I finished this book almost 2 weeks ago and I’ve been thinking about it ever since: I’m still not quite sure whether I like it. Murakami is a brilliant writer, and I found a lot of joy while reading this book. But now that I’ve finished his latest (very long) novel, I’m not sure if I can say it’s a good book. That is to say: while I was reading, I was liking what I was reading; now that I’m done, I’m not sure I liked what I read. Does that make any sense at all? If your answer to that is yes, you’ve probably read Murakami before. (Note: I’ve tried to avoid spoiling anything in this review, but the zany nature of what Murakami writes means I’ll certainly reveal things that some readers might rather be left to discover on their own.)
The story is entertaining and very creative. The writing (though clearly translated, more on that later) is good, and the characters nuanced and complicated. For the most part, the book shifts perspectives between two characters: Tengo, a talented and aspiring writer, and Aomame (whose name means Green Peas), a personal trainer and also secretly an assassin who avenges abused women.
From what I’ve read by and heard of Murakami, world-building seems to be his thing. His books are known for creating their own rules in the worlds they depict. His style is not quite surrealism or absurdist fiction, but he flirts with both. 1Q84 addresses this head-on by acknowledging that it occurs in a world apart from the one we know–the Q in the title replaces a 9, indicating the story takes place in a not-quite-parallel dimension. For reasons that never quite become certain, Tengo and Aomame, who knew each other for a brief shared moment as children before being separated for 20+ years, are integral to the existence of this second 1984, 1Q84.
1Q84 is most readily recognized by the second moon that hangs in the sky. Not everyone is aware of the moon, or the dimensional shift that has occurred, instead living out their lives as if it were the real 1984. But Tengo and Aomame–among a few others–recognize something is off, beginning, at least for Aomame, with seeing the second moon. And in this alternate dimension, some really weird stuff exists.
Tengo reads fiction entries for a writers’ prize, a gig through which he developed a friendship with an editor, Komatsu. One entry catches him, a novella called “Air Chrysalis,” written by an enigmatic girl named Fuka-Eri. The book isn’t written well, but there’s something special about the story (what that is, Murakami frustratingly makes you wait 500-700 pages to find out, slowly leaking details of the story as they become pertinent to the plot of 1Q84), and Komatsu devises a plan in which Tengo will rewrite the book as a secret ghostwriter. The novella tells of a girl–brought up in a cult compound–who witnessed some fantastical things. It becomes an instant bestseller and wins the literary prize. The story gets a lot of exposure, and the Sakigage cult, a secretive religious organization with some organized crime tendrils, and from which Fuka-Eri escaped as a child, isn’t very happy.
Meanwhile, Aomame is plotting with her handlers to kill the leader of Sakigage, who also happens to be Fuka-Eri’s father. This Leader, Aomame and her handlers believe, has intercourse with children as part of a religious ritual. To say much more about the plot without giving too much away would be impossible, so I’ll leave it at that. From here, though, Murakami does a great job of playing the long game. At its heart this is a story of two people coming together against tremendous odds, and Murakami draws that out for a long time (perhaps too long at 900+ pages), all the while keeping tensions balanced nicely and never exerting a too-heavy hand.
But there’s two things that bothered me. First, the writing is good, but has a really wierd cadence. There is lots of repetition, especially in dialogue, but not limited to it. At times, namely in the case of Fuka-Eri who already speaks oddly, this does a lot to enhance the aesthetic. Other times it’s annoying. I’m not sure if this is a result of the Japanese translation or not, but I think that’s at least part of it. Exchanges like this aren’t uncommon:
“The Little People are stirring.”
“The Little People are stirring,” Tengo repeated her words. “In my apartment?”
“No somewhere else.”
“Way far away.”
“But you can hear them.”
“I can hear them.”
It’s not that they don’t make sense, it’s just that too many passages are structured like this, with extraneous responses as if all the characters are deaf and constantly checking to make sure they heard correctly.
The second botheration is the big one. For all the zaniness Murakami invents, none of the things unique to 1Q84 pertain to the core plot at its most basic level. This is a fatalistic story of long-lost lovers reuniting. The world in which this occurs and which helps facilitate their reunion is well-rendered and interesting, but the story could be told equally well without that world. That’s where I find myself unsure of my opinion on the book. I liked the story, and certainly enjoyed exploring the alternate reality the book presents, but if those two good components don’t mesh into one synergistic whole, does that mean the books fails at something? Or am I expecting more of it than I should? I really don’t know.
If you’ve read Murakami, and you like him, I expect you will probably enjoy this book. If you haven’t, but something I’ve said in this review sounds intriguing, 1Q84 might be a good place for you to start, but you might consider starting with one of his shorter books first.
Similar Reads: Wonder Boys (Chabon), Ulysses (Joyce), Skippy Dies (Murray).