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1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: A Review

“Maybe it’s a paradox, like an image reflected to infinity in a pair of facing mirrors. I am a part of this world, and this world is a part of me.”

Not being a traditional book reviewer, and this not being a traditional book, it seems appropriate to begin at the beginning – with the packaging and design. 1Q84 (the “Q” is a pun on the homophone kyu, “nine” in Japanese, and stands for “question”) by Haruki Murakami is an event from the moment you pick it up. In this age of digital words and scrolling text, the U.S. printing of 1Q84 (Alfred A. Knopf) is clearly meant to be an experience. Clocking in at a hefty 925 pages and wrapped in elegant translucent garb, the book is an exercise in dichotomy before the cover is even cracked. The layout of the book is clever, with mirror-reflected page numbers and scrolling introductory text that underscores the novel’s themes of time and the dual natures of reality. It would also be remiss to ignore the elegance of the translation. Not speaking word one of Japanese, I can only imagine the daunting task of conveying the strange poetry of Murakami, but these translators (Jay Rubin for Books 1 and 2, Philip Gabriel for Book 3) maintain the sparse haunting elegance of the prose without a glitch – no easy task in an alternate reality where orgiastic foursomes get the same amount of detached observance as the shredding of a daikon root.

The trepidation I had going into this book mirrored my concerns for Infinite Jest. Often, authors seem uniquely suited to a specific format/word count. After reading and re-reading the essays and short stories of DFW, it seemed improbable that the same visceral joy could be sustained over such an impossible length. Or, as Murakami would say, you can’t focus on the clitoris all of the time. In 1Q84, as in Infinite Jest, those fears were simultaneously irrational and wholly justified. Taking place over three books and alternating between the perspectives of two (eventually three) protagonists, 1Q84 is, at heart, a simple love story. A boy and a girl exchange a wordless moment as ten-year old children, are separated for twenty years, then reconnect. This journey takes a thousand pages but, as to be expected from Murakami, there are twin moons tracing the heavens, Little People crawling from the mouths of dead goats, cocoons woven from invisible threads and gay professional assassins littering the highway. All the expected joys of Murakami are on full display, from his obsessions with sex, cooking, cats, music, and alternate realities, to his seeming inability to write a bum sentence. Like Underworld or 2666, a lot of the received joy is the language immersion and the plodding construction of a wholly distinct, yet recognizable world. So yes, on a micro level, 1Q84 will be pleasurable to all fans of Murakami. The language sustains, the thing is fun to read, and I challenge you to put it down halfway through.

But what of the plot? Ah yes, the plot. A bit of a shaggy dog story, 1Q84 spends much of its time building up fascinating incidents and coincidences that don’t necessarily fire together. There is relentless verbal and visual repetition sprinkled throughout the book and these compound, gnawing at the edges of your subconscious. Like the experience of a David Lynch film (a man whom Murakami cites as an influence), my brain struggled mightily to assemble connections between clearly important details that didn’t appear to mesh with the greater whole. This technique, which at its best feels like a dreamstate fugue and at its worst feels like lazy editing, works incredibly well in shorter Murakami novels like Kafka on the Shore and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but doesn’t necessarily sustain over this sort of extended length. In shorter bursts, this created tension feels mysterious, haunting, and meaningful, but in longer formats, the reader begins to expect a bit of release. It’s almost like being pinched by a cute girl on the playground – it’s a rush to know she likes you, but eventually you’re going to want what that pinch seemed to implicitly promise. (Themes of child sexuality also feature prominently in 1Q84, described in the same hauntingly disconnected tone as everything else. Whether it’s a meal preparation or a dog exploding, all events in Murakami’s world are given the same amount of attention – a technique which somehow manages to normalize everything and makes him uniquely suited to invent alternate realities.)

Even obvious themes, such as the references to Orwell’s 1984 are inevitably left as frustratingly open loops. This is something I found troubling, as Murakami painstakingly constructs incredible set-ups that he seems to tire of and abandon midway through. In Orwell’s futuristic dystopia, “Big Brother” is the totalitarian figurehead that literally rewrites the past in order to conform to the needs of the present. In Murakami’s handling of a past utopia, the “Little People” harbor secret knowledge that undermines traditional reality, while his protagonist’s novel seems to literally be creating the present. For Murakami, this is as close to an obvious metaphor as he may ever get, but (possibly quite intentionally) he leaves the conclusions flailing like tattered flags in the wind.

Indeed, the entire novel seems to be a sort of intentional undermining of traditional novelistic structure, as if he couldn’t bring himself to write a simple love story. For example, in a crystal clear refutation of Chekov’s storytelling principles, Murakami’s female protagonist says that she may never fire a gun that she’s been given. In response, she is told:

“Nothing could be better than not firing it. We’re drawing to the end of the twentieth century. Things are different from back in Chekov’s time… Somehow the world has survived the Nazis, the atomic bomb and modern music. Even the way novels are composed has changed drastically.”

Murakami loads the novel with unfired guns, long periods of creeping dread that dead-end into nothingness, and established metaphors that simply refuse to pay off. This, in some aspects (even more so than his slim memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running) may be as close as Murakami gets to espousing his personal views on his own fiction – highly effective and evocative on a moment-to-moment basis, the emotional swirls of a tightening noose, but utilizing almost none of the techniques we’ve come to recognize. Raymond Chandler and Proust may sit at opposite ends of the literary canon but here, they’re practically making out.

“There was a lot that remained unknown and mysterious, and the lines that constructed this story were complicated. Which lines connected to which others, and what sort of cause-and-effect relationship existed, was beyond him. Still, ever since Fuka-Eri showed up in his life, he felt he had been living in a place where questions outnumbered answers.”

 A complete review of this novel would, I suspect, ruin the read and, like other Murakami novels, the reading is the thing. Underneath the layers of obfuscation and red herrings, it’s difficult to avoid the impression that there is an author who relentlessly and emphatically knows what he is doing, and that is perhaps the biggest weapon that Murakami employs. He can load intrigue and intentionality into the most mundane scenes and keep the reader turning pages, desperately hoping to discover the center of a robust labyrinth. When that labyrinth reveals itself to be a Mobius strip, though, it’s difficult not to feel, as Murakami says, like an air chrysalis – inflated, expectant and empty.

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