by Haruki Murakami
In the year 1984, a young woman named Aomame is stuck in traffic and running late. She follows the advice of her taxi driver and gets out of the car and climbs off the expressway via a rusticated emergency staircase. She makes her appointment, but as the days roll by Aomame realizes that the world has become somehow different. As inconsistencies between this world and her memories stack up, she decides that she has somehow entered a parallel world, which she dubs 1Q84. (“Kyu” is ‘nine’ in Japanese.) In alternating chapters with Aomame’s narrative, a man named Tengo works at a cram school and writes. His editor offers Tengo a unique opportunity to “clean up” a novella manuscript as a ghostwriter; the teenage author of the work doesn’t mind, but Tengo has misgivings. Over the course of the year, as Tengo finishes his work on the story and it goes on to become a bestseller, the paths of Tengo and Aomame begin to emerge and the two characters begin to search for each other.
I have been a fan of Murakami for years; The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles is still one of my favorite books. He has a very writing style that describes details fastidiously, utilizing a lot of similes and metaphors, but it isn’t flowery. There may be many words, but they aren’t excessive. At least, that’s how I remember his books. It’s been a while since I last read his fiction; Kafka on the Shore was about a year and a half ago.
I’m wondering what happened. Is my memory deficient? I found 1Q84 to be simply dreadful. At 925 pages, it’s a big time commitment, and the very first thing I noticed was the constant repetition. Character A would say something blasé, and Character B would repeat or restate the main point. A few pages later, Character A or B would stop and reflect upon this conversation, rehashing it again and again. Just as I thought the story was moving along to something new, this observation would pop up once more. This repetition wasn’t limited merely to conversations, but to descriptions of characters, too. Every time Aomame would look down and confirm that yes, she still had small breasts or Tengo would observe that Ushikawa, a character who shows up later in the story and eventually becomes a third narrator, had a very ugly, misshapen head I wanted to slam my head against the wall. Originally, this was published as three separate volumes in Japan…and frankly, Murakami’s could have cut enough fluff and padding to make one of those books unnecessary with no impact to the story itself.
Sometimes Murakami seemed to give up on his readers. H would plant these details of symbolism that I think the average reader would pick up on with little exertion. He made several references to George Orwell’s 1984, but finally he gave up and threw a detailed explanation directly into the characters’ mouths:
George Orwell introduced the dictator Big Brother in his novel 1984, as I'm sure you know. The book was an allegorical treatment of Stalinism, of course. And ever since then, the term 'Big Brother' has functioned as a social icon. That was Orwell's great accomplishment. But now, in the real year 1984, Big Brother is all too famous, and all too obvious. If Big Brother were to appear before us now, we'd point to him and say, 'Watch out! He's Big Brother!' There's no longer any place for a Big Brother in this real world of ours. Instead, these so-called Little People have come on the scene. Interesting verbal contrast, don't you think?
There’s an almost desperate need for the author to engage with the reader in this book. Some might call this an invitation, but as I read it just seemed sloppy and lazy. Again and again, Murakami throws objects and ideas out there: air chrysalises, little green men, mysterious cults, rich old women running womens’ shelters, private eyes, references to 1984, music, Russian writers, so on and and so forth. But he never ties them into a cohesive whole.
It’s like if I told you I was going to give you a beautiful quilt, and started throwing squares of fabric at you. Each piece of fabric is individually beautiful, or interesting, or at least weird enough that you appreciate it. After giving you a mountain of these fat quarters, I say, “Here’s your quilt! Enjoy!”
“Wait a minute,” you say, “This isn’t finished. You haven’t put all these pieces together!”
“But I have! I’ve carefully selected all these pieces for you! Now you can put them together however you like. Perhaps you’d like to look at them some more and contemplate them again? You’ll see something new each time!”
Maybe Murakami wants the reader to explore the world of 1Q84, finding new things to appreciate with each reading, so he left many questions unanswered. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m not sold on this 1Q84 world and that the book is utterly unsatisfying.
The two character leads, Aomame and Tengo, were about as exciting as those wooden mannequins artists use for figure drawing. Once upon a time in the distant past, they were classmates in elementary school. One day, they touched hands, and ever since they were DESTINED FOR EACH OTHER and despite Aomame moving away and never seeing Tengo again, the two are obsessed with each other. Tengo has never forgotten girl-child Aomame and she, in turn, is ‘saving’ herself for Tengo because they WILL MEET AGAIN. This eventually reaches the ridiculous extreme (spoiler alert) when Aomame becomes pregnant and convinces herself that it its Tengo’s baby, never mind that she still hasn’t seen him or talked to him since elementary school, let alone had sex with him!. Who the crap makes that kind of connection except for a completely batty crazy person?????? (end spoiler) But at least Aomame occasionally steps up and makes a decision. Tengo isn’t an active agent in this story. Stuff happens to him, but Tengo doesn’t make stuff happens; he more or less just does as he’s told. So between Tengo’s basic dullness and Aomame’s disconnect from the world, I was driven back to more head-to-desk slamming.
Props to Murakami, though, to writing some of the most awkward descriptions of breasts and penises that I’ve ever come across. They made the already terrible and awkward sex scenes that much worse.
I was really, really looking forward to this book, so perhaps some disappointment was inevitable because my expectations were much too high. But this was AWFUL.
1 out of 5 stars
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