1Q84 Book Review - Lunchtime Lit with Mel
Brain Stimulation or Sleep Enhancer?
During my ongoing Lunchtime Lit experiment in literary review and commentary, I have reached a point where I have to ask myself - "is this book really as good as I think it is, or am I deceived about its quality because I am reading it in half hour chunks?" In other words, if I was at home curled up in my favorite reading chair instead of sitting beneath my favorite tree in my postal vehicle - would I still be reading after half an hour, or would I be leaning back with my mouth agape, snoring loudly as my reading glasses slide slowly off my nose?
1Q84 in particular, a massive 1157 page volume by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, prompts me to ask this question. Don't get me wrong, I thought it was a fantastic book, and the extensive list of notes I jotted down in my phone demonstrate the deep food for thought the novel provided; mental nourishment that blended smoothly with the food for the body I chewed while reading. It seems like only Murakami has the ability to make uninspiring circumstances seem interesting - for instance like sitting in the bottom of a well, or sitting on an apartment patio for days on end, waiting for a particular person to climb to the top of a slide in a park down below. There's always a lot of sitting going on in a Murakami novel. The question is, would these same mundane, repetitive scenarios still be fascinating if, instead of my half hour lunch break, I was on a 12 hour flight to Tokyo with only this book for entertainment? I don't know, maybe I'll never know. Since my old fart reading attention span is not the same as it was when I was 20 maybe any book, no matter how engrossing, might knock me out cold after half an hour.
At any rate, if a reader walks away from any book feeling sadness in being departed from the characters said reader has become intimately involved with over the course of three months, even the bad guys, then I guess one could say that the author has fulfilled his mission of creating an alternate reality in which the spectator has become a completely engaged emotional participant. In this respect, Murakami delivered. In spite of sometimes being redundant, with the plot grinding along as slowly as the passage of the moon (or moons?) through its phases, this reader enjoyed every minute spent reading 1Q84 beneath my lunch tree, and approximately three months after I started I am sorry it is over.
Lunchtime Lit Rules
The books reviewed for Lunchtime Lit are those read during my half hour Postal lunch break. Sneaking a book into the car to read at traffic lights is not allowed, and bathroom reading is strictly prohibited, no matter how hygienic the facilities. To qualify for Lunchtime Lit review, the book must have some degree of yogurt staining, or at least a few crumbs between the pages. Here is a list of the books I have read so far under these criteria:
Lunchtime Lit Stats
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
I don't want to dwell on the plot of 1Q84 too much, because if I do you will think it's silly and you might skip reading it; perhaps because the idea of "Little People" crawling out of a dead goat's mouth and building an air chrysalis is just a little far fetched for your taste.
Yet somehow Murakami makes this ostensibly ridiculous scenario believable. It starts when part time math teacher, part time aspiring novelist Tengo Kawana is contracted by his devious, scheming editor Komatsu to secretly rewrite a promising novel submitted by 17 year old Fuka-Eri, which turns out not to be a novel at all but a description of real events that occurred to her as a young girl. The Little People, whose nefarious activities this tale threatens to expose, make use of the religious cult Sakigake and its repulsive agent Ushikawa to suppress the book and the people involved in its publication.
Meanwhile, Murakami's heroine Aomame, whose name roughly translated means "green bean," steps off a freeway in rush hour traffic, then climbs the emergency staircase of an overpass into an alternate reality she begins to call 1Q84; a world that is slightly off, a world in which there are two moons in the sky. Aomame is a skilled, stealthy assassin employed by a wealthy dowager to kill particularly abusive husbands while leaving no signs of foul play. The dowager conceives a plot to use Aomame to murder the leader of Saklgake, who is suspected of sexually abusing underage girls.
During the course of the novel Tengo and Aomame, who emotionally bonded as children but were soon thereafter parted, discover that their destinies have been linked by the strange events in 1Q84. A significant part of the novel involves them literally waiting to be reunited, in order to fulfill a destiny essential to thwart the activities of the evil Little People. In the meantime, Sakigake and Ushikawa hound them at every turn.
Brain Fuel or Sleeping Draught? You Decide.
Murakami's Writing Style Revisited
As you can see from the above recap, Haruki Murakami previously visited my Postal vehicle for Lunchtime Lit, and it wasn't to interrupt me with an annoying question about where his package was. July through September of 2015 I read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and was so utterly enraptured by the novel I decided to take on 1Q84, which I literally stole from under my son's nose when he fell asleep reading it. Taking candy from a baby.
One of the things I really enjoy about Murakami is his unpretentious, economical, but at the same time biting and poignant writing style. His use of often humorous similes and metaphors keeps the reader captivated, even at times when the story is dragging. Consider the following description of the villain Ushikawa:
His teeth were crooked, and his spine was strangely curved. The large crown of his head formed an abnormally flat bald area with lopsided edges. It was reminiscent of a military heliport that had been made by cutting away the peak of a small, strategically important hill. Tengo had seen such a heliport in a Vietnam War documentary.— Haruki Murakami - 1Q84
Eventually, as the novel progresses, Murakami manages to create a degree of sympathy for the loathsome Ushikawa, who by the way wandered over from The Wind-Up Bird, where he also played a significant role. Ushikawa seems to be just another victim of destiny, unwittingly led into the unconventional, two-moon reality of 1Q84.
At least the first half of 1Q84 is replete with such acute, entertaining character observations and descriptions. In the second half of the book, however, these fascinating and funny portrayals start to fizzle out - as if Murakami himself got tired of waiting by that damn slide and just wanted to get the thing over with.
Recurring Murakami-isms - Weird Sex and Telephones, but So Sorry no Phone Sex
I have only read two Murakami novels to date; though a third, Kafka on the Shore, is sitting benignly on my son's desk, sorely tempting me to abscond with it. In the brief exposure I have had to Murakami, however, I have noted a number of recurring motifs throughout his work.
In both The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and 1Q84 a lot of the plot progresses over the telephone. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle even begins with a phone call, and in 1Q84 telephone communication is equally significant. In fact, Murakami gives these voice transmission devices a life of their own; a certain insistent ringing indicating whether the call is important and whether the character in question should answer.
Cats and birds make frequent appearances in Murakami tales. These animals are sworn enemies in a natural setting, but Murakami seems to treat them both sympathetically. Perhaps the author is employing the antagonistic animals as a way to point out the necessary balance between the forces of dark and light, a motif he frequently explores in his books.
Murakami knows Western Literature better than most Western authors do, and makes numerous references to it. If you read Murakami, expect to receive a literature lesson at the same time. As she patiently watches for Tengo's second coming to the slide in the park below, Aomame reads Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. It took a Japanese author, not a western one, to pique my interest in this work. Russian author Anton Chekhov's experiences on Sakhalin Island are also widely discussed, and Chekhov's rule - the one that if a gun appears in a story it has to be fired, appears as a frequent teaser throughout 1Q84.
The author also delivers a lesson about Swiss Psychiatrist Carl Jung and the strange epitaph inscribed by him over the door of his stone house in Zurich. According to Murakami, the sign reads "Cold or Not, God is present" - but the real quote is probably called or not, which makes more sense. Whatever the case, a Murakami read is an all around educational experience and sends a curious mind googling for more info.
As well as being an accomplished reader of Western Literature, our favorite Japanese writer is well immersed in western classical music; using it as a soundtrack for significant events that play out in the plot, as well as a method to enhance the hidden meaning of the story. In Wind-Up Bird we hearkened to the soothing sounds of Rossini, Schumann and Mozart. In 1Q84 the rather haunting, triumphant but disturbing overtones of Janacek's Sinfonietta are playing in the background as Aomame exits the taxi, climbs the overpass, and enters into the unknown world of 1Q84.
Finally, for those of you monitoring your children's reading habits, be warned that in a Murakami novel there is a lot of sex going on, but this physical interplay between the sexes is rarely associated with love and romance. Instead, Murakami sex is of a peculiar, ritualistic variety that appears to be carried out under a sense of duty for the participants. Even so it is oddly titillating.
From a Westerner's viewpoint, Murakami sex in 1Q84 can be disturbing and difficult to fathom. For instance, the author would have us believe that, with the exception of of one particular stimulated portion of his anatomy, protagonist Tengo Kawana was completely paralyzed when beautiful and shapely 17 year old Fuka-Eri mounted him in a sexual way. Yeah right, try telling that to the judge.
So what is Haruki Murakami really talking about in 1Q84? I've been frantically cruising around the Internet, trying to finish off this article with a discussion of a possible mythological basis behind the idea of the dohta and maza, key by-products of the Little People engendered air chrysalis. Are these indeed mythological motifs, or is Murakami making it all up as he goes along? Admittedly I have not dug too deeply, because who the hell has time to dig through 125,000 results, but at first glance this Murakami Universe seems to have been created by the author out of whole cloth. I have often wondered, and have discussed this subject with number one son - the same one whose books I frequently plunder, if perhaps Murakami knows how the real, unseen world works, while the rest of us wallow in blissful ignorance of the strangeness that swirls all around us.
Fireworks Finale, or Fading Fizzle?
Don't expect any thrilling conclusion from 1Q84 - no breathtaking boss battle with Aomame finally shooting Chekov's gun at the Little People as they run around Mini-Me like; trying to kick Tengo in the shins, or some nonsense like that. There is no satisfying, pulse racing wrap-up that neatly resolves all loose ends. Instead, even after slogging through 1157 pages, the reader is left with many unanswered questions, and the future of the protagonists seems dicey and insecure. In absence of a sequel, which seems unlikely, there is no guaranteed happy ending for Tengo, Aomame, and their strange surrogate spawn, only further dangers and adventures ahead on some unknown level of reality where the tiger on the Esso sign looks to the left, instead of the right.
I, for one, was quite pleased with the way the novel ended. Does real life ever wrap itself up neatly and cleanly, or do we resolve one set of difficulties only to be immediately presented with another? I remember Stephen King's thrilling conclusion to the Dark Tower, where protagonist gunslinger Roland shouted out the names of his departed companions at the base of the tower and then disappeared inside of it, with the door slamming loudly and soundly behind him. Even though the reader was left wondering what would happen to Roland next, I thought it was a brilliant ending and was severely disappointed when King succumbed to pressure from his fans and wrote an extension to it; one that described what happened to Roland inside the tower. The original conclusion was dramatic, poetic, and awe inspiring. It left a lot to the imagination - blank spaces for the reader to fill in on his or her own. The new ending killed all that.
I sincerely hope Murakami profits from King's mistakes and isn't planning a sequel to 1Q84. The ending was fine just the way it was, and I don't think I could endure three more months of sitting on Aomame's apartment patio, reading Proust and waiting for that damn dilatory Tengo to show up at the top of the slide again.