1Q84 (Book One) – Split-Decision

It is getting late, and Tony is still pacing around his study, mulling over the events of Book One of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, 1Q84.  He is tired, but he feels that he won’t be able to sleep until he at least begins to get some ideas down,

so he walks over to the computer and begins typing…

so he walks over to the computer… then he changes his mind.  The next day, after a good sleep, some exercise and a light dinner, he decides to spend the evening typing up his review…

1Q84 is, so far at least, a rather intriguing book (fairly intimidating in its gargantuan physical appearance) and both familiar and unfamiliar to those who have already spent many an evening exploring Murakami’s worlds.  At the start of the novel, Aomame, a twenty-nine-year-old woman, is sitting in a taxi, stuck in traffic in mid-eighties’ Tokyo.  On the advice of her driver, she gets out and climbs down an emergency ladder by the side of the expressway.  From this moment on, the world she is living in seems somewhat unusual, different from the one she is used to, and she decides to name this reality 1Q84, with the Q standing for question mark.

Meanwhile, Tengo, a young maths teacher with literary aspirations, is asked by his editor to polish up a first novel by a mysterious young writer.  Despite his initial hesitation, he decides to accept the task, one which leads him into a series of bizarre occurrences, which may or may not have something to do with a mysterious cult.  Oh, and there might also be a link to Aomame there somewhere too…

Tony writes that if you were in a critical mood, it would be easy to think that Murakami is repeating himself here, as anyone with more than a passing knowledge of his back catalogue will be able to spot parallels with earlier works. Tony decides to focus on the wonderful parallels with Murakami’s earlier works and the way in which the writer has taken ideas and themes from other novels and integrated them here in what will probably turn out to be a much more ambitious and fascinating novel.

Evil cult?  Try his non-fiction work, Underground.  Mysterious old lady and talented young man providing an unusual and discreet service?  I’ll raise you Cinnamon and Nutmeg from The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.  Dual-stranded plot, and alternating chapters with a fantasy slant?  Hard-Boiled Wonderland…, anyone?  By opting for a two-strand approach to the novel, one previously used in Hard-Boiled Wonderland…, Murakami opens up more scope to pursue his ideas, and he is able to use the themes he has worked on in his past fiction to work around the fascinating topic of one of his non-fiction books, the rise of the cult in modern Japan.  Obviously, Murakami-san is a little light on new ideas…

…and this new book is full of info-dumping, long paragraphs of ‘necessary’ information, thrown into the path of the narrative, bringing it to a shuddering halt, and, of course, running at over 900 pages in this version, 1Q84 is a densely-plotted book, with a wide selection of characters and appropriate pacing – if you’re going to cover 900+ pages of writing, you don’t want to push things along too quickly at the start!

Of the two main characters, Tengo is the more familiar to Murakami lovers, another example of the writer’s everyman characters, ordinary men thrust into extraordinary situations, a pale shadow, a bad imitation of earlier characters like Toru Okada or the ‘boku’ of Murakami’s early fiction.  A time-wasting, unambitious teacher, too weak to actually break into the literary world, things just happen to him, and he is actually slightly more distanced than Murakami’s usual protagonists, allowing us to be a little more detached, not looking over his shoulder, allowing us to see more of him than is usually the case (perhaps something which makes him more three-dimensional?).

Aomame is a rather more intriguing development though.  Several of Murakami’s earlier works featured young women as secondary characters, many of them slightly kooky and special (for example, the pink-loving home-schooled grand-daughter in Hard-Boiled Wonderland…, or the precocious neighbour in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), but here we have one of these bit parts elevated to centre stage, and it shows that Murakami struggles with writing believable women because Aomame is a very thin character.  While Tengo is a knock-off, at least he is a well-rounded one – Aomame could be ripped directly from a straight-to-video Hollywood/Kung Fu movie…

And Murakami’s demeaning attitude towards women just gets worse with the way he has Aomame and Yuki sleep around, the constant references to needing sex, the unnecessary lesbian experiences.  At times, you think the story is turning into soft porn, but the more you read, the more you realise that these outward shows of sexuality may be rooted in something deeper, and darker.  The slow pace of the novel allows the writer to gradually reveal elements of his characters’ earlier lives, changing what could be pornographic into thought-provoking and worrying.  And as we are in 1Q84 (and not 1984!), we’re never really sure how much of the action to take on face value…

Tony stands up, stretches and walks over to the window in his study.
Tony stands up, stretches and walks over to the window in his study.
He yawns, rubs his eyes and starts as thunder cracks outside.
He yawns, rubs his eyes and starts as thunder cracks outside.
Wanting to look out at the approaching storm, he opens the blinds –
Wanting to look out at the approaching storm, he opens the blinds –

He stops, puzzled.
Somehow, the sky looks slightly odd tonight…

18 thoughts on “1Q84 (Book One) – Split-Decision

  1. fabulous. And we never quite know which world we're in with this review – which is largely how I felt about the book. In a way these split feelings are inevitable – at this stage of hiscareer, what on earth would we expect a “completely original” Murakami book to look like? And I would wager we'd be more disappointed with it if it lacked his tropes. That said, After Dark really did feel fresh to me (but then lots of people didn't like it!)

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  2. Tony-if 1Q84 were your first Murakami would you read another? If you just got the manuscript of this book and thought it was the first novel of a new writer, would you finish it or would you stop it as to long and too repetitive
    ?

    did you find the little people concept just flat our silly after a while-do you imagine them as emerging nude or to they come out in clothes of some kind-? did you ever imagine them bursting into song?

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  3. From the one or the other review I saw so far I start to believe your review is better than his book. It's been out in German since early this year but as much as I lie Murakami, I can't face such a chunkster.

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  4. I stopped at page 80. After a dozen books, I'm still not appreciating Murakami's writing style. It was too dry for me. But I'll pick it up again next year.

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  5. Brilliant, brilliant review. Unconventional as always. With different fonts and all. I haven't read the book yet but you may have capture it very well. I'll come back here when I read it soon.

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  6. Gary – My version from the library is quite possibly the heaviest book I've ever read! And I do like to mix things up as you know…

    Dan – I'm almost finished, and I still have split views. The writing can, at times, be repetitive, but the book is a very good one overall. I'm with you on 'After Dark'; I actually thought that this was an original Murakami work, and I liked it a lot 🙂

    Mel – I think that your question is a little redundant – Murakami was able to write this precisely because he is so well-known and because his books have been read by so many people. He knows that people will latch onto his style, even if it's not always immediately comprehensible!

    I'm not a big fan of the little people (some things are best left in the wings, unseen). I actually see them as a kind of seven dwarves, but completely white. I suppose that says more about me than Murakami really…

    Caroline – It's a good book, but if you haven't really read Murakami, it won't appeal. This is one to come back to when you've read a lot more of his work. As for the length, well, it's actually three books, and I've been reading it like that, with other books in between the three.

    Rise – Sometimes a writer just isn't for you. At the moment, for example, I'd rather poke my eyes out with needles than read another Henry James book 😉 But I'm sure there'll be a time when it all makes sense 🙂

    Jo – Many thanks 🙂 Be sure to stop by next week when one of the characters will be imploring you to keep reading despite the bad reviews Book Two has been getting…

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  7. HaHa Very well done, Tony. I started this a while ago and then got side-tracked. Picked it up again weeks later and couldn't remember a thing I'd already read, so had to start over. It's just not grabbing me the way his previous novels have done. It has a soporific effect on me, which is not a bad thing when you have insomnia. Heh.

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  8. Don't worry – my next post will explain why this is happening (possibly) – or rather, someone else will attempt this onerous task (someone… fictional!).

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  9. Great review, really.
    It only confirms one thing, that I should not read this book.
    I loved Kafka on the Shore and South of the Border, West of the Sun but couldn't finish the Wind-Up Bird Chronicles.
    I'll read Norwegian Wood next year but not this one.
    I'm not into brick books, few writers have enough to say to write huge books they couldn't have made shorter.

    Emma

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  10. I had the worst time ever writing my review of this; I'm still not happy with it, and every day contemplate taking it down. You, however, have done a wonderful job of expressing the parallels, the conundrums, the worlds which Murakami has created. Such a clever post.

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  11. Emma – It's not for everyone, I agree. I would definitely recommend 'Norwegian Wood' first 🙂

    Unlike you though, I am very much into bricks – I could build myself a new house with all the bricks I've read 😉

    Belezza – Thanks 🙂 It is a tricky book to review, which is why I've escaped into a fantasy reviewing world!

    Part two of my reviews will be out later today 🙂

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  12. whisperinggums – Thanks 🙂 Be sure to try the next two parts when you've got through the book yourself 😉

    I've read just about everything of his (well, fictionwise anyway) – this isn't one of my favourites, but it is a fascinating story.

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  13. I fell in love with Murakami's writing when I read After Dark. Now I went through 1Q84 quite quickly on my Kindle and have to read Norwegian Wood before I see the movie!

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