JQ Magazine: Book Review – Haruki Murakami’s ‘1Q84’

“Murakami’s previous books were like delicious sandwiches that left you wanting more. 1Q84 was like a two-foot long sub that filled you to bursting, but you’re still not totally satisfied.” (Vintage International)

Roland Kelts, don’t kick me in the balls—

One man’s attempt to review a book honestly while still keeping friends

By Rick Ambrosio (Ibaraki-ken, 2006-08) for JQ magazine. A staple of the JET Alumni Association of New York (JETAANY) community, Rick manages their Twitter page and is an up-for-anything writer.

My girlfriend wouldn’t shut up about it.

1Q84 is the best! Ah, when it comes out in English you need to read it!” Just talking about it made her rush to find her old copies (it was broken up into three books in Japan) and start reading them again. She was enthralled, to say the least. I’ve been a Murakami fan for a while: Norwegian Wood was emotional and sexually riveting; Dance Dance Dance was creepy as hell but lots of fun; Kafka on the Shore blew my mind. So I was hungry for 1Q84.

I picked it up shortly after it came out…and put it down for a while…then picked it up again…then down… then up…I think you get the idea. My feelings can kind of be summed up like this: Murakami’s previous books were like delicious sandwiches that left you wanting more. 1Q84 was like a two-foot long sub that filled you to bursting, but you’re still not totally satisfied.

The plot follows two people tied together by fate, love, and inter-dimensional happenstance. Tengo is an author and math teacher who finds himself embroiled in a shady plot to write an award-winning book. Aomame is a fitness instructor with a decidedly darker side job. Both find themselves in an altered version of 1984 called 1Q84 that deviates from the previous reality in specific ways. Those changes seem to revolve around a cult, a beautiful young girl, a book and mysterious “Little People.” Their battle to beat the odds and find each other, discover where they are, and who’s behind the changed world is an epic journey told through alternating perspectives.

1Q84 had all the things I love about Murakami: Super complex, interesting and engaging characters, crazy inter-dimensional sex, lots of mystery, and supernatural elements that bring it right on the cusp of reality, teetering between a fantasy realm and the real 1984. His ability to walk that line (like a cat walking a picket fence for those who love cats not only in Murakami novels, but also in reviews of Murakami novels) is astounding and he does it…for a really long time.

I suppose that’s my only real big complaint about 1Q84: It’s long. Like, really, really long. I get it; you are all about characters, we are getting into their lives, seeing how the world is conspiring against or for our two star-crossed lovers. Here and there we get some really fun stuff. But honestly, I kind of think he could have wrapped it all in a bow with two books.

There are times when I didn’t need to know Aomame worked out again, for the fifth time in a row. Oh, did Tengo talk to the nurses again? Good, great, noted. C’MON!!! The book starts and ends strong, with some really fun cliffhangers, but somewhere between books two and three it just kind of lags. Who is following whom, long seemingly random trips outside Tokyo and extended workout sessions just made me want to hit fast forward.

All these sideshows wouldn’t be so bad if they just made a little more sense, though. In 1,000 pages, you think he’d give in a little and explain what some of the supernatural stuff surrounding the world is. Yes, he goes into what the “Little People” are, but there are a lot of other things going on, a lot of stuff that seems to just “happen” in hindsight. Certain characters, who and why they are, it gets teased for hundreds of pages, all to end with a note from them saying, Hey, I did what I had to do; I’m leaving the plot now.” Granted, these things helped set the mysterious mood, but their lack of cohesion to the superstructure that is the “Little People” and the cultish threat behind them leaves you feeling like they’re those weird tourist traps you waste time at when trying to drive cross country. Is that dude a ghost or real? Who knows. Fifty miles to the world’s largest toenail? Fuck it, let’s go.

I may be nitpicking, but I can only tell Murakami how to be a world renowned writer to a point (I met a guy in JET twice who knows him, so I kinda figure I am two degrees of Murakami; we are totally friends by association, so it’s cool if I give him my feedback). For all its dragging along at some points and lack of mystical cohesion, it’s still very much what you love about Murakami: You feel swallowed up into this alternate 1984 universe. All its characters are perfect in their lack of perfection, the many “can this be connected to this maybe?” questions that come about when characters talk about such inane things like butterflies, figuring out who juuusst missed running into whom, or did they? It’s all these details that make it worth it, even 800 pages in and reading about someone stretching…again.

So if you’re a fan of Murakami and want to go the distance, by all means pick up a copy—now available in a handsome three volume paperback boxed set—and have a blast. It’s going to be a long trip, but it’s full of a lot of the wonderful Murakami-isms that you love/get frustrated with. However, if you’ve yet to be initiated into the cult of Murakami (or as Roland Kelts refers to them in his New Yorker article, “Harukists“), I’d suggest starting elsewhere before going down this more advanced path.

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