Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84: A Review

I never thought I could enjoy a fantasy novel. I also doubted that I needed to read another book by Murakami. He is not among my favorite authors. I find him far too desperate to sell himself to Western readers for my taste. In this respect, he reminds me of Garcia Marquez whose novels were always about exoticizing and cutesefying Colombia as much as possible in search of global popularity and massive sales.

The main reason why I pre-ordered Murakami’s 1Q84, I have to confess, was its length. If a book runs to almost 1,000 pages, I absolutely need to have it. It’s a compulsion I cannot resist. I didn’t have any great expectations for the novel which is why I was really shocked by how much I enjoyed it.

Murakami still cannot keep his exaggerated desire to be relevant to his Western readers in check. Among all of the literary references in the novel (some of which are quite lengthy), there is a single Japanese one. Other than that one work of Japanese literature, the characters read Chekhov, Proust, Orwell, Dostoevsky, etc. The novel is filled with explanations of the “In Japan, banks work this way” and “Japanese police officers do this and that” variety that are, obviously, of no use to Japanese readers and that sound very strange in the mouth of a Japanese character talking to her friend. For instance, can you imagine regaling your childhood buddy with the information that, “In the US, we use ATMs to withdraw money”? Still, there is a lot less of this in 1Q84 than there is, for example, in Norwegian Wood.

The fantasy aspect of the novel did not annoy me in the least. The reason why I didn’t mind it in 1Q84 when I mind it everywhere else to a degree that borders on paranoid is that fantasy in this novel does not exist for its own sake. The Little People and the air chrysalises play a very limited role of highlighting how empty, emotionally barren and castrated the lives of all of the characters are.

The characters of Murakami’s novel are so completely lonely, miserable and emotionally stunted that the only two of them who had a single moment of actual human contact when they held hands at the age of ten are the truly privileged ones. The rest do not even have that.

The Japan Murakami brings to us in 1Q84 is a place where people are so profoundly alienated that any one of them can drop off the face of the earth at any moment and nobody will even notice. And the scariest thing is that none of them seems to be even remotely conscious that there is something abnormal in living in a complete emotional and relational vacuum. By page 250, you get so desperate reading about the robotic existences of these characters that the irruption of fantastic elements feels entirely welcome. The mysterious evil Little People pose enough of a threat to propel the apathetic protagonists of the novel into some sort of reevaluation of their bereft existences.

Murakami’s trademark machismo is absent from this book. His tendency to resolve all of the conflicts and terminate all of the plot lines by getting the characters to kill themselves is almost gone, too, which is very refreshing. In this novel, Murakami has dramatically improved his not inconsiderable strengths while eliminating most of his weaknesses.

I have no knowledge of Japan that would enable me to judge whether there is some kind of a social reality behind the terrifying alienation described in 1Q84. What I can say, however, is that Murakami has definitely outdone himself in this novel. It is incomparably better than his previous work and I highly recommend it. If you never read Murakami before, start with this novel. It will take you forever to read it, but it will be a very enjoyable forever.

Womanly Women and Manly Men

The beauty of Internet is that a couple of ill-advised clicks can transport you into a completely different universe. This is how I stumbled on an article that discusses Hollywood’s loss of popularity by a passionate character called John Nolte.  Instead of discussing Hollywood’s ills, the article’s author engages in a very entertaining public fit of hysteria about actors who do not conform to traditional gender expectations:

We The People love Sandra, Will, and Denzel for a reason. She’s gorgeous, smart, womanly, classy and approachable, and the fellas are masculine, confident, classy, and non-neurotics who take charge. They also make films that deliver. Not all the time. But most of the time we the customers know that if they’re in it, there’s a better chance than not of bang for the buck.

What they are not and what no movie star has ever been is a child playing a grownup (the exception, of course, is comedians like Adam Sandler or Lou Costello). The Orlando Blooms will never be movie stars. Neither will the Michelle Williamses. And don’t get me started on Shia Le-what’s-his-name.

Look at your history, both recent and long past. Hollywood may have changed over the last few decades, but the people — the customers — have not. The human animal simply doesn’t evolve that quickly. Furthermore, stars shouldn’t represent who we are; we don’t want to see ourselves on the screen. Stars should represent who we want to be. Men want to be John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. Women want to Ava Gardner and Barbara Stanwyck.

Masculine men.

Womanly women.

Who knows why in the strange imaginary life of this rant’s author Sandra Bullock, whose only more or less memorable role was precisely one of a “manly woman”, has transformed into a paragon of femininity.

What I wanted to draw your attention to, instead, is the italicized confession John Nolte makes in this piece. His hysteria over the bad, horrible Hollywood stars who do not fulfill the traditional

Will Smith, Nolte's favorite manly man, actually looks great as a woman.

gender expectations is driven by a realization that he himself does not measure up. He tells us very clearly that he is not one of those masculine men, which is precisely why he wants to see them on a screen as often as possible. If he could see one in a mirror on a regular basis, he wouldn’t be bothered by not encountering him in a movie theater.

And it’s always like this, people. The greatest partisans of strict gender roles, the worshipers of womanly womanhood and manly manhood are so obsessed with gender for the simple reason that they feel they never can catch up with this elusive, non-existent category. If only somebody were kind enough to tell them that manliness and womanliness are highly subjective, that they mean entirely different things to different people, that searching for the gold standard of gender in real life is futile. Maybe then they would be able to go to the movies and simply enjoy a film.

Keep reading the article. There is a hilarious discussion of how commie-pinko-unpatriotic-anti-American Hollywood actors “insult” the profoundly conservative American audiences with their partisan movies. And then read the comments because, seriously, it’s a glimpse into a different world. There are folks who actually say that Hollywood actors “hate the troops.” Priceless.

Thomas Frank’s Pity the Billionaire: A Review, Part II

In his analysis of the housing market’s crash of 2008, Frank keeps discussing the irresponsible lenders and traders who caused the crash. He is absolutely right in that their actions deserve to be investigated and condemned. However, Frank avoids the discussion of the other side of the equation, namely, the irresponsible borrowers. Unless we recognize that the Tea Partiers express a legitimate grievance of many against those who borrowed huge amounts of money they had no hope of repaying, there will be no opportunity to address the economic and political situation in this country in any productive way. When a very well-paid professional whose job it is to analyze finance drives himself into bankruptcy by irresponsible borrowing just because he needed to feel “gangsta”, can we really condemn those who work hard and try to live debt-free for feeling outraged?

The irresponsible lending goes on. In my neighborhood it definitely does and it horrifies me to imagine into what fresh round of drama this will lead us. But my neighborhood bank would not have been able to hand out the record number of zero-downpayment mortgages last month, had there not been people willing to snap up these loans. “The Bad Neighbor Doctrine” of the Tea Partiers that Frank condemns makes a lot of sense to me, a passionate Liberal.

If anything, Frank’s Pity the Billionaire made me feel an unexpected affinity with the Tea Partiers. He works hard to refute any accusation of racism and religious fanaticism that might be directed at the Tea Party. According to Frank, a regular Tea Partier is an educated, polite, blog-reading and blog-writing fan of Ayn Rand who believes that small businesses are the backbone of the economy and who deeply respects the entrepreneurial spirit of the Americans. Does this description remind you of anybody? Right you are, Frank’s typical Tea Partier is . . . me. There has got to be something wrong with the kind of analysis that does not distinguish between ultra-Liberal Progressives like myself and the followers of Glenn Beck.

The part of the book that I found the most disturbing is Frank’s profound and inexplicable hatred of small-business owners. According to Frank, they are so bogged down in their puny little concerns that the larger picture always eludes them. Small-business owners, Frank suggests, contribute nothing of value to the economy while, politically, they represent very regressive forces for the simple reason that they are too stupid to understand any complex phenomenon.

I am one of those ignoramuses who believe that small businesses (and, of course, small business loans) are, indeed, crucial to any healthy economy. What’s more, my barbarity is such that I see the American entrepreneurial spirit as not only unique but also profoundly admirable. Probably this is why I didn’t like Thomas Frank’s new book at all.

A Very Good Commercial From Ron Paul

As we all know, I dislike Ron Paul because he is being endorsed by religious fanatics left and right for his woman-hating ideas. However, his campaign has created a really cool commercial. Note the Agitprop motifs. This makes me wonder what political movement the actual creators of the commercial represent:

A Very Funny Search

A hilarious exchange between two of the funniest readers of this blog (you can find it here at the end of this thread) made me realize that people feel like being entertained at the moment. This makes sense since in the first week of the year nobody can be expected to be interested in heavy topics.

I, however, have no sense of humor left after spending all day long struggling first with my mid-point tenure dossier and then with my Canadian bank account. And unless you have a Canadian bank account, you cannot imagine the degree of aggravation it can produce. I’ve been swearing so much that I now completely lost my voice and can only croak like a sad, old crow.

So in order to come up with something funny for my readers, I had to turn to the search lines that bring people to my blog. This is a strategy that always delivers and it didn’t disappoint me this time. Here is what two individuals were searching for today:

I hope they found what they were looking for.

Does Beauty Help You Get Hired?

I think I need to start a new series titled “The Stupid Study of the Week.” There are so many pseudo-scientists engaged in fake research whose only goal is to get into the media that I will never run out of blogging topics. Consider the following study, for example:

A team at the Leuphana University of Lüneburg in northern Germany questioned more than 3,000 people about their career, and compared this with rankings of how attractive they were. The results suggest that being one point more attractive was worth a three percent wage hike, while being five points more attractive boosted a career by the same amount as having a university degree.

Professor Christian Pfeifer said his study, published this week in the Applied Economics Letters journal, also showed that the importance of looks in the workplace was even more important for men than it was for women. . . “Five points more – that is about the difference between an ordinary face and downright beauty – helps in getting a job as much as a university degree,” he said.

Let’s leave aside the question of who composed the rankings of attractiveness and why we are supposed to take that person’s idea of beauty as a universal yard-stick. Who’s to say that the creator of this ranking system doesn’t have a really horrible taste?

Never mind that, however. Let’s look at the last statement of the passage I quoted. Is this weird researcher at all familiar with how the hiring process is organized nowadays? Does he think that people just show up at the place where they hope to be employed to demonstrate their beauty? Did anybody find their job, a job that required a university degree, in this strange manner?

When I was on the job market, I never got a chance to impress anybody with my “downright beauty” before proving I had the necessary college degrees. Nobody would have discovered how I looked at all if I hadn’t had the required diplomas. My CV would have ended up in the trash can in a matter of seconds. I cannot imagine a situation where a search committee would have looked at my CV and said, “Well, she never went to college at all but let’s meet her anyways. Maybe she’s pretty. Then, we might still consider hiring her for a professorial position.” I also don’t recall any discussion of the candidates’ beauty or lack thereof at the (often very heated) meetings of the search committees where I participated.

I actually got my very first academic position as a Visiting Professor at an Ivy League university without ever meeting anybody from that school face to face. They hired me sight unseen on the basis of my CV and portfolio. Probably if they had gotten an opportunity to see me before hiring me, I’d be the university’s president instead of just a junior faculty member.

My sister is a professional recruiter, so we discuss the job market and successful recruitment strategies all the time. From what she tells me, a recruiter first reads a cover letter, then a CV, and then decides whether it makes sense to meet the candidate in person. She tells me that a college degree is crucial in the job mandates she handles. The question of a candidate’s beauty came up a single time in her career. That was when she was looking for a receptionist for a plastic surgeon’s practice.

I do believe, however, that Professor Christian Pfeifer had to be hired for his beauty. Based on the kind of study that occupies his time, I find it hard to believe he was hired because of his intellect.

Why I Like the Russian Protests More Than the #OWS

I don’t think that the protests in Russia are going to achieve anything major in the nearest future. Putin is still going to win the next Presidential “elections” in Russia. Even if the elections are not falsified (which, as we all realize, is not likely), he will still win. Most people still like him (these are the folks who don’t read newspapers or blogs and only watch official pro-Putin channels on television). Besides, there is no opposition to speak of at the moment.

If we are to see any tangible results of the Russian protests, we will have to wait for a few years. It will take a while for viable opposition forces to emerge and produce their own leaders.

Still, I am a lot more enthusiastic about the Russian protests than I am about the #OWS. These are both middle-class movements. However, the peaceful Russian revolution of 2011 never pretended to be what it wasn’t. Its participants calmly explain in interviews, on their blogs and social networks that they are comfortably off, well-to-do, middle-class folks who are fed up with how their country is run. They don’t beg anybody for compassion. And they don’t regale us with stories of how they have wonderful, comfortable, debt-free lives but still “live in bated breath” because of some imaginary disasters. Most importantly, there is no swapping of tales of personal woe and misery that the #OWS protesters enjoy so much and that, more often than not, are inflated dramatically. For obvious reasons, the religious vocabulary that bothers me so much at the #OWS is also absent among Russian political agitators of the moment.

The Russian protesters say that they want to be in charge of their country’s politics. They talk about democracy, the voting system, the ways in which the currently existing parties are flawed, the way the budget is structured, the reasons why they are disappointed with Putin, the ways they evaluate the history of their country over the past 20 years. I have not read a single account, blog post, newspaper article, interview, etc. where a protester would plunge into a tale of his or her debts, employment history, educational achievements, sickness, marriages, etc. as part of his or her analysis of the political situation.

As we all know, personal is political. The way we live our lives is intimately connected to our politics. However, it would be a mistake to turn this statement around and say that political is personal. When politics becomes nothing but a bunch of personal narratives, we end up with a political reality where people elect presidents on the basis of their attractions as beer-drinking buddies, politicians’ personal lives matter a lot more than their policies, and a candidate’s success is defined by whether she can cry on cue or whether he bowls well. Only too often, the #OWS protesters approach the political arena as if it were a stage for a reality TV show, a place where personal dramas are to be aired for no other purpose than to allow an Oprahesque unburdening of emotions to occur.

Another reason why I prefer Russian protests to the #OSW is that the Russian protesters do not attempt to pretend they are proletarians when, in reality, they are middle-class folks. The vogue of brandishing fake working-class credentials is associated in Russia with the decades of the Communist regime. This is why nowadays people see nothing shameful in being financially comfortable.

The #OWS protesters, however, are tortured with middle-class guilt. This is why their “we are all in the same boat” slogans sound so hollow. I remember how my union organizer tried to convince me that he and I did not differ in any way from a truck-driver. At that time, he and I were students at one of the most prestigious grad schools in the world. We had great medical insurance, only had to teach for 50 minutes a day, and rarely woke up before noon. Unlike my union organizer, I hadn’t been born rich, so I didn’t feel any need to mask the silver spoon in my mouth by claiming I knew anything about the reality of truck-drivers.

This is, however, precisely what the #OWS does. Its middle-class participants mask their middle-class concerns behind the rhetoric of fake solidarity with the dispossessed. They self-righteously compete in producing stories of misery because they seem to believe that only misery entitles you to an opinion and to activism.

When the Russian protesters talk about their participation in the revolutionary movement, they always begin by explaining how they are entitled to be in charge of their country because of their success in running their lives, careers, companies, blogs, bank accounts, etc. The #OWS protesters, on the other hand, proudly claim failure as their chief qualification for the role of political activists.