Book review: “1Q84”

1Q84I just finished reading Haruki Murakami’s 2011 novel 1Q84 and had some thoughts about it, so now, dear reader, you’re going to get those thoughts dumped on you.

First, some background. 1Q84 is a story about two people living in Japan in 1984. Tengo is an aspiring novelist who can’t seem to get off his duff and actually write anything. Aomame is a personal trainer who moonlights as an assassin (you know, like you do). Both their lives are knocked off course when a young woman named Fuka-Eri flees a religious cult and writes a novel called Air Chrysalis, which sets in motion a train of events that leads them all into a parallel world where there are two moons instead of one, a world Aomame dubs “1Q84.” It turns out there are deep connections between Tengo and Aomame, connections that turn out to be their only hope of ever again returning to the real world of 1984.

All of which sounds pretty silly! But 1Q84 isn’t as bad as all that, or as the New York Times made it out to be. It’s actually pretty engaging, if only in fits and starts. Tengo and Aomame are clearly drawn and more or less compelling characters, there’s a good range of supporting characters too, and despite the book’s length the narrative never really runs out of steam, even if it does seem to be threatening to in places.

Which isn’t to say it’s perfect, or even very good; 1Q84 has lots of problems. Murakami has a bad habit of insisting on listing the brand names of every object his characters touch, so Aomame can never just get dressed; we have to slog instead through repetitive descriptions of Junko Shimada suits and Charles Jourdan heels. (Are these even real brand names? I have no idea, and I’m too lazy to Google them to find out.) The sex scenes range from “awkward” to “unsettling.” And the romance that sits at the center of the plot guns its engines and leaps over credibility like Evel Knievel jumping the Snake River Canyon.

But 1Q84‘s biggest flaw is that Murakami breaks his contract with the reader. When a writer flies out of the everyday into a fantasy world with malicious pixies and multiple moons, there’s generally two things they need to do in order to bring the reader along with them: they need to establish the rules of the fantasy world — show you how it works, particularly how the way it works differs from the way our tedious workaday world works — and then they have to tell a story that plays by those rules. The rules can be implausible or even ludicrous, but generally speaking we as readers are willing to accept them as long as they don’t contradict each other, and as long as the story stays within the lines the author has drawn for us.

Murakami does neither of those things in 1Q84. First, he never really bothers to fully explain how this new world works — strange things happen, and we’re never sure exactly why. (Sometimes he deigns to imply a cause, but other times we don’t even get that.) And even in those places where the rules are explained, the story never feels like it takes them particularly seriously. Huge volumes of words are spilled explaining the mechanics of air chrysalises and dohtas and mazas, but even after reading them all they don’t ever give you the sense that you’ve got a handle on what’s going to happen next. As with mystery novels, where the joy comes from the process of figuring out whodunit, the joy in this kind of story comes from the process of figuring out how the world you’re immersed in works. You feel that joy at the moment when all the pieces fall into place and a light bulb goes on over your head. But in 1Q84, that moment never really comes.

Great, now I fear I’ve made this book sound worse than it actually is. It’s not that bad! Promise! I kept turning the pages, and enjoyed the act of reading it; I just didn’t feel satisfied when the last page had been turned. And it wasn’t even the good kind of unsatisfied, the kind where you’re unsatisfied because it leaves you wanting more. It was the kind instead where you scratch your head and say “Huh. OK. Huh.”

So should you read it? Cripes, I don’t know. Maybe? You might like it, if you’re into literary sci-fi and you can live with a story not revealing itself fully to you. I don’t regret having read it. I just wish it was as good as it felt like it could have been.

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June 12, 2015
2:43 pm

I read this a couple of years ago and had a similar reaction at the end. When she climbs over that guardrail and goes into 1Q84, I swear to god, I was JUMPING with excitement over what this alternate universe could be. The anticipation of what it meant for them to be over there was so exciting! And then…nothing much really happened. And what did happen didn’t entirely make sense or seem necessary.

And did you feel like there was a lot of foreshadowing for events that either didn’t happen at all, or ended up being entirely inconsequential to the plot when they finally did happen?

Jason Lefkowitz

June 12, 2015
2:46 pm

@Ginger — yeah, I did feel like there was a sense that all the plot threads were going to pull together into a Big Grand Meaningful Event of some kind, and then they never really did. But I’m not sure if I had that expectation because Murakami put it there and then didn’t deliver, or because I was just expecting that because other books of this type have trained me to expect that kind of neat, tidy denouement.