A lot has been said about Haruki Mukakami's 1Q84 and not all of it good. Which piqued my curiosity, as he usually appeals to the more, shall we say, “elitist” literary crowd who is willing, or so it often appears, to forgive the author anything in the name of artistic integrity and originality, as much as he appeals to mainstream readers who may or may not be speculative fiction aficionados. So when a Murakami work made even some diehard fans of his grumble in frustration, I knew this was a book I needed to check out.
When it was confirmed that I would be spending the entire month of February traveling around the Philippines, the timing was just about perfect. So I bought a copy of the trade paperback edition and 1Q84 was a faithful companion from the moment I set out for the airport. Having reached the end, I can confirm that all the negative things said about this novel are true. However, all the good things mentioned about it are also true.
Which makes this Murakami title extremely difficult to review. On the on hand, it is often atrociously slow-moving and the story that goes nowhere makes you want to open your veins right then and there. But on the other hand, at times the prose is fluid and the tale is moving forward and every little detail demonstrates yet again just how brilliant Haruki Murakami truly is.
To be honest, had I been home I would in all likelihood never have finished this book. Weighing in at nearly 1200 pages, I'm not sure I would have had the patience to go through it, what with all the pointless chapters that go nowhere. But I was traveling, far from home, and with a limited amount of reading material for the number of weeks I'd be staying in Southeast Asia. Add to that the fact that the book probably weighs about 6 or 7 pounds and that I've been carrying it around with me for over a week. So getting rid of it without finishing it would have meant that I had been lugging around that much deadweight for nothing for all this time. In any case, as bad as the crappy portions of the novel are, there were enough positive things going on that I wanted to get through to the end.
Am I happy to have persevered? I'm a bit confused and simply cannot give a clear answer. I'm glad that I discovered how everything came together at the end, yet I'm unsure whether or not the payoff from the finale is worth going through such an enormous work. . .
Here's the blurb:
The year is 1984 and the city is Tokyo. A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 —“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled. As Aomame’s and Tengo’s narratives converge over the course of this single year, we learn of the profound and tangled connections that bind them ever closer: a beautiful, dyslexic teenage girl with a unique vision; a mysterious religious cult that instigated a shoot-out with the metropolitan police; a reclusive, wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for abused women; a hideously ugly private investigator; a mild-mannered yet ruthlessly efficient bodyguard; and a peculiarly insistent television-fee collector. A love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery, a dystopia to rival George Orwell’s—1Q84 is Haruki Murakami’s most ambitious undertaking yet: an instant best seller in his native Japan, and a tremendous feat of imagination from one of our most revered contemporary writers.
The worldbuilding focuses on an old trope, that of a parallel universe. The two main protagonists are whisked from Japan in 1984 and end up in an alternate reality that comes to be known as 1Q84. Although quite similar in every aspect, there are also a lot of differences, chief among them the fact that there are two moons in the sky. For all that he wastes an inordinate amount of prose on useless descriptions and the minutiae of the characters' existence, Murakami doesn't elaborate a whole lot on the world of 1Q84. Which is a shame, as I was fascinated every time he would throw us a bone and give us a few glimpses of what was taking place on the international stage.
I am aware that when reading any Murakami novels, you should never expect everything to actually make sense. You shouldn't ask yourself too many questions and just buckle up and enjoy the ride. Problem is, this books raises so many questions that remain unanswered that it prevented me from appreciating 1Q84 as much as I wanted to. Everything about the Little Ones, the voices, the air chrysalis, etc; all those facets are central themes that are at the heart of the tale. And yet, there are few revelations that shine some light on those mysterious key elements from the book. Which means that, in the end, a panoply of loose ends remain, with no resolution whatsoever for various plotlines that make up the bulk of this work.
I am also well aware that Haruki Murakami is not necessarily a plot-driven kind of author. With him, the journey is often more important, or as important, as the destination. So even if little makes sense, you are supposed to read along and enjoy the narrative. Lots of readers and reviewers have pointed out how slow-moving and boring 1Q84 can be sometimes. Lots of people have complained that the book is way too long. And I have to agree with those assessments. Take away all the superfluous, redundant, repetitive, and extraneous filler material that bloats this book and you can easily shave off at least 300 to 400 pages. There is so much mental masturbation going on in some unnecessary and pointless chapters that it often kills what little momentum the novel has achieved.
Though they indeed feel flat and too passive at times, I actually liked both of the main characters. Aomame and Tengo are deeply flawed individuals with heavy pasts that they have left behind and would rather forget. It takes quite a while for Murakami to show readers the strange connection that binds them since childhood, and even longer to bring their storylines together. For some unfathomable reason, the author feels the need to describe their appearance and everyday lives in minute details, over and over and over again. I mean, how many times do we need a description of Aomame's breasts and pubic hair, or what Tengo is preparing himself for dinner. Understandably, these two take center stage and the entire novel focuses on them. Still, the most fascinating character found within the pages of 1Q84 is doubtless the enigmatic Eriko Fukada, the teenager whose story about the Little People sets everything in motion. Tamaru is another secondary character that slowly grows on you. One aspect that felt quite discordant was the appearance of a Ushikawa POV in the third book. To me, it felt like a cop-out. As if Murakami hit a dead end and realized that he needed to contrive a way to bridge the gap between the first two books and the last one without rewriting the whole thing all over again.
I never elaborate on sex scenes in my reviews, but for this one I feel I should say a few things. First of all, for the most part they are badly written. The majority of them are useless in the sense that they bring little or nothing to the story. They could have taken place “backstage” instead of being described graphically with no detriment whatsoever to the plot. Personally, I have never read a book in which the words ejaculation, ejaculate, and semen were used so often. At first, it's kind of funny. But after a while, you just grit your teeth and move on, hoping that something meaningful and/or interesting will happen. To those people out there who feel that there are a lot of gratitious and graphic sex scenes in George R. R. Martin's ASOIAF, keep in mind that there are even more of them in this Murakami book.
As I mentioned, the pace is often atrociously slow. As a reader, you are asked to take a lot on faith, go through hundreds of pages full of redundancy and minutiae, and hope that in the end it will all be worth it. For some, it will be. For others, not really.
Some critics have tried to make it sound as if this was Haruki Murakami's most ambitious project to date, his signature work. I beg to differ. 1Q84 is a bloated and overwritten mammoth of a novel that shows very little depth for a 1200-page work of fiction. Take it apart and get rid of all the extraneous and pointless filler material, something his editor should have asked the author to do, and you would likely have had a case. But as things stand, there is just too much mental masturbation in there for 1Q84 to be considered one of Murakami's best novels.
Having said that, when it works, 1Q84 works beautifully. Even though I know that in normal circumstances I would never have finished this book, I'm glad I did. It's up to you to decide if you are willing to go through nearly 1200 pages of plotlines that move at a snail's pace in order to find out how everything comes together at the end.
This had all the ingredients to be a great novel. But Haruki Murakami was allowed to let his imagination run wild without restraint, and the absence of a tighter focus on the protagonists and the storylines made it merely a good one.