Haruki Murakami

2011 (in English)

I’m not sure what I think about Murakami’s novel. More accurately, I think different things about it depending on what part of the book we’re discussing.

I have a habit of persisting to the end of long, long books that don’t really grab me. I keep thinking that they’re going to get where they’re going, eventually, and that just maybe the payoff will have been worth the effort.

I’ve done it again, this time with Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84, a book that is both ridiculously long for the simplicity of its story and frequently frustrating for the ways that it teases without the reveal at the end.  And yet, in passages here and there throughout the book one finds enchanting, haunting, and lyrical moments. It’s those moments that kept me reading.

I’m not sure what I think about Murakami’s novel. More accurately, I think different things about it depending on what part of the book we’re discussing.

On one level, 1Q84 is a detective story. On another, it’s a love story. On yet another, it’s a fantasy. And beneath all of these stories is a presumption that the world is something that we make up in our heads, or perhaps more accurately something that others make up, but that we live in our heads.

There are several realities at play, and Murakami plays no favourites. One reality or another is as real, and as unreal, as all the rest. Each character inhabits an interior landscape, one or another kind of labyrinth (to use one of Murakami’s favourite words.)

To recapitulate the novel’s story would give the potential reader a false impression, for 1Q84 is not about story, Instead, it’s about stories. The central characters, Aomame and Tengo, inhabit different stories (several for each of them), and they are joined by the overarching history that binds them, although they spend all but a few pages of the novel apart. Other characters — a literary agent, a rich widow, a disbarred lawyer, a female cop, a protecting thug, the leader of a religious cult — have their own realities.

And then there are the fantasy characters, from a mysterious woman in a Mercedes to a young and not quite human author of a best-selling novel to the Little People who emerge from time time from the mouths of children or dead goats to chortle “ho ho!”

Are you getting the idea yet that this is one strange book?

Murakami gives the most direct expression of his main idea to Leader, the cult visionary whose encounter with Aomame can be read as what passes for the novel’s climax: ” “Almost no one is looking for painful truths. What people need is beautiful, comforting stories that make them feel as if their lives have some meaning.”

Murakami ends his long novel in a way that caters to this view of human nature. In fact, if it weren’t for lines like the ones above it would be hard to cut the author the slack he needs to get away with an ending as sappy and unsatisfying as the one he uses.

Not everyone finds the ending sappy or unsatisfying. Writing in The GuardianSteven Poole calls the key moment of the ending sequences “a scene in which complete mastery of technique makes technique vanish: as perfect as any two pages might hope to be.” Well, perhaps, but I was looking for a little more resolution than can be contained in the repetition of a decades old moment.

If one is looking for a comforting message in 1Q84, it lies in the ending, which confirms an idea that runs randomly, over and over, through the minds of the main characters — if you don’t like this reality, there’s another one waiting out there for you. All you have to do is find it (and the highway maintenance access ladder that leads from one world to the next).

But is this what Murakami was after? Does his novel have a message, at all? Another major critic, Janet Maslin, wrote in the New York Times that 1Q84 was “stupefying.” She becomes quite biting in her criticism: ” [I]s it actually about anything? Don’t be silly. Mr. Murakami is far too playful and allusive an artist to be restricted by a banal criterion like that one.”

Sometimes deceptively simple, but just as often just simple, 1Q84 is frequently enchanting but, in the end, over-indulgent and too loosely organized to have the kind of impact that it might have had. The novel is a skilled exercise in style, but there’s too seldom anything else to engage us.

Read it, but only if you have lots of time, and lots of patience.


5 thoughts on “1Q84

  1. I enjoyed reading ‘1Q84’ but I can see why lots of people might find it frustrating to read. I wonder when Murakami will ever finish a novel with a clear, conclusive ending…

    • I don’t mind an indeterminate ending, if that’s what fits the rest of the book. Sometimes, not coming to a conclusion is the only thing that makes sense. There’s too much that’s introduced but never fully dealt with here, I thought.

      Is there anything else by Murakami that you’d recommend?

      • My personal favourite is probably Kafka on the Shore. With Murakami, the longer the novel, the more baffling it is. Sputnik Sweetheart is probably the best of his shorter works.

  2. I’ve never read this one before but every time I go the bookstores, I always see this novel in the popular hardcovers section. The one thing that attracts me also is the cover. I think it’s very beautiful yet simple. I don’t know what to make of your comments in this post because I really want to read it when I get the chance. However, your post also makes the novel more intriguing and I want to know whether your opinions will be the same as one. Perhaps we’ll know when I finally get the chance to read it. Great post! If you time, visit my new blog at bookmavenpicks.wordpress.com. Take care.

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