Inside Scientology: The Story of America's Most Secretive Religion

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A Year in Reading: Charles Baxter

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After 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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