1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

1Q84 ★★☆☆☆
A novel by Haruki Murakami
Translated from the Japanese by Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel
(2009) 2011 / 925 pages

The Setup:  The year is 1984 and the city is Tokyo.

A young woman named Aomame follows a taxi driver’s enigmatic suggestion and begins to notice puzzling discrepancies in the world around her. She has entered, she realizes, a parallel existence, which she calls 1Q84 –“Q is for ‘question mark.’ A world that bears a question.” Meanwhile, an aspiring writer named Tengo takes on a suspect ghostwriting project. He becomes so wrapped up with the work and its unusual author that, soon, his previously placid life begins to come unraveled.

As Aomame’s and Tengo’s narratives converge over the course of this single year, we learn of the profound and tangled connections that bind them ever closer: a beautiful, dyslexic teenage girl with a unique vision; a mysterious religious cult that instigated a shoot-out with the metropolitan police; a reclusive, wealthy dowager who runs a shelter for abused women; a hideously ugly private investigator; a mild-mannered yet ruthlessly efficient bodyguard; and a peculiarly insistent television-fee collector.

A love story, a mystery, a fantasy, a novel of self-discovery, a dystopia to rival George Orwell’s–1Q84 is Haruki Murakami’s most ambitious undertaking yet: an instant best seller in his native Japan, and a tremendous feat of imagination from one of our most revered contemporary writers. (From the hardcover edition)

1Haruki Murakami. That’s a name you automatically hear mentioned each year as the Nobel award for literature is discussed. He’s yet to win it, and 1Q84 certainly isn’t going to serve as the piece of genius that can be used to strengthen the case of those who believe he ultimately should.

On the surface, the novel is billed as a love story, and while this is somewhat true, the label is a bit misleading. 1Q84 is primarily about loss. The loss of love, the loss of self-identity and self-worth, the loss of innocence, the loss of life, the loss of control, and the loss of those that are the most important to us. Murakami pulls no punches when it comes to tackling this subject. There’s plenty of suicide, abuse, murder, and self-loathing to go around in this nearly one thousand page novel and for the most part, he keeps his reflections on these losses and the ensuing loneliness that follows each interesting and engaging. It’s everything else that’s built around these moments that falls short.

The novel is primarily told in alternating chapters through the voice of two protagonists who shared a brief moment at the age of ten, and now, twenty years after the fact, are trying to find their way back to one another. The girl, Aomame, has grown up to be a fitness instructor/assassin of abusive men who is obsessed with the size of her breasts. Nearly every other chapter contains some nugget about her dissatisfaction with their size or shape.

QThe boy, Tengo, was a child prodigy who has grown up to be a math teacher at a cram school by day and an aspiring writer by night. When he accepts a proposal from his publisher to secretly ghost write a better version of a novel that was submitted for prize consideration by a seventeen year-old girl, his life takes a turn for the weird. He’s obsessed with an early childhood memory he has of a man who was not his father sucking on his mother’s breasts.

It’s these two slightly weird sexual things that open the flood gates for Murakami to feel comfortable spending massive amounts of time musing on things like boobs, nipples, scrotums, vaginas, penis sizes, and what shockingly fits into where. On one hand, it’s easy to understand and relate to the fact that we all have our unique hang-ups when it comes to sex, most likely defined slightly by the way we were raised and primarily by the people we chose to first share our physical selves with. On the other hand, the scenarios introduced and the way they’re written are flat out laughable and consistently serve as major distractions from the weight of any of the significant statements, sexual or otherwise, that the author attempts to make.

Never before has a Murakami novel been filled with so much non-essential rambling about sex, and if nothing else, those looking to put a positive spin on an otherwise disappointing effort would like to at least applaud him for branching out and attempting something new stylistically, even if he ultimately misses the mark. Except that when you strip away the clumsy sexual fumblings, this novel is no different than any of his previous output. It still follows the same very simple formula that nearly every other novel he’s ever written adheres to: boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy must embark on strange quest to retrieve girl.

8We’ve covered the boy and the girl already. The strange quest here involves a religious cult, an alternate reality in which there are two moons in the night sky, and a group of strange characters referred to only as the “Little People” who use the bodies of the dead as passages into the world so that they can weave what they call an air chrysalis from threads they pluck out of thin air.

There isn’t a lot here story wise that warrants 900+ pages. To bloat the novel, Murakami spends a lot of time on the development of his two main characters and perhaps it’s here where the real truth of the problem that lies at the heart of 1Q84 resides.

Simply put, Murakami is a brilliant storyteller who can introduce worlds and slowly manipulate and twist them into other versions of new and strange reality in such a way that it all still somehow seems plausible. He is not however, a master character writer. One of the things that work in the favor of his previous novels like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or Kafka on the Shore is that the characters introduced are mere sketches that the reader fills in based on their own interpretations of the text and how they directly relate as an individual possessing their own unique life experiences to the situations the author introduces. In 1Q84 the room for the reader to insert themselves into the shoes of either Aomame or Tengo doesn’t exist because Murakami has taken it upon himself to over define them in such bizarre ways to the point that no relation or attachment can possibly be made.

4Still, Murakami has shown flashes of his potential to write from the point of view of amazing characters in the past. Without hesitation I can state that the first two chapters of his previous novel South of the Border, West of the Sun felt like a love letter written specifically from Murakami to me, and that they truly hint at what could be greatness. Sadly 1Q84’s characters are the exact opposite. They come off cold and one dimensional, a rather strange thing to report about individuals who are supposedly living in multiple realities.

This could have been a good book if it were six hundred pages shorter and that’s a tragic thing because reading it might shy some of those new to Murakami’s work away from investing the time in tackling his other, much better novels, including his nearly equally as large in size masterpiece The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.

Murkami can be great, he just isn’t here, and sadly no amount of wordplay on the name of the year or number of bizarre sexual situations introduced can make up for it.


About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.