storys/dramas that I like. A young woman finds herself in odd circumstances as she tries to perform a not so kosher job. The opening chapter was normal, but bizarre enough that I immediately had questions. This I learned, was to set the tone for the rest of the novel. Tengo's story started out very differently; A tale of a young man trying to get by as a writer in Tokyo while his eccentric colleague lures him in and begins plotting something that will end up being (a little) extraordinary. Just off balance enough to build excitement.

What I enjoyed the most in "1Q84" was the interplay of different styles and genres across chapters and volumes. The alternating chapters from just the two viewpoints of Tengo and Aomame in the first two volumes kept the pace flowing and, unlike in lets say "Game of Thrones" and other similarly styled fantasy novels, I was never tired of a character because I cared about another character more and it was taking to long to hear from them. Even when Ushikawa became a point of view character I was always hooked enough on each character's chapter that my excitement for the next never dwindled.

After I realized that the book was going to be cycling through points of view, I made my first informed assumption; Tengo and Aomame were going to meet somewhere down the line. I think the anticipation of this event was the driving point for my experience with the novel. In anticipation of this event the book took twists and turns like nothing I'd ever read. Crime, drama, romance, fantasy and science fiction all blended together and even now I'm hard pressed to find a good description and categorization of what kind of book this was.

Talking with different friends I've come to realize that the idea of picking this up is overwhelming for some people. At ~ 1200 pages, just the task of lifting the book to read is daunting and it reinforces the fact that its going to be quite a long read. However, it's one of those cases where if you read a lot you'll be happy for your experience. Having read numerous authors of different styles and genres avidly since a young age helped me appreciate and enjoy the book even more. I like that about Murakami. Even in "Norwegian Wood" it feels like he rewards readers who have some knowledge of literature. He makes you think back to novels critically when you didn't necessarily ever need to and if you did, you often find an opinion you had validated or now a point of discussion. Maybe that's just me, but I also know that's why I connect with his work so much.

Murakami's writing is wonderfully smooth. He'll often take a whole chapter to go through a single event or instance in all of its detail. Funnily enough, it's his slow pacing that allows you to read him so quickly. You're engrossed in every detail, right down to the smell of the Tokyo rain while Tengo cooks salmon and rice for dinner. You feel like you're a part of it. Not just as a spectator looking, but a guest invited to observe and take part.

I was talking with my roommate one day (incidentally the person who got me hooked on Murakami in the first place) and he mentioned that sometimes he finds he forgets a decent proportion of what happens. But we concluded that it wasn't a bad thing in our opinion. I do too, but so much in life is forgettable. What was the last thing you smelled before you read this? What hand did you use the last time you scratched your nose or took a sip of water? In a reality where you only remember 5% of any events you partake in in a day, reading about that other 95%, having that in the back of your mind reinforces what you do remember.

Interestingly enough, it's kind of how I feel about "Blade Runner". I've seen it maybe 10 times but for the life of me I always forget what happens and every time I watch it I pick up on something new. But what I never forget was how I felt the last time I was invited to take part in that world. After reading 1Q84, I'm starting to view my world just a little different too.

Bloodbrothers - Richard Price by Usamah Khan

"..But don't fuckin' jerk off yourself, sweetheart, 'cause twenty years from now you're gonna wind up just like yer old man with your fuckin' putz in your hand hanging out in some bar in Yonkers, married to some bitch with a heart like a piece of coal, and a kid for a punching bag, OK?"

Probably one of the most raw pieces of writing I've ever read. It's no wonder Richard Price, screenwriter of "The Wire" and most recently "The Night Of", is praised for his ability to develop such real characters in his writing. His ability to portray gritty, urban 20th century America with such realism set's him apart from his contemporaries. Maybe because he's so unafraid to draw from his experiences that you feel honesty in his writing. You trust that, what he's telling you is the way it is. I certainly felt that way with his portrayal of a lower middle class 1970s Italian American family from Brooklyn in "Bloodbrothers".

Dialogue is the driving force of the novel. It's easy to see how screenwriting came naturally to him. Sometimes, I find it hokey when accents are literally spelled out in writing. It can be distracting and oftentimes overly stereotypical. But it felt real in "Bloodbrothers". No doubt, due to his upbringing and his exact sense of what dialogue and culture was like in his community.

The whole book felt like a screenplay, and it's no wonder they were able to make a film adaptation of it a mere two years after it was published. Price has a way with understanding dialects, slang and specific terms used by certain factions of society. Looking back through the lens of already having watched "The Wire", I realized immediately how I was able to believe in his characters so easily. Even the ones who were over the top like Omar Little and Proposition Joe. The characters sounded real, so it was easy to forget the fiction.

While I admire writers who can write timeless pieces that can fit in to any time period, like I mentioned in my reflection of Haruki Murakami's Norwegian Wood, I also enjoy when something is so specific, you can only observe and immerse yourself in what the author is trying to tell you. Zadie Smith put it nicely when she said "I’m never interested in writing a kind of neutral, universal novel that could be set anywhere. To me, the novel is a local thing." "Bloodbrothers" was definitely a local thing.

I picked up the book expecting something different. A noir/crime novel perhaps? At the heart of it though, it was simply a coming of age family drama...of dramatic proportions. 

What stuck with me for a long while after reading was the fact that my sense of what was normal changed over the course of the novel. After a few pages I thought "man this is a fucked up family". But after reading more about Stony and his family, then Chubby and his kid and then the doctors understanding of Stony's situation I realized this was real for them. Despite everything, all the shit, the beatings, they were loved and loved each other. This was what family meant to them, and it was normal. So it became normal for me.

There's a band called Defeater that I like because their whole raison d'être and catalogue of music is to fulfill a concept. The concept is a story that goes from early to late 20th century dealing with a working class Bostonian family across generations that was very much like Stony's. They're a melodic hardcore band for the most part, but they put out an album, "Empty Days & Sleepless Nights" with an acoustic B-Side that had some of their most powerful songs. After finishing and putting down this book, all I could think about was this one song I had going through my head, and the last few lines. From "But Breathing":

"Well broken, and beaten
from the abuse, and cheatin'
the addiction, and the lying
And the promise of leaving
While my old man was a bastard
I admired
And loved him
And us two kids we were born in
To a family
Not a fortune."

Stony gave up his chance at a new life. But that was because of his pride, and his love for his family. Tommy and Chubby both had their chances too, but for the same reasons, they didn't take them. That's just the way it goes, and the way it was gonna end for Stony. I guess my idea of life is different, and that makes me appreciate it more.