Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

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.

  • Story
The French edition of the first book in the trilogy

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” [1258], 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.

  • Characters
The French edition of the second book in the trilogy

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
The French edition of the third book in the trilogy

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 [1952] 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.

33 thoughts on “Review: 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

  1. So upsetting – to be that long of a book and contain nothing of substance. That is one of greatest pet peeves! 😡 Authors have a responsibility to their audiences, to not manipulate them or waste by their time like that.. it’s why I have a love / hate relationship for Stephen King. Some of his books are just a total waste of space

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    1. Exactly, and I agree with you completely re Stephen King – some of his books are a waste of time/space, but, then again, I always had this impression that it is the quantity that he values in books rather than their quality hehe 🙂

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      1. In the preface to his epic 7-Part ‘Dark Tower’ series, King actually ADMITTED his primary ambition was to (write the longest most grand fantasy series ever written. In the spirit of American grandiosity…) 😒(Puke) I don’t remember his exact words. His writing shines and inspires at times, certainly. But for every quote, page, or chapter that HITS there is at least an equivalent MISS. IMO. ☺️📚

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        1. Yes, that is how it goes, I believe that is true! I also read that King is a bit of a “pouncer” when it comes to writing and does not really know where his story will lead until he actually starts writing something – obviously, the quality and structure of some of his books will suffer because of this method. Some of his short stories and novellas are still my favourite, especially “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption”. The good thing is that all his ideas and philosophy were there, but it was not long enough for him to start damaging or staining the narrative with other ideas or his suspect writing or anything else (in my opinion!) 🙂

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      2. Oh I so feel the same about Stephen King, it’s all about quantity over quality with him. I wanted to say thank you for delivering this honest review of 1Q84 because I abandoned it after chapter 3, for the same reasons you outlined. Although I always felt guilty about it, thinking I didn’t give it a good enough shot, now I can see that it’s just that this book is Murakami at his most boring, I will give my copy to the charity shop hehe 😊

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        1. Yes, good idea to send it to a charity shop. It is probably one of the worst books by a prolific author I read (another will be some creations by Stephen King). With this book, what started as this exciting and intellectual 11380 page-challenge just turned into a disappointing chore.

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  2. wow, I am amazed at our difference of opinions on this book. I have read many books by Murakami (I’m actually part of the online Murakami book club, we share on Discord), and this is still my favorite by him. We find all his writing characteristics including great fluid dialogs, awesome images, and always his unique way of creating places that you never know if they are real or not. I especially loved the structure of the book, with the suspense created by the back and forth chapters on him and her. And this could have made me enjoy it, even if it had been longer. Actually I have read somewhere that the translators have slashed whole passages from the original in Japanese!
    I wrote a review nine years ago (!), which I regret doesn’t go deep enough. I hope my reviewing style has improved since then. You can have a look if you want: https://wordsandpeace.com/2011/11/15/80-review-1q84/

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    1. I am sorry for not liking this book. Despite my experience with this book, I actually do want to read Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle very much – I have high hopes that it will be good because, I take it, it is a bit different from 1Q84. I hear his non-fiction is also very good – and I am sure it is. As for Murakami’s images and world-creation, I still personally fail to see any. If I would have found some enticing and imaginative world or images in 1Q84, I would have loved the book more – but I simply did not see it. Two moons in the sky, vague and sporadic references about the workings of maza and dohta and three or four paragraphs of the Little People making something are not what I would consider the paragon of vivid imagination and unique worlds. I realise my opinion is very unpopular and I hope to come back with a positive review of Murakami next time! 🙂

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      1. we are actually in the process of reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle in the online Murakami Book Club (sharing through Discord), so let me know if you are interested, we are still pretty much early on in the book (warning: there is also a lot of graphic sex, actually like in most of his novels)

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        1. Thanks very much for the invite, but I don’t think I will be able to locate the book in time and I want some time before going into another Murakami book. Your offer is very tempting though because I would love to discuss his books with those who admire him and his craft – perhaps I have missed something vital and will be converted! (and I don’t mind graphic sex at all in a story – well, as long as it is not too random maybe 🙂 ).

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    1. Thank you, and yes, probably a good decision. I think such household name as Murakami helped immensely to boost the popularity of this book, but if it were someone’s debut, I don’t think it would have fared even half as good.

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  3. What a thoughtful and thorough review! This book sounds so severely overwritten and not nearly as imaginative as the synopsis would suggest; it really doesn’t seem like there’s any reason for it to be so LONG. What must it be like to have that much confidence in your writing, I wonder? No matter how interesting the magical elements may be, I don’t think I could read this much extraneous detail and unnecessary remarks about breasts without losing patience… if/when I do pick up another Murakami book, I think I’ll steer clear of this one!

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    1. Thank you, and yes, it was an unbelievable chore to finish this book. I would have DNFed (something which I rarely do) but I was determined to have some opinion on it and thought it would culminate on something, if not unpredictable then at least convincing or intellectually satisfying – it didn’t. I am still determined to read some other books of Murakami, especially his non-fiction – I think his simple writing style and certain directness will suit that genre well.

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  4. Oh no, sorry this didn’t work for you at all! The only Murakami I’ve read is Kafka on the Shore and I enjoyed that very much. However, the sheer length of 1Q84 meant I’d already ruled it out and now even more so. But I still mean to read more Murakami in the future based on my positive experience with Kafka on the Shore.

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  5. Such a great and thorough review! I really appreciate your thoughtful dissection of why this book didn’t work for you. I’m also seriously impressed that you read the entire 1300-page book despite it being so tedious!! A friend lent the whole trilogy to me back in February, but I haven’t been able to bring myself to start. Now I think I’ll pass on it altogether – the tediousness, the unnecessary sex scenes, and the problematic characters would all be major issues for me too.

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    1. Thanks very much! If you do decide to read the book I will be very interested in your opinion and would actually love to discuss the book with someone who read it. This is because, for the life of me, I feel like I’ve read the wrong book and hardly see any good things in it at all. I am really confused as to all the praise the book received.

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  6. I always feel in Murkami’s books, there is a large part, I just don’t get and it’s almost as if only the “smart” people are entitled to understand what he is conveying. He is so very verbose, and like King often has a good idea but let’s the flow of words interfere with what could have been a good story. Honestly, I have pretty much given up on both of these authors, King especially . The last book of his I read was so formulaic that I swore I wouldn’t pick up another of his what I now feel is a political lecture. I feel the same about Barbara Kingsolver.

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    1. Formulaic is an excellent word to describe both of these authors’ works – King and Murakami’s. Reading 1Q84 I could not quite believe how “by the book” it was written – it was always so obvious where Murakami wanted for us to sigh or be amazed or get intrigued, etc. – that obviousness is certainly not typical of accomplished writers and even on that basis alone I would consider Murakami’s book “bad literature”.

      As for Murakami’s “cleverness” in 1Q84 – I really have not noticed any (and I usually love thought-provoking and hard-to-understand books). I mean, I actually got this feeling that Murakami was himself a bit confused and unsure how doha and all these elements are supposed to connect with everything else in his story and about the essence of the Little People’s work. That is why, probably, he spent so little time on them.

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    1. Thank you! I agree he is over-hyped. Since you’ve read a couple of his books it would be interesting to know your opinion on 1Q84 because I am still not completely sure whether this book is more or less typical of his craft or he really stepped out of his comfort zone. Murakami can pen very readable and dreamy narratives, but whatever worked in Norwegian Wood – that sense of longing, nostalgia and inexplicable “something” – felt almost completely flat in 1Q84. One of the reasons for that is that the focus of the author was to built this dystopian world and strange elements. I thought that was very clumsily and pretentiously accomplished. I admire his ambition to take on something like that, though.

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      1. I haven’t read this one (and I don’t plan to) but it sounds like it has the usual elements which annoy me about his writing. Maybe his earlier works are better than his later, I don’t know. The length of 1Q84 puts me off anyhow, as I prefer shorter books.

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  7. Diana, first of all I want to commend you for taking on such a complex work of fiction. Your thoughtful and well-crafted review peaked my interests about 1Q84. I’ve had this book on my mental TBR pile ever since it came out. Although I’m not a fan of magical realism, I just downloaded it. Maybe I’ll check in with you after reading the book–although with 946 pages this may be a long time in the future.

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    1. Thank you, and I would love to discuss this book further, meaning I would appreciate it if you check in with your opinion whenever you finish 1Q84. It is a curious creation but there is just no escaping this feeling that Murakami was just resting on his laurels while writing it than was really working hard, trying to produce the best possible work. Again, would love to know others’ opinions – especially those that disagree with me.

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