You can do yourself a psychological injury, I have decided, by being a tad too eclectic in book consumption. Promiscuity is all very well in any aspect of life, but you can be left a bit befuddled. And going from Haruki Murakami’s IQ84 (Books One and Two; waiting for Part Three to arrive) to Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, via two memoirs about the funeral trade: Robert Connolly’s Over Your Dead Bodyand James Baker’s A Life in Death, has left me slightly discombobulated. One minute it’s timeshift parallel worlds in Japan with a vengeful assassin afflicted by leprechauns and classical music (Murakami), then you’re queasily learning about embalming techniques and how cremation will be displaced by dissolving bodies in strong alkali solutions. That’s for research purposes, honestly -
Baker’s book is a curiously happy, rather self-satisfied memoir about undertaking in Stroud; Connolly is much more astringent and offers a brief history of death and how we deal with it. With some very funny personal memories covering similar ground to Baker (though in more lip-smackingly horrific detail). Nevertheless, Baker is better on embalming. Absolutely nothing seems to have upset him during a career which began with work experience aged 15...
Then I found myself attempting to read a discarded copy of Paula Hawkins’ 10-million-selling debut sensation The Girl on the Train. I got to page 182 before throwing it down in frustration. Both my wife and daughter had done the same thing. How such an obvious and clumsy reworking of Hitchcock’s Rear Window, with an easily guessed ‘real murderer’ and seriously unconvincing, not to say unpleasant characters, could become so successful is really...oh, but the clue is in the criticism, or the critic. This isn’t pulp. It’s heavily sugared and spiced mush, served in a reassuringly familiar container, easily gulped or sucked through a thick straw, and not so much ingested as absorbed and then painlessly excreted. There’s going to be a movie, with Emily Blunt, set in the USA. Oh shit.
But 10 million copies? Why? Well, it’s banality pretending to complexity, wrapped in the blindingly obvious. That universal experience of seeing something inexplicable out of a train window, of wondering about the lives exposed as you gaze into other people’s houses. Hooked? Three narrators, with the central one so unreliable you know from the start she can’t possibly be as bad as you’re initially meant to think. And then it’s all soap opera sex, betrayal. Infertility and ‘imagining his long fingers on my body’. Believe me, Gone Girl this is not. Gone Girl is like a Japanese bullet train compared to this tarted up Thomas the Tank Engine. A sophisticated piece of engineering as opposed to cartoon tech from another century. Actually, I’m being unfair to Thomas.
But it’s popular. And popular (also to be blindingly obvious)is not always good. Even though early Thomas the Tank Engine was very good, actually, before Ringo left the series.
On the other hand, Murakami’s absolutely insane, berserk epic IQ84 is also massively popular worldwide, despite being so demanding of your credulity, plotwise, that once completed you wonder how anyone could possibly get away making it so brilliantly, compulsively readable. And with Books One and Two in the hands of separate translators, too.
To summarise (deep breath): Deadly young female assassin killing off abusers of women in and around Tokyo finds herself in what appears to be a parallel world, very similar to hers other than it having two moons. The lost love of her life, a maths lecturer and author, ghost writes the story of a strange young girl concerning the aforementioned, and malevolent, leprechauns (‘little people’, not called O’Shea). A strange religious cult, much coolly described sex, family dislocation, a fantasy about cats and much else comes together in what is an utterly absorbing and often very funny/violent fable about faith, intimacy and the power of fiction, riffing constantly about music, martial arts, food and fashion in modern Japan. Murakami’s use of labels and trade names anchors his writing in ‘reality’ (cf William Gibson, also obsessed with Japanese culture) even as its explodes into areas which initially seem utterly fanciful, but then become accepted as part of the reader’s reality. It’s playful in the extreme.
Friends who have been to Japan say that the country’s religiosity is omnipresent, and highly eclectic, with magic, Buddhism and extreme cultish Christianity sometimes casually combined. Murakami’s book identifies the bizarre dangers in this, with clear references to the Aum doomsday group, the subway sarin gas attacks and more.
Wonderful, really. But I’d better get back to my study of funeral practices. Did you know that this new method of ‘liquid cremation’ is being pioneered by a Scottish company? But of course!