1Q84 [2009/2010] – ★★
This is going to be a very honest review of Haruki Murakami’s twelfth novel. 1Q84 is presented as a whimsical romance epic with elements of magical realism, and, in its proportion, has been linked to such extremely ambitious works as Roberto Bolano’s 2666 and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. In 1Q84, the year is 1984 and the location is Tokyo, Japan. Aomame, a thirty year old woman, becomes entangled in one strange affair involving a manuscript titled Air Chrysalis, a charity that seeks to help battered women seek revenge, and a menacing and unrelenting religious cult called Sakigake. In parallel to her story, we read the story of Tengo, a thirty year old man and Aomame’s alleged lost “love” whom she has not seen in twenty years. Tengo inexplicably gets implicated in the same affair of “another world” when he agrees to re-write Air Chrysalis. His fateful encounter with beautiful Fuka-Eri, original author of Air Chrysalis, soon makes him question his reality, as well as makes him reconsider his relationship with his estranged father. Soon, we read about the world where the so-called Little People have the upper hand and where there are two moons in the sky. Pursued by dangerous forces, will Tengo and Aomame ever meet again? The only problem with all that is that my summary sounds like it could be something far more exciting than what this book eventually delivers. In reality, the 1318-page mammoth that is 1Q84 delivers neither on its “wondrous, parallel-world” concept nor on its “star-crossed lovers” front. In all frankness, it is a tedious book which drags its feet for chapters and chapters and chapters, wasting its reader’s time. It is filled with complete meaninglessness from almost the very first chapter until the last, and from its dialogues to its character’s (almost completely sexual) activities. More than that, unfortunately, 1Q84 is also quite gaudy, ill-judged, melodramatic and pretentious. I will set out my issues with this book under the” story”, “characters”, and “author’s writing” headings, before talking about the good aspects.
From the very first pages of this novel, there is a rather forced sense of mystery imposed on the reader when Aomame is in a taxi, listening to some classical music, and, later, sensing something wrong or “out-of-place” in her new environment. Murakami seems to be following this advice: “when characters are presented as ordinary, they should do extraordinary things, and when they are presented as extraordinary, they should do ordinary things.” Thus, in the first chapter, Aomame starts climbing an emergency staircase on a motorway barefoot and in a mini-skirt (since, so far, we do not know about all of her “special abilities”).
What distinguishes this book from the rest is complete pointlessness and emptiness of substance for hundreds of pages at a time. In 1Q84, the characters are constantly making appointments to see each other, eating their food, drinking their drinks, listening to music, reading books to themselves and others, telling themselves and others what they should do, repeating the same things to themselves constantly, and having dreams. It all becomes rather tedious quite quickly because these activities do not drive the plot forward nor, in all honesty, are they relevant to it (or to the characters’ real desires and aims, for that matter). The main obsession of Murakami in 1Q84, though, is characters having sex – a lot of sex. Tengo and Aomame engage in sex frequently and we get the full view of everything that is going on around them and inside them. I do not mind sex in fiction, and some of my favourite books include erotica and sex. But, the question becomes – is it all necessary in 1Q84? The answer is – absolutely not, especially regarding Tengo. Why his sex life should be dissected in such minuscule detail is never made clear. Unless, of course, by suddenly “dumping” all the sex in the middle of the narrative, Murakami wants to capture his readers’ attention. The result is that the story becomes one whirlpool of nothingness, with meaningless sexual acts and frustrating dystopian ideas.
Tengo and Aomame’s “romantic relationship” is a different story altogether because, truthfully, there is neither a relationship here nor is there a romance. The duo has the tackiest and melodramatic “relationship” imaginable. Both met when they were ten year old children, and the pivotal movement was when Aomame grabbed Tengo’s hand all of sudden. Aomame and Tengo then waited twenty years, while going through countless sexual partners, to start suddenly looking for each other (and their search begins only on page 725). Needless to say, Murakami’s desire to display lofty feelings of these ten year old children who held hands once sits very clumsily alongside the characters’ one-night stands with strangers that he also so painstakingly wants to convey to us. There is something unbelievably melodramatic about this very unconvincing connection between Aomame and Tengo which is elevated to some “universal importance” and on which so many other characters begin to depend. After only 1175 pages, Aomame and Tengo finally only have a chance to meet, and by reading so many times how “their connection is unwavering” , we may slowly start to believe that it is anything but “unwavering”.
The only way Murakami knows how to drive his plot forward is to have people disappear in his story. Apart from that, there are enormous heaps of unnecessary information in his story, and we read many back stories we do not even care to know. In fact, there is so much unnecessary detail in the book, I am surprised no one yet drowned in it while reading the novel – from what kind of cars are parked outside Professor Ebisuno’s house to what Tengo had for breakfast and when exactly he went to the toilet.
From the very start of 1Q84, Murakami seems desperate to make both Tengo and Aomame sympathetic in our eyes. Hence, obviously, the author follows “the path of least resistance” in commercial fiction and we are reading about Harry Potter-inspired characters. Both Tengo and Aomame were once lonely children who possessed special abilities and who had very mean parents who did not care for them. Tengo is a budding writer and a maths genius who likes books and who has a special ability to remember events from when he was less than two years old. In turn, Aomame has a rare name, for which she was often ridiculed, and possesses “special fingers”. It is always so obvious what effect Murakami tries to produce in the reader with each paragraph, page and chapter, it physically hurts. The problem is, of course, that neither Aomame nor Tengo are, in fact, sympathetic. [Spoiler Alert (highlight to read): Aomame remains a serial killer without emotions, and Tengo had sex with a minor (at page 1079 Fuka-Eri is described as such, and, later, his action and all the paedophilia are “camouflaged” by the author as something else). Moreover, Tengo’s purely sexual and unemotional relations with so many women who had so much emotions for him is questionable: Tengo and the narrative do not seem to care one iota how all these women must have felt or get on with their lives after Tengo].
Murakami does not seem to have any respect for either Tengo or Aomame, and certainly none for his female characters. The author constantly and unnecessarily sexually objectifies his characters, and his obsession with female breasts in particular, goes overboard. Thus, we read about people having “lovely swells of chests” and “generous breasts” [Murakami/Rubin, 2009: 1095], as well as such sentences as “She looked young and healthy. Beneath her stretched uniform, her waists and her breasts were compact but ample” [Murakami/Rubin, 2009: 888]. We read all that despite the fact that the observer is never some teenager, but thirty and forty-five year old men looking at the seventeen year old girl. Why all men in the narrative should be preoccupied with female breasts is never made clear (and female characters are never satisfied either with their breasts in the story). With this obsession of Murakami and all the naked female forms, the narrative seems to be some wet dream of the author put into writing, rather than an extract from some quality dystopian fiction.
- Style of Writing
Even taking into account that 1Q84 was translated from the Japanese, Murakami’s writing style leaves much to be desired. Although his writing is sufficiently engaging, it is filled with too many cliché expressions and pretentious phrases. We read phrases like “to him, writing was like breathing” [2009: 30], “things are not what they seem” [2009: 12], “risk is the spice of life”, “most people believe not so much in truth as in things they wish were truth” [2009: 349] and “the body is the temple” (taken from I Corinthians 6: 19). Murakami describes how characters feel all the time, but does not have any other literary technique for this purpose than having recourse to the words “like” and “as”. For example there is this “eye-rolling” sentence in the book “ as he walked, the mass of young male and female students parted naturally to make way for him, like medieval village children trying to avoid a fearsome slave trader” [Murakami/Rubin, 2009: 617]. Really? An amateur creative writing student would not even think about putting something like this in writing.
Awkward conversations and overwritten passages are just the tip of the iceberg in the pile of problems which is 1Q84. Murakami constantly tells us that something is about to happen and nothing ever does. “Something extra-ordinary is starting” [2009: 618], we read, and characters constantly say “something is about to happen” or “I feel I’m being swept away in something out of the ordinary” [2009: 283]. Murakami also pounces on and appropriates quite distastefully so many classic authors and books – and that has no other purpose in his book than to make the narrative more “philosophical” and “thought-provoking”. Proust, Chekhov and Dostoyevsky become some of the victims who are dragged through the pointless and overhyped mess that is 1Q84.
- “Good” Things
The amount of ambition and confidence which Murakami seemed to have possessed to write 1Q84 is admirable, and there are some very spare moments of insight and philosophy in the book which I enjoyed. The references to the sea and water provide for dreamy passages (but Murakami also abandons them half way through), for example: [he stared straight ahead] “like a veteran fisherman standing in the bow of his boat, reading the ominous confluence of two currents” [Murakami/Rubin, 2009: 3]. These water references are perfect to convey the emotional undercurrents. The concept of the Little People and how they operate is also intriguing. The starting point of the author must have been some fairy tale like The Borrowers  and he elaborated imaginatively on it. There were some good moments of suspense too, as well as some beautiful moments of nostalgia and intimacy between the characters.
The conclusion is that, overall, 1Q84 manipulates our expectations and emotions while delivering almost nothing of essence. The delicious suspense in this book mingles with all the pretentiousness and melodrama, and all the characters that are reduced to sexual objects become pitiful because they have no other purpose but aimlessly wonder through the pages of the book, hoping for something exciting to occur. Unforgivingly contrived, repetitive and overwritten, 1Q84 is like an overblown cocoon filled with nothingness (an air chrysalis, in other words). It is a real shame this book has never become what it had the potential to become – a rare and beautiful literary butterfly.