I prefer the pronunciation “q-teen-eighty-four” to the “one-q-eighty-four” touted on Wikipedia, but I can’t remember where I got it from, now. Anyway, it’s the title of Haruki Murakami’s latest novel, published as a three-decker in Japan (the first two volumes simultaneously in 2009, the third in 2010), but in the UK just over a month ago, as two hardbacks. I’ve spent most of the intervening month reading it.
Told in alternating chapters following its two main characters, Aomame (female) and Tengo (male) — though a third joins the rotation for volume three — 1Q84 is, according to Murakami, based on the same idea as his story “On Seeing the 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning” (published in English in The Elephant Vanishes back in 1993, but it can be found online here). The main difference between the two is that “100% Perfect Girl” is just under four and half pages long; 1Q84 is nine hundred and eighty seven.
The story starts with the two characters following their normal, separate, rather lonely lives. Tengo teaches maths at a “cram school” by day, and tries to write novels in the evening; Aomame is a fitness instructor who occasionally performs the odd idealistic assassination, revenging female victims of domestic abuse. One day Tengo is contacted by Komatsu, a somewhat unconventional editor he knows, wanting to involve him in a possibly dodgy scheme to rewrite a powerful but flawed novel by a mysterious seventeen-year-old girl, Eriko Fukada, who turns out to be a refugee from a secretive religious cult. At the same time, Aomame starts to realise that the world, as she knows it, is subtly different: policemen, for instance, wear different uniforms and carry different guns, and there are now two moons in the sky instead of one. The world is no longer our 1984, but an alternative reality of 1Q84, where the “boundary between the real world and the imaginary one has grown obscure.”
As a long-time reader of Murakami, my fascination in reading him is as much to do with watching Murakami the storyteller in action as it is with the stories he tells. Seeing how he cooks up his plots — simmering scenes & ideas with repetitions and diversions till he finds a viable thread to follow, occasionally throwing in a new ingredient, say a new character, or a plot twist, or just letting things noodle along. And pretty soon after starting 1Q84 many of the traditional Murakami ingredients were there — protagonists who are highly competent at their jobs but who are still searching for the real vein of meaning in their lives, portentous but peculiar phone calls at odd times, the occasional animal (here, a crow) who appears & reappears at seemingly significant moments, a dark & violent male authority figure lurking behind the scenes, an elderly female figure trying to heal & protect, a quirky teenage girl who seems to have an insight into all the weirdness that’s going on, love hotels, suicidal school friends, a lot of cooking meals and listening to old records, just to name a few.
Murakami is a marathon runner (his last non-fiction book was about marathon running, with a few tentative links to writing), and he seems to have taken the telling of this tale as he might a marathon, beginning with an easy, steady pace, and continuing at the same, determined trot, gradually picking up momentum till you feel there’s a real story going on. That’s how I felt till about halfway through the second volume, anyway, whereupon either I or Murakami hit the Wall and began to falter.
As much as I love Murakami, and am happy to follow his quirks, I think 1Q84 is too long. I don’t like long books generally, mostly because there are so many other books I want to read, and I tend to resent the one I’m reading if it takes up more time than its readerly rewards seem to justify. 1Q84, as a book, generated some real promise in the first volume, started fulfilling it in the second, but really stopped giving for most of the third, where too many of the characters were sitting at home waiting for things to happen, and Murakami introduced some story-threads that really felt like they were just passing time.
There are two types of long books that work: otherworld fantasies, where the size of the book is a necessary part of the immersiveness of the reading experience, and those Victorian meganovels that try to encompass as much of the broad-view stuff of life as possible — things like Middlemarch, Bleak House or War and Peace. Murakami, though, is more a writer about individuals, often quirky individuals, and their passage through a sort of early-mid-life psychic crisis, often beginning with a sense of loss (or the actual loss of a loved one, usually in some fantastic rather than mundane way), a period of intense, often hallucinatory loneliness, and then perhaps an eruption of sudden, frightening violence. His stories pass through weird, often best-unresolved moments of David Lynch-like fantasy, as some sort of unconscious conflict is faced. And these are wonderful stories, but I don’t think they work when spun out too long.
This isn’t to say I didn’t like 1Q84. It came to a satisfying ending, as I knew it would, and I instantly forgave it its longueurs; but during them (most of volume three, apart from the early Ushikawa chapters), I was frustrated at the feeling that I was just being strung out before an ending was reached. My favourite Murakami novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, is quite long, but it never felt too long, perhaps because it contained at least one independent secondary story. Here, once Aomame and Tengo’s stories are thoroughly linked, they’re perhaps too tethered together to act in contrast to each other, which is the main advantage of telling stories in parallel.
But, as I say, as soon as I finished it, I forgave it all that. However, I would say that 1Q84 isn’t the ideal place to start reading Murakami. After The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, my favourites are the shorter novels and the longer short stories — South of the Border, West of the Sun and After Dark, as short novels, would be excellent starting points if you want to read some Murakami, as are the longish short stories in After the Quake. But 1Q84 has received a lot of positive reviews, and a great deal of success in Japan. There really were some quite moving passages. Perhaps all I really want to say is, it may be good, but he’s done better.