Wednesday 15 May 2013

1Q84 – Haruki Murakami (2009 -10 / 2011 English translation)

I finally got around to reading 1Q84 after probably just about every other Murakimi fan in the English-speaking world had already read it. Like Murakami’s prose, I’m not in that much of a hurry usually. The publication of 1Q84 in English was a huge event, just as it had been in Japan - such is the impact Murakami has on literature culture. Murakami deserves the attention because one of the great things about his writing is that when you first discover him you can feel invigorated by his unique sensibility and style. 1Q84 certainly has its share of such quality moments, but unfortunately it also suffers from over familiarity and a sense of over-stretching on the author’s part.

1Q84 was published as three books in one – a huge 925 pages of pure Murakami. This is both its strength and its weakness. To try and describe the plot of 1Q84 is perhaps folly; fortunately it is enough to know that it contains most of Murakami’s typical tropes and obsessions. Once again Murakami has set a book in the 1980’s and I wonder why he is so fixated with this period. Perhaps it represents a lost ‘innocent’ era when the web didn’t exist, there were very few mobile phones, vinyl records still sold in their millions and pop music was arguably far less cynical and self conscious.

1Q84 bears all the hallmarks of Murakami’s distinctive style. The narrative quite often has a glacial pace, with plenty of nuance and space. There is also the usual peculiar attention to mundane details about the character’s lives, such as what they eat, and how they prepare their food. Sometimes I wonder if Murakami has Aspergers Syndrome, such is his obsessive attention to detail! Logically it’s more likely that it is a device that helps build tension between the ordinary and the preternatural.

Typically for a Murakami narrative both the main protagonists are in their early 30’s. This is a symbolic age for Murakami characters – an in between age; too old to be innocent and yet too young to be wise. Aomame is a distinctly strange woman, an ex member of a religious cult turned murderess. Tengo is a writer, teacher and is one of Murakami’s lonely men. For all 1Q84’s strangeness it is essentially a love story between these two characters. Their connection is interwoven into the plot, acting as a counterpoint to the obtuse weirdness that percolates through their otherwise every-day lives.

Another hallmark of Murakami’s writing is his tendency to have unresolved narrative arcs, and there’s plenty on offer here. 1Q84 is a mysterious novel and the more you try and make sense of it the more it slips away. But it is useful to remember that Murakami still flies the flag for post-modernism and there are multiple interpretations of 1Q84 that could all be equally valid.

As much as I love Murakami’s writing I found 1Q84 to be a frustrating experience. The first book lures you in with Aomeme’s literal descent into an alternate reality in which two moons hang in the sky. Then there is the mystery of the Air Chrysalis book written by Fuka-Eri, a member of a cloistered mountain cult. Tengo and Aomame are trapped in the realm of the Little People, a place that Aomeme calls 1Q84.

The second book maintains a disturbing tension. We watch helplessly as Tengo’s life becomes compromised by unexplained events. Aomeme works towards fulfilling her destiny as a bringer of justice. New characters are introduced, such as Ushikawa, a sinister man with an ugly oversized bobble – like head. The mystery of the Little People deepens. The second book is vintage Murakami  - weird and strangely compelling despite the slow motion narrative.

The third book is left with the job of tying up all the loose ends leftover from the first two, but then does its best to leave mysteries unexplained and plotlines unresolved. The main problem with the third book is that the protagonists spend inordinate amounts of time holed up contemplating their situation. The normally glacial pace is slowed even further and finishing 1Q84 becomes a matter of tenacity on the part of the reader. Unfortunately the ending is, well, disappointing. For a book that demands such a huge investment in time it’s a pity that 1Q84’s endgame lacks tension and is almost unapologetically banal.

Normally I don’t draw attention to the rating system I use, but 1Q84 is essentially three books published as one. The first book borders on being excellent, but I’ll give it an admirable rating. The second book is excellent and I wish that Murakami had wrapped it up then and there. The third book is mediocre due to its slow pace, lack of tension and an unsatisfactory resolution. Murakami will shortly have a new novel published, so I’m hoping that it will be a return to form because despite my relative disappointment, he’s still worth reading.


  1. I don't know why people are complaining about how long this book is. I was disappointed to reach the end. Haruki Murakami puts in so much rich detail, and draws the characters out in such a way that you grow very fond of them, even the creepy ones. I felt like I was there. That is a good writer. I can't wait to read my next book by Haruki Murakami.

    HVAC Sacramento

    1. Thanks for commenting! Have you read Murakami's new novel?