Like many an English-speaking Murakami fan, I have been waiting to read 1Q84 for almost three years. That’s right, three years, since around January 2009, when news reports from Japan were just announcing that Murakami had finished his latest novel, one still without a title and rumored to be twice as long as Kafka on the Shore. And let me tell you, it has been a long wait.
I discovered Murakami at the end of my sophomore year of high school, in a talk intended for the teachers of my school to learn a little more about Japanese art, literature, and film. Five years later, I had read everything by Murakami available in English translation (and soon a few things in Japanese and in unofficial translations). There was probably a year or so period where Murakami was essentially the only literature I was reading. The reason I tell you all this is to inform you that I can only approach reviewing 1Q84, this near 1000-page behemoth, as an unabashed Murakami super-fan, one who has read the majority of his oeuvre multiple times.
I am certainly not alone in this fanaticism. Murakami is one of those authors that just does that to a certain group of readers. The problem with this kind of fanaticism, one that has unfortunately been horribly exacerbated with the rise of Internet culture, is the phenomenon where fans of a certain thing greet the newest thing as either “the best thing ever” or “the worst thing ever.” In Internet parlance: “OMG!!!” vs. “meh.”
1Q84 in particular sets itself up for this deadly dichotomy because of its insane, “total novel”-aspiring length and because it took those two long years after its release in Japan to be translated into English. Murakami even added another 500 pages to it while we were waiting!
It seems to me now, based on the few reviews that I have read, that the reception of 1Q84 has indeed fallen into these two camps: absolutely transcendent and absolutely horrific. Neither, in my opinion, captures how I feel 1Q84 is as a novel, especially as just one book in a huge body of work. Because for all its ambition and scope, 1Q84 is just pretty good. There’s a lot of it that is really good and some that is really bad. But, I can tell you exactly how it could’ve been so much better.
Murakami should have never written Book 3.
But I’ll back up for a moment. If you’re not familiar, 1Q84 follows two protagonists in alternating chapters: the fitness instructor/assassin Aomame and the aspiring novelist Tengo. Aomame is hired by a wealthy individual to secretly murder the most heinous committers of domestic violence and rape, while Tengo is pushed by his editor to secretly rewrite a brilliant but stylistically flawed novel by a mysterious seventeen-year-old girl. To share any more would likely confuse and spoil the novel. Wondering how these two disparate storylines will converge, and how Tengo and Aomame are connected, are but two of the many pleasures in reading this novel.
The following thoughts about the quality of 1Q84 now refer only to Books 1 and 2. I’ll get to Book 3 in a bit.
For all that’s touted about Murakami’s certain blend of magical realism and science fiction, 1Q84 is probably Murakami’s subtlest work to date. New elements and plot wrinkles are introduced slowly, almost quietly along the way. Instead of a mysterious town filled with unicorns, we get an alternate world where the first noticeable difference is the kind of gun the Japanese policemen are using. Despite the relative quietness of the novel, for the first 600 pages, Murakami is pretty good at slowly but surely ratcheting up the tension and the mystery. The first 200 pages had flown by when I realized that I was hooked, but still knew fairly little about what was going on.
I say “pretty good” because there are some missteps along the way. Murakami protagonists have always been prone to biding their time, and there is a lot of pontificating of “what’s going on here?” instead of action. There is also a bit of a problem with repetition. As both Aomame and Tengo are finding out the same things but at different times, all that thinking they do leads to hearing some of the same information a few times more than maybe is needed.
The go-for-broke, “total-novel” approaching attitude lets 1Q84 explore a handful of interesting themes and ideas. In some ways, 1Q84 feels like a culmination of everything he’s ever written. There are elements from pretty much all of his major works. Critics of Murakami have long complained that he is always telling the same basic story, which in some ways has a nugget of truth in it. But none of the reused elements on display in 1Q84 are especially more prominent than another, and in general they feel like background materials, just part of the tapestry. This allows the novel as a whole to feel new and fresh, while making the common Murakamian aspects—disappearing women, parallel/alternate worlds, powerful non-human beings—more like special Easter Eggs spread throughout the text for the fans.
The problem with having so many themes to tie the novel together is that none of them really stick. The relationship between fiction and reality is one theme, but the largest and most compelling theme of 1Q84 is the importance of exercising free will. This is expressed most successfully against the backdrop of religious cults, but even that tends to drift in and out of focus. Murakami gets to vent about many other disappointments in Japanese society, including the literary and publishing culture, the failures of the 1960s student movement against the strong arming of the government, the universal problem of abuse of power by the strong against the weak, but again, only to the extent that they take great prominence in some sections only to fade away again. Eventually, Murakami also undermines his message of good vs. evil with a kind of moral relativism in a way that, instead of allowing for good philosophical rumination, leads to a conflict that, in the end, feels like it has no stakes.
Despite all these criticisms, 1Q84 is genuinely engaging 95% of the time, and the climax of Book 2 brings the work to a near fever pitch. Which brings us to the problem of Book 3.
Book 3, ultimately, squanders every shred of excitement and pacing and brings the book to a screeching halt. A new character is brought in for narration, but the majority of his chapters are spent trying to figure out what the readers already know.
In Japan, these refreshers might have been necessary. Book 3 came out a full year after Books 1 and 2 were released. That’s a long time, and 1Q84 is a long book. It’s very easy to lose track of everything that has been building up. But for English readers, these chapters are frustrating, and excruciatingly boring. For Book 3 to work at all as a part of a larger work, Murakami would’ve had to have somehow continued the excitement found at the end of Book 2 and then increased the tension even more to the “real” climax that should’ve been found at the end of Book 3. That’s basic novel writing. Instead, the climax happens in the middle of the book, followed by what is basically exposition, leading to another, arguably smaller climax.
Book 3 is really more like a sequel to the events of Books 1 and 2. In Japan, it probably felt like one, like a separate, independent story. But in America, presented as the third act in one larger work, Book 3 completely ruins the shape and flow of the novel. This might have been forgiven if the chapters with Aomame and Tengo had more things happening, but frankly, they don’t. Almost nothing happens in Book 3 that renders its very existence necessary. And because this whole fiasco comes at the end, it leaves the reader with a very bitter taste of 1Q84 as a whole.
In the end, 1Q84 succeeds and fails by its own ambition. By throwing everything he possibly could into the pot, Murakami leaves us with a lot of great sequences and a great central mystery, but it also forces us to accept a lot of things we don’t want or need. There’s a short but very memorable section in Book 2 where Murakami seems to be directly expressing frustrations with his critics. It refers to the novel Tengo is ghostwriting but it could refer to almost anything in the Murakami oeuvre, and especially to 1Q84 itself:
One reviewer concluded his piece, “As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end, but when it comes to the question of what is an air chrysalis, or who are the Little People, we are left in a pool of mysterious questions marks. This may well be the author’s intention, but many readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of ‘authorial laziness.’ While this may be fine for a debut work, if the author intends to have a long career as a writer, in the near future she may well need to explain her deliberately cryptic posture.”
Tengo cocked his head in puzzlement. If an author succeeded in writing a story “put together in an exceptionally interesting way” that “carries the reader along to the very end,” who could possibly call such a writer “lazy”?
The greatest irony of that passage is that if Murakami had ended 1Q84 at Book 2, this passage would’ve perfectly represented the merits of this gigantic, ambitious, flawed novel. But instead, Murakami chose to extend the adventure into a third book, in a way that seems to promise new levels of understanding but ultimately failing to deliver anything worthwhile. (This is made all the more tragic for the way the translations of Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel don’t feel like separate translations at all. No easy task.) If you haven’t yet read 1Q84, I implore you to do so. Just take a good, long break before you start reading Book 3, or, do yourself a favor, and don’t even read Book 3 at all.