Review of 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Those who for your years have enjoyed the fiction of Japan’s foremost writer, Haruki Murakami won’t be disappointed by his novel 1Q84. It is a satisfyingly thick book in three volumes that has all the hallmarks of a Murakami classic. It is a book that has the reader racing to reach the end. It is not, however, one of his best.
The overarching theme of all of Murakami’s books is dislocation. His central protagonists are invariably lonely people who feel cut off from the flow of life. They pursue a mundane existence that involves cooking, cleaning and puzzling away at some mystery. There is the man in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle who at the start of the book loses both his wife and his cat. There is the character in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World who fries a circuit in his brain and ends up in a Kafka-esque town nursing his dying shadow. There is the lonely figure in A Wild Sheep Chase searching for a girl.
In all these stories we have the mundane counterpointed by the supernatural. This is the formula of magical realism that Murakami has made his own. The characters seem lost, orphaned and just not able to fit themselves into a society that values conformity in its citizens.
In 1Q84 we have the unpublished writer Tengo leading an obscure life as a part-time cram school teacher. He is plagued by doubts over whether the man who dragged him around on his NHK collecting route is his real father. Tengo has no real friends, just a married woman who visits him once a week for sex.
And then there is Aomame who ran away from her parents to escape a life as a Jehovah Witness. Like Tengo she was forced to do the rounds with her parents as they attempted to find new recruits for their religion. The two went to the same school. They were both outsiders who used sport to fit into a world they felt deeply at odds with.
The pivotal moment in their relationship is when Tengo helps Aomame in class. After the lesson Aomame goes over to Tengo and squeezes his hand.
Murakami uses these two characters to form the basis of an ambitious narrative structure. Books One and Two (published in 2009) have chapters alternating between following the two. In the third book published a year later he adds a third character, Ushikawa, to the chapter pattern.
The third book sees Murakami move the genre into a thriller. He ratchets up the suspense as Tengo and Aomame struggle to find each other while being furtively chased by Ushikawa.
The main problem with 1Q84 is the metaphysical element of the book. In his most successful writing the reader is more than willing to suspend his or her disbelief when the writer brings magic to the centre of the stage. We totally believe in the Sheep Man, the power of the well to take us deep within ourselves, with the village down the path in Kafka on the Shore. This is not the case with the Little People. They only appear twice in the book. The theory of Maza and Dohta, the voice and weaving an Air Chrysalis is mixed up with a new religion that is never explained properly. It feels second-hand. Much comes through the device of a book within a book. It gets harder and harder for the reader to believe. The reader is distanced not drawn into the magical world.
The problem is that the reader is told about it too much and not shown it, not made to experience the magical world. The metaphysics start to feel like a lame plot device to hold the narrative together.
This is as big shame.
Another disappointment is that the quality of writing is uneven. In Book One Murakami carries the reader along with his usual flowing prose. The images of butterflies intrigue. The climax of Book Two is a stormy night where parallels create a satisfying intensity.
In contrast Book Three is labored at points. The first playground scene he must use the word ‘Zelkova’ at least a dozen times. The imaginative and resonant butterfly images are replaced with crow and owl images that seem hackneyed and empty in comparison.
And then there is the disappointment that the book has nothing to do with Orwell’s 1984. It is not about totalitarian control or sex crimes or thought crimes. Nor is it about changing history. Rather Murakami because of his age feels most comfortable in the 1980s. All his central male characters wear chinos and sneakers. It seems Murakami is allergic to the 90s and the 2000s where he would have to confront the mobile phone and the internet.
The same is true about cooking. I used to think his descriptions of men cooking pasta or tofu salad or fish were excellent. I’ve recently come to see that Murakami only knows how to cook four dishes at the most. It is tedious that he keeps repeating them from book to book. It is no longer an advert for Japanese cuisine; rather it is a symptom of a lazy writer.
Not one of his Breast
As with fashion, food and music Murakami has started to repeat himself too much with regard to anatomy. There can be no doubt now that his favourite word is ‘breast’. You could paraphrase 1Q84 thus:
A girl with small tits who would like bigger tits has a friend at school with big tits. They have a lesbian encounter and later the girl with big tits is driven to suicide by an unhappy marriage. Aomame is all alone until she makes friends with a police woman who has big tits.
Meanwhile Tengo has a recurring vision of his mum’s tits. His girl friend cups his balls and has small tits. He meets a 17 year old called Fuka-Eriko who has stupendous breasts who he ends up shagging. However, it is Aomame’s small tits that he really wants.
Message to H.M
This is the disappointment for Murakami fans: 1Q84 has not pushed the writer. It is good that he sticks to his theme of dislocation but we needed it revealed in a new way. Perhaps in a way relevant to the information age, or to the age of global financial disaster.There are a lot of new forms of alienation been created by corporate greed, revolution, digital divide, free market propaganda and wealth disparity that H.M could turn his attention to.
Haruki, please take your time over the next one. Half the size and twice the originality should be what you are aiming for.
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