This is a flawed but riveting Murakami opus.
The references to eclectic genres of music, the loner protagonists, the ever-present sense of dislocation, of being in a world not our own – these are the hallmarks of Murakami’s distinctive style. 1Q84 ticks most of those boxes, except that this time Murakami has replaced his preferred first-person narrator with two point-of-view third person protagonists, Tengo and Aomame, whose stories start out in different places, but soon begin to converge in strange and surreal ways, as they both find themselves in a world divergent from their own, one with two moons in the sky and unknown, unfathomable forces shaping the course of their lives.
1Q84 is a ponderous, magisterial, meandering book. Its monstrous 1,000 page length contains a core narrative arc that could have been written to resolution in half the length. It’s often vague as to its intentions; often ambiguous to the point of frustration. A large number of narrative elements receive no closure The central plot thread – the romance between Tengo and Aomame – seems contrived and unconvincing, almost as if tacked on to produce narrative tension leading up to the conclusion. And after finishing the book, I was left struggling to find a point to the thousand pages of text, given that there is no neat resolution to the many hanging threads of the novel. Ultimately, however, I’m sure plot coherence is not Murakami’s goal. To use the hoary phrase, the journey is its own destination. Reading 1Q84 is a visceral experience that in some ways transcends the shortcomings of the novel. Reading 1Q84 is like watching a shaggy, lumbering beast meandering aimlessly across a primordial moonlit landscape. It is confusing, sometimes unsettling, and often opaque, but has an irresistible allure. It is a vision of a world that echoes our own but that reverberates in strange ways, skirting the bounds of our lived experience. And that kind of grounded surrealism, to pair the words in oxymoronic fashion, is the source of the pleasure we derive from this book. Murakami gets it – he writes of a book that Tengo ghostwrites – Air Chrysalis – that readers felt it strangely compelling but ultimately lacked any real message. But what was important was the evocative nature of the work, its capacity to arouse states of thought or emotion from the reader.
Murakami fills the many pages of 1Q84 with careful, detailed descriptions of the daily lives and actions of Tengo and Aomame. He goes into their routines in great detail, down to the details of their clothes, the food they cook, their thoughts, both banal and profound, their music preferences, their neuroticisms and insecurities. He repeats these details often. Such “filler” actually takes up much of the space of the book. In the hands of a lesser writer such repetition would be interminably boring and probably indicative of a failure of editing. But in Murakami’s case, that repetition has a meditative, comforting cadence, almost like a beat in a musical composition. Murakami is too accomplished in his writerly craft to allow himself to be carried away by padding without purpose, and in this case such filler serves as a distinct foil to the strangeness of the emerging plot.
As to that plot – the magical realism one – it reads almost like the plot of some far-out Noitamina anime property, with its utterly inscrutable vignettes of strange events – the mysterious air chrysalises, the unseen NHK license fee collector, the enigmatic Little People, the two moons in the sky, one our own familiar one, the other, a curious smaller one, green and shaggy, with mold growing out of it. Murakami never bothers to go into what they constitute exactly – but I get the feeling that it was deliberate. Murakami wants us to feel adrift in his world, to feel the sense of smallness in the midst of something huger and more primordial, where things don’t make sense because we lack the experiential faculties to make sense of them. Personally I think he could have done it with a little bit more exposition, but it’s probably better to err on the side of less information. That feeling that the world is older and more recondite than one can imagine is the essence of this novel.
That said, however, Murakami’s command of the narrative starts to sag in the third and final component of the novel. The extended expositions of our characters start to drag. Substantively, very little happens in the third novel, and the antagonists of the previous two novels lose their menacing quality. Many of the plot threads that are left dangling at the end all originate in the third book. All that’s left is the aftermath of the buildup in the first two parts, with the third part devolving somewhat into a very extended epilogue, in which Tengo and Aomame, their lives disrupted by the events of the first two books, start looking for each other. This is the weakest component of the book, and unfortunately, one of the third book’s main narrative struts. But it doesn’t quite work in practice, because despite everything, the love between Tengo and Aomame lacks the verisimilitude of lived experience. Worse still, this element of love causes them to behave in uncharacteristic fashion. Aomame, after getting pregnant, loses a bit of her independent streak and starts to think only about getting to be with Tengo, even though they hadn’t met for 20 years. If the message is that love can transcend time and space and arise from a single touch, and cause people in love to literally cross worlds to find each other, I’m not really buying it. The best part of the third novel is the introduction of another third-person perspective, Ushikawa, a private investigator working for the antagonists who tries to uncover the location of Aomame after she goes into hiding. Ushikawa’s grotesqueness belies another of Murakami’s tortured, perceptive lonely souls, an unscrupulous but strangely sympathetic misfit given more shrift than most of his henchmen contemporaries.
Despite everything, reading this novel was rarely a drag, even in the third book. It may have ended abruptly, with many threads unresolved, with Tengo and Aomame together in a relationship whose staying power is dubious at best, but the journey to that ambiguous destination was filled with much that was profound and darkly comic, put together and dusted with a sprinkle of the classic Murakami we all know and hunger for. 1Q84 is a flawed but engaging meditation on lonesome souls in a world beyond human ken, told with a panache that reveals Murakami in all his stylistic depth and craft. It is an experience without end, an open-ended testament to the fact that the real world is every bit as strange and unknowable as the denizens of Murakami’s imagination.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 Cat Towns