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Why Haruki Murakami’s ’1Q84′ is all Q and no A
For years now I’ve been waiting to read Haruki Murakami’s latest magnum opus 1Q84. It was released in Japan two years ago, it came out in Korean a year back (when SY read it), and now it’s finally come out in English- one massive tome 900 pages long, some 400,000 words in length, comprised of three books, which I’ve spent the last few weeks plowing through.
And, it’s kind of genius. With some very long stretches that suck.
I’ll qualify that in a minute. First I’ll tell you what it’s all about. There’s a boy and a girl, Tengo the writer and Aomame the hit girl, who held hands once when they were ten years old and were deeply affected by it. Now they’re 30 years old, both living unfulfilled and lonely lives, occasionally pining for each other but making no effort to get in touch. The book alternates between their two viewpoints, as they both swerve off the tracks of the year 1984 (when the novel is set) and into 1Q84 (the ‘Q’ stands for Question) where there are two moons (the regular one and a little craggy mossy one), rapist cults, Air Chrysalises, evil Little People who go “ho ho” (like Vonnegut in his tragi-comedy ‘Slapstick’), persistent spiritual NHK collectors, girls with simply fantastic boobs, and an awful lot of sitting around.
I think that’s about all the color of the novel expressed in one place. Perhaps I should even mark it up with ** SPOILER ** tags because it’s about as much information as Murakami ever gives us. Things are never really explained.
Tengo and Aomame swerve off the tracks into 1Q84 in different ways. He gets sucked into fraudulently ghost-writing a novel, while she exits a highway on foot by an emergency escape hatch. Whatever, we quickly get the impression that like the other Vonnegut novel TimeQuake, where the whole book is a long meditative preparation for Vonnegut (in the book as a character) to meet his fictional character Kilgore Trout, the structure of 1Q84 is that Aomame and Tengo are ultimately going to meet.
This will surely be a momentous occasion.
On the path to that point, we have to go through a lot of stuff. Some of that stuff is plot. Some of that plot is edge-of-the-seat exciting conflict, facing up to terrifying demons. But a lot of it is not. A lot of it is incredibly passive, sitting-by-the-wayside watching the world go by stuff. I mean simply stuff. Things happen around our characters, who largely float along on the tides from their birth, hang out in their apartments, contemplate the two moons, and wonder about what’s going on, while just sort of chilling and waiting for someone else to do something or for something generally to happen. A little of that goes a long way. A lot, which is what we largely get after the book’s mid-point, gets very tiresome.
OK stop. Perhaps you’ve read Murakami before? Then you want to call me out on this.
“Murakami is ALWAYS writing like this,” you want to say. “What did you expect? This is his thing. A world slightly warped, with regular life going on in it. Lots of listening to jazz, making seaweed soup (I believe that’s the technical term), and contemplating meaningful past events. THAT is Murakami.”
Well, yes. I doff my cap to you. That is Murakami. He doesn’t really write plot, certainly in more recent books. Perhaps he doesn’t much write character, since none of his characters do much of anything. Can anyone tell me what happened in ‘Wind Up Bird Chronicle’ or ‘Kafka by the Shore’, or describe any characters? Not me. One was about sitting in a well looking at the stars, the other about a shapeless formless battle with a nameless shapeless evil in the dark. Those were the central images, the key if you like, that Murakami riffs around.
And it is a riff. 1Q84 is one enormous jazz riff, because Murakami writes like jazz. He writes not character or plot, but mood. I seriously doubt he ever edits what he writes. I seriously doubt any editor in all of Japan has the chutzpah to edit him in any substantial way, considering his current level of fame (he’s tipped for a Literature Nobel prize). And the funny thing is, it largely works. We regular folk may not be able to explain why it works- since he really doesn’t follow any real writing conventions- but plainly it does. Murakami himself takes a stab at explaining, in a passage buried within a critique of the fictional book ‘Air Chrysalis’ that Tengo ghost-writes in 1Q84. In this Tengo largely becomes a mouth-piece for Murakami responding to his critics.
It goes a little something like this. The critic says of ‘Air Chrysalis’-
“The work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end, but when it comes to the question of what is an air chrysalis, or who are the Little People, we are left in a pool of mysterious question marks. This may well be the author’s intention, but many readers are likely to take this lack of clarification as a sign of authorial laziness.”
Tengo, AKA Murakami, is puzzled by this. If a story carries the reader to the very end, how can the author be lazy? He doesn’t know. I’m sure Murakami doesn’t know either. He just writes, and it comes out like this, and it is what it is. He doesn’t sweat the details. He certainly doesn’t sweat the ending of any of his books.
Embedding his pre-emptive response to critics into the book itself may be a kind of genius, even if that genius is just to say- “yeah, well, whatever.” The problem comes with whether this book actually does “carry the reader along to the very end.” Obviously I did read the whole book. But after the halfway fireworks (and there were fireworks, in the one major bit of conflict within the whole 900 pages), everything that followed was an utter trial, and I only dragged myself through it to see if it ever got better.
At the mid-point, I was ready to declare Murakami a genius. The middle is great- crammed with ideas, follow-through, execution. I whole-heartedly recommend the middle, where Aomame takes her hit-girl skills directly to the rapist cult. But after that came nothing. 400 pages of it. By the end, I was just bitter that such huge promise had been squandered. Murakami set up the fight, prepped the stakes and the stage, got the crowd in place for a huge knockout fight between Tengo and Aomame on one side and the Little People and the rapist cult on the other, and then…
Nothing. 400 pages of Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’. Sitting and thinking, waiting, thinking. There would be no excuse and utterly no story to follow in this third part at all if not for the addition of a third narrator- the sad sack private detective Ushikawa with the funny head. This chap is hired by the rapist cult to find Aomame and deal with Tengo. We follow him as he mines both of their back stories. We get to watch them doing what they do best, sitting around moping, from his perspective.
This whole thread failed for me. Ushikawa was a cartoon, retreading old material. I knew it all, from the first two books. I wanted to shout at the book- You already told me ALL OF THIS, Murakami. You told me directly! Sure, it’s true that Ushikawa needs to find all out for himself- but do I really have to watch that? In this way, page by dreary page of repetition fills the last third.
So, that’s why 1Q84 kind of sucked. Even by Murakami’s own criteria- being carried along to the end of the book- it failed. I skipped large parts of Ushikawa, because there was nothing new. I wanted the conflict the middle had promised, the climactic battle, but he never delivered. I do like the mood stuff, the slow pace, the thoughtfulness. But by that point, with all that he’d promised with portentous thunder clouds and mystery, mood stuff alone is not enough. Mood alone is suffocating. you can’t raise the stakes on me then just drop the bar back to its lowest ebb, with scarcely any relent. In so doing Murakami set me up to expect something more, then whuffed it. He bypassed it completely. He jazz-riffed right around it.
Immense narrative promises were made. They were far from met. Oddly, Murakami even immunized himself against this failure by embedding numerous mentions of the Chekhov’s gun principle into the book- ‘if a gun appears in a book, it should be fired by the end.’ In 1Q84 the gun is both real and figurative, and in both forms it never fires. It keeps on not firing for hundreds of pages, long after the point of tension has passed.
So much was promised, and in the end, it was not delivered- possibly because the author didn’t really understand what he’d set up, possibly because he just didn’t care. It was too massive. It just wasn’t his style.
Ultimately, it all boils down to style. Murakami doesn’t really write like anyone else. I don’t think I’d dare to suggest what he should edit or change, because his work seems more art and philosophy than story. But as story, it doesn’t succeed. Story typically rises, and rises, and climaxes at the end. 1Q84 rises to a climactic middle, then just deflates like an overcooked souffle. Perhaps that is jazz though- very rarely can all the players get in sync for a run up to a climax.
Here’s my advice, if story is what you want. You’d do better to stop at the book’s halfway point, while the promise of rising stakes to come is still fresh. Then wash your hands of it, before all that lovely burgeoning promise slowly bleeds out in a slow and stale pfffffft.
“Nice ideas. Didn’t quite carry me through to the end.”