A Year in Reading: Charles Baxter

December 7, 2011 | 3 books mentioned 5 2 min read

coverAfter reading Jay Bahadur’s nonfiction book The Pirates of Somalia, and Janet Reitman’s scary (also nonfiction) book Inside Scientology, I happened to read Haruki Murakami’s newest novel, 1Q84, on assignment. The book has flaws. It’s too long; it can be repetitive; at a certain point you can see that Murakami is simply delaying his various plot developments. The characters often consist of Murakami’s ideas about them. They are slow to come to life, like composite monsters on laboratory tables waiting for lightning to hit them and to bring them awake. And the plot is straight out of The Magic Flute or The Master and Margarita: two people are redeemed and transformed by their love for each other, and they manage to make their way through a landscape of unreality peopled by demons.

And yet, and yet. Murakami’s novel creates a world ruled by cults, and I felt that I was being given a 932 page primer in 1Q84 that helped to explain what I had already read in The Pirates of Somalia and Inside Scientology. We are talking about a way of transforming reality by methodologies that demand a certain kind of rigidly enforced vision and adherence to certain kinds of authority figures in societies suffering massive structural breakdowns. The psychology required by that sort of vision is very much on display in 1Q84. Furthermore, the book is generous in the way that Philip Roth is generous: you get the feeling that everything that Murakami has thought, and felt, and experienced, is out there on the page. Nothing gets held back, not even the ugliness — especially the ugliness. The characters aren’t quite real, but who cares? It’s the kind of risky ambitious storytelling that writers of my generation are often too scared to try. But I’d rather take Murakami’s novel, with all its faults in analyzing an entire society, than a colder and more perfect unambitious novel about another boring family suffering through the death of a grandparent.

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is the author of five novels and five books of stories, most recently Gryphon: New and Selected Stories. He is also the author of two books of literary criticism, including The Art of Subtext. He lives in Minneapolis and teaches at the University of Minnesota.

5 comments:

  1. Mr. Baxter:

    I thought your review of IQ84 in the NYRB was the best I’ve read, and certainly the closest to my own experience of reading the book. In particular, the opera connection is useful. We don’t go to grand opera expecting plausibility, or dramatic subtlety. Instead, we go expecting…well, what do we go expecting? For me, much of whatever that is was also satisfied by IQ84, which at 30 hours of reading time is longer even than the ring! Anyway, thanks for a review that was itself generous.

  2. I’m at a great loss since I read 1Q84 in dutch, which is a terrible translation. But still I find your review very striking, especiallly the idea that it has a great similarity with The Master and Margarita, the plot that is. Very true indeed! Thanks for pointing this out, I was sure there was something about it that I had read before..

  3. I have to admit Baxter’s post, the last sentence especially, strikes me as a little bit odd, particularly since Baxter’s work falls much, much more in the “another boring family suffering through the death of a grandparent” category than in the sprawling, ambitious IQ84 category. And, for the record, I say that as a fan of Baxter’s work, especially the stories “Snow” and “Fenstad’s Mother.” I’d much rather read a quieter work with actual characters (“The characters aren’t quite real, but who cares?” I do, Charles!) than wade through the bloat of a Franzen novel.

    I think there’s plenty of room in the literary world for both styles, and everything in between, but I come to fiction primarily to read about the interior lives of convincing characters. It’s one of the reasons I like Baxter’s work. He seems to be spiting himself in his review.

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