Novellas are forever

Elyut Rawdin

The quote from Bertrand Russell goes like this: “There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it.” In my case, I decided to read Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 for the former reason. I have read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood and the short-story collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, and can safely declare that Murakami is one of my all time favourite writers; a true great whose appeal lies in his special ability to comment on the Japanese psyche whilst skilfully intertwining the mundane with the surreal. I would recommend The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle to anyone; it is a staggering literary achievement and remains, to this day, the best work of narrative prose I have ever had the pleasure to read. Picking up 1Q84, after the first few chapters, I felt reasonably convinced that, by the book’s ending, I would be saying something very similar.

Unfortunately, however, I can say nothing of the sort. Why, you ask? The answer is very simple: 1Q84 is far, far too long. Clocking in at some nine hundred pages, it’s not exactly what you’d call slim. Books One and Two come in a six hundred page edition whilst Book Three, the novel’s ‘conclusion,’ is presented in a separate three hundred and sixty page volume. I have nothing against works of considerable weight; I actually enjoyed Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses and one day, when I’m feeling brave enough, I will tackle War and Peace. Murakami’s own The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a long text too, but across its six hundred and twenty four pages, the reader observes war atrocities, disappearing cats, sinister violence and unseen flickers of evil, all bound up in a plot which both evolves and carries momentum right up to its surreal and otherworldly final act. 1Q84 on the other hand, Murakami’s alleged magnum-opus, teases and excites, before giving up on itself. It provides us with no answers, no resolution and a tame, lackluster finale.

It sounds as though I didn’t enjoy reading the novel and I can’t, realistically, claim that. In parts, it betters anything its author has written before and its central premise and characters do, on the whole, keep us interested throughout the proceedings. I just can’t help feeling that had Mr. Murakami sliced one hundred thousand words from the thing, I and many others would have been left with happier faces, heavier wallets and more time to focus on other things.

But I can’t pin the blame entirely on the author. Arguably, in composing a work of such length, all Murakami has done is cater to the demands of a reading public who seem ever more conscious of novels which denote a ‘value for money’ ethos. Walk into any chain bookstore in the country and you won’t find novellas, poetry collections or short stories on the ‘three for the price of two’ shelf. What you will find is books like 1Q84; hefty titles which promise to keep the purchaser occupied for a very long time. This, I feel, is a great shame, for in our desire to ‘go large,’ we overlook a plethora of great works.

The novella is now an outmoded vessel for storytelling. An absolute nightmare for publishers, marketers, literary agents, and ‘a bit of a con’ in the eyes of the reading public, the form still retains unique qualities which grant it its own place in world literature. Let’s take a famous title which exemplifies just why the novella works: Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

The story of a New York call girl and her troubles in the big city, Capote’s text works so well because it apportions a perfect balance between character, narration and plot. We know just enough about Holly and ‘Fred’ to care for them, but not so much that we feel irritated by repetitive descriptions of their own foibles and flaws (something which is rife in 1Q84). Similarly, the plot doesn’t wander away from its root source and take us into unnecessary territory; it just does what it’s supposed to do, taking us from a beginning to a decisive yet understated end. Ultimately, I suppose, it is Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ simplicity which highlights how effective the novella can be as a literary form. Nothing is wasted as far as words are concerned, and the whole text is imbued with a consistent air of precision and efficacy.

Reading 1Q84 hasn’t put me off reading long novels; in fact, I intend to pick up Cormac McCarthy’s The Border Trilogy next and read the whole thing in order. Instead, Murakami’s flawed masterpiece has made me reconsider what the novel does and should do and what the novella, when given the chance to, can do even better. Is it time, I wonder, to bring the form firmly into twenty-first century reality, and would it survive were we to do so? Only time will tell.

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2 comments

  1. Lindsey · August 15, 2012

    An elegant synopsis of many interesting ideas. In much less organised fashion: I haven’t (and probably won’t) read this one, but I think Murakami’s trick is partly to resist ‘revealing the Japanese psyche’ (and thus he reveals an awful lot). I wonder if Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending would fit your criteria for the novella – I experienced it as rather full, verging on (but just avoiding being) ponderous, but it has the necessary unity of ideas and style, as well as a limited cast and tight(ish) setting. And The Border Trilogy isn’t particularly long – at least its component parts aren’t, which stand independently – but it is certainly challenging on many levels, particularly The Crossing.

    • Elliot Rawdin · August 19, 2012

      Thoroughly enjoying All the Pretty Horses at the moment. I think I’ll read the whole thing sequentially, although I’m desperate to read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I suppose, in hindsight, if Barnes can win the Booker with a novella, that says something; but then one could easily imagine a novella winning the Booker. I feel short, delicate writings have disappeared from patterns of ‘popular’ reading and that narrative intricacy and length is taken to be more important than style and structure. I’d probably avoid 1Q84 (unless you’re a Murakami obsessive, which I am), he’s composed far better works and, if you haven’t guessed yet, it’ll take a fair amount of time to get through!

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