1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
Let me state from the outset that I am a Murakami fan. I’ve read every other novel of his except for After Dark and Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and own all of his books, including his first two novellas, Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973, which were translated into English by Alfred Birnbaum but published only in Japan by Kodansha (thank you bookfinder.com). I have loved all of his novels, but Sputnik Sweetheart and South of the Border, West of the Sun are my two favorites. I also thoroughly enjoyed Kafka on the Shore, which was panned by many critics and readers.
With that said, I have to say that 1Q84 is…well, it’s a slog to read at times. The basic plot is that a math teacher and sometimes writer, Tengo, gets brow-beaten into rewriting a novel by a mysterious 17 year old girl, Fuka Eri, by an overzealous editor intent on getting the novel to win a new writer’s prize. Trouble ensues for everyone involved. We learn fairly late in the novel that at the center of things is a strange religious cult. Aomame, through her peculiar line of work eventually enters the orbit of the cult as well. That’s about all I can say plot wise, not due to spoilers, but because that’s all that’s really happened thus far. I am almost half-way through and it feels like it has been a huge amount of work to get there on my part. It’s not the plot or the characters that are the issue; it’s the massive amount of repetition and detail. It’s almost as if Murakami wants us to drown in the mundane detail of the characters lives. Sometimes this is fine, especially when that is the point of the novel (I’m thinking of the current hyper-realists), but it becomes an issue when those details don’t reveal anything new to the readers about the character or anything else.
The other issue with all of this detail is that it’s frequently repetitive; instead of trusting his readers to remember that Aomame is highly skilled at what she does and what she did to learn how to do it, he beats us over the head with it every time she does something remotely related to it (I know I’m being a bit hedgy here, but I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone). This is not a fast-paced book, nor is it a book of much action. What is becoming more apparent as I read is that it is a novel of layers. I have the hypothesis that the layered repetition of detail will eventually come to something, but in such a way that only Murakami can do. This book is not for the casual reader, who I think would get bored quite soon with the narrative pace, which is incredibly slow. It feels like it’s finally building up to something, but it’s not clear as to what (and there are still 400ish pages to go). This is unlike any of Murakami’s work, but the great thing about his fiction is that while his thematic concerns may be consistent, it’s always interesting to see how he will approach them. If this partial review sounds mostly negative, it’s mainly because I’m a little frustrated with the narrative pace. And yet I keep coming back to it, 3 or 4 chapters here and there; for all its slowness and repetitiveness, there is a lulling quality that draws the reader forward toward some unknowable end. I would recommend this long novel to persistent, dedicated readers and to other Murakami fans, who don’t need me to tell them to read it.
On an exciting side note, Murakami’s latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru and His Years of Pilgrimage, which was just published in Japan with record sales, was picked up for publication in English sometime next year. The novel will be translated by Philip Gabriel, who also translated the 3rd book of 1Q84. Colorless Tsukuru is reportedly closer to Norwegian Wood than 1Q84 or The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, which will be a nice break from metaphysics. As with all Murakami works, music plays a prominent role. Lazar Behrman’s rendition of Franz Liszt’s Years of Pilgrimage is featured in the novel; when the novel was released in Japan, Behrman’s CD sold out. Guess what I’ll be downloading from itunes…