Tait's Reviews > 1Q84

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami
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's review
Dec 25, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: literature, sci-fi, east-asian
Read from December 28, 2011 to January 15, 2012

I’ve been reading Haruki Murakami’s surreal novels for years now, starting with his what is often considered his best novel, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. It took me almost as long, though, to feel that I fully appreciated what Murakami is doing; the non-ordinary events were often a little too peculiar, the emotional tenor a little too flat, the use of history a little too irrelevant. But then Murakami wrote an even more masterful novel, 1Q84.

A reply to Orwell’s infamous dystopia, 1984, 1Q84 tells the story of two characters who get sucked into an alternate version of the year 1984 in Tokyo – a world, as the novel puts it, with a question. Tengo is an aspiring novelist who ghostwrites a magical work of fiction written by a mysterious teenage girl, a work of fiction that increasingly becomes real. Aomame is a gym trainer who secretly avenges the deaths of abused women. Together they shake a religious cult to its foundations and seek each others’ love beneath the light of two moons.

Up through the first half of the novel, I was convinced that this is Murakami’s best work so far, doing many of the things I’d always longed for Murakami to do in his fiction. Most predominately are his use of the fantastic and his leading woman.

Murakami’s novels and their use of surreal elements often fall into what could be the genre of magical realism; even when strange, non-ordinary events occur, the characters accept them without question and the reader is offered little explanation as to what is going on, or why. In contrast, 1Q84 falls more firmly into the genre of the fantastic, where there is a hesitation toward non-ordinary events, as well as an attempt to rationalize them, for instance when Aomame begins to suspect that she’s no longer in the real world. This is most displayed in the various characters’ reactions to the second moon: it is unsettling, inexplicable, and demands an answer (though it still evades giving up its secrets). This use of the fantastic seems necessary for the story to work; how is the reader to believe that these characters have entered into another world if they don’t react in a realistic manner?

The other highly effective aspect of 1Q84, for me, was Aomame. I’ve often felt that Murakami’s novels often fail at presenting strong, complex female characters. When women do appear, they are most often doll-like sex objects for the male protagonists. Not so here. Aomame is tough, complicated, and a moral killer. In fact, it is possible to read her in light of the amazon archetype of warrior women that is fortunately creeping into the market these days. I like to think of this book as Murakami’s take on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Or at least I wanted to think that up through the first half of the novel. Unlike many of Murakami’s works, the plots of which move through a murky haze of memory and uncertainty, the first half of 1Q84 barrels ahead with a controlled pace and action that draws the reader along every step of the way to the climax. Except the climax happens too soon.

The second half of the book revolves around the protagonists seeking each other and running from the cult, except they do this by hiding in their apartments, alone, uncertain how to act. While this might be fine (and realistic) if it was kept to a chapter or two, this goes on for a dozen or so solid chapters without the plot moving forward one inch until the last ten pages. Which means that, in a book over 900 pages long, there’s about 450 pages of waiting around while nothing much happens. Even more aggravating, all the tightly woven plot lines from which the first half of the novel is constructed – the mystery of the writer Fuka-Eri; the secret and history of the cult; the explanation of the Little People, the air chrysalises, and the two moons – all these elements dissipate as if they were an irrelevant ruse the whole time, constructed from tissue paper. But then again, as the novel suggests, the world of 1Q84 is only a paper moon, a fiction struggling to be real, lurching along as it unravels around the edges, and finally falling apart when the protagonists leave for some other reality.
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