1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (trans. Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel). Knopf. 944 pp., $30.50.
The publication of 1Q84, Haruki Murakami’s biggest, most ambitious novel to date, seems to have brought his career full-circle. This is not simply because the book has widely been posited as Murakami’s Brothers Karamazov—that is, an attempt to write a meganovel summing up his life’s writing—but even more because of the trajectory Murakami has taken as a writer.
He published his first novel in 1979, Hear the Wind Sing. After that Murakami spent a full decade building his reputation in Japan without any serious incursion into the Anglosphere—that work would only begin in earnest in 1989, when A Wild Sheep Chase became his first book to receive wide distribution in the West. He achieved an early success in 1985 with a cyberpunkish neo-noir called Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, which netted its author the prestigious Tanizaki Prize. Jay Rubin, one of Murakami’s principle translators, in fact says this book is his favorite Murakami novel, raving that it was “a shock after reading the black and white, autobiographical fiction that is such the norm in Japan.”
After Hard-Boiled Wonderland, Murakami, who has long had a difficult relationship with his home country, left his native Japan and began a period of wandering through Europe. He stopped in Rome long enough to write 1987’s Norwegian Wood, a massive bestseller that, despite his absence, made him a national figure in Japan. After Norwegian Wood Murakami continued to travel: he divided the years from 1991 to 1995 between writer-in-residence gigs at Princeton and Tuft’s University. It was during this time—after he had already published seven novels in Japanese—that he would write the title that defined his career and made him a worldwide commodity. When The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was published in English in 1997, Murakami was 48 years old.
By far Murakami’s biggest and most ambitious book at that point in his career, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle was the prototypical breakout novel. A 1995 excerpt in The New Yorker (the book would appear in full in English in 1997) marked Murakami’s first appearance in that venue, a highly prized piece of literary real estate that he would soon come to dominate alongside the likes of John Updike, Alice Munro, and Jonathan Lethem. Upon its appearance in English the book received widespread acclaim. Writing in The New York Times, the delightfully named Jamie James noted that The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle exhibited something that would soon become synonymous with Murakami: a transnational eclecticism that many saw as a postmodern “world” style:
One of the preoccupying themes of Japanese literature in this century has been the question of what it means to be Japanese, especially in an era that has seen the rise and fall of militarism and the decline of traditional culture. But from reading the books of Haruki Murakami, one of the country’s most celebrated novelists, you’d never know he was Japanese at all: his characters read Turgenev and Jack London, listen to Rossini and Bob Dylan, eat pate de foie gras and spaghetti, and know how to make a proper salty dog. In Murakami’s early books, the references to Western pop culture were sometimes so obscure that they even flew over the heads of many Americans.
With the success of Wind-Up Bird, Murakami became an internationally recognized figure, and the translations soon followed. In 2000 two of his books were published in English (Norwegian Wood and South of the Border, West of the Sun). In the 2000s three more of novels followed, plus scores of stories and works of nonfiction. With wider translation, the prizes and the acclaim started rolling in and Murakami became one of the most famous literary authors in the world. Murakami has now been translated into no less than 44 languages, and each October he is bandied about as a serious contender for the Nobel Prize.
But even as Murakami’s reputation soared, the books that he wrote after The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle were unsatisfying works, little like that big, ambitious, name-making book. Sputnik Sweetheart, written in 1999, was a worthy if minor tale, whereas the relatively ambitious Kafka on the Shore (2002) fizzled and After Dark (2004) was hardly worth an afterthought. Transforming from a writer to an industry, Murakami also produced mediocre volumes of short stories (after the quake (2000) and Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman (2006)), as well as a very trite work of nonfiction, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2008), and a strong work of journalism (Underground, 1997-8). Each of these books duly fed the legions of hungry fans and further expanded Murakami’s international reputation, but, with the exception of Underground, none came close to enlarging upon the universe that Murakami had built up until The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
With time there came rumblings that all this would change. Responding to the lack of another big book after Wind-Up Bird, and openly courting the Nobel Prize, Murakami began working on a long project that was to engage with Japan’s contemporary social and cultural turmoil as Wind-Up Bird had engaged with its World War II demons. In 2009 he published in Japan the first volume of what was to be the three-volume, 900-page novel 1Q84. Taken in the context of Murakami’s career, 1Q84 has a very clear place and purpose: after having given himself a solid perch from which to receive international acclaim with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Murakami hunkered down and wrote a number of minor works while building back the strength for his next big novel. Now that we may read Murakami’s serious follow-up to Wind-Up Bird, the question is whether or not it is a worthy successor.
1Q84 is the very long story of a lifelong love between two twentysomething Japanese, Tengo and Aomame, whose lives are narrated from the third-person in alternating chapters. (This schema is upset by the appearance of the detective Toshiharu Ushikawa, who gets his own chapters in the third and final book of 1Q84.) When the book begins their love hangs on the thinnest of threads: a chance schoolroom encounter when they were both children, which has apparently kindled a love that has lasted within them both for decades. Writ large, 1Q84 is the story of these two finding one another in the anonymity of a dark and foreboding Japan that has somehow jumped the tracks from 1984 into the parallel universe 1Q84.
Such outsized love stories as which Murakami embarks on in 1Q84 must be treated with extreme diligence, as they present sizable problems vis a vis believability, melodrama, and sentimentality. Murakami founders upon all three. It may sound ironic that a writer who indulges in the surreal as casually as Murakami would butt up against the problem of believability, but in attempting to piece together this gigantic love story Murakami relies far too often on chance and coincidence. This is more of a question of ungainliness than suspension-of-disbelief—one simply loses patience with a book that introduces so many eye-roll-inducing devices that serve no other purpose than to prolong the suspense so that Murakami may spin his plot for another hundred pages. Added to this is the fact that Murakami, for whom character has never been a strong point, makes Tengo and Aomame two-dimensional cutouts. Our lack of investment in them as individuals makes it difficult to become invested in their love, which, it must be said, rests on a rather lame premise.
Many of the world’s great long novels (Middlemarch comes to mind, plus much of Dickens) have stooped to keeping us enchained by forcing lovers apart on flimsy pretexts, but what makes those books so good is that their worlds are inherently interesting, so much so that we will gladly accept plot contrivances in exchange for the chance to immerse ourselves in them. Such is not the case with 1Q84, which feels as though it is a glued-together collage of various totalitarian motifs that have long since become old hat. One of the pleasures of a book like The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is how Murakami rejuvenates an ordinary object like a well by creating an entirely new use for it. In that novel, Murakami has his protagonist shut himself in the bottom of a well for extensive periods of self-reflection, and later, hallucination. The well in Wind-Up Bird becomes a sort of touchstone, a metaphorical presence that continually develops throughout the novel, while also allowing a place for the plot to rest and rejuvenate itself. (It’s also brilliantly absurd: what’s a well doing in modern Tokyo? And why would anyone decide to head down to the bottom of it?) Before reading Wind-Up Bird I’d never imagined any well like the kind that occurs therein, and since reading it I’ve never encountered another well that comes close to Murakami’s. This well is precisely the sort of thing Murakami can expertly use to enliven the worlds he creates, but there is nothing nearly as interesting as it in 1Q84.
For example, we can consider the book Air Chrysalis, written in 1Q84 by a character named Fuka-Eri. At first this concept has promise: Fuka-Eri is a bizarrely sedate teenager with a remarkable story to tell, but atrocious prose skills. So Tengo’s friend, Komatsu, a powerful but seedy editor, gets Tengo to agree to rewrite it. Then they’re going to publish Tengo’s rewrite under Fuke-Eri’s name, submit it to Japan’s biggest book award, win it, and produce a lucrative sensation, à la J.T. Leroy. Though this is an inherently interesting concept, Murakami never makes it his own. There are scores of ghostwritten books published every year, and sometimes they even create huge acclaim for their authors. Murakami does nothing to distinguish his ghostwritten book from the ones that already exist in real life, or in other novels. The substance of Air Chrysalis does not succeed either: long after we’ve guessed as much, we’re informed that this surreal book is based on fact, but when it comes time for Murakami to actually show us the book’s “Little People,” who create the air chrysalis, the payoff is mediocre. Here is just one example, Murakami’s description of the separatist commune in which the Little People appear:
There is no television in the Gathering, and listening to the radio is not allowed except on special occasions. Newspapers and magazines are also limited. News that is considered necessary is reported orally during dinner at the Assembly Hall. The people respond to each item of news with cheers or groans—far more often with groans.
This separatist commune boilerplate, and not even very elegantly handled. If Murakami had so much as blithely stolen from David Koresh in Waco, Heaven’s Gate in San Diego, or even Jim Jones in Jonestown he could have easily done so much better. Any competent writer can lead us down the garden path with a well-worn conceit, but the Murakami that wrote Wind-Up Bird would have made it a path like none other and would have given us something worth discovering at the end of it. Murakami here talks a big game, even directly contrasting the Little People to Orwell’s Big Brother, but none of it ever goes anywhere remotely new.
More troubling is that in 1Q84, Murakami, who tends to plot so well that one supposes a genetic predisposition, continually lets his story slacken. Although the author skillfully revs up his massive plot machinery in the book’s first hundred pages, he then lets it stall, making us plow through hundred of pages more of largely uninsightful meanderings before finally revealing a few answers. By far the most poorly plotted section is the book’s fat middle, wherein Murakami keeps Tengo and Aomame largely secluded within closed rooms; in these surroundings the characters have little to do other than sit around and rehash plot points to no further illumination. The story simply sits itself down like a stubborn elephant, or perhaps it’s some profoundly prolonged act of hara kiri, the literary equivalent of “24-Hour Psycho.” This is completely contrary to Murakami’s best work, because the vintage Murakami never wallows in a plot point for very long. This is in fact the key to his success. One of the reasons Murakami translates so well is that the structure of his books—that is, the twists and turns of the story and the general development of the whole framework—are the most interesting and innovative things about his novels. Murakami doesn’t sustain a reader’s interest with the deep psychological underpinnings of his characters, nor for the beautiful descriptions of contemporary Japan, nor for his cultural riffs, nor philosophical musings. No, it’s simply that he keeps you guessing, and generally the answers transform what you’ve already read in substantial and interesting ways. The sloth with which Murakami leads us through 1Q84, plus the flopping of its few payoffs, make it one of his least intellectually stimulating books.
The book is also jam-packed with prose that sits leaden on the page. True, imagery has never been a strong point for Murakami, but 1Q84 abounds with paragraph after paragraph of highly repetitious prose full of awful similes and mixed metaphors. For instance, here, where Murakami details Tengo’s rewrite of Air Chrysalis:
Tengo then went back to his desk, switched circuits in his brain again, and read through his rewritten opening to Air Chrysalis on the word processor’s screen the way the general in the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory makes his rounds inspecting the trenches. He approved of what he found. Not bad. The writing was much improved. He was making headway. But not enough. He still had lots to do. The trench walls were crumbling here and there. The machine guns’ ammunition was running out. The barbed wire barriers had noticeable thin spots.
First notice the redundancy (which covers virtually every page of 1Q84): “He approved of what he found. Not bad. The writing was much improved. He was making headway.” Now also notice how much “pass the salt” detail is included here: “switched circuits in his brain” is unnecessary and ugly, as is telling us that Tengo read the work on “the word processor’s screen” and the belaboring of the comparison of Tengo to Kubrick’s general. I take apart this paragraph in such detail only because this is the experience of reading 1Q84—one constantly has the sense that if all the unnecessary junk-data were taken out, this book would come in at half its length, and be the better for it. The same can be said of all the unnecessary imagery and mixed metaphors, for instance: “His mind floated in the amniotic fluid of memory, listening for echoes of the past.” Or, in the very next sentence: “Like a cow in the meadow, Tengo was endlessly regurgitating fragments of the scene to chew on, a cud from which he obtained essential nutrients.”
Such linguistic hemming and hawing is indicative of another of 1Q84’s shortcomings: this is the first Murakami book I’ve read that seems in love with its own sense of seriousness. One of the things about magical realism is that in order to be successful it always maintains an ironic distance from the magical parts. One never really feels that the author believes in the magic in a straight sense, and for very good reason: getting too close to this material tends to turn it into something like a Disney cartoon or New Age mysticism. One of the nice things about Murakami is that you generally get the idea that he always finds the surreal points just as ludicrous as you do—this is what makes his books feel fresh and subversive—but here it feels that he wants you to take them with a hushed intensity. Achieving a sense of high drama when dealing with innately ridiculous scenarios is a hard thing to pull off (think of how much of Star Wars trips off that fine line between dramatic and hokey), and Murakami with his Little People thumping “hi ho” misses the mark. He does himself no favors when he sets so many “important” lines in boldface, and more than a few are even set in both bold and italics. (I suppose underlining too would have been a bit much.) The result is something I thought I’d never see: a very pedantic Murakami. Needless to say, a Murakami as invested in teaching you a moral as this one lacks his customary charm.
All this leads us to the unavoidable conclusion that after over 30 years and countless pages Murakami has very little left to say. If the mediocre books of the 2000s didn’t evidence it enough, this book does; in 1Q84 there is simply nothing that Murakami hasn’t said better elsewhere. I write this with a great sadness, as a reader who has loved Murakami’s novels and who feels a sense of shame at having to warn off other lovers of Murakami’s work. But there is no other verdict to register. 1Q84 is a great disappointment to the reputation Murakami has built as a writer, and it will not be remembered very favorably when assessing his legacy. It raises a serious doubt as to whether Murakami has anything left to tell us.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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