Off the Shelf: Long Journeys
Books by Haruki Murakami, Stephen King, Michael Chabon, and Neal Stephenson.
Seasons in the book world, as was inevitable, have been branded. Not quite as much as in the movie business, where winter is the preordained time of star-powered, tear-jerking award winners and summer is filled with popcorny blockbusters. Yet the notion prevails that we are supposed to read a particular type of book in the summer, generally something of the facile, literature-lite, page-turner variety. I propose a change in thinking: seasonal reading based on page count.
Let’s go with books of average length in autumn; the kids are going back to school and the weather is changing, so there’s no need to overdo it. For winter, it must be short stories, a different one every cold night. Novellas for the springtime, as they’re the ideal length to entertain over a brightening weekend. And reserve long reads, those tomes that may well be a pain to carry to the beach but which are well worth the labour, for summer. In light of lengthier days, here are four suggestions for literary journeys, each of which travels north
of 600 pages.
Early in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, a young woman sits in a taxi that’s stuck in traffic on an elevated Tokyo expressway. Concerned about missing an appointment, she asks the driver to let her out so that she may climb down a rickety service stairway to the street below. Before she goes, the driver gives her some cryptic advice, and a better introduction-cum-warning regarding the surreality of Murakami’s novel would be nigh impossible:
It’s just that you’re about to do something out of the ordinary. Am I right? People do not ordinarily climb down the emergency stairs of the Metropolitan Expressway in the middle of the day … And after you do something like that, the everyday look of things might seem to change a little. Things may look different to you than they did before.
The woman is Aomame, and she is an assassin of sorts who is hired to murder abusive men. She performs this task with a needle-thin ice pick, “thrust into the special spot at the base of the brain”, which stops the heart “as naturally as blowing out a candle.”
Chapters concerning Aomame alternate with those focused on another character: Tengo, a teacher and writer who is pressured by his editor to take on the task of rewriting a novella called Air Chrysalis. It is a clumsily written yet somehow powerful work by a high-school student named Fuka-Eri, and Tengo’s editor is convinced that a professional revision will make it highly successful. Tengo soon meets with the enigmatic Fuka-Eri, who seems to have based the fantastical tale on an incident from her past.
Murakami’s well-oiled oddness drives a story that—as would be expected from its 925 pages—takes its time but is striking in its detail, characters, and ideas of parallel worlds, religious cults, and dangerous mystical creatures. The connection between Aomame and Tengo is revealed slowly and deliberately, as is their exploration of this slightly off version of Tokyo in 1984, or as Aomame dubs it, “1Q84—that’s what I’ll call this new world … Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.”
Any discussion of long reads should include Stephen King and his famously (or perhaps infamously) protracted works. But even if his recent novel 11/22/63 is of typical King length (880 pages), the manner with which he tells the story seems new and bold, as is his take on that old chestnut of a science-fiction premise: time travel.
High-school teacher Jake Epping is one day summoned to visit his friend Al Templeton, the owner of a local diner. Al appears to have aged several years over the past day, and he has something he wants to show Jake: there is a door to September 9, 1958, in his restaurant’s pantry.
As is the case with most time travel stories, there are rules. Here, “every trip is the first trip”—so no matter how many times you go through, it’s always September 9, 1958. All changes are “reset” the next time you go back to the past. And each trip takes only a couple of minutes in “real” time, so no matter how long you spend in the past, you will return two minutes after you’ve left. (Jake also comes to realize, in an often-repeated mantra, that “the past is obdurate. It doesn’t want to be changed.”) The rules thus codified, Al and Jake move on to plans of greater significance.
“When it comes to the river of history,” says Al, “the watershed moments most susceptible to change are assassinations—the ones that succeeded and the ones that failed … There’s nothing we can do about Archduke Ferdinand or Adolf Hitler. They’re out of our reach.” But what about the fate of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963? “Thanks to [Johnson and Nixon], we lost almost sixty thousand American soldiers in Nam. The Vietnamese, North and South, lost millions. Is the butcher’s bill that high if Kennedy doesn’t die in Dallas?” Al reveals that he has spent the last few years of his life in the past trying to stop the assassination, but he only made it to 1962; he developed terminal cancer that would prevent him from living long enough, so he has come back (returning two minutes after he left) to persuade Jake to try instead.
With the setup out of the way, the novel settles into what is really historical fiction with a twist, as Jake establishes himself in the past (remember, he has five years to wait until the assassination attempt) and begins his investigation of Lee Harvey Oswald. The detail afforded to this pursuit, as well as to the consideration of the various conspiracy theories (King addresses his own theory of what happened that dark Dallas day in the afterword), is fascinating—as are the bare logistics of a man from the future trying to make his way in the past. There is a notable lack of the typical brand of horror and weirdness for which the author is known, and as a more character-driven cocktail with a twist of time travel, 11/22/63 is remarkably effective.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
It is hard to believe that it’s been 13 years since the release of Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (648 pages). I’ve found myself revisiting it every few years or so, as it’s one of those rare fiction gems that prove to be even more enjoyable each time I read it.
In 1939, 19-year-old Josef Kavalier arrives in New York to stay with his cousin, Sammy Clay. Joe has fled increasingly unstable Europe for “unimaginable Brooklyn, with its nightspots and tough guys and Warner Bros. verve”—but has left his family behind. Seventeen-year-old Sam, who works for a novelty company, quickly learns of Joe’s talent for drawing, and convinces his boss to take the business in a new direction: the comic book, then new and novel and “offering sixty-four pages of gaudy bulk (including the cover) for its ideal price of one thin dime.” The cousins collaborate to create a superhero, the Escapist, modelled after Joe’s training as an escape artist back in Prague. Success comes quickly over the years that follow, but the turmoil of the war is a tumultuous backdrop for the struggles of two cousins: Sam with his sexuality and relationships, and Joe with his obsession with trying to save his family.
During my recent read, I was impressed anew by the mastery with which Chabon structures not just the novel as a whole but also each section and each scene. Look, for example, at the chapter early on in which the cousins present the notion of a comic book to Sheldon P. Anapol, founder of Empire Novelty, who in a lesser work might stay static and one dimensional. Here, though, he joins a marvellous cast of characters fleshed out via digressing back stories and vignette flashbacks that instead of diverting the flow of the narrative actually strengthen it and help drive it hurtling forward.
Kavalier & Clay has long been in the works to be made into a film, and the novel is certainly cinematic. But it is the subtleties of Chabon’s scenes, and how he can deftly tweak a moment to convey all manner of subtext and emotion, that make the book so remarkable, no matter how often you’ve read it.
Neal Stephenson’s Anathem is massive—in size certainly (with 1,008 pages), but also in concept. Set on Arbre, a planet that is not Earth (although there are similarities), the story concerns the inhabitants of concents, which are like monasteries, but they’ve focused more on science and philosophy than religion. These have existed for millennia in isolation from the outside world, functioning almost as a kind of control group for civilization. Using limited technology, and restricted from nearly all contact with the outside (Sæcular) world, these devoted individuals maintain an uneasy truce with those beyond the walls. “The Sæculars know that we exist,” notes one character. “They don’t know quite what to make of us. The truth is too complicated for them to keep in their heads.”
The majority of the contact between the two happens at a yearly festival called Apert, during which the gates open to allow the devotees to explore. The frequency with which they are permitted to leave depends on the specific group they have joined; the Unarians may take part in Apert every year, but the Millenarians can only leave once every thousand years. As the novel opens, 18-year-old Erasmas, a Decenarian, is preparing for his first Apert, and the only time in the past 10 years that he has been outside the concent.
In that formidable but rewarding tradition of The Book of Dave, A Clockwork Orange, and Riddley Walker, Arbre has its own lexicon, with definitions sprinkled thoughtfully throughout (and mercifully compiled in a glossary). In addition, there are extensive discussions on philosophy and physics—almost like a science-fiction version of Eco’s Name of the Rose—so the challenge facing the reader is twofold: to understand the discussion and to discern any conceptual analogues to our own Earth.
That is not to say that the book is nothing more than philosophical stargazing. The novel is supremely entertaining, and Stephenson has a tremendous ability to juggle heady discourse with an impressively sweeping story (the latter of which involves a discovery by Erasmas that could have major repercussions for Arbre, both inside and outside his concent). The incredible level of detail in this thoroughly built world is rare, even in speculative fiction. Anathem is a marvel, and ultimately a highly gratifying reading experience.